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Dems want Hamm ad off the air

BISMARCK -- North Dakota Democrats are demanding Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm take a taxpayer-funded, "blatantly political" Insurance Department commercial off the air and Hamm's opponent in this year's election has asked North Dakota broadcasters for equal time.

A lawyer for North Dakota's broadcasters said stations don't have to take the ad off the air, but said it does trigger a Federal Communications Commission rule that could give Hamm's opponent, Rep. Jasper Schneider of Fargo, the right to buy coveted air time in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 election.

Hamm, a Republican, is running for the post to which he was appointed last October.

He said Tuesday that the Democrats' complaints only prove the political "silly season" has begun early. But he added that the controversy has a silver lining because it means many more people will pay attention to the ad and benefit from the help it offers.

Hamm's office began running a broadcast commercial last week publicizing the department's Senior Health Insurance Counseling. The TV version starts with Hamm in front of the state Capitol, with his name and title highlighted by a waving American flag.

The Democratic-NPL Party says the ad is a thinly veiled campaign commercial paid for with a federal grant. Party Executive Director Jamie Selzler said Tuesday that Hamm and his name appear in the ad twice as long as the telephone number for the service being advertised.

Jack McDonald, a lawyer for the state's broadcasters and newspapers, said the ad triggers the FCC's "use" rule. Any time a qualified candidate is on the air for more than four seconds, his opponent is entitled to buy the same number of ads at the same price. Because no rule compels the opponent to use that time right away, Schneider could conceivably bank those opportunities for later in the campaign.

Later in the campaign is when broadcasters have a shortage of available time to sell for advertising, McDonald said. Some stations may decide to pull Hamm's ad if they fear they won't have enough opportunity to sell equal time to Schneider later on.

Selzler said the commercial's stated purpose -- to reach North Dakotans who need help getting free or low-cost prescription drugs -- is ill-timed because the open enrollment period for Medicare Part D prescription coverage is November and December.

But Hamm said the No. 2 and No. 3 months with the most applications is August and September," he said. That is when many consumers reach a coverage gap in their Medicare Part D, referred to as a "donut hole." He said the ad has already proved its worth, with the number of applicants to his department increasing 230 percent to 240 percent since it began running.

Selzler said an e-mail to Hamm's public information officer, Andrea Fonkert, from the ad agency owner, Rod Wilson of Results Unlimited, proves the ad is political. Wilson discusses the invoice for ad and then adds: "P.S.: What is Adam's e-mail (address)? I want to ... find out if he has talked to his campaign manager."

Hamm said that when he met with Wilson about the final arrangements for the ad, Wilson told him he wanted to be considered for work on Hamm's campaign. Hamm said he would mention Wilson's interest to his campaign manager.

That, Hamm said, is why Wilson asked Fonkert d mentioned the campaign, not because Wilson and Hamm considered the public service announcement part of Hamm's campaign.

Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.