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Coachella Valley Congress Race Turns Nasty

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Mary Bono Mack and Raul Ruiz square off during their only televised debate October 12 | Screen capture via C-SPAN

The race for California's 36th Congressional District took an ugly turn late last week, as the Republican incumbent accused her challenger of harboring "far-left," anti-American sentiments in a debate on Friday, October 12. The debate, sponsored by Coachella Valley media outlets The Desert Sun and KMIR TV, pitted incumbent Mary Bono Mack against Democratic challenger Raul Ruiz, and from Bono Mack's introductory statement until the end much of her participation centered on a protest the middle-aged emergency room physician had attended while in college.

The first minute and a half of Bono Mack's statement set the tone for the rest of the debate:

Tonight I really wanted to talk to all of you about the economy, national security health care and energy. Real issues that affect real people. And hopefully, during the rest of this evening, I can. But first I must tell you what I recently learned about my opponent. Information that he has clearly tried to hide and the local press has never investigated. Everything I tell you now is documented fact, and it's awful. When Doctor Ruiz was a student at Harvard, he led protests against the celebration of Thanksgiving. No joke. He led protests against Thanksgiving Day. Because he opposes what Thanksgiving stands for and what it represents spread he even called for smashing Plymouth Rock, a symbol of America's freedom. He said and I quote "crush this rock and all that it represents." What it represents, Doctor Ruiz, is the hopes and dreams of people fleeing from tyranny and seeking freedom.

Ruiz responded in kind:

Congresswoman, my mother makes a wonderful Thanksgiving turkey and I would love to invite you this year to our Thanksgiving celebration this year. You see, what's shameful, Congresswoman Bono Mack, is that you are calling me Anti-American for celebrating our Native American heritage, for giving voice to our Native American cultural roots and the first Americans so that their voice can be a part of our American story.

At issue was Ruiz's arrest on disorderly conduct charges at a 1997 Thanksgiving Day demonstration in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Ruiz was one of 25 arrested at the protest. The misdemeanor charges against all 25 were dropped. United American Indians of New England (UAINE), the group that organized the protest, reached a court settlement with the City of Plymouth in which the city agreed to drop all charges, incorporate the group's point of view in interpretive materials near Plymouth Rock and the city's Thanksgiving Day celebrations, and allow Native people to hold a Thanksgiving Day "Day of Mourning" without a permit. Amusingly, a UAINE press release marking the settlement said, in part,

We note that the United States government made -- and then broke -- more than 350 treaties with Native nations. We sincerely hope that Plymouth will not follow that example, and that it will honor its commitments in this agreement. For our part, United American Indians of New England will follow the example of our ancestors. We will honor our commitments.

Ruiz said during the debate that his arrest resulted from his attempt to keep Penobscot elder Sam Sapiel from being beaten by police.

Bono Mack also noted that UAINE is an advocate of Native cause celebre Leonard Peltier, imprisoned since his 1977 conviction on charges of killing two FBI agents during the 1975 armed conflict on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The representative charged during the debate that Ruiz's attendance at the UAINE protest indicates his support for Peltier, as well as Mumia Abu Jamal, another activist serving time after conviction on murder charges involving police officers.

Ruiz denies supporting Peltier or Abu Jamal, and said during the debate that cop-killers should be "convicted to the fullest extent of the law." As someone who has been involved in a peripheral way with grassroots Native rights causes for a few decades, I've observed that support for Peltier is one of perhaps three ways in which Native activists are nearly unanimous. It's difficult to find any Native protest at which there isn't at least one "Free Leonard Peltier" T-shirt in evidence. By Bono Mack's logic, then, everyone who's ever attended such a demonstration or vigil -- including, in my personal experience, a number of law enforcement officers -- supports cop-killers.

That was how the debate started, and the remander of it was frustratingly short on substance, with Bono Mack returning time and again to the Anti-Americanism charges, and Ruiz using every question as an opportunity to refer to Congressional gridlock and his opponent's alleged ineffectiveness.

Each candidate drew blood on a substantive topic once.

Ruiz's best line came when Desert Sun reporter Erica Felci asked Bono Mack whether she felt marriage equality should be banned at either the Federal or state level. Bono Mack responded:

It is critical for people to realize a vote for Doctor Ruiz is a vote for Nancy Pelosi.

She then berated Felci for asking the same question on several previous occasions, and went on to discuss her support for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, her family (which includes her stepson, Transgender activist Chaz Bono), her asking Marines at the Twentynine Palms base whether there had been a problem since the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and the Marines telling her saying there hadn't been, and -- belatedly -- a mention of her vote against a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Ruiz's response:

Congresswoman Bono Mack has gone Washington. In fact, she thinks she's here with Nancy Pelosi.... This is another example of failed leadership. You see she dodged the question. She must be really good at dodge ball. That was a really good dodge.

Ruiz added that he supports marriage equality without reservation.

For his part, Ruiz utterly whiffed on a question on the beleaguered Salton Sea, and whether the Federal government ought to "seize control" of the Sea's restoration. Ruiz launched into a disjointed response starting with memories of fishing on the Sea with his father, metaphorically tying the Sea's current state with the "stink" of broken promises from Washington, and blaming Bono Mack for 14 years of doing nothing to save the Sea. Government inaction can be justifiably blamed for the Sea's bleak prospects, but the government at issue is based in Sacramento, not Washington.

Bono Mack's response, as wonkishly epic a zinger as I have ever heard from a California Representative:

You haven't even had a plan for the Sea until now that it's been asked of you. Clearly you don't understand the complexities of the Sea. I would love to know what your thoughts are on the Quantification Settlement Agreement. How do we unravel that Quantification Settlement Agreement? How do we take control from the State of California? This is what it's all about, Dr. Ruiz.

Bono Mack went on to talk about her efforts working with Senator Dianne Feinstein and former State Senator Denise Ducheny to get discussion rolling on the Sea, including recent calls for Congressional hearings on the issue.

Candidate Ruiz was obviously ill-prepared for the question, which constituted his worst blunder in the debate. Bono Mack's commitment to the Salton Sea -- one of her late husband's favorite places -- is undeniable, and this was an issue on which Ruiz might have scored points, and reinforced his nice-guy campaign persona, by recognizing her work. Instead, he stumbled into a buzz-saw: an inexcusable lack of preparation on the part of his staff, especially considering the fact that the Sea's continuing degradation made global headlines only a month ago.

Other topics -- Medicare, the attacks in Libya, immigration -- came up and were dismissed, all of them filtered through a discussion of Ruiz's alleged Anti-Americanism and Bono Mack's alleged ineffectiveness. There could have been substantive discussions -- the candidates seemed remarkably close on a number of issues. But the well was poisoned at the outset.

In the wake of the debate, each candidate has claimed victory. This isn't surprising, given that each campaign has recently released polls that indicate its candidate holds the lead.

If the usually conservative comments section of the Desert Sun is any indication, however, Bono Mack may be in serious trouble. After the debate, comments on the Desert Sun's coverage ran heavily against Bono Mack. The redrawn 36th Congressional District is less reliably conservative than the 45th in which Bono Mack won last time around, and even some conservatives resent Bono Mack's perceived inattention to the district.

Now she's facing a Latino challenger likely to win support in that 25% or so of her electorate. His strong stand on Medicare will likely draw support from the district's retirees, who might otherwise vote more conservatively. He's outspoken in favor of marriage equality, which may undercut the tepid support Bono Mack has long enjoyed among the Coachella Valley's LGBT community, probably best summed up as "secretly, she doesn't hate us." These advantages may have contributed to Ruiz's fundraising success: his campaign has outstripped Bono Mack's in recent weeks.

And with this debate, her campaign has apparently decided to gamble that riling her far-right supporters -- many of whom don't think much of her LGBT-friendliness or her house in Florida -- will bring her more votes than she'll lose by alienating the Valley's considerable Native community, or anyone who's ever attended a demonstration.

At this point, it doesn't look like a good gamble. But however November 6 goes for Bono Mack, at least she's got a dinner invitation for November 22.

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.

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