July 5, 2013

Realtors' ads in 16th Senate District race have California Democrats fuming

The flier that hit Fresno-area mailboxes last month shows a maimed puppy – patchy fur, eyes covered with lesions – next to the face of Leticia Perez, the Democrat running in a tight race to fill a vacant seat in the California Senate.

The flier that hit Fresno-area mailboxes last month shows a maimed puppy – patchy fur, eyes covered with lesions – next to the face of Leticia Perez, the Democrat running in a tight race to fill a vacant seat in the California Senate.

As a defense lawyer, the ad says, Perez represented a man accused of taping the dog's mouth shut, spraying its eyes with bleach and beating it with a golf club.

"The Valley deserves better," says the mailer promoting Republican Andy Vidak for the seat that represents parts of Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties.

Negative advertising has become a staple of modern politics. But the hits, including this one being paid for by the California Association of Realtors, have generated an especially angry response from Democratic leaders in the state Capitol.

"It is shocking. It is over the top," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "An election is an election. Stakeholders and interest groups get involved. (But) this is beyond the pale."

The Realtors association has poured nearly $1 million into efforts to influence the July 23 election in the 16th Senate District.

The race is a crucial one for Steinberg and other Democrats in the Capitol, who have enjoyed a two-thirds supermajority that allows them to raise fees and taxes without any Republican votes.

Senate Democrats flexed that power for the first time this year when they voted in May to approve a bill that puts a $75 fee on some real estate transactions to fund affordable housing programs. The California Association of Realtors opposed the measure, Senate Bill 391, setting off a political spat that appears to be shaping the race to replace former state Sen. Michael Rubio.

The Realtors group had supported a bill to do the same thing last year. But without a Democratic supermajority, it failed to garner the necessary two-thirds support. After Sen. Mark DeSaulnier re-introduced the bill this year, the Realtors group decided to oppose it.

Frustrated that the association had changed its position, Senate leaders linked the $75 assessment bill with another bill the Realtors were pushing, one that conforms California tax law to a federal tax break on short sales. By linking the two bills, each one can become law only if the other one does.

That means if Realtors lobby against the assessment they don't like, the tax break they do like will also go down.

Enter the special election.

In the May primary, Vidak got more votes than Perez, but not enough to avoid a runoff.

In June, the California Association of Realtors began pouring money into the 16th Senate District race in support of Vidak, the Republican candidate.

"We are not convinced that 'one-party control' of the Legislature can or will produce effective policy development for California," association president Don Faught wrote in an email to The Bee.

"This kind of complete control by definition does not need to take into consideration the other party's perspective, and that is not healthy for California."

The 16th District seat is an unforeseen wild card in the Capitol's political dynamic. It had been held by Democrat Michael Rubio until February, when he resigned to take a high-level position at Chevron.

If Vidak wins the seat, Senate Democrats will still maintain their supermajority this year – but face more difficulty holding on to it in 2014.

A spokesman for Vidak said his campaign had nothing to do with the Realtors' advertising.

"I've never talked to anybody with the Realtors or anybody associated with them," said campaign spokesman Tim Orman.

Republican consultant Mark Standriff said groups supporting Democrats have been doing their own share of negative campaigning in the 16th District. He pointed to radio ads paid for by the California Teachers Association that slam Vidak while promoting Perez.

Steinberg said the Realtors' negative approach in this race is a departure from its recent political history.

"They supported Republicans as well as Democrats. But it was always a positive message about a candidate. These folks now have gone scorched-earth," Steinberg said. "And it only intensifies our commitment and our effort to do all that we can to prevail."

The Realtors association supported Rubio in 2010 but denied Steinberg's claim that their support for Vidak – and negative campaigning against Perez – marks a departure from past practice.

"C.A.R. is doing what it has historically done, making decisions holistically, which results in supporting candidates it believes are the best choice for a particular seat, regardless of party affiliation," Faught's statement said.

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @laurelrosenhall.

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