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With an economy of words, California legislators state their ballot business

The most important words for politicians may be the handful they use on the ballot to describe their day jobs. Court fights have erupted over whether a city attorney could use 'prosecutor' and a lawmaker could avoid acknowledging she's in the Legislature.

April 20, 2012|By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich was sued by a rival in the D.A.’s race who wanted to block his ballot description as “Los Angeles chief prosecutor.”
Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich was sued by a rival in the D.A.’s… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — Politicians utter thousands of words — in speeches, debates, advertisements — but the most important may be the handful they use on the ballot to describe their day jobs.

Those three or so words may never have been as critical as they are this year in California. That's especially true for candidates not as well known as, say, Jerry Brown, who ran for governor as the state's attorney general two years ago, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose ballot designation in the 2003 recall race was "actor/businessman."

In recent months, court fights have broken out over whether a political newcomer could call himself an astronaut, a city attorney could use "prosecutor" and a sitting lawmaker could avoid admitting she's a member of the California Legislature.

Candidates always seek an edge, but this year many are running in districts that have changed dramatically for the first time in a decade and need to win over voters who may have never heard of them. Party designations are also less relevant now, because new rules for the June primary will allow the top two finishers to face off in November, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum.

The focus on ballot designations also reflects the perennial difficulty, particularly for lesser-known contestants, of reaching voters in California's expansive and expensive media market. Sometimes a campaign's only chance to spark people's interest is when they pick up a ballot.

"A lot of voters will cast a vote based on whatever impression that designation gives them," said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist.

Jose Hernandez, a Democrat, is running for office for the first time this year. He is seeking to oust incumbent Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater) from a congressional seat in the Central Valley, in a newly drawn district the Democratic Party has its eye on. Hernandez wrote "astronaut/scientist/engineer" as his job description for the ballot.

He wasn't making it up. The son of migrant farmers, Hernandez flew on the space shuttle in 2009 before leaving NASA in 2011 to work for a technology company, which he quit in the fall to run for office. Republicans filed a lawsuit saying Hernandez should change his description.

A Superior Court judge sided with Hernandez last month, saying he is an astronaut for "more than the time spent riding a rocket."

Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich was sued by an opponent in the campaign for district attorney, Alan Jackson, who wanted to block his ballot description as "Los Angeles chief prosecutor." Trutanich prosecutes misdemeanors and defends the city in court.

A Superior Court judge called Trutanich's designation "misleading" and allowed him to use "Los Angeles city prosecutor" instead.

Relatively few candidates can claim jobs as astronauts or prosecutors. But many like to wear the mantle of "small-business owner." Almost 20% of people vying for a state Senate seat this year use some variation of it on the ballot. Among Assembly candidates, it's nearly 10%.

Jason Roe, a Republican political consultant based in San Diego, said the popular term signifies all the things voters care about —community, jobs and economic growth — without the stigma of big corporate profits. He has a client who is a doctor but lists himself as a small-business owner.

"He runs his own practice," Roe said.

Andy Pugno, a Republican running for Assembly in the Sacramento area, is also using "small-business owner" as his designation — and he sued one of his opponents to prevent her from doing the same. Pugno is a lawyer defending Proposition 8, the anti-gay-marriage law that voters passed in 2008, and he has his own firm.

"I am the accounting department, the marketing department, the billing department, and I pay the payroll and other business taxes," Pugno said.

In his lawsuit, Pugno said it was suspicious that incumbent Assemblywoman Beth Gaines (R-Rocklin) and her husband incorporated their new insurance business shortly before filing her candidacy papers.

"If I was going to go out and buy a few cows, does that make me a cattle rancher?" Pugno's lawyer, Steve Green, asked in court on April 2.

Green argued that Gaines should not be allowed to call herself an owner — though businesswoman would be OK — and should cop to being a legislator. The judge barely blinked before ruling against Pugno.

Gaines is one of five incumbents in the Legislature who, while trying to keep their seats, don't say on the ballot that they're lawmakers. Her husband, state Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Roseville), is also running for reelection — and describes himself as a small-business owner. So do Assemblymen Mike Morrell (R-Rancho Cucamonga) and Dan Logue (R-Marysville). Assemblyman Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) says he's a "pediatrician/physician."

"Politicians are not popular in the current environment," said consultant Roe. "The attitude in the electorate is: If you are there, you are part of the problem."

Doug Herman, a political consultant working for Pan, said that's not why the assemblyman doesn't mention his full-time job as a lawmaker on the ballot.

Pan's work as a doctor is "what informs his perspective and his experience," Herman said. "His experience as a pediatrician is more important." And Pan still works in a Sacramento clinic, he said.

Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant, said ballot designations often spring from careful polling or focus groups. "If you're smart, you put a lot of thought into it," he said.

"Teacher" and "educator" are winners, he said. When Democrats pushed to retake the California Assembly after Republicans won a majority in the 1990s, he recalled, they recruited several candidates with classroom backgrounds.

That still resonates. Among Assembly and Senate candidates this year, the word "teacher" appears next to 12 names. "Educator" pops up 25 times.

chris.megerian@latimes.com

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