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Candidate Complains of Attacks in Mailers

Villaraigosa says that the fliers violate election laws and accuses Pacheco of involvement.

November 12, 2002|Tina Daunt and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

Antonio Villaraigosa filed complaints with city and county officials Monday, charging that the author of two scathing campaign mailers attacking his character had violated state election law.

Villaraigosa, the former mayoral candidate running for Los Angeles City Council against incumbent Nick Pacheco, urged Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and LeeAnn Pelham, executive director of the city's Ethics Commission, to investigate whether the mailers had been sent illegally.

The fliers were mailed to voters in the district by a supporter of Pacheco, who is up for reelection in March.

Pacheco disavowed knowledge of the mailers, which were described by veteran campaign consultants as containing some of the strongest personal attacks they had ever seen. Some political insiders warned that the tactic could backfire.

"I have never seen anything this blatant," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic campaign consultant in Los Angeles whose clients have included former President Clinton.

However, one researcher who has studied the effect of negative campaigning said the mailers could be "a stroke of genius."

Ruth Ann Lariscy, a professor of public relations at the University of Georgia, said some of the most effective negative campaigns are those that hit very hard, very early, and then rely on voters' selective memory to hang on to only the essence of the charges, not the circumstances in which they heard them.

"By the time March rolls around, nobody's going to remember where they heard all this stuff ... but they're very likely to remember the information itself," Lariscy said.

In their complaints, Villaraigosa and his campaign manager, Steve Barkan, said that they believe the mailer's author, Ricardo Torres, was working in concert with Pacheco to produce the disparaging fliers, which were sent out anonymously, starting last Wednesday. They said they based their complaint, in part, on the fact that Pacheco's campaign manager informed a reporter Friday evening that Torres was responsible for the mailers and ready to talk.

Pacheco has denied having a role in the mailers. Under campaign reporting laws, he would have to report the money spent on them unless they were sent by a third party without his participation.

"There is evidence that the Pacheco campaign and Torres coordinated activities, thereby removing any 'independence' for a qualified 'independent expenditure,' " Barkan wrote in a letter to Cooley and Pelham.

Barkan also complained that the mailers violated state election law by failing to include any reference to who was sending them.

Torres did not return calls from The Times on Monday, but defended the mailers in a interview with KCBS-TV Channel 2. He said he would continue to send anti-Villaraigosa fliers. Pacheco said he had no idea that Torres was producing them until after the fact. He said he had asked Torres to stop any future ads.

"I think Antonio should pursue every legal avenue before him to stop these, because I want them stopped too," Pacheco said. But he added: "Unfortunately, when you send out facts, it's tough to mount a legal challenge."

Villaraigosa said he would not comment on the substance of the fliers, one of which accused him of being a "womanizer." In the past, Villaraigosa has openly acknowledged having had two children out of wedlock as a young man, and having had an extramarital affair -- behavior he has said he regrets.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), a Pacheco ally, said he believes the councilman is not behind the mailers "and I would hope they would stop." Becerra's own campaign for mayor collapsed last year after it put out calls to voters saying that Villaraigosa was soft on criminals. Becerra said he did not know anything about the calls until after the fact.

Political consultants roundly denounced the pro-Pacheco mailers, although there was disagreement about whether they would hurt Villaraigosa.

A Republican consultant, Alan Hoffenblum, said he thinks voters are growing tired of character attacks. He said campaigns that rely on them often fail, unless the target is seen as hypocritical.

As an example, he pointed to a March state Senate primary between Republicans Dennis Hollingsworth and Charlene Zettel. Zettel attacked her opponent on the basis of an old admission of infidelity, but Hollingsworth won the primary and went on to win the Nov. 5 general election.

"There are a lot of people who got elected last March and this fall who were the subjects of character attacks, but I don't know any ones who lost because of that," Hoffenblum said. He also said that the timing of the attack on Villaraigosa was wrong, coming on the heels of the Nov. 5 state election.

"There is such a thing as election fatigue that voters go through, and they've just been bombarded with weeks upon weeks of negative advertising," he said.

"And then, months before another election, they're bombarded with another example of negative advertising. I just think it has a chance of backfiring."

However, Lanny Davis, a Washington lawyer who helped the Clinton White House with damage control during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, said he thought Villaraigosa could be hurt, in part because the mailers found their way into mainstream media, such as The Times.

"Once something like this is out there and is legitimized in an important newspaper, it's very difficult to erase it," Davis said.

"Something like this is so outrageous, it is so shameful, that whoever is behind it can't take enough showers," he said. "Whoever put this out should be ostracized and condemned."

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Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.

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