Heated Merced Irrigation District election nears boiling point

October 23, 2009 

It may be just an election in a little-known water agency, but the Merced Irrigation District race is looking as bare-knuckled as any campaign during Chicago's Daley era.

Attack mailers, drunken-driving arrests and campaign finance breaches have come to define the race.

At stake in this suddenly rough-and-tumble contest is the balance of power on a board often split 3-2 on crucial votes. It's also at odds about management style, financial decisions and transparency.

The election's backdrop -- the state's rapacious thirst and the threat of water grabs for environmental and perhaps urban uses -- only makes its outcome more important.

The two candidates differ most in their opinion about a controversial issue: water sales.

Jack Hooper backs them.

Dave Long opposes them.

Now their fight for MID's one open seat has been dragged into the mud.

Hooper, who is defending his 3rd division seat, has sent out roughly 12,000 mailers this month attacking his opponent, Long, as being beholden to special interests from outside the county.

On one side of the mailer a photo of a man and woman paying their bills is accompanied by the statement: "Can our hard-working families afford Dave Long?" On the flip side it says, "Warning: our families can't afford Dave Long."

The accompanying photo depicts a man shoving $100 bills into his jacket pocket with a note that says, "Thanks, Dave." The bottom of the mailer says Long is "being supported by special interests looking to profit off of our water and utility prices." The mailer doesn't name those special interests.

Nor would Hooper name the special interests alluded to in his flyer or explain how they would benefit from Long's election. "There's groups that want to take our water away from us," said Hooper. "He (Long) is being a spokesman for those kinds of groups." But when pressed, Hooper wouldn't name the groups.

Long contends that Hooper is playing dirty. "Yeah, I think he's trying to make me look bad, but he doesn't have any documentation," said Long. "I don't believe that I'm supported by any special interest. I'm just supported by community leaders and members of the community." Long said his campaign is an open book and all his financial contributions can be found in his filings.

"The suggestion is that there's something untoward going on," said Mike Lynch, who's consulting for Long's campaign. "All this brochure is trying to suggest is contrary to everything that has happened in this campaign, so far."

But Long himself has been mailing attack flyers to Mercedians. The second of Long's two mailers characterizes Hooper's support for water sales as a sellout to Southern California. One mailer shows a canal running south with two signs beside it. One says, "Leaving Merced," the other says, "Los Angeles 240 miles."

Hooper takes issue with these statements. "We never sold water to L.A.," he said. Every time MID has sold water, that water has been used for environmental reasons, he said. But without sales there wouldn't be enough money coming in from water fees to run the district, he added.

Meanwhile, Hooper has failed to disclose with county election officials how much money was used for the mailers by his campaign committee, Taxpayers to Reelect Jack Hooper. That failure to disclose campaign finances is a breach of the Political Reform Act, said Roman Porter, executive director of the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state body charged with preventing political corruption.

In fact, all Hooper has filed, according to the county's Office of the Registrar of Voters, is a form declaring he will spend $1,000 or less on his campaign.

Hooper said he didn't intend to break election laws.

But Long has his own problems. He was arrested on Sept. 20 on driving while under the influence charges, according to the California Highway Patrol. He was taken to the county jail, booked and then released, he explained.

"I would say that I made a huge mistake and I'll never make that mistake again," said Long. "It doesn't affect my ability to operate a business or work for MID."

All Hooper would say about Long's arrest was, "If I wanted to be negative I'd point out that Mr. Long has a DUI."

Maybe Merced Irrigation District's acronym should now become MUD.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209)385-2484 or jlamb@mercedsun-star.com.

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