Forget California's presidential primary. The real political intrigue in San Bernardino County is brewing in three state and local primary races in which the focus has been on corruption, campaign shenanigans and the role of an influential father.
On Tuesday, county voters will decide more than 20 state and local races, including several ballot measures. But the most hotly contested of these are the campaigns for two open Assembly seats and the race to replace a county supervisor who pleaded guilty last month on corruption charges.
The campaigns for all three races were relatively quiet until recently, when several candidates unleashed a flurry of maligning fliers and TV ads about their opponents.
The most recent political feud involves an Assembly candidate who along with his staff was caught talking about creating a false endorsement flier. The controversy has quickly enveloped the campaign for the 63rd Assembly District, a heavily Republican region that includes Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Redlands, Rancho Cucamonga and Upland. The seat is now held by Assemblyman Robert Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga), a freshman lawmaker who is running for state Senate.
Candidate Bill Emmerson, a dentist in Redlands, and his staff were recorded talking about creating a false AFL-CIO endorsement letter for Emmerson opponent Elia Pirozzi, a real estate executive. Emmerson previously had accused Pirozzi of hypocrisy for seeking the endorsement after railing against the influence of "big labor unions" in Sacramento. The conversation was recorded by an answering machine belonging to the Pirozzi campaign. Emmerson's staff has admitted making prank calls to the machine and had forgotten to hang up the phone during the conversation in question.
In the recording, Emmerson campaign manager Anthony Tannehill is heard talking about distributing campaign mailers to neighborhoods. "On the west side, it'll be on AFL-CIO letterhead that I steal off the Internet, announcing their endorsement of Pirozzi: 'Whatever you do, don't vote for doctor Bill, courtesy of big labor,' " Tannehill said.
Pirozzi's campaign called the comments an example of "a campaign dirty trick" that "could involve theft, fraud and felony conspiracy."
But Emmerson said the comments were "an unfortunate choice of words" involving a "rowdy campaign office." He said his campaign did not falsify the AFL-CIO's letterhead, adding, "I would not tolerate doing that." He conceded that his staff had been making prank calls to the Pirozzi campaign, but he said the employee responsible was fired.
Emmerson and Pirozzi are both Republicans. The other Republican candidates are Mike Morrell, owner of a home financing business; Geoff Lyon, a judge pro tem; Sylvia Ann Robles, a retired budget analyst; and Sam Stavros, a teacher. D'Andre McNamee, a small-business owner, is the only Democrat in the race. Maureen Keedy, a teacher, is a Libertarian.
One campaign that has grown increasingly bitter is the race for the neighboring 62nd Assembly District, which includes San Bernardino, Muscoy, Bloomington, Colton, Fontana and parts of Rialto. The district is heavily Democratic, with a large Latino population. The seat is now held by Assemblyman John Longville (D-San Bernardino), who cannot seek reelection because of term limits.
The Democratic candidates are Joe Baca Jr., a substitute teacher and son of Rep. Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino); David Roa Pruitt, chief of staff to San Bernardino Mayor Judith Valles; and Walter Hawkins, a member of the Rialto school board. The only Republican in the race is Marge Mendoza-Ware, a member of the Colton school board.
In the past few weeks, the Pruitt campaign has sent out campaign mailers attacking Baca for accepting contributions from tobacco giant RJ Reynolds. He has also issued mailers suggesting that Baca opposes the state's gun laws because he did not complete a questionnaire from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which has endorsed Pruitt. "Joe Baca Jr. says he is dedicated to our kids," the mailer says. "Then why would he be against the law that keeps assault weapons off our streets?"
Baca's campaign has shrugged off the charges, saying his decisions as an assemblyman would not be influenced by any contributor. As for the Brady Campaign questionnaire, Baca said he was too busy to complete it.
But the most critical accusation leveled by Pruitt is that Baca's father is pulling the strings for his son's campaign. In a recent mailer, Pruitt said the congressman is responsible for getting many of his son's campaign contributions from lobbyists in Washington, D.C.
"My father isn't a powerful congressman," Pruitt says in the mailer. "He is a grocery clerk."
Baca rejects the accusation, saying, "I'm the candidate. I'm the one working hard."