As the two candidates competing for election to represent California's 36th Congressional District enter the final weeks of the campaign, Republican incumbent Mary Bono-Mack released information about her opponent's arrest record on Tuesday that must have seemed certain to derail his campaign. Two days later, the issue seems to have fallen off the Coachella Valley's radar.
On Tuesday, the Bono-Mack campaign sent local news media a 1997 photo of Ruiz in a courtroom with a number of other protestors who had been arrested in a Thanksgiving Day protest at Plymouth Rock over American mistreatment of Native people.
Ruiz was never charged in the incident. His campaign quickly responded to the release of the photo by saying that their candidate had actually sustained injuries while protecting an elderly Native American man from blows by police.
Ruiz is the most serious challenger Bono Mack has faced in her 14 years representing the Coachella Valley in the House, which role she took over after her husband, Representative Sonny Bono, died in a skiing accident in 1998. The California 36th has been described as one of five districts nationwide most likely to leave Republican hands in this election, and a September Democratic poll showed Ruiz only 3 percentage points behind Bono Mack.
The Bono Mack campaign's statement accompanying the release of the photo makes the campaign's strategy plain: they're trying to appeal to hard-right, Fox-News devoted potential voters:
These radical, anti-American activities led by Raul Ruiz including anti Thanksgiving protests, and supporting FBI killer Leonard Peltier for a span of six years brings the whole legitimacy of his candidacy into question It certainly explains the support he's received from Sean Penn, the Hugo Chavez apologist and why the infamous left wing billionaire Soros family have invested so much money into his cause."
Whether this eleventh-hour play will work with those right-wing voters, long suspicious of Bono Mack's moderate environmental and pro-LGBT stances, remains to be seen.
In the meantime, the attack may have inadvertently galvanized potential Ruiz voters as well. The Coachella Valley and outlying desert portions of the 36th have thousands of Native residents who are potential voters, and reminding them that the Democratic candidate is willing to commit to supporting them -- while at the same time implying that the Republican candidate finds them "un-American" -- may well backfire on Bono Mack come election day.
And as regards Latino voters, who make up 40% of the district, the news may well galvanize them. Ruiz's biography, which the campaign has been pushing quietly but steadily, is the stuff of which legends are made: a child of farm laborers, he went door to door in Coachella in 1990 to raise money for his schooling, promising his neighbors that he would go to medical school, then come back and work in the Valley as a physician. He made good on his promise, becoming an emergency room surgeon in Palm Desert, and before announcing his candidacy campaigning for increased access to health care in the chronically underserved east Valley.
The legacy of Cesar Chavez looms large over Ruiz's career and campaign, in other words, and an arrest, later tossed out, on misdemeanor charges for protesting an historic injustice in his mid-20s is unlikely to deter many Ruiz supporters. Those supporters seem to be responding to the news with a shrug, in fact. Indio resident Bob Frantz, asked his reaction to the news by the Desert Sun yesterday, said it confirmed his sense of Ruiz's commitment. "He stands for people's rights."
Bono Mack's would-be political bombshell isn't the only damp squib in the contest's recent days. In September a number of liberal-leaning websites crowed that Bono Mack had released a campaign ad, entitled "Effective," that boasted of the incumbent's success in renaming a Palm Desert post office. "That's the sort of 'accomplishment' that has become synonymous with Congress' dysfunction in the mind of voters," snarked John Stanton at Buzzfeed.
The ad does not actually mention the post office renaming, which is included in the ad merely as one in a scrolling list of bills Bono Mack had gotten passed. The "post office" charge was repeated on a number of Democratic websites, then passed from the spotlight. Ironically, the first bill Bono Mack's ad actually mentions -- H.R. 2715 -- might have provided more grist for the political mill, as it allowed retailers to sell certain children's toys with more than the legal limit of lead.
In all likelihood, the Thanksgiving Day protest photo was released in an attempt to defuse a politically toxic 2006 email sent by Bono Mack to a local radio show host, in which the incumbent applauded a radio talk show host's description of the city of Coachella -- which Bono Mack represents -- as a "Third World toilet." In the email to commentator Gary Stone, which the Ruiz campaign found and shared with journalists in September, Bono Mack said:
Thank you!!!! I heard some of your remarks with the councliman from Coachella. You were great!!!!!! Unbelievably great!!! Third World Toilet? That was too funny. ... You rock and are so damn funny and smart! Hey, how come you don't send me poems and Shakdespeare anymore? I miss that!
Bono Mack's campaign staff responded to the revelation by saying that Bono Mack recognized her 2006 comments were "inappropriate," and that the "third world toilet" comment was actually intended to refer to Mecca's notorious Duroville trailer park rather than to Coachella.
The candidates will face off in a televised debate Friday, and issues like marriage rights and Medicare will likely find greater prominence there than attack ads. But we'll see.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.