As mailers and radio ads accusing Jerry Brown of overseeing Bell-style mismanagement while mayor of Oakland began hitting Southern California mailboxes and airwaves, a coalition of Bell residents called on Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman to stop politicizing the pay and pension fiasco unfolding in their city.
"We don't want to be used as a political ploy," said Cristina Garcia, a spokeswoman for the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse, a community group that is trying to recall four City Council members who were paid unusually large salaries. "Right now, the community's really focused on getting things right and creating better governance."
The Whitman campaign dismissed those claims, noting that the group is largely funded by the city's police union.
"Jerry Brown is bought and paid for by the unions," said Whitman spokeswoman Andrea Jones Rivera. "The people deserve to know that he didn't act on similar allegations when he was mayor of Oakland."
Bell has been reeling from revelations first reported in The Times that top city officials were being paid several times as much as their counterparts in other cities.
The issue has presented an opportunity for both candidates in the gubernatorial race. As the state's attorney general, Brown has been featured on nightly newscasts and the front pages of newspapers as his office investigates Bell — invaluable free publicity for his shoestring campaign.
Whitman's campaign has responded by pushing two themes: that Brown is acting hypocritically because mismanagement occurred while he was mayor of Oakland, and that he is using his elected office to gain political steam.
Whitman is saturating local airwaves with a six-figure advertising buy that includes unusual territory for political messages, such as alternative-rock radio stations. Her campaign also has sent mailers to more than 180,000 households. In both, Whitman charges Brown with presiding over a Bell-style salary scandal while he was mayor of Oakland.
Whitman's ads question Brown's management skills, although the scale of the questionable practices that occurred in Oakland are notably different than those in Bell, a town of 40,000 where the city manager was receiving a compensation package that added up to $1.5 million, according to city records.
Political observers said that although both candidates are trying to manipulate the situation to their benefit, neither is likely to suffer blowback from voters over their actions.
"There's a little bit of grandstanding [on Brown's part], but I don't know necessarily that it will do any harm. Most citizens are so irate, they think every law-enforcement official in California should be involved," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican strategist and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book.
Whitman's attacks are a "stretch" but they "keep the campaign staff busy writing press releases. I don't think it has that much impact," he said.