State Politics

‘We really screwed up,’ says Idaho Senate candidate after emails to YMCA members

Ada County District 14 Senate Republican candidate Jeff Sayer.
Ada County District 14 Senate Republican candidate Jeff Sayer.

Jeff Sayer was feeling pretty excited on Wednesday evening when he hit “send” on an email to about 19,000 people, announcing his campaign for an Idaho Senate seat. Within minutes, he was devastated.

“We really screwed up is the short answer,” he told the Statesman. “We did not do it intentionally. Our whole team is just sick about happened. We are trying to do everything we can to make this right.”

So what did Sayer do? The former Idaho Department of Commerce director is running for the District 14 Senate seat currently held by Sen. Marv Hagedorn. (Hagedorn, in turn, is running for lieutenant governor.)

To create that master list of 19,000 potential supporters for his announcement, Sayer and his team compiled mailing lists obtained from various political circles and marketing sources. Among those was a list of Treasure Valley YMCA members.

A candidate sending campaign-related material to YMCA members is problematic because the YMCA is a nonprofit organization. Most nonprofits, including the YMCA, cannot participate in or use their resources for individual political campaigns.

As soon as Sayer’s campaign email went out Wednesday evening, he said, he started getting phone calls and emails from YMCA members wanting to know why they were receiving campaign-related material.

“It did not take very long to figure out we messed up,” said Sayer, who called the YMCA that night to explain what happened. Sayer said he stayed up until 2:30 a.m. Thursday responding to emails.

While nonprofits cannot participate in individual campaigns, they can engage in lobbying and endorsement of political issues. That’s how the YMCA member list made its way into political circles.

The YMCA board authorized release of its members list in conjunction with two bond elections held last November in Meridian. Parts of both bonds would have gone to help build a swimming pool and library at a new Treasure Valley Family YMCA facility in Meridian, south of Interstate 84. Both bonds failed.

Once the YMCA member list was released, it started getting commingled with other political mailing lists, which is how Sayer and his team ended up with it.

“I am fully ready to take responsibility for this,” he said. “Even though the YMCA list was already out there from the bond election, we did not stop and ask if we could use it for an individual election. That was the heart of the mistake that we made.”

When news of the breach started making the rounds on Twitter on Thursday, the YMCA posted to Twitter: “YMCA does not endorse political candidates. Unauthorized use of YMCA contact info occurred and it has been stopped.”

On Thursday evening, the YMCA sent an email to all its members explaining its policies, what had happened and why.

“The Treasure Valley Family YMCA does not and will not endorse any political candidates. The Y does not sell or share YMCA contact information for any purpose other than YMCA communications,” The YMCA said in its statement. “The YMCA apologizes for the unauthorized use of YMCA contact information, a breach of our policy.”

Sayer said he is not sure how many of the 19,000 names on his campaign’s master list are YMCA members, but it is “a big block.”

Instead of going through the master list and deleting YMCA members, Sayer said he deleted the entire list and is building a new one without the YMCA list.

“I will say this a thousand times before I am done,” he said, “but I am so sorry for putting the YMCA in this difficult spot and for the intrusion on their members.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell