The advertisement, which arrived in an unknown number of residents’ mailboxes on Friday, Oct. 15, lambasted Molina for embezzling money while he was student government president of Chabot College in 1994 and for having two previous DUI arrests. It also took aim at City Council candidate James Leonard for his atheistic beliefs.
“When it comes to our elected officials, CHARACTER MATTERS,” the words on the mailer practically screamed, adding “it’s critically important YOU really know the person you’re voting for.”
While Molina says the advertisement makes true statements about his past and Leonard says it accurately portrays his beliefs, both candidates took issue with the attack on their character and in turn questioned the character of the sender, who remains anonymous.
“Whoever was behind this ad has launched their attack in total anonymity, possibly even violating political campaign finance laws to do it,” Leonard wrote in a blog post in response to the mailer. “That’s not character, as far as I’m concerned.”
The mailer reproduces a clipping from The Argus, a Fremont-based newspaper, that describes how Molina stole $516 from Chabot College in Hayward in 1994. It also lists individual DUI court convictions in Fremont.
The mailer states that Molina initially lied about taking the money before paying it back and returning it.
In regards to Leonard, it states that one of his Facebook sites describe his antitheist views and mentions that he likes the books “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens and “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.
Molina responded to the ad by attacking his opponent Annette Smith’s mayoral campaign. He sent out an e-mail Friday that stated, “Candidate Annette Smith Campaign Goes Negative,” alleging that the mailer’s creator could face $24,000 in fines from the Fair Political Practices Commission.
“It’s interesting that while the Smith campaign says ‘character matters,’ they violate four sections of California election law by not saying who paid for this mail piece,” Molina wrote in the e-mail.
He followed up with a mailer that also blames Smith's campaign for the hit piece. Molina's ad portrays a boy holding his nose next to the words "Some Things [like negative political ads] Just Stink."
Smith said this week she had no idea who sent out the mailer, and she was infuriated by Molina’s allegations.
“I think whoever did it needs to own up to it,” Smith said. “They need to tell the truth.”
Molina clarified this week that he was not specifically accusing Smith of creating the mailer. He said it could also be a financial contributor, a family member or one of her supporters.
“Who is behind this, specifically? I don’t know,” he said.
However, he added that he felt Smith was the only person who could benefit from the advertisement, a contention she denies.
“How does my campaign benefit from this?” Smith asked. “I feel like someone did me a disservice.”
Molina did not deny the allegations put forth by the mailer. The embezzlement at Chabot College came to light during Molina’s 2008 campaign for mayor against Becky Campo, while Molina said the DUI incidents occurred 13 and 25 years ago, respectively.
“My character is a lot stronger because I’ve gotten past that,” said Molina, who now chairs the Stanislaus County Board of Education. “I’ve paid the price.”
Leonard also did not deny allegations in the mailer regarding his beliefs, though he took issue with the mailer’s allegation that he did not possess the “highest ethical standards, morals and values.”
“This is about as grave an insult as anyone could have thrown at me, and I take great offense to it,” Leonard wrote on his blog. “I pride myself on being a hard worker, a loving father, a faithful husband and a law-abiding citizen.”
Leonard said this weekend that he subscribes to the golden rule of doing to others what one would want done to oneself, and he believes that to be a universal trait.
Though he acknowledged that he does not believe in God, he said his beliefs would not impact his decisions on the council, including votes on local church projects. He maintains a belief in a “separation between church and state,” which he said pertains to a separation between his own atheistic views and his practice on the council, he said.
“The churches in this town have done a lot of amazing, admirable charitable work, and I have the utmost respect for what they do,” Leonard said.
Meanwhile, Leonard wanted to clarify that his campaign is in no way tied with Molina’s. He said he has leaned on both Smith and Molina for support and advice during this campaign, because of their past political experience.
Leonard said he suspects the ad’s creator likely supports the campaigns of Smith and council candidates Deborah Novelli and Larry Buehner, but he would not speculate further on who might be involved.
He suggested that whoever created the advertisement must be worried about his potential to win the election.
“This attack is a clear statement that those with significant economic interests at stake see me as a threat to whatever agenda it is they’re hoping to push through,” he wrote on his blog.
Other candidates were also upset about the political ad.
Novelli said she was surprised and disappointed by the mailer, and she believes whoever created it ought to concentrate on issues, rather than personal attacks.
“It’s just sickened me that it came to this level,” she said.
Buehner said he gave the ad hardly a second thought when he had a chance to see it Sunday evening.
“That’s dirty pool,” he said.
Council candidate Sheree Lustgarten also expressed disgust.
“It’s unfortunate they’re using tactics like that,” she said. “Our city should have much bigger issues to discuss.”
Typically, groups that send out political mailers will obtain a permit through the U.S. Postal Service that makes it cheaper to send them in bulk, according to postal service spokesman Augustine Ruiz.
In this case, the sender put individual stamps on the campaign literature.
“It sounds like individuals mailing their own stuff out,” Ruiz said.
Because the sender did not obtain a permit, it is impossible to determine how many mailers were sent out, he said.
The ads were mailed from a Ceres post office box. However, Ruiz said the U.S. Postal Service could not legally reveal the box’s owner.
State law requires that mass-mailing advertisements that show support or opposition for political candidates and are paid for by a group not affiliated with a campaign must reveal the name of the committee that is paying for them.
The mailer stated that the “paid political advertisement was not authorized by a candidate or committee controlled by a candidate” as required by law, but it did not further identify the creator of the advertisement.
The Fair Political Practices Commission generally will not evaluate the legality of an ad once it has been released, although someone can file a complaint with the elections division if they think a violation has occurred, FPPC Legislative Coordinator Tara Stock said by e-mail this week.
The creator of the mailer tried to place the same advertisement in the Patterson Irrigator earlier this month. A person who identified himself or herself as “Tom Jeffereson” e-mailed the newspaper on Oct. 5 about running a half-page political ad in the newspaper. The Irrigator responded that the newspaper would need full contact information before it could run the ad.
An unknown woman then dropped off $306.15 in cash for the advertisement later that afternoon, but the newspaper did not receive a copy of the ad itself until later that evening.
The Irrigator chose not to run the advertisement after reading it, as the newspaper was not aware of who produced it.
The person who produced the advertisement and gave it to the newspaper has yet to retrieve the money that was paid for it. If the person does not do so, Irrigator publisher Bob Matthews said the newspaper will turn the money over to the state.
“Hopefully, everyone will get back to the issues facing this community, and not this political trash,” Matthews said this week. “I just think it’s stupid and childish.”
Both City Council and mayoral candidates this week also indicated that they thought the ad set a bad tone.
“Let’s just rise above it and show who Patterson is and that we’re not about this,” Novelli said.
• Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187 or firstname.lastname@example.org.