State senate race bogged in mud

Denham’s negative campaign tactics draw widespread criticism
Every election season there’s one race so nasty there’s not a
mailbox big enough to fit all the negative campaign fliers that
pass through daily.
This year Jeff Denham’s campaign against Rusty Areias for the
12th District’s state senate seat has become so vicious, even his
fellow Republicans are speaking up.
Denham’s negative campaign tactics draw widespread criticism

Every election season there’s one race so nasty there’s not a mailbox big enough to fit all the negative campaign fliers that pass through daily.

This year Jeff Denham’s campaign against Rusty Areias for the 12th District’s state senate seat has become so vicious, even his fellow Republicans are speaking up.

Over the past week the Republican Party and the Denham camp have sent a flood of pricey full-colored campaign fliers that, most notably, intimated wrongly that Areias had been accused of sexual harassment. It was the most glaring in a series of negative material mailed to nearly 200,000 voters across the sprawling, rural district over the past two weeks.

“In politics almost anything goes,” said Dr. Lawrence Giventer, professor of political science at California State University-Stanislaus, who has been watching the race. “In this case it’s a smear by association. There’s some element of truth in the accusations – not the whole truth, not the complete truth.”

“There’s a certain desperation involved when ads gets so negative,” added Dr. Stephen Routh, also of Cal State Stanislaus.

Negative campaigning has been the hallmark of Denham strategy for two years. He used a late hit piece in the March 2002 senate primary to beat Peter Frusetta, and in 2000 used erroneous negative material to defeat Laura Perry in the state assembly primary. His negative tact, however, was not successful against Simon Salinas in the 2000 runoff for the 28th District assembly seat.

“People may indeed deplore negative campaigning, but it works,” said Giventer. “It is effective. It does sway votes.”

Most of Areias’ mailers have featured a barn with his fruit-label style campaign sign painted on it and focus on his experience and endorsements. TV and print ads recently have turned negative, however, with one stating that Denham has been arrested twice. A recent mailer from nurses says that Denham wants to treat women who have abortions “like criminals,” which comes from Denham’s anti-abortion stance.

“He started this stuff,” said Areias spokesman Bob Sanders. “Our advertising was all positive for about three weeks, then he started with his half-truths. Now ours is 80 percent positive, 20 percent negative.”

Areias’ people are planning one last mailer before Nov. 5 – a flier critical of Denham’s tactics that defends Areias against the accusations. Under the header “Half Truth” it outlines Denham’s allegations, and under “Whole truth” shows evidence challenging Denham’s claims, including paid tax bills and dismissed lawsuits.

The latter is a reference to Denham’s latest mailer in which he maintains that Areias was accused of sexual harassment. The alleged sexual harassment occurred between two of Areias’ staff members in Sacramento some 20 years ago, when he was an assemblyman. The incident had nothing to do with the candidate, except that he eventually fired the harassing employee and had to submit to a deposition in the resulting lawsuit.

The latest go-round of negative literature has brought back bad memories for Republican Perry, who still gets angry when she thinks about how the Denham camp treated her during the campaign.

“They told out-and-out lies,” said Perry, currently a Gavilan College Trustee. “It was a very dirty primary. Jeff Denham is a far right-wing puppet. He had no experience. He didn’t even know that a bond wasn’t a tax.”

“I can imagine what poor Rusty is going through,” said Salinas, who defeated Denham in November 2000 despite being bombarded with negative mailers.

In that race, the Denham camp – again backed by the financial resources of the Republican Party – seized an old drunken driving charge that then Monterey County Supervisor Salinas had on his record. The attack pieces also made issue of a pay raise he supported for Monterey supervisors, neglecting to say it wouldn’t take affect until Salinas no longer was in county office.

One mailer showed a black and white photo of Salinas, his skin tone darkened and with his hand in a cash register, trumpeting how he gave himself a raise.

“It was nasty, a lot of innuendo, and some of it was blatant,” said Salinas. “They made my skin look really dark with my hand in ‘the till.’ It gets to the point where you don’t want to look at your mailbox anymore. My son, who was 10 at the time, had to read all that stuff. I told him that this was politics at its very worst.”

Over the past week Denham literature also has implied that Areias made bad business decisions that caused his family to lose its dairy in the early 1990s.

“It’s almost like a pattern, like what they did to Simon (Salinas), and it seems to be even dirtier this time,” said Clancy Faria, president of the Police Officers Research Association of California, a lobbying group that supported Denham in the 28th District race against Salinas, but switched its endorsement to Areias in this race because of Denham’s past “ugly” campaign tactics. “Does that mean next time Jeff runs it’s going to get dirtier? Where does it end? When do we get back to talking about what’s important? I guess when you’re down a lot in the polls, what do you have to lose?”

For Denham, it’s the results that count.

“Actually, it seems to be doing real well. We’re up by five points,” he said.

Areias said he recognizes the strategy as the same one used in 1996 by Bruce McPherson’s camp when he lost the 15th District State Senate race, which until the state was redistricted in 2000 was the state senate district for San Benito County.

“It’s the same bunch of right wingers that will stoop to any depth to ruin someone’s reputation,” said Areias. “They go from one fraternity house prank to another, but they’re vicious.”

Even Denham agreed that the literature is designed and paid for by some members of the state Republican Party and includes the same material as the old McPherson ads.

“He keeps talking about negative campaigning,” Denham said, “but at the same time these issues are relevant.”

The campaign has caused so much tension that both candidates unleashed on the other during interviews this week.

“It started when he challenged me to release three years of tax returns, which I did,” said Areias. “That same day we asked him to release his arrest record. He refused. He was arrested for aggravated assault twice.”

“His wages are garnished,” retorted Denham. “If you call that paying your taxes, fine.”

And the arrests?

“I have no criminal record whatsoever. When I was attending Cal Poly U, I was detained because I was caught up in a dragnet with other students and I was on crutches. In the other I was trying to break up a fight. There were no charges, or they were dropped,” said Denham.

The candidate or the party?

Denham said that he didn’t see two of the worst fliers against Areias until they were already in the public’s mailboxes. The Republican Party of California, he said, created and paid for the ads that depict unflattering pictures of a bloated Areias with camera “red-eye,” and a claim that authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest over an unpaid $500 bill accrued by his family’s floundering dairy farm.

Besides the hellish picture, one of the fliers displayed a long list of outstanding liens against Areias when the farm went under between 1996 and 1998, and published his social security number by reproducing the lien forms with Areias’ name and personal information included. Giventer and other experts have said publishing Areias’ social security number could leave the candidate vulnerable to identity theft.

“Someone screwed up,” said Giventer. “There aren’t any rules. It takes six months for the Fair Political Practices Commission to do an investigation, and by then things get dropped. It’s up to the voters to judge.”

Areias said the information was taken out of context.

“I never filed personal bankruptcy,” he said. “Every single one of those liens has been paid or scheduled to be paid.”

Negative campaigning means that Denham has not spent much time telling voters where he stands on the issues, the Areias camp maintains.

“If the public knew where Denham stood on women’s choice, health care, educational reform and public safety,” said Areias spokesman Bob Sanders, “they wouldn’t think about him for more than 10 seconds.”

Denham tried to maintain that he had no choice in the campaign literature.

“I don’t have any control over independent expenditures,” he said. “But I’ve still got to be responsible for my campaign. I don’t want to say it’s someone else doing it.”

When asked if he thought the ads were unfair, Denham avoided answering and said: “Honestly, I believe Rusty has had his chance. He talks about my having no political experience. He’s part of the problem. He’s been a career politician for 20 years.”

Salinas believes that the upper echelons of the two mainstream parties are the ones calling the shots.

“When the whole tenor of a race is this bad, you know the parties have taken over,” he said.

While voters say they dislike negative campaigning, and pundits say it makes an impact, Perry said once someone has become a victim of distorted negative campaign material it’s easy to stop believing it.

“Simon was able to stand in his own good steed,” said Perry. “He’s forthright and honorable. I knew none of what they were saying about him could be true.”

Perry, of Morgan Hill, said that she has inner office memos proving that Denham, when she ran against him in early 2000, received funding for negative material from the Christian Coalition based in Orange County.

“I was on their hit list because they thought I was too moderate,” said Perry, a family law lawyer. “They said I was in favor of gay marriages. Whether you are or not is beside the point; they never called to ask me about my stand. They just put the mailer out. They said I sued businesses, I defended drunk drivers. I could live with that last attack, but I never sued businesses. When you’re in politics you’re going to twist things and you’re going to spin. That’s politics. But for them to say that – and at the last minute – there’s no chance to respond.”

Two farm boys from different planets

Denham is a newcomer to politics, although he was appointed Salinas Traffic Commissioner from February 1999 to January 2001 by Salinas City Councilwoman Jyl Lutz after she beat him for a council seat in 1998. She later took him off the commission because he had missed at least a third of the meetings with other traffic and city officials.

“He was a real neophyte,” said Lutz. “He was not educated on the issues.”

Lutz said she can’t figure out Denham’s agenda because while running for city council, he wasn’t actively involved in any city projects or meetings.

Denham is a champion of big agribusiness and owns three companies in the ag industry. He graduated from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and went to work for Fresh Express, the biggest salad packer in the nation. He is also an Air Force veteran of the Gulf War.

Areias grew up on a family farm in Los Banos, but his father’s dairy was lost after milk prices bottomed out in the late ’90s. The Areias’ had sunk millions into the farm’s modernization and there were no subsidies given to dairies at that time.

That was after Areias served three terms as assemblyman for the 12th District. After the Assembly, Areias was appointed to the State Coastal Commission from 1994-98 by then Senate Pro-Tem Bill Lockyer. The commission’s purpose is to protect California’s coastline from overdevelopment and to ensure public access to the shorelines. After that, Gov. Gray Davis appointed Areias director of State Parks and Recreation. He cut park fees in half, which boosted attendance by 23 million visitors.

Areias has the backing of every heavy hitting Democratic politico in the state, and some Republican support as well, from the Governor to the entire boards of supervisors of San Benito, Monterey and Merced counties. He also has won the endorsement of former Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood. The Web site list is four pages long, single-spaced.

Denham’s endorsement list includes the support of Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte. He is also endorsed by Hollister Mayor Tony LoBue and Councilman Tony Bruscia. According to his Web site, Denham recently received the endorsement of “the influential powerful Monterey County Association of Realtors.”

Denham says Areias has outspent him 3-1, but the numbers on the Secretary of State’s Web site say it’s more like 2-1, with Areias having accrued $2,854,800 in contributions to Denham’s $1,587,309. Part of Denham’s funding comes from $60,000 in loans taken out of his Denham Plastics business in Salinas, which produces plastic containers for agricultural and commercial uses.

Denham also has the endorsements and backing of gun clubs: $6,000 from the Gun Owners of California, $6,000 from the National Riflemen’s’ Association and $3,000 from the Firearms Freedom Fund. Some state Republican politicians and candidates have contributed to his war chest, including $12,500 from the San Joaquin County Republican Central Committee and $25,000 from the Monterey County Republican Party. The Association of Builders and Contractors also kicked in $3,000.

Most of Areias’ war chest is funded by the state Democratic Party, but he also has received monetary backing from a variety of professional organizations, such as $6,000 from the California Medical Association and $6,000 from the California Teachers’ Association.

And the beat goes on

In the newly drawn 12th State Senate District, the two-party battle lines are drawn with a majority of people registered as Democrats – 50 percent – to 37 percent registered Republican. The figure seems incongruous considering the district sits squarely in what has always been considered a conservative region of the Central Valley. It includes the counties of San Benito, Stanislaus, Merced and Madera. The east half of Monterey County is also in the district.

The major towns in the district are a mixed bag of political leanings: Modesto is the largest, followed by Salinas, Merced, Madera, Turlock, Hollister and Ceres.

Polls have said that Areias leads, but the negative mailers have closed the gap.

“Winning matters. It’s the kind of expenditure it takes to do it,” Giventer said. “Dollar for dollar you get more return in negative campaigning. I think it reflects more on the stakes that their parties have in the election.”

Perry maintains that Denham’s lack of control over the Republican Party does not bode well should he win Nov. 5.

“Jeff will forever be indebted to the Republican Party, which in California is all white males,” said Perry. “I believe a candidate should represent his or her district. A candidate like Jeff, that’s a danger — your county be damned. And in San Benito County, especially, you need all the representation you can get.”

Denham had an “all’s fair in love and war” attitude about the malicious tone of his campaign.

“The point is we’re both big boys and we’re both doing it back and forth,” Denham said in an interview on Monday. “It’s all going to end eight days from now.”

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