The faces of disgraced Democratic Sens. Leland Yee, Ron Calderon and Rod Wright – suspended from California’s upper house for their roles in separate criminal cases – flash across the screen in the opening of a new television ad.
“Corrupt senators. FBI raids. Government out of control. Special interests in control,” begins the spot for Republican Jeff Stone, a state Senate candidate in Riverside County. “It’s time to drain the Sacramento swamp.”
In Los Angeles, Republican Senate candidate Mario Guerra is circulating mailers pledging to “lead the fight against corrupt politicians.”
And across California, independent Dan Schnur’s brochures have a boldface, all-capital-letter message for voters in the secretary of state’s race: “You can slap the cuffs on Sacramento by voting 4 Dan Schnur!!”
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The pall over the Capitol is offering new opportunities for candidates to press familiar election-year themes about shaking up state government and ridding its ranks of malfeasance. Experts say the high level of awareness about the scandals, even in pockets of the state prone to detachment, intensify the messages. The beleaguered Republican Party has another talking point as it works to chip away at Democratic dominance at the Capitol.
Amy Simon, a Democratic pollster in Oakland, said the ethical breaches are resonating with voters and could shape primaries in unexpected ways.
“It is having a big impact. It is on people’s minds, and it has been interesting to me how strong and how much it really has penetrated,” Simon said.
While the maelstrom has not stained opinions of all politicians, voters are assigning more importance to candidate self-aggrandizement and elected officials lining their pockets, Simon said. The campaigns don’t have to directly link to the turmoil to draw a convincing connection.
“If somebody has a record of doing something for their own personal benefit, it is going to have more credibility as a concern than it would have had two years ago,” she said.
Political campaigns have long relied on anti-Capitol motifs to advance their message, and the imagery can be enduring. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, during his recall run for governor, carried a broom and promised to clean house. John Van de Kamp, a Democratic candidate for governor in 1990, proposed a broad ballot initiative to “drain the swamp” by enacting limit terms and various ethics and campaign reforms.
This year’s scandals are unfolding in a low-wattage election with few subplots. Among the points of intrigue is whether Republicans can win the few targeted seats in the Legislature the party needs to prevent Democrats from again capturing a two-thirds supermajority, enabling them to raise taxes and pass urgency measures without GOP support.
Dave Gilliard, a Republican strategist, said the anti-corruption messaging will continue to surface across the state. In addition to consulting on Stone’s Senate race, Gilliard is working on two of the most closely watched contests: Republican Young Kim’s challenge against Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton; and the Orange County Senate race between Republican Janet Nguyen and Democrat Jose Solorio.
“This narrative is definitely going to be part of the campaigns,” Gilliard said. “There is no doubt about it.”
Eric Jaye, a Democratic political consultant, said he doubts the scandals are politically potent, particularly in cases of guilt by party association. He said attacking the state Legislature is a time-tested technique, with upstart contenders running against the state much the same way one runs against Washington.
The new wrinkle is the trio of senators caught up in separate legal cases. Wright, of Baldwin Hills, was convicted of perjury; Calderon, of Montebello, is fighting federal corruption allegations; and Yee, of San Francisco, is accused in a wide-ranging case involving gun-trafficking conspiracy charges. Yee’s case, which includes reputed Chinatown tong leader Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, has ricocheted across the media landscape.
“Clearly, from the perspective of the creative directors, if you can talk about gun-running, and murder-for-hire, and throw in Shrimp Boy, it adds a little sizzle,” Jaye said. “But in terms of a political tactic, there is nothing new about this.”
He said the argument that the Democratic-controlled statehouse helped feed the corruption is “way too complicated for voters,” who are more concerned with issues central to their lives like jobs, schools and crime. Sadly, he said, it’s not news to people that politicians get in trouble.
The way in which the scandals are invoked varies by contest. In Sacramento, Democratic Assemblyman Richard Pan and his backers are unloading on Democratic Assemblyman Roger Dickinson in their state Senate race.
“The political headlines surrounding the state Capitol are distressing,” a radio ad financed by Pan supporters says. “But on June 3, we have the chance to vote for someone who offers a refreshing choice. ... Dr. Richard Pan for state Senate.” It doesn’t mention that Pan is currently serving in the Legislature.
In a Bay Area Senate race, Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, is invoking recent upheaval in the state Senate in his campaign against former Democratic Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, who in January 2012 pleaded no contest to misdemeanor shoplifting charges. A website his campaign created features photos of Calderon, Wright and Yee and a mugshot of Hayashi. “Do we really need another criminal representing us in Sacramento?” it asks.
Not every corruption-related message will have equal resonance with voters, Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said.
“Candidates that can credibly do something about corruption – notably outsiders to Sacramento – have messages that test very well,” he said, but incumbents will get very little traction with the tack. “They are the ultimate Sacramento insiders that have been sitting around while all this is going on.”
Stone, a supervisor in Riverside County, is running in a crowded field, but his television ad features only one of the candidates: former Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City. Each has accused the other of ethical lapses, with Garcia asking the state attorney general to investigate Stone. Her letter of complaint twice mentions the three senators in legal trouble, expressing concern that Stone is “mirroring” their behavior.
The 32nd Senate District, where Guerra is running, overlaps territory represented by Calderon. Former Assemblywoman Sally Morales Havice is trying to tie fellow Democrat Tony Mendoza to the morass, posting on her website a photograph of the ex-assemblyman dressed in what she refers to as “gang attire” at the Capitol.
Guerra, a councilman from Downey, said Calderon’s shadow looms over the contest.
“Is character an issue? Are values an issue? Absolutely,” he said. “People are sick and tired of the corruption.”
In the secretary of state’s race, which features a host of candidates alongside Schnur, voters will have the chance to cast their ballots for two senators: Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, and Yee, who withdrew from contention too late for his name to be removed from the ballot.
Before his own indictment on corruption charges, Yee prepared a statement for the sample ballot, hoping to tap into the public mood created by the legal action against Calderon and Wright.
“Under the Constitution, the Secretary of State’s job is to empower Californians to govern California, to guarantee fair elections, expose special interests,” Yee wrote to more than 10 million voters, “and prevent corruption.”
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