Mulholland: ‘We’re no longer sitting in the bleachers’
Chico Democrats fire back at Keene-PAC-backed Larry Wahl
Barack Obama’s election as president has been attributed to a number of positive developments: more young voters, more tolerance for racial differences, more multiculturalism, more hope for change.
Bob Mulholland has another explanation: hard-scrabble politicking. Republicans attacked; Democrats counterattacked, with “69 to 70 percent of Barack’s ads ripping McCain,” especially in battleground states.
“If somebody hits you, you hit back,” Mulholland, a longtime Democratic Party strategist, said this week. “That’s why we’re in the White House; that’s why we’re in the majority [in Congress]. We’re no longer sitting in the bleachers.”
That mentality carried over to Chico, where a series of mailers from a pro-development PAC—Republicans, in the Mulholland paradigm—prompted a postcard from Mulholland’s camp attacking the conservative city councilman up for re-election.
“Larry Wahl says—look at my record,” the headline reads. The subhead, in parentheses: “He didn’t mean his drunk driving conviction, his $12,000 fine by California’s FPPC agency for campaign violations and his illegal use of city police and firefighter photos.” The sender: “Republicans & Democrats Against Drunk Drivers.”
For perspective, the DUI arrest came before he first got elected to the council in 2000; the campaign fine in 2004, stemming from his time on the Planning Commission. The photos of police cars and fire trucks appeared on a 2008 mailer—separate from the one by the aforementioned PAC, Accountability for Chico’s Tomorrow, that drew a cease-and-desist letter from City Attorney Lori Barker (which also got mentioned in the anti-Wahl ad).
As detailed in the CN&R Oct. 30, ACT mailed out a flier supporting Wahl and challengers Mark Sorensen and Joe Valente that included the Chico police uniform patch and a city photo of three Fire Department officials—lifted off the city Web site without permission, and inferring endorsements. It was one of five ads from the PAC, whose leaders include Assemblyman Rick Keene (R-Chico) and former City Manager Fred Davis.
After ACT’s second mailer, “Chico Democrats said there has to be a response,” Mulholland said, adding, “I think voters are tired of seeing one team sit in the dugout while the other team attacks.”
Whether any Chico attack ad succeeded is debatable.
The incumbents targeted by ACT, Mayor Andy Holcombe and Vice Mayor Ann Schwab, got re-elected handily. A challenger whom the Democrats endorsed, Park Commissioner Jim Walker, also won a council seat.
Wahl, meanwhile, apparently squeaked into the final spot. The No. 4 vote-getter in 2000 and 2004, he again sits at No. 4, just 328 votes ahead of Sorensen. (County Registrar Candace Grubbs expects that result to stand up once the final absentee and provisional ballots get counted—some 16,000 countywide, out of approximately 100,000 total ballots cast.)
“I don’t think [the mailer] had any impact,” said Randall Stone, vice chairman of the Democratic Action Club of Chico through the election. “If anything, it might have swayed someone who was on the fence to vote for Larry [out of sympathy]. But it was late in the game—I got it the day before the election—when most people had their minds made up.”
So why send it? Mulholland called his mailer “a message to Republicans: If you attack Democrats, there will be a response twice as big.” He added: “They’re the ones really responsible for the critique of Larry Wahl. If it wasn’t for them, no one would have paid Larry Wahl any attention.”
Mulholland may have acted on behalf of the Chico Democrats organization, but not every Democrat member in Chico was thrilled—particularly the DAC. “I think Bob may like the ambiguity of all Democrats being involved in the mailer,” Stone said, “but everyone I talked to was outraged.”
The personal attack was unnecessary and irrelevant, Stone continued: “There are plenty of reasons to bash Larry Wahl [for his record]. This was just gross and disgusting to see in a community like Chico.”
It also wasn’t wholly accurate. “Wahl violates city ordinance by using Chico Police & Firefighters photos in campaign brochures,” the mailer says. Barker told the CN&R that there is no such provision in Chico’s municipal code. State law prohibits officers from appearing in uniform for campaign purposes, but that violation would be the employees', not the candidate’s.
The issue with ACT was copyright law, not election law. “Larry called me about the second flier,” Barker said of the Wahl ad to which Mulholland’s mailer referred. “He indicated he took those photos; they were not taken off our Web site.”
Legal considerations are almost beside the point at this stage. The election is over, and Mulholland has sent his message.
“I don’t have too much of an issue with negative campaigning,” Stone said. “If you dole it out, you have to be able to take it.”
“Whether the Keene squad has upped the ante, that’s not a place the citizens of Chico want to go. But I guess it’s here to stay if [a group like ACT is] pumping $60,000 into a local campaign.”