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Ads Attack Wall Street Ties, No Matter How Flimsy

Wall Street has taken a beating this election season. Yet what is considered to be Wall Street may be surprising.

Wall Street sign
Wall Street sign

Take Keith J. Rothfus, a Republican candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania. A lawyer at a small firm, he specializes in drafting software-licensing agreements. While unglamorous, it helps pay the bills.

Among the clients he has represented is Bank of New York Mellon, which has a large presence in western Pennsylvania. Two commercials backed by Democratic groups are attacking Mr. Rothfus’s relationship with his banking client.

“Millionaire Wall Street lawyer Keith Rothfus will fit right in in Washington,” said the narrator of one of the ads. The spot shows a plunging stock market and a grim-looking Mr. Rothfus entering what looks to be a bank. Over ominous music, the narrator goes on: “As a wealthy attorney, Keith Rothfus represented a Wall Street bank that received a bailout from taxpayers.”

In an interview, Mr. Rothfus called the ad “deceitful, shameful and outrageous.” He said that while BNY Mellon took bailout funds, his work for the company — most of which predates Bank of New York’s 2006 takeover of Mellon Financial of Pittsburgh — had no connection to the financial crisis.

“I’m a Stanwix Street lawyer, not a Wall Street lawyer,” Mr. Rothfus said, referring to his firm’s downtown Pittsburgh address. “I visited Wall Street once, in 1980, as a tourist at the New York Stock Exchange. If I’m a Wall Street lawyer, then the 7,500 people that work for Mellon bank in western Pennsylvania are fast-money traders who charter private jets to the Hamptons on weekends.”

As campaigns enter their final month, a number of candidates are flooding the airwaves with advertisements demonizing Wall Street. From the presidential race to local Congressional contests, from Montana to New Mexico, candidates — both Democrats and Republicans — are relentlessly attacking their opponents by linking them to bankers and bailouts, no matter how tenuous the connection.

“Candidates are bashing each other over the heads for being in Wall Street’s back pocket,” said Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. “Wall Street is this campaign season’s punching bag, and it’s bipartisan and it’s escalating.”

In the turmoil of the 2008 financial crisis, Heather A. Wilson, then a Republican congresswoman from New Mexico, voted in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, which provided rescue funds to banks. Four years later, Ms. Wilson — a former Air Force officer — is running for the United States Senate. An opponent’s ad assails what it characterizes as her deep ties to Wall Street.

“As a congresswoman from New Mexico, it wasn’t Heather Wilson’s job to represent Wall Street banks,” said the narrator in a spot paid for by a liberal super PAC. The ad shows a series of dark, shadowy Manhattan office towers — those of Bank of America , Morgan Stanley , Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup . “But she voted time and again to give them special tax breaks, and then voted to bail them out.”

In Montana, the incumbent, Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat, is facing a fierce challenge from the state’s sole congressman, Denny Rehberg. Mr. Tester, who has received substantial money from executives in the financial industry, has boasted in television spots that he “opposed all of those Wall Street bailouts.” Mr. Rehberg also voted against the bank bailout. So instead of focusing on TARP, ads pummel Mr. Rehberg for his longtime support for privatizing Social Security — in other words, putting retirement funds in the hands of Wall Street money managers.

One of the ads features the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and an electronic ticker showing shares in a nose dive. The narration features voices of market commentators: “A wild ride on Wall Street … the biggest point drop … a precipitous fall … these guys have been gambling … gambling … bad bets … they didn’t know when to back away. A gamble. That’s Congressman Denny Rehberg’s plan for Social Security.”

Josh Mandel, the Republican Ohio state treasurer running for United State Senate as a Washington outsider, has an ad that goes after members of Congress on both sides of the aisle for supporting the bailout.

“Every Democrat and every Republican who took our tax dollars and used them to bail out Wall Street banks was dead wrong,” Mr. Mandel says in the spot, speaking in an angry tone to a group of factory workers. “It was fiscally irresponsible. It was morally wrong.”

The presidential candidates have also criticized one another for their Wall Street ties. Ads for President Obama have homed in on Mr. Romney’s leadership of Bain Capital, the private equity firm he started. By focusing on private equity — a specific pocket of the financial industry — Mr. Obama has largely avoided a broader critique of Wall Street, where he has raised millions of dollars. On Monday, the Obama campaign announced a new ad that links Bain to a company outsourced American jobs.

Republicans, meanwhile, depict Mr. Obama as a pawn of the financial services industry. One advertisement from the conservative organization American Future Fund titled “Obama’s Wall Street” highlights Mr. Obama’s vote in favor of TARP when he was a United States senator running for president and says that his cabinet is full of financiers. Another, called “Justice for Sale,” suggests that campaign contributions from the banking industry explain why the administration has not prosecuted more executives relating to their conduct during the financial crisis.

“Under Obama, Wall Street keeps winning, and Obama keeps taking their cash,” the narrator says. “Tell Obama to stop protecting his Wall Street donors.”

Mr. Rothfus, the Republican candidate in Pennsylvania, is locked in a tight race with his opponent, the Democratic incumbent Mark S. Critz. He has countered the attack ads with humorous “Keith Rothfus is a regular guy” 30-second spots. In one, he is shown gardening in his modest front yard, driving his kids around town and repairing his daughter’s bicycle.

In response, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has produced an ad that starts, “Regular guy? Hardly. Keith Rothfus is a millionaire attorney for a Wall Street bank.” Banner headlines of the BNY Mellon’s $3 billion bailout run across the screen.

Mr. Rothfus, who lives in Sewickley, Pa., with his wife and six children, has worked as a corporate lawyer since graduating from Notre Dame Law School in 1980. For the last 15 years he has practiced on and off at Yukevich, Marchetti, Liekar & Zangrilli, a 12-lawyer firm. He earned about $125,000 last year. His assignments for BNY Mellon constitute a tiny portion of his overall practice, which focuses on small- and medium-size businesses.

“I’ve never done anything close to securities work for Mellon, never came close to those C.D.O.’s,” said Mr. Rothfus, referring to collateralized debt obligations, the complex mortgage instruments that contributed to the near collapse of the financial system. “I’ve never even done an I.P.O.”

Spokesmen for organizations behind the attack ads against Mr. Rothfus — the Democratic House Majority PAC and Afscme — said that they stood behind the ads.

Despite Mr. Rothfus’s modest salary — top Wall Street lawyers earn substantial seven-figure salaries — the millionaire epithet is accurate. That comes courtesy of his wife, the daughter of a successful Pittsburgh businessman. Based on his most recent financial disclosure, Mr. Rothfus’s total assets, including those of his wife, range from $5.1 million to $13.9 million.

With clean-cut looks and wire-rimmed glasses, Mr. Rothfus does look the part of a button-down Wall Street lawyer. But he is quick to point out that he favors Brooks Brothers off-the-rack suits instead of the bespoke variety and prefers Land’s End neckwear to Hermès ties.

“There were certain individuals on Wall Street who were reckless and betrayed our trust,” he said. “But I wasn’t one of them.”

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