The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Local News

January 22, 2012

2012 Probate Judge Race : TV owner bows out of election

Fearing a potential legal battle over Federal Communications Commission rules demanding equal time to political candidates, Jamie Cooper withdrew Friday from the Limestone County probate judge’s race.

His decision to bow out came after questions were raised about whether his ownership of Athens-based ZTV game him an unfair advantage. Cooper is also the host of “Cooper & Company,” which airs Tuesday through Friday on the Class-A broadcast station.

The Tuesday following the Jan. 13 qualifying deadline, Cooper took to the airwaves to announce his candidacy, and was flanked by several campaign black and white signs in the camera’s line of sight.

An FCC law, however, requires broadcast television stations to guarantee equal time to candidates. This week, Gary Clem from the Don Mansell campaign sent Cooper a letter requesting 21 hours of equal air time on ZTV. A copy of the letter was given to Ronnie Coffman, chairman of the Limestone County Republican Party, and Coffman also sent a copy to the Alabama Republican Party and state’s attorney general’s office for clarification.

While Coffman stressed the importance of Cooper being in accordance with FCC laws, he had been assured by Cooper that televised campaign advertisements were being paid for by Cooper and his wife, Gloria Cooper, by the ZTV corporation.

Coffman, however, said seeing Cooper’s campaign materials displayed during the “Cooper & Company” program did “raise a red flag.”

“I told him (Friday morning) that he may have to take the signs down,” he said. “He’s really just going to have to go by whatever the law says and follow that.”

By mid-day on Friday, however, Cooper decided against letting his quest for public office overshadow his station, show and viewers.

“We did everything as legal as possible. We didn’t ask for contributions and we never took any,” he said. “Politics can be brutal. I came on the air Tuesday and said, ‘I’ve only been in it for five days, and I’m already depressed.’ I’m just a laid-back guy with a smoking hot wife.”

Cooper said he decided to run for probate judge after his neighbor, current Probate Judge Stan McDonald, decided not to seek re-election. McDonald cited “family issues” as the reason behind his decision.

Mansell and Athens attorney Charles Woodroof said “Cooper & Company” would have given Cooper a significant boost in terms of name recognition on the March 13 primary ballot.

“You can’t overcome that,” Mansell said of Cooper’s advantage. “You can’t spend enough money to overcome that.”

Woodroof said Cooper’s program offers a service to the community, but declined to comment on his former competitor’s campaign practices. Woodroof said he’s too focused on his own campaign.

“We’re just trying to get out there and talk to and meet as many people as we can. It’s a big county and a big chore, but we’re going to do our best,” he said. “I don’t have the avenue of a television show to do that.”

Woodroof has instead purchased advertising time on Huntsville-area network affiliates and with the Knology and Charter cable systems. He said he and his campaign team had initial conversations about purchasing airtime on ZTV, but had not done so.

He said the fact that Cooper owns a television station should mean he is fully aware of the FCC law.

“I’ve had people look into it and I’m somewhat aware of the regulations,” Woodroof said. “I have no doubt that because (Cooper’s) in the business, he knows the regulations. Our primary focus is getting our message out.”

The FCC’s rules dealing with broadcast stations are very specific in terms of what candidates are allowed to do, though arguably, it’s not light reading.

Part E under the “Equal Opportunity” heading for television stations states that “In making time available to candidates for public office, no licensee (station owner) shall make any discrimination between candidates in practices, regulations, facilities, or services for or in connection with the service rendered pursuant to this part, or make or give any preference to any candidate for public office or subject any such candidate to any prejudice or disadvantage; nor shall any licensee make any contract or other agreement which shall have the effect of permitting any legally qualified candidate for any public office to broadcast to the exclusion of other legally qualified candidates for the same public office.”

Another section states that if a station permits a candidate to use its facilities, the station shall make “all discount privileges offered to commercial advertisers, including the lowest unit charges for each class and length of time in the same time period, and all corresponding discount privileges, available upon equal terms to all candidates.”

Licensees are also required to keep and permit public inspection of a complete political file of all requests for broadcast time made by or on behalf of a candidate for public office. This file must include the schedule of time purchased, when the spots aired and the classes of time purchased. When free time is provided for use, a record of that must also be kept in the file.

The Communications Act provides that the FCC may revoke any station license or construction permit for “willful or repeated failure to allow reasonable access to, or to permit purchase of, reasonable amounts of time for the use of a broadcasting station by a legally qualified candidate for Federal elective office on behalf of his candidacy.”

Cooper said despite his decision to drop out, he and his wife had fun while it lasted. And while some may have considered his candidacy a joke, Cooper insists his intentions were serious.

“When Stan (McDonald) dropped out, I said, ‘Here’s a chance to do something,’” he said, adding that the Limestone County Republican Party encouraged his decision.

Cooper described Woodroof as a “super nice guy” and said he had known Mansell since the 1970s, when Mansell was an Alabama state trooper and Cooper was filming “Country Rover” segments for WAAY-31 in Huntsville.

“It was fun and we had so many people say they’d vote for us. We had a good time and we’re disappointed it didn’t go further,” Cooper said. “The Limestone County folks are great, and I just hope we didn’t embarrass them. It’s going to give me some good material for (Cooper & Company).”

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