California Politics: When Good Candidates Go Bad

GELFAND’S WORLD-In LA’s harbor area, there is a fight going on for the 70th District Assembly seat that is getting uglier by the minute. Outside forces have come in with some seriously nasty hit pieces. As is so often the case, the interests behind the outside money aren't being explained to the public. 

Two Democrats are the center of attention. Now here's the strange thing. If you consider their personal accomplishments and records of public service, you would decide that they are both highly qualified for the state legislature. They also look to be nice people without serious political baggage. 

But if you look at the glossy mailers arriving in our mailboxes every day, you would decide that one is a sellout to the oil companies and the other contemptuously steals from the public purse. It's mud. Heaping gobs of mud. 

It's only when you look closely at the glossy mailers -- and you really have to squint at the fine print -- that you find that these vicious attack pieces are coming from independent expenditure campaigns. 

The candidates themselves seem to be behaving themselves, at least in their mailers. Our district is being assaulted by outside forces. To dust off an old joke I once wrote, now I know what it's like to be Belgium. Our little 70th Assembly district, itself innocent of aggressive intent, is being overrun by well funded special interests. 

Just for the sake of exposition, let's set down the names of the candidates and the independent groups that are opposing them. One candidate is Suja Lowenthal (photo above). She is the personification of the American dream. She came to this country as a young girl, went to UCLA, did grad work at Cal State Los Angeles, and got her doctorate at USC. She's an expert in public policy, has worked in and for water districts, and has served (apparently honorably) on the Long Beach City Council. She also would be the first Indian-American to serve in the state legislature should she be elected. 

Patrick O'Donnell is another American dream candidate. He grew up in the area, attended Cal State Long Beach, has been a public school teacher for two decades, and has a master's degree. He too has served (also apparently honorably) on the Long Beach City Council. 

Neither seems to have any of the eccentricities that cost people elections, neither seems to have anything bad enough on the record to allow for an opponent to banner it, and each has something in the way of legislative accomplishments to brag about. By the way, Lowenthal also served on the board of the Long Beach Unified School District, so she too brings educational experience to the mix. 

If I were the local Democratic Chair, I would want candidates like these in all of my races. But right now, they are beating the tar out of each other by proxy. 

The first negative ads I saw were aimed at Lowenthal. As attack ads, they're not all that good. They make a big deal out of the fact that Lowenthal had her graduate school tuition paid by money that ultimately came from public sources. Or at least that is what the ads seem to be saying. The implication is that Lowenthal, while working for the water district, got her tuition paid by her employer. 

This, by the way, is not anything uncommon. Companies that want to keep good employees and are willing to pay for the improvement of employee skill sets will do this. A friend of mine got a graduate degree at USC paid for by Hughes Aircraft. It made a lot of sense for both the employee and the employer. 

So I'm not particularly shocked by this revelation, but the attacking group banners this micro-revelation as, "Suja Lowenthal's Taxpayer Funded Life." They run the $32,000 tuition charge at the top, followed by her use of a city car for personal errands, and -- get this -- "Perks like Free Tickets and a City Car." Apparently this group either suffers from repetitious redundancy, or it's really obsessed with the use of city owned cars. 

Well, the other side got their digs in against Patrick O'Donnell. Here's their attack: "Big Oil Spent Their Money on Patrick O'Donnell . . . And They Got Their Money's Worth." The story, petty as can be, involves two facts: 1) O'Donnell apparently received some campaign contributions that involved oil companies and 2) he apparently voted against banning plastic bags in Long Beach. 

The attack also includes some similarly vague but insinuating wording about a vote O'Donnell made regarding wetlands policy. It's not much to hang your attack on, considering that this guy is a multi-term councilman who has a local newspaper staring down his throat at all times. 

So what's this fight really about? Why is a group called Parents and Students for Putting Students First going after O'Donnell? Why is Lowenthal being attacked by a group called Californians for Fiscal Accountability and Responsibility? 

First, let me give my slightly jaundiced view of the forces in play, and then we'll look at these strangely named organizations. 

It's not a huge secret that the California Democratic Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers' unions. To the party members, that's a feature, not a bug. There are lots of other unions active in the party, but the teachers just happen to be the last big public union with the kind of clout to fund candidacies and win elections for the party. (Remember what they did to Gov Schwartzenegger when he tried to get a package of initiatives passed?). Other unions such as the California Nurses Association are also influential, but not at the level of the teachers. 

Patrick O'Donnell, as a public school teacher, is therefore the perfect kind of candidate for the state party. They don't have to worry about his loyalty to public education which, in this case, means teachers' salaries and job stability. He is one of their own. 

Over the years of his elected service, he's also managed to rack up enough environmental credentials to pull at least one significant endorsement from an enviro group. 

Out of this background, O'Donnell has become the anointed one. You can tell by looking at his list of high level endorsements, ranging from the California Democratic Party, to the United Teachers of Los Angeles, to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The big clue that O'Donnell is considered the likely winner is the spate of endorsements by local politicians who will have to work with him if he wins. O'Donnell has been picking up endorsements from local state Assembly members and even the Los Angeles City Council member. 

Why would an outside group run an independent expenditure campaign against O'Donnell? The obvious answer is that there is opposition to organized labor, particular when it involves education. 

The former head of the Washington, D.C. school district, Michelle Rhee, left the DC school system (somewhat controversially), and decided to start a national, well funded movement for her version of educational reform. In D.C., Rhee developed a reputation for being hard headed and in conflict with the old ways. She closed several schools and pushed for standardized testing. Her new organization is seen as the counterweight against the power of the teachers' unions. 

In other words, the Parents and Teacher group is Michelle Rhee's creation, and it is unsympathetic to union power. It's not surprising that given a race involving a staunchly union candidate and an opponent who might -- just might -- be a little more independent, Rhee's group has joined forces against O'Donnell. I think their opposition to O'Donnell is really just opposition to unionism. 

Now the editorial point: If you are going to wrap the flag around yourself as an educational reformist organization, even if that involves opposition to unions, shouldn't you at least include ethical behavior on your own part? But in these glossy mailers, we are seeing behavior that is anything but ethical. 

The mailers are misleading, insinuating, and basically insulting to the intelligence. They reek of the attitude characteristic of campaign consultants, namely contempt for the voters' intelligence. It is reform only in the sense of smashing your enemies and taking control. It doesn't appear to involve setting an example for how you would like to see people behave. 

So much for the attacks on O'Donnell. How about the group attacking Lowenthal? The Californians for Fiscal Accountability and Responsibility (CFAR) is a harder nut to crack. It came into existence 4 years ago. Described as "sponsored by dentists, physicians, health care workers, REALTORS(R) and school employees," it apparently came into existence due to half a dozen contributions of one-hundred thousand dollars each. 

Back in 2010, it claimed to be about supporting more moderate candidates. In other words, it was presented as an organization attempting to take advantage of the new California primary system by supporting Democrats and Republicans who could work together in moderation. It's not really obvious why an organization dedicated to moderation would pick O'Donnell over Lowenthal rather than Lowenthal over O'Donnell. 

The CFAR attack piece focuses on earlier parts of Lowenthal's life and career, from her education, to votes she made back when she was on the school board. The best guess I can make is that Lowenthal is seen as being a bit more "progressive" than O'Donnell, and that CFAR wants to put a stop to her. 

One more bit of editorializing on my part. The process in politics of "going low," that is to say, going negative on your opponent, is a mixed bag. If your opponent really is a felon, or in the case of one candidate still on the ballot, indicted for gun running, then the news media and the opposition campaigns ought to be spreading the word. After all, we don't want gun runners elected to statewide office, this being a state that isn't Texas. 

But ordinarily, candidates are not gun runners, and the process of going low involves finding a few votes out of the thousands cast, or finding a few comments that can be misconstrued and misinterpreted. The votes and comments then get interpreted in a wholly illusory way. 

This is not only damaging to the victim, it is damaging to our electoral system as a whole. People become irritated and disillusioned. 

When the attack ads come from the outside, they are that much worse. For one thing, we can't even blame O'Donnell for the scurrilous pieces, and we can't very well blame Lowenthal either. If it were one candidate going low, I would respond by voting for the other. There is a certain level of punishment for misconduct that the voters can dish out. In the more extreme cases, they will do so. 

But in the case of outside organizations with national agendas, it's not so clear. How can we punish candidates for misconduct when it isn't even their own? 

I have to add one qualification to the above remark. When you are a  candidate who is benefiting by an externally funded hit, it gives you significant advantages. It allows you to maintain the veneer of ethical conduct, and it allows you to spend your own money more efficiently. You get to concentrate on sending out the positive mailers, and somebody else does the dirty work for you. 

We should be demanding that each candidate either support or repudiate the outside hit pieces. It would be a useful question to ask at a candidates' forum, and it's the kind of question that the news media should be asking. 

I'll finish with a small suggestion. These glossy mailers include a statement with the name of the sponsoring group and an additional statement that the sponsoring group is not related to the candidate's campaign organization. The problem is that these statements are nearly microscopic. 

They should be more like the important wording on a home mortgage or the sales contract for a car. Certain wording should be required by the state to be put up front, in large print. The fact that a hit piece is from an independent expenditure campaign should be the first thing we notice, not the last. It shouldn't be that difficult to get a law passed that requires such warning to be in 14 point type, with a thick red border surrounding the disclosure. 

Choosing the people who rule over us should be at least as important as buying a garbage disposal on installment from Sears.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected]

-cw