First, do no political harm

If Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones regains Republican control of congressional seat, he’ll have Rep. Ami Bera to thank

Illustration by Jonathan Buck

Even before last week's revelations that U.S. Rep. Ami Bera's father might spend time in federal prison for violating campaign contribution laws, the younger Bera was losing allies in his re-election bid for the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Elk Grove physician is seeking a second term representing a critical suburban territory that narrowly swings Democratic, but was in Republican control not that long ago. After three closely decided contests, Bera finds himself in a dogfight against yet another Republican, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a first-time congressional candidate aiming for an upset on June 7.

Jones might achieve it, too, but he’d have to share credit for the victory. Bera is providing plenty of ammunition.

Four years ago, Bera was a hero of the Democratic Party for unseating conservative lion Dan Lungren during the pair’s bruising rematch. But he’s since squandered that support, frustrating his Democratic base by shadowboxing right when they urged him to protect his left.

It was about a year ago, after barely holding on against Doug Ose in 2014, that Bera really started to lose supporters. The slide began after he supported a federal program called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would give foreign corporations a leg up on domestic ones. That prompted labor unions, once a pillar of Bera’s base, to berate him as a DINO—Democrat in Name Only.

More recently, Bera backed a Republican measure to halt the acceptance of already-vetted Syrian refugees in the United States, potentially sending them back to destabilized war zones. He also has voted to support measures that some warn could loosen regulations on banks and curb food-stamp benefits for the poor.

Robert Longer, a union political leader from Elk Grove, recently told The Sacramento Bee, “I think Congressman Bera needs to do some soul searching as to whether he’s a real Democrat, or not.”

Longer, once Bera’s ally, has become one of his foremost local critics. But he’s not the only progressive to jump off the Bera bandwagon. Early this year, Bera received dismal evaluations from Democratic advocate groups and even lost the unified backing of other congressional Democrats.

Then came the most personal blow.

On May 10, Bera’s father, Babulal Bera, pleaded guilty to laundering personal donations into his son’s 2010 and 2012 congressional races. According to the U.S. attorney’s office, the elder Bera did this by soliciting friends, family members and acquaintances to contribute directly to his son’s congressional campaigns, then paid them back to evade political contribution limits. At last count, authorities have identified more than 130 dummy donations worth more than $260,000, the vast majority of which was spent on Bera’s unsuccessful 2010 race against Lungren.

Bera has denied knowledge of his father’s activities. And while Republican Party agents have scoffed their disbelief, it’s the representative’s legal actions while in office that have done him the most damage.

In a 2015 interview with Politico, Amaya Smith, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, hinted that labor groups would be OK with a Republican taking Bera’s place in Congress.

They may get their wish.

Jones is a big-league political novice, but has run a (mostly) veteran’s campaign by carving out decisively conservative stances on red-meat issues like immigration and guns, though he, too, struggled with the emergence of Donald Trump as his party’s presumptive nominee for president. Jones opted to endorse the divisive mogul, who shares his stance on walls, a gamble that may or may not alienate Latino voters. It recently cost him the political support of the teamsters union, which initially endorsed him.

But whether Jones can scare up any support from disenfranchised Democrats is hard to say. Sheriff since 2010, Jones has, in some interviews, given an impression of a relatively gentle right-winger. He told The Sacramento Bee in January that he supports gay marriage, is neutral on abortion and opposes the Delta tunnels, Jerry Brown’s water-conveyance project that environmentalists, among other critics, say will destroy California’s Central Valley watersheds and the coastal salmon fishery.

On the labor issue that has gotten Bera so much flak, Jones has taken the other side, supporting labor unions and opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

On other issues, though, Jones holds a more conservative line. He is a stanch gun proponent who told SN&R last year that he wants to arm Sacramento’s law-abiding population as a measure to reduce crime. Whereas Sacramento County’s previous sheriff John McGinness granted 303 concealed weapon permits in two years, Jones has issued approximately 1,000 annually since 2010. He recently denied reports that his office has slowed down this practice for political reasons.

Jones’ immigration stance, meanwhile, probably won’t win him many votes from Latinos. The sheriff wants to increase border enforcement and has been accused of violating a state law that protects undocumented immigrants from unlawful jail detentions.

But Bera has similarly shown a degree of apathy toward the disenfranchised. He crossed Democratic Party lines in November by voting for the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, which effectively makes it more difficult for refugees from the Syrian civil war to enter the United States. The Republican bill easily passed 289 to 137. Bera was among the 47 Democrats who voted for it. Only two Republicans voted against it.

This is why some accuse Bera of being a Democrat of convenience, staking out whatever position he thinks will earn him the most political capital in the moment. If that was the strategy, however, it got him dropped.

With Jones, the logic goes, at least people know where he stands—easy on guns, hard on immigrants. But with Bera’s loss of Democratic support, it’s possible he may have strayed too far.

Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Democratic Party’s position on Rep. Ami Bera. The story has been corrected to reflect their stance.