A new advocacy group calling on policymakers to address Charleston's flooding problems is pulling a TV ad that featured a GOP congressional candidate after Democrats complained that it could provide an unfair advantage in the upcoming election.
Fix Our Flooding, the new advocacy arm of the New York-based flooding research nonprofit First Street Foundation, ran the TV ad Thursday morning in the Charleston area that used footage of state Rep. Katie Arrington, R-Summerville.
Arrington is running against Democrat Joe Cunningham in the 1st congressional district race to replace U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, who lost to Arrington in the GOP primary after she received the support of President Donald Trump.
In the minute-long ad, Arrington explained how she could have died from injuries suffered in a head-on car crash in June if flooding had delayed first responders from getting her to a Charleston hospital.
"High tide and a decent rain, I wouldn't be here," Arrington says in the ad reviewed by The Post and Courier. "If they had to go around to avoid the crosstown, I wouldn't be here. This is a problem."
The ad did not mention that Arrington is a congressional candidate, referring to her only as a state representative.
But Democrats argued the TV spot would have offered a free publicity boost to Arrington just months before Election Day without her having to spend any of her own campaign money.
Arrington campaign spokesman Andrew Boucher said Arrington sat for the interview with the nonprofit because she is passionate about the flooding issue. Two days before the ad's planned release, Arrington held a campaign press conference about flooding in West Ashley.
But Boucher insisted Arrington had no idea that the interview would be featured in a TV ad, let alone that it would air before the election.
Fix Our Flooding founder Matthew Eby confirmed that the group did not tell Arrington how the interview would be used.
He said they created the ad campaign, which will also feature testimony from other Charleston residents, to highlight the problem of sea-level rise and chronic flooding in the Charleston region. The group chose Arrington because of her dramatic tale of suffering critical injuries that required multiple surgeries.
"Our goal was never to engage in electoral politics, which is why when we heard her specific story would be seen by some as such, we decided to pull that particular video and save it for after the election, regardless of the outcome," Eby said. "The focus here should remain what it always has been — helping communities impacted by flooding."
Despite Arrington's denial that she knew about how the ad would be used, Cunningham spokesman Tyler Jones argued what she did "was extremely inappropriate and raises serious ethical questions."
He questioned the timing of her news conference where Arrington said that, if elected, she would host monthly roundtables about flooding and hire a staffer to focus exclusively on the issue.
"It's no coincidence Katie started talking about flooding the same week this ad was scheduled to begin running," Jones said. "To suggest that this wasn't a coordinated effort is outrageous. I was born during the day, but not yesterday."
Arrington has trailed Cunningham in fundraising so far.
As of the last filing deadline at the end of June, Cunningham had about five times as much cash in his campaign account as Arrington — $313,000 to $62,000.
Fix Our Flooding had purchased at least $75,000 worth of ad space to air the commercial Thursday though Sept. 6 on three major TV stations in Charleston before pausing the plan, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission.
The group tried to pull the ad before it aired Thursday morning but said they do not know how it ended up airing anyway.
The ads were created by Charleston-based Push Digital, a national GOP political and business consulting firm that Fix Our Flooding hired to manage the creative aspects of the ad campaign.
Arrington paid Push Digital $2,500 for "digital consulting" in September, according to federal campaign finance records. She has not enlisted the company's services since then.
Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.