David Mendez

Race to the Bottom: The ugly fight for the 66th Assembly District

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The battle for California’s 66th Assembly District has taken ugly turns, as incumbent David Hadley (right) and former office-holder Al Muratsuchi (left) scratch for a seat in Sacramento. File photos

The battle for California’s 66th Assembly District has taken ugly turns, as incumbent David Hadley (right) and former office-holder Al Muratsuchi (left) scratch for a seat in Sacramento. File photos

by David Mendez

As Al Muratsuchi left the Toyota Meeting Hall at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center on October 12, following a debate with 66th Assembly District representative David Hadley, he was surrounded by men and women who shoved cell phones and cameras in his face, shouting for his attention.

“How do you like it, Al?” one man yelled, a camcorder in one hand, a rolling suitcase in the other, and a red cap on his head. Muratsuchi, attempting to remain affable, joked about the hat looking like one of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats before speedily walking to his car.

“We wanted to give Al Muratsuchi a taste of what David Hadley has been going through,” said the man in the red hat, Beach Cities Republican Club president Arthur Schaper. According to Schaper, Hadley has been followed by similarly pushy men and women with cameras, who have supposedly gone as far as waiting outside of Hadley’s house to ambush him.

Ironically, the League of Women Voters-sponsored debate was one of the few places the candidates could not sling stones and arrows at each other. For nearly 45 minutes, the two argued their positions and compared voting records, only occasionally veering off course before being corrected by the moderator.

But once the two were beyond the podium, it was back to politics as usual.

The race between the two pols dates back to 2014, when the two first competed for the 66th Assembly District. At the time it was believed that Muratsuchi would come away with victory easily; he was, after all, a Democratic incumbent in a Democratic district in a Democratic state.

But an unforeseen backlash against Democrats nationwide during that mid-term election proved fatal for Muratsuchi’s reelection plans. Hadley’s win helped to break the Democratic super-majority held within California’s State Assembly.

Muratsuchi chalked that defeat up to poor voter turnout. In 2014, only 40 percent of the 66th Assembly District’s registered voters showed up to the polls, versus 70 percent in 2012. That led to a loss of about 78,000 total votes.

Prior to June’s Primary Election, Muratsuchi felt as if he was sitting comfortably. “This year promises to be a very different kind of election year,” he said in June.

His prediction proved accurate. He ended up besting Hadley and fellow Democrat Al Madrigal in the June primary election, topping Hadley by 4,500 votes.

In the months since, the election has taken a turn.

Passions tend to run high in political races. But the campaign between Hadley and Muratsuchi has, more often than not, been one in which mud has been slung harder and faster.

Hadley mailers have called him a citizen legislator, and a friend to children, to homeowners and businesses. His opponent, meanwhile, has been made out by those same mailers to be a supporter of child predators.

The mailers cite Muratsuchi’s support of AB 375, which he co-sponsored during his term in the State Assembly.

The 2013 bill, passed by both the Assembly and the State Senate, would have modified dismissal hearings for school employees, requiring school boards to immediately place employees on suspension for allegations that include sex offenses or the use, sale or trade of controlled substances with minors. It also would limit the number of witnesses an employee may take to a hearing and would prohibit a motion to amend charges from being granted within 90 days of the hearing if the motion would extend the dismissal hearing beyond a seven month requirement.

But those two sections caused Governor Jerry Brown to impose a veto on AB 375 in October 2013, calling the bill “too rigid” and “an imperfect solution.”

“I am particularly concerned that the limiting the number of depositions…and restricting a district’s ability to amend charges even if new evidence comes to light, may do more harm than good,” Brown wrote in his veto letter.

According to Hadley’s mailer, the legislation would have exposed students to sexual predators — according to education-advocacy organization EdVoice, the bill proposed “a flawed experiment in certificated employee dismissal that is prejudiced to victim children and their parents” and “disastrously increases the likelihood that perpetrators will negotiate a buyout and a hall pass to inflict child abuse again.”

The bill was not derided, however, as both the Daily Breeze and Los Angeles Times editorial boards lent their support. The Breeze called the existing process for removing problem teachers “incredibly difficult, time-consuming and costly for districts,” while the Times said “it could become one of the state’s most important and overdue education reforms in more than a decade.”

But Hadley’s campaign has used criticism of AB 375 to make Muratsuchi out to be an advocate of child predators, stamping the Democrat’s name alongside the faces of distressed children.

Hadley’s mailers further attack Muratsuchi’s record on Proposition 13, which reduced property taxes on homes, businesses and farms by 57 percent when it was passed in 1978, and accuses Muratsuchi of receiving campaign donations from oil special interests.

The tactic has incensed Muratsuchi.

“[AB 375] was supported by the California State PTA,” Muratsuchi said. “The PTA obviously would not support a bill that would allow pedophiles in the classroom.”

He further accused Hadley of “engaging again in a campaign of lies” by stating that the former Assemblyman attacked Proposition 13 “made it easier to raise property taxes.”

“Not only does Prop 13 remain intact, but I actually have a voting record of protecting Prop. 13,” Muratsuchi said, citing his vote against 2014’s AB 2372, which redefined how much of an ownership stake in property amounts to an ownership transfer; further, he states that he did not vote for a single tax increase as a legislator.

Muratsuchi did note his support for 2012’s Proposition 30, which increased sales and use tax and personal income tax on earnings over $250,000. That was passed by voters 55.4 percent to 44.6 percent.

Attack mailers from Muratsuchi’s camp have taken varying tacks, from refuting Hadley’s claims of support from law enforcement and endorsements from the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women. His campaign even produced a satirical mailer, exclaiming that “Al Muratsuchi hates kittens!”

A centerpiece of his attacks has been a continual attempt to link Hadley to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, claiming that the two have “shared values” and “shared policies,” by virtue of their shared political party.

Hadley fought back against this in his July Op Ed op-ed in the Daily Breeze, stating that neither Trump nor Clinton would get his vote.

“Both have shown themselves unfit for the highest office in the land. Neither reflects the South Bay values that this citizen legislator is trying to bring to Sacramento,” he wrote.

However, Muratsuchi’s campaign has continued the onslaught, producing bright red lawn signs reading “Trump Hadley” that have been distributed throughout the district.

“He has criticized me for having ‘Trump-like’ values to see how many times he can fit ‘Trump’ into every sentence he speaks…In fact, he has enjoyed moving the goalposts to make it a sure thing that he could denounce or criticize me no matter what,” Hadley said. “He said it’s not enough to not vote [for either Clinton or Trump], I have to denounce Trump, which is a Stalinist concept to begin with.”

But one Muratsuchi point seems to have held water thus far with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission: An accusation that Hadley’s campaign has coordinated with the Spirit of Democracy political action committee by sharing consultant Steven Presson during the campaign season.

Hadley’s campaign will come before the Sacramento County Superior Court on Friday to respond to a subpoena by the FPPC requesting emails, letters and text messages between Presson and Hadley’s campaign between January 1 and June 7.

“There has been no coordination and this will be demonstrated in court — and we will be complying with the court’s request no later than the date on Friday,” Hadley said. He cited his busy schedule as both a legislator and a candidate, as well as reticence to release “strategically sensitive information” that would then be released to the public by the FPPC.

“We don’t have a lot of time and we have to be careful about it; anything I submit, I want to be accurate and complete,” Hadley said to dismiss concern that the wait could be seen as a stalling tactic to keep sanctions from being imposed before the November 8 election. “We have released documents; what I’ve not been able to do is the requisite work necessary to certify that I’ve released that I have.”

Hadley’s association with Spirit of Democracy, and its chairman Charles Munger Jr., has long been a bone of contention for Muratsuchi, who has said that “billionaires bought the assembly seat in 2014.”

While claims of outside influence and special interest funding have come from both sides, both candidates have benefitted from the contributions of companies and organizations from across the country.

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics database that archives political contributions in races across the United States, Muratsuchi and Hadley have each received more than $1.25 million in campaign contributions from organizations, political action committees, companies or unions.

Both candidates have received significant funding from their respective political parties: Muratsuchi has taken $992,204 in contributions from various Democratic committees from around the state, while Hadley received $503,568 from the California Republican Party alone.

Muratsuchi’s biggest non-party contribution sources come from labor. Public safety, teacher, and trade unions have contributed $381,650 to his campaign.

Hadley’s funding has come from many corners of industry, from energy to real estate to telecom. But unlike Muratsuchi, who has collected $20,021 from non-individual contributors outside of California, Hadley’s nationwide contributions have been vast. Hadley has been given $112,790 from companies with bases in Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Virginia, among others, including $10,900 from Texas oil companies Valero and Tesoro.

All told, according to NIMSP, as of October 20, Hadley has received $2.27 million in contributions, $1.03 million from individuals, while Muratsuchi has been given $1.68 million, $159,647 of which came from individuals.

But the debate on October 12 was free of political attack, by insistence from their hosts, the League of Women Voters.

Voters at the debate learned that the two are similar on a number of issues.

Both Hadley and Muratsuchi have concerns over the Torrance refinery’s use of hydrofluoric acid, and are united in looking to transition away from its use, as well as emissions from flaring.

The two also joined in stated defense of Prop. 13, in distaste for the execution and development of the state’s high-speed rail line, in concerns over man-made climate change, and in recycling and treating wastewater for potable use.

Hadley, notably, opposes a state-wide ban on fracking, which uses pressurized water mixtures for harvesting natural gas. “I endorsed the decision of voters of Hermosa Beach to not permit drilling for oil in Hermosa, but I support the right of voters of Bakersfield to extract natural gas,” he said.

Muratsuchi supports a state-wide ban, noting that fracking, has been linked to leeching chemicals into groundwater, increased incidences of earthquakes in California and is an intensive use of water sources.

“In a state like California, with drought, our water supply and ongoing fears about earthquakes, fracking doesn’t make sense,” Muratsuchi said.

The two also differ on Measure M, which would increase sales tax to fund street and highway improvements and repairs, as well as develop bus and rail transit. But the measure would further delay the construction of a Green Line extension through the South Bay.

“The bottom line is, we do not live on an island; we’re a part of a larger Los Angeles and Southern California economy and life,” Muratsuchi said.

Hadley, however, feels that the South Bay is “shortchanged” by the measure. “I believe we can meet road and local transit challenges without doing for Measure M.”

In closing, the two took one last opportunity to establish their bonafides, as Hadley noted that he voted apart from his party on topics such as green energy, LGBT rights and animal welfare, and that he is endorsed by numerous taxpayer foundations.

“But a vote for me is a vote for balance…I’m a check on the one party state,” Hadley said. “My focus is to be part of the loyal opposition.”

Muratsuchi cited his endorsements from teachers and public safety unions, saying that his record is that of a bipartisan problem-solver.

“I believe the South Bay deserves a state assembly representative who will stand and get things done,” he said.

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