ANAHEIM — The neck-and-neck race for the 46th Congressional District took a nasty twist Sunday when incumbent Rep. Robert K. Dornan at first refused to show up for a debate, citing his son's citizen's arrest of his Democratic opponent's husband for allegedly tearing down his election signs.
Dornan later changed his mind and showed up for the final 10 minutes of the three-hour debate, prompting challenger Loretta Sanchez's camp to counter that the congressman planned the late entry all along so he did not have to face her.
The race is one of the most closely watched contests in California because it is among the few in the state that will determine whether Republicans maintain control of Congress.
Polls by both parties show the race is close with a large number of undecided voters. With only two weeks before the Nov. 5 election, both camps worked feverishly to put the best spin on the weekend's incidents.
On Saturday, police cited Sanchez's husband, Steven Brixey III, 34, on a charge of misdemeanor vandalism after Mark Dornan reported that he saw him tearing down the congressman's campaign signs.
Mark Dornan made a citizen's arrest of Brixey at 10 p.m. near Brookhurst Street and Katella Avenue, Anaheim Police Sgt. Chuck O'Connor said Sunday.
Brixey "apparently admitted removing Dornan's posters," O'Connor said, adding that officers did not witness the incidents.
Both campaign teams were putting up signs for their candidates.
Brixey could not be reached for comment, but John Shallman, Sanchez's campaign manager, said on Sunday that Brixey "did not admit [to police], nor did he remove" Dornan's signs.
"They were already down, he moved them aside and [police] asked him if he touched the signs and he said he did," Shallman said. "They may be interpreting that he said he touched the sign as an admission when it didn't happen."
Sanchez, 36, dismissed Dornan's allegations as "ridiculous" and said her husband did not take down Dornan's signs. Mark Dornan "made a big brouhaha and was heckling him," she said.
Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove) was scheduled to join Sanchez on Sunday at a forum in Garden Grove, organized by the Vietnamese Political Action Committee.
The nonpartisan committee was formed in 1994 to enhance the political awareness of Vietnamese Americans. Candidates were to discuss issues including U.S.-Vietnam relations.
However, Dornan canceled his appearance the day before because, he alleged in an interview Sunday, his rival's campaign has been removing his signs for "the past three nights in a row."
"I did not want to dignify her campaign without finding out first who was tearing down the signs," he said before changing his mind and attending the forum, which drew about 120 people.
Later, Dornan said he had planned to attend but had two other engagements.
"I always intended to come at the end," he said. "I thought Sanchez would be gone and I would be able to speak to my Vietnamese friends."
Dornan said his last-minute showing was "a nothing story . . . compared to my son making a citizen's arrest on her husband."
However, Diem Do, a spokesman for the Vietnamese group, said Dornan's office told them Saturday afternoon Dornan would not be able to attend the debate due to an unspecified "emergency, federal official business."
Sanchez said the congressman had not attended at least five other forums to which both were invited.
Dornan's campaign director, Alberto Sandoval, who attended the forum, said the congressman did not show up for Sunday's event because "he had another federal event, federal business coming up."
Sandoval said he did not know what the event was. Dornan's wife, Sallie, did take part Sunday.
Audience member Mark Takano said he felt Dornan had orchestrated his late entry.
"That was, I thought, really slick," said Takano, chairman of the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus for the California Democratic Party. "He wanted to get the last word. . . . He's losing this race and was afraid he was going to get exposed."