Running scared

Congressman Doug LaMalfa is slinging mud, big time, against Republican rival Joe Montes

Doug LaMalfa is nervous. That’s what popped into my mind when I saw the hit piece targeting Joe Montes, the Chico Republican who’s vying for LaMalfa’s congressional seat. The political mailer—paid for by the Doug LaMalfa Committee—went out to a wide swath of voters. I personally know Democrats, Republicans and those without a party preference who received it. That must have cost a chunk of change.

It includes the requisite trademarks of negative campaign literature: an unflattering photo of the opposition, inflammatory language, vague accusations. In a nutshell, the LaMalfa campaign is painting Montes as an outsider with a sketchy past who is supported by a shadowy political action committee (PAC). The implication is that Montes is a criminal. “Don’t be a victim,” the piece warns. “One word seems to follow Joe Montes wherever he works: fraud.” Yet, the mailer doesn’t directly accuse Montes of a single thing. It’s all innuendo.

The flier is so over the top it’s almost funny. But it isn’t a joke. Speaking of which, this round of mudslinging reminds me of the shenanigans the LaMalfa campaign pulled four years ago when he was running against Republican Sam Aanestad, a former state senator and assemblyman based out of Grass Valley. Things got ugly.

Mark Spannagel, LaMalfa’s then chief of staff, established a website that called into question Aanestad’s qualifications as an oral surgeon and accused him of “misleading” voters, among other things. The site originally carried a disclaimer attributing it to another congressional candidate—a guy who had nothing to do with the effort. However, once under pressure from besmirched Aanestad, who subpoenaed the website’s host and learned that Spannagel had registered the domain name, a new disclaimer popped up in its place that labeled the site satirical.

To put it another way, when LaMalfa’s No. 1 hired gun got caught red-handed for potentially breaking election laws, he tried to play the website off as a joke (and protected under the First Amendment). Meanwhile, LaMalfa claimed he didn’t know anything about its creation. He went on to secure the congressional seat.

Democratic challenger Heidi Hall ran circles around him at debates two years ago during the general election, but LaMalfa handily held his seat in conservative Nor Cal. Fast-forward to today and the race against Montes is the first time LaMalfa has had to truly battle since his initial election to the House of Representatives in 2012.

The Montes-LaMalfa race has the potential to create a deep schism in the local Republican community. That’s because LaMalfa’s camp is also going after the political action committee supporting Montes, the Restore America Super PAC, and powerful local businessman Wayne Cook, Montes’ longtime mentor (see Howard Hardee’s report on page 8), for not properly filing federal campaign reports. Those claims do hold merit, but that’s not where this ends. Dave Gilliard, a political strategist working for LaMalfa, further implies that Montes is illegally coordinating with the group.

Interestingly, Montes supporters seem surprised by our congressman’s latest sleazeball tactics, likely because they were on Team LaMalfa back when he took on Aanestad. Many of them have given money to candidates—LaMalfa included—in previous elections but are new to campaigning. To them, I say: Welcome to politics.