O.C. Candidates Duke It Out Via Late 'Hit Pieces'

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Voters beware. There are only two days left before Tuesday's primary election.

And if the last week has been any indication, voters are being bombarded with last-minute "hit pieces," telephone calls and door-knocking volunteers delivering optimistic messages for campaigns that, in many cases, have been mostly negative.

Even the Orange County Republican Party was complaining by week's end of being a victim of two bogus mailers from groups claiming to be affiliated with the party but endorsing some Democratic candidates.

In a final pre-election push, the candidates are focusing on several themes: illegal immigration, fear of crime, use of special interest campaign money, and alleged political corruption, all the while launching personal attacks against their opponents.

Orange County, long known for its staunch conservatism, has picked up the distinction this year as the host of one of the nastiest June primary races: the three-way Republican matchup in the 70th Assembly District, where Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) is stepping down to run for the state Senate. California Political Week, a newsletter, labeled this election battle "the hottest and perhaps most negative GOP primary in this election cycle. . . . "

But the negative campaigning has not been limited to that race.

In the Republican battle for the 69th Assembly District in central Orange County, candidate Virgel L. Nickell sent out a mailer Friday in response to an anonymous hit piece that was distributed in the district last week and contained copies of Orange County and Colorado court records alleging that Nickell had not paid child support to his former wife and that she had applied for welfare.

Nickell said in an interview Friday that he had never seen the records until they landed on his doorstep. He denied the allegation, saying his financial support for his family went beyond what was required.

The Nickell campaign went on the counteroffensive, mailing out to voters a letter signed by his current wife, Beverly. She stated in the mailer that her husband has "always provided for all of the children in the family. . . . It's a shame that some candidates are willing to make untrue statements to try to win an election."

Distribution of the court documents threatened the endorsement Nickell had received from the California Republican Assembly, a conservative organization that stresses "family values."

At first alarmed by the documents, the group quickly undertook its own investigation but found no record of a final court judgment against Nickell. After confronting the candidate, CRA state President Greg Hardcastle said the group could not determine whether the allegations were true and took no action.

"If someone is going to (spread the allegations) they should also have the guts to put their name on it," Hardcastle said.

The other front-runner in the race, Anaheim businessman Jim Morrissey, was not behind the effort to discredit Nickell, said Mark Thompson, Morrissey's campaign consultant. However, after hearing that the CRA was looking into the matter, Thompson said, he went to the Orange County courthouse to review Nickell's court file. The campaign, he said, decided not to distribute any information found in the documents.

Thompson said the reason there was no final judgment against Nickell was because Nickell's ex-wife moved to another state.

The mere threat of a last-minute hit piece in the race for retiring County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder's 2nd District seat was cause for alarm among some of the candidates in a battle that has had more than its share of eleventh-hour campaign mailers.

Word spread on Friday that Supervisor Roger R. Stanton was burning the telephone lines, trying to raise money for Huntington Beach Councilman Jim Silva, so that a last-minute mailer could be sent out. But Silva, who ended up loaning his campaign $30,000, said the money was needed to pay for material already sent out.

Voters in that supervisorial district already have received a wide array of hit pieces, including:

* A mailer titled "How to Steal an Election," sent by Huntington Beach Mayor Linda Moulton Patterson, claims that Silva and a third candidate, Haydee V. Tillotson, are the "handpicked" candidates of the Koll Real Estate Group, even though Moulton Patterson also was a past recipient of contributions from the company and its top executives.

* A "Taxpayer Scorecard" by Tillotson, which gives Silva and Moulton Patterson "Fs" based on their votes as council members. Tillotson, who has never held elected office, gave herself an "A" because she is a businesswoman and opposes taxes.

* Silva's mailer, which highlights Moulton Patterson's affiliation with the Democratic Party, even though this is a nonpartisan race, and Tillotson's ties to Wieder, who has been at odds with Orange County conservatives and broke with Republicans to support President Clinton's election in 1992.

* A mailer by John A. Thomas, a fourth candidate in the race, which criticizes Silva, Tillotson and Moulton Patterson for "fighting over thousands of special interest dollars."

In the 70th Assembly District, the three Republicans seeking their party's nomination have proved their ability to dig into the pasts of their opponents. With little disagreement among the candidates on the issues, the campaigns focused on opponents' pasts to draw some distinctions.

At one point, candidate Marilyn C. Brewer, a businesswoman, told a small group gathered for a candidates' forum that she had been warned that her opponents in the race might try to get some dirt about her from her high school sweetheart.

Luckily for her, she told the Irvine audience, she married her high school sweetheart.

Brewer said she has had to fight back charges that she was once a Democrat. In recent days, stickers with the word "liberal" have been glued on to some of her campaign signs in the district.

While Brewer defended herself, she also went on the offensive, claiming in a recent mailer that she is the only Republican in the race who has vowed not to accept a 37% pay raise recently approved for state legislators. That claim resulted last week in an admonishment from the Orange County GOP's ethics committee, since candidate Thomas G. Reinecke has pledged to donate the pay raise to charity.

Saturday, Reinecke held a news conference to complain that new Brewer mailers claiming he would take the pay raise had arrived in mailboxes, days after the admonishment. The mailers show Brewer is "thumbing her nose at the Republican Party ethics committee," his campaign spokesman said Saturday.

Brewer countered that her mail was prepared before the Tuesday ethics committee hearing, and was dropped before the committee reached a decision. But she maintains that Reinecke would in fact have to "take" the pay raise before he could donate it to charity, and said there's no guarantee that he would in fact give it away.

Brewer also accused the third candidate in the race, Irvine Councilman Barry J. Hammond, of voting to increase municipal fees "by millions of dollars."

Reinecke, meanwhile, has spent several weeks questioning Brewer's conservative credentials, while also calling attention to Hammond's personal bankruptcy and other financial difficulties.

Hammond this weekend mailed out a response to those and other charges, and attacked Reinecke and Brewer for the "ugly" attacks against him.

If Reinecke wins the election, he will have survived a weeks-long whisper campaign against him, accusing him of being sued for non-payment of his former girlfriend's supposed abortion. Reinecke confronted the issue early in the campaign and denied it, showing that the lawsuit was filed mistakenly by a doctor he had seen for a knee injury.

Confused?

Angry might be a better word to describe Orange County Republican Party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes' reaction after seeing two mailers that claimed to be from Republican-based groups but included endorsements for several Democrats.

"The Republican Party does not endorse in the primary, and never endorses Democrats," Fuentes said in a statement. "I don't know how I can say it any more clearly."

Times staff writer Kevin Johnson contributed to this report.

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