Orange County businessman Jacob "Jim" Rems said he was harassed and threatened with political annihilation.
Big Bear Lake attorney David O'Brien said he received disturbing hints there would be political hit pieces against him.
Assemblywomen Marilyn C. Brewer (R-Irvine) got a sexist insult and Kerry Mazzoni (D-Novato) was warned to "get out" or else. (Both were elected anyway.)
All for making what many people consider the most patriotic of all American decisions: Running for public office. But by simply challenging a political incumbent, each stumbled blindly into California Politics 101, the introductory course into arm twisting and dirty tricks.
Their experiences offer a rare glimpse of the kind of real world political pressures not found in civic books or "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." It is brutal and nasty and is only getting worse, many observers say.
"It's definitely a meaner time," political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said. "Politics has always been rough and tumble, but you could leave it at the door, there was some civility left. I don't see that civility these days. Winning is everything."
Nowhere is this win-at-all-costs attitude more evident than in the California Assembly, where the departure of Willie Brown has touched off chronic warfare for the speakership, always a powerful post but even more so in this important election year.
That struggle has already cost recalled Republican Assemblywoman Doris Allen of Cypress her political career and now has boiled down to a possible showdown between Assemblyman Brian Setencich (R-Fresno), the current speaker who is backed by the Democrats, and Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), the leader of the GOP caucus in the state's lower house.
Rems and O'Brien have accused Pringle and his aides of meddling in their decisions to seek office and threatening them. Pringle denies the charges, but acknowledges that the stakes in the Assembly make it imperative he protect his entrenched Republican incumbents.
"Our Republican majority is tenuous," Pringle said of the slim majority the GOP has over the Democrats in the Assembly. "Attacking incumbents and forcing them to spend money in primaries--in an era of term limits, what you're doing is putting [that majority] in jeopardy."
Pre-primary discussions of potential candidates are part of the process, Pringle said.
"I believe the leader of any party caucus, be it the U.S. Congress or the California Legislature, works aggressively to protect his incumbent members," Pringle said. "Phone calls to explain how important it is to preserve incumbents happen all the time."
But what is understood as business as usual for veteran Assembly members can be shocking to a political newcomer.
O'Brien, who is challenging Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa), said he received a recent telephone call from Pringle that he believed was going to be an endorsement. Instead, O'Brien contends Pringle told him to stay out of the race or face the consequences, which could mean a barrage of political hit pieces.
"I was boiling mad, absolutely furious," said O'Brien, 67, a court commissioner and attorney.
"I was taught the voters in this country have the right to choose anybody," O'Brien said. "This is not Nazi Germany, for goodness' sake."
Rems, whose introduction to politics came even before he got out of the office of the Orange County registrar of voters, said a Pringle aide approached him while he was at the counter taking out nomination papers, thrust a cellular phone in his face and demanded he talk to Jeff Flint, the assemblyman's chief of staff.
Although Flint has described Rems' charges as a "publicity stunt," Rems said he was told all the party resources would be used to defeat him, a threat that meant "run and we'll break your legs, in my mind."
Rems said he found the incident so repugnant he reported it to the Orange County district attorney's office, which is reviewing his report.
"I was shocked. I've never experienced anything like it in my life," said Rems, 45, who owns a land surveying business, is a lifelong Republican and member of the conservative, influential Lincoln Club. Rems, who calls his decision to enter the primary "a very personal one," said this pressure strikes to the heart of his belief in democracy.
"As a Republican, this bothers me to no end," he said. "Don't the voters have a say in this? I'm almost embarrassed to be called a Republican in the most Republican county in the country. What we should be doing is taking the best and brightest minds in this county--and there are many--and strategizing about where we should go from here. . . . This has got to stop."
Pre-primary pressure is not an exclusive weapon of the Republicans, said Mazzoni, a first-term assemblywoman who beat a Democratic Party-backed incumbent in 1994. Mazzoni said she was a naive school board trustee at the time who had no idea what she was getting into when she decided to run for state office.