How to Run a Nasty Campaign

LAST WEEK’S PRIMARY ELECTION left voters with a particularly bitter aftertaste, and not just because of the highly toxic gubernatorial campaign. In legislative contests across Southern California, voters looked in their mailboxes just days before the election and found some of the most unpleasant accusations of the campaign.

One campaign committee implied that state Assembly candidate Paul Krekorian, an Armenian who lives in Burbank, had ties to Armenian terrorists. A second, more shadowy group produced a viscerally unflattering image of Assemblywoman Judy Chu, her face morphing into the visage of her husband, who was running for her vacant seat.

But these mailings weren’t created just to make your stomach churn. Would-be candidates of the future can learn a few things from these mailers. Do you, gentle reader, want to run for office? And, more importantly, do you want to take down your opponent without looking like a jerk? A survey of attack mailers can offer a few lessons for a candidate who wants to succeed with a good — that is, really nasty — campaign.

1. Pray that someone else will attack your opponent. This approach isn’t as passive-aggressive as it sounds. In California, candidates who don’t want to ream out the opposition can sit back and nervously wait for a supporter — you know, those independent-expenditure groups that politicians are always complaining about — to do the dirty work for them. In the West San Gabriel Valley, a mysterious group known as the North-South-East Coalition to Reform Local Government warned residents that Assembly candidate Mike Eng, a Chinese-American city councilman in Monterey Park, is “not like us.” Voters couldn’t be sure who “us” was, but it didn’t help, since Eng won anyway.

2. “Big” is always better. If your opponent takes campaign donations, always assume it’s from somebody big. In the South Bay, business leaders who favored state Senate candidate George Nakano dinged his opponent, Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza, for taking contributions from “Big Oil.” Consumer advocates, in turn, gave Nakano hell for taking money from “Big Tobacco.” (Oropeza won.) Once again, neither candidate wrote or paid for those pieces, leaving the unsavory attacks up to their supporters. And, of course, such independent-expenditure groups always keep their distance from the campaigns of their candidates, as required by law. No, seriously.

3. Let the family twist the knife. Why look angry when there’s an indignant spouse on hand? Nakano, for example, relied on his wife to tell voters that Oropeza had distorted his voting record. In an oversize letter to the electorate, Helen Nakano said her husband couldn’t have voted on a sensitive environmental issue highlighted by Oropeza since he was in a hospital recovering from prostate cancer on the day of the vote. “As a cancer survivor herself, I don’t know why Jenny Oropeza would lie about my husband’s vote,” said Helen, whose poison pen then also implied that Oropeza had been a bit eager to trumpet her own bout with cancer to the media. Up in Glendale, the wife of Assembly candidate Frank Quintero made a similar pitch, saying her husband had been unduly slimed by Democratic opponent Paul Krekorian. “I knew this race would be tough .?.?. but I never thought our opponents could sink so low,” wrote Jani Quintero. Krekorian did indeed send issue-negative ads, but Jani declined to tell voters what they were.

4. Rely on your friendship network. Okay, so you have no way to pay for your own negative mail, and there’s not a spouse on hand to help. That still doesn’t mean you have to look negative! State Assembly candidate Kevin de León found four union leaders who looked especially grumpy over his opponent, union organizer Christine Chavez. The union leaders badmouthed Chavez, ironically, for refusing to sign a de León campaign pledge against negative campaigns. After slamming Chavez for failing to vote in the 2000 election, the union leaders reminded voters to say “YES to Kevin de León and his positive campaign for the future of California.” The reality was, Chavez had not sent any hit pieces. But de León, who won by 20 points, said on Election Day that he sent the piece because Chavez had authorized a telephone poll accusing him of mistreating avocado pickers.

5. Find a zippy symbol to demonize your opponent. Teacher and peace activist Marcy Winograd zeroed in on a piece of jewelry during her long-shot campaign to unseat U.S. Representative Jane Harman, a Democrat running for reelection in a coastal district stretching from Marina del Rey south to San Pedro. The bling in question was a brooch, featured prominently on Harman’s lapel, of a B-2 bomber. The bomber lapel pin neatly established Harman as a little too willing to march into President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Farther up the coast, Calabasas Councilman Barry Groveman skewered attorney Jonathan Levey over one of his former law firm’s clients: Philip Morris. Groveman sent out mailers with Levey’s face, looking slightly demented, superimposed on individual cigarettes inside a case titled “Jonathan Levey Extra Lights.” Groveman and Levey canceled each other out, sending school-board member Julia Brownley to the state Assembly. —D.Z.


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