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Anti-smoking advocates weigh in on hot Senate race

An advocacy group that supports increasing tobacco taxes is weighing in on a hotly contested Senate Democratic primary campaign in Baltimore City.

The Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative Wednesday released a radio ad Wednesday highlighting the difference between Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and Julius Henson when it comes to supporting an increased tobacco tax.

“It’s our view that voters will want someone who is for it,” said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative.

The one-minute spot playing on local radio highlights McFadden’s support of tobacco taxes used to expand government health care and teen smoking cessation efforts calling the five-term senator “a strong advocate for quality, affordable health care.”

The commercial goes on to call Henson “a political hired gun caught trying to suppress the black vote to benefit the Republicans”— a reference to Henson’s political consulting work for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The ad finishes with “You need someone you can trust and that’s Sen. Nathaniel McFadden.”

In 2012, Henson was convicted of one count of conspiracy to violate state campaign law related to his role in a series of misleading Election Day 2010 robocalls to approximately 112,000 registered Democrats in Prince George’s County and the city of Baltimore before the polls closed. The script, written by Henson, encouraged voters to “relax” because Martin J. O’Malley, Ehrlich’s Democratic opponent, was already winning.

Henson was given a 60-day sentence and three-years probation. In a separate case, Henson was fined $1 million by a federal judge.

The ad goes on to question Henson’s motives for not supporting an increase in the tax that is desired by the advocacy organization by pointing out that Henson received a donation from a lobbyist for the tobacco industry.

“We think it might influence his position,” DeMarco said.

The donation to which the ad refers is a $1,000 contribution made by Albert Wynn, a former congressman who now works as a lobbyist for the Washington DC-based firm Dickstein Shapiro and represents Lorillard Tobacco. Wynn is also a former client of Henson’s political consulting business.

Henson was not immediately available for comment.

In an interview with WBAL radio, Henson called the campaign “desperate” and said such tax increases disproportionately hurt poor people and don’t reduce smoking rates.

“I’m consistently against higher taxes and fees, and that must be the same thing with the cigarette tax as well,” Henson told the news station.

The ad comes as some political observers privately express the view that Henson, who is known for his ability to drive voter turnout, could defeat McFadden if city voter turnout is low.

DeMarco called the commercial and a related mailer sent to voters in the 45th Legislative District “educational advocacy pieces” and said his organization is not endorsing McFadden or other candidates.

Last month, Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative announced it had secured signatures from legislative candidates who vowed to support increasing the state tobacco tax from $2 to $3 per pack and increasing the tax on other tobacco products from 30 percent of the wholesale price to 95 percent.

DeMarco said a similar $1 increase imposed in 2008 drove down teen smoking in the state. The health advocacy group vowed to make the signing the pledge a “top issue” in this year’s elections.

The expenditure, which is estimated to be about $20,000, is the only one being made by the group in any state legislative contest, according to DeMarco.

DeMarco said McFadden signed the pledge and Henson did not. He reiterated that the ad was not meant as an endorsement in the campaign.

“We would pull the ad tomorrow if Henson were to come out and say he supports raising the tax on tobacco,” DeMarco said.