A photograph depicting a candidate for Livingston City Council posing with several people described by law enforcement officials as known gang members sparked controversy this week, less than two weeks before the election.
Mario Mendoza, a city planning commissioner seeking election to the City Council, accused Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza and Mayor Pro Tem Gurpal Samra, his campaign opponent, of slander. Mendoza made his comments Tuesday during the public comment portion of the council meeting.
Mendoza said Samra and Espinoza have accused him of being a gang member, an allegation Samra flatly denied.
“I believe you have wanted to destroy my character maliciously. You will be hearing from my attorney,” Mendoza said.
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Mendoza’s brother, David Mendoza, is a Livingston city councilman. David Mendoza did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The issue centers on a photograph in which Mendoza appears with several people who law enforcement officials in Merced County identified as either members or associates of Livas Locos, a Norteño street gang in Livingston. Mendoza and several others in the photograph are wearing red San Francisco 49ers clothing. Red is a color typically associated with Norteño street gangs, authorities confirmed.
Law enforcement officials in Merced County, who asked not to be identified due to their work with gang crimes, said the photo in question depicts at least eight people associated with Livas Locos.
Mendoza refused to discuss the photo, but told the City Council the picture shows him “honoring” a recently deceased friend at some type of memorial.
He referred questions to his attorney, Eric Beiswanger, who could not say exactly when or where the photo was taken. “I can say that telling anyone that Mr. Mendoza is a gang member is completely false,” Beiswanger told the Sun-Star. “It’s malicious political theater to gain a potential advantage.”
Mendoza has no criminal history in Merced County, according to Merced Superior Court records.
Beiswanger said his office has found at least one person who claims Espinoza has accused Mendoza of gang involvement.
Espinoza refused to answer any questions when contacted this week by the Sun-Star.
Beiswanger said he had no comment on law enforcement confirming the presence of gang members in the photo.
Samra told the Sun-Star he showed the picture to residents in Livingston. “But I never told anyone that Mario is a gang member,” Samra said. “I never brought this up (publicly) because I don’t want people to vote against him, I want them to vote for me.”
Samra said voters will have to decide what the photo means during the Nov. 4 election.
“It was made public (on Facebook) and people can decide for themselves if this is the kind of person they want on the City Council,” Samra said. “But I’ve never made any accusations.”
Sun-Star staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.