Before the tempest erupted over Ervin Lent and his two-decade-old family secret, elections were pretty staid affairs for voters in the eastern Sierra's Inyo County.
Political excitement? Sure, there was the incumbent sheriff who was upset by an underling a couple of years back. And a few League of Women Voters' debates have gotten a bit contentious.
But no one can remember anything approaching the controversy triggered this month by an anonymous tipster who called local officials and reporters with a juicy bit of political intrigue: A little-known candidate for Inyo County supervisor had been convicted of felony child abuse 21 years earlier in the death of his month-old son.
Lent--the subject of the tip--began hearing the rumors just a few days before the June 2 election. He awoke on election day to find the bombshell about his past stripped across the top of the Inyo Register's front page, just in time for voters heading to the polls.
"I'm going to have to relive this now," Lent, a 45-year-old educator and first-time political candidate, remembers thinking. "I'm going to have to answer for it."
Negative campaigning and opposition research may be the norm in big-time California politics, but not in Inyo County, a popular pass-through tourist spot for hikers and skiers that has just 18,000 residents. Here, in the vast expanses of the state's second-biggest county, a few thousand dollars in campaign money represents sizable fund-raising.
"In the last 20 or 25 years, this would be the biggest [election] controversy that we've ever had," said Bishop Mayor Bob Kimball. "I can't recall anything like this."
Almost two weeks after the election, the controversy is still "the topic of every kaffeeklatsch in town," said Inyo Register editor Barbara Ferrey-Laughon. Lent's predicament has triggered communitywide soul-searching over an array of questions.
Is a 21-year-old offense, even a serious one, relevant to a political candidacy? Were Lent's detractors guilty of the kind of "dirty politics" more common in Sacramento or Washington than in a remote mountain community that the local mayor likens to Mayberry? Did Lent try to cover up the circumstances surrounding the death of his son, which initially led to first-degree murder charges against him and his wife? Did the media handle the issue responsibly? And who was behind the leak?
Whatever the answers, Lent managed to survive, beating the incumbent by 94 votes out of some 1,400 in his district to become the first Native American supervisor in county history. Many local leaders believe that the disclosure of the child abuse conviction backfired and actually helped Lent, earning him sympathy from voters who appeared disgusted with the hardball tactics.
"I think it registered with some people as a real smear campaign," said John Dailey, general manager for two radio stations in Bishop.
Said resident Pat Willis, who is active in Native American housing issues: "We see this kind of thing on national television. . . . But when you see it happening here in Bishop, you just say, 'Oh my god.' It makes us all sad inside because you hate to see the system fall to that level."
Nevertheless, the frenzy over Lent's election continues, as local reporters scramble for follow-ups, Lent threatens a libel suit and critics question whether a felon can be elected. (He can, county officials have verified, as long as he is not on parole.)
Some 90 miles away in Tulare County, where Lent's son died in 1977, prosecutors are even reviewing the original case to determine, among other things, how Lent appears to have gotten off without serving any of his 270-day sentence in jail.
"I'm sure this will continue till he takes office [in January] and way past then," said Ferrey-Laughon. "He wants to prove he's not a liar and not a bad guy per se, but I think people will continue to wonder what really happened to this baby."
Events From 21 Years Ago
Benjamin Andrew Lent died in April 1977, in Tulare County after what authorities determined was severe subdural hematoma, or bleeding in the brain.
Ervin Lent recalled in a recent interview that he had just returned home from a revival, where he was preaching as a traveling evangelist when his wife noticed that the baby wasn't moving.
"Being a minister, my first reaction was to pray. . . . He responded immediately, and we began to thank the Lord for deliverance," he said. But minutes later, he said, the baby again stopped moving. "It happened so quickly, we don't understand what happened," he said.
Lent said he took Benjamin to the hospital a short time later, but the infant died.
Lent said he still doesn't know how the child died. But police had their suspicions. The next day, they showed up and handcuffed Lent as neighbors looked on. "Here we are, all emotional about our child having just passed away, and the next day we are being arrested for murder," he said.
Authorities suspected that Lent had struck his son, causing the trauma, he said. But the murder charges were later reduced amid "contrary, conflicting evidence" about the baby's injuries, according to case transcripts, and Lent and his wife were convicted by a jury on the lesser charge of felony child abuse.
Evidence focused on the couple's delay in seeking medical help for the injured child. Prosecutors argued that the baby died needlessly as Lent sought to demonstrate his "healing power" by praying for recovery, transcripts from the sentencing show.
Evidence showed "there was suffering by this child. And it was allowed to happen. The child had numerous bruises on its body," the judge said. "And the court does not believe that any person that has eyes to see . . . [could] let these to have gone unnoticed."
The judge ordered Lent jailed for 270 days and his wife incarcerated for 180 days. But they apparently never went to jail, even after the sentence was confirmed on appeal. In the wake of Lent's election, Tulare County prosecutors are trying to figure out how that happened.
Beyond the few days that he and his wife were locked up after their arrests, Lent said, "we never served any jail time, and why it never occurred, I don't know," Lent said. "We didn't run or anything. It just got lost [in the system] I guess."
Picking Up the Pieces
In the years after the baby's death, Lent moved around Northern California with his family, going to college, working in state government in Sacramento and eventually returning in 1995 to his birthplace at the Bishop Paiute Indian reservation in Inyo County.
"I wanted to come home to where I belonged, with the Native Americans," he said.
Lent said he suspects that an anti-Native American bias by "the good old boys' network" in Bishop fueled the controversy over his conviction and his failure to do jail time.
"That would be a very good way for my opponents to get me in jail, and then I couldn't serve as supervisor," he said.
Ironically, it was someone from Lent's own reservation who called the local television station to disclose the candidate's criminal record, threatening his candidacy, according to Susan Hook, regional manager of Weststar Channel 12.
Lent has heard the same thing, and it baffles him. He has had some run-ins in the past with members of the reservation, he said, but "I'm there for the native community."
Whoever generated the original tip set off a scramble among the Bishop media in the days before the June 2 election--along with some hand-wringing over the ethics of printing and broadcasting the story just hours before the vote.
"We went through a lot of 'should we or should we not?' " said Ferrey-Laughon at the Inyo Register. "We knew we could literally just destroy his life."
But the editors at the newspaper, along with the Bishop radio and TV outlets, said they decided that the conviction was clearly a matter of public interest that needed to be aired.
"I don't think anybody would deny that the allegations were serious, and I think it would have been a disservice to release the information a day or two after the election," said Dailey, the radio general manager.
Lent said he considers his conviction irrelevant to his ability to be a county supervisor. "It is really not a legitimate issue when it comes to doing my job--it really has nothing to do with that."
But he said he was willing to talk with Bishop reporters about the child abuse conviction anyway because "my life is an open book."
Lent's explanations, however, only fueled the story because key elements appeared to conflict with the public record, said Hook at Weststar. She said Lent even maintained in an initial, off-camera interview that the baby did not die--a claim Lent denies.
"Our intention is certainly not to try the man again," Hook said. "But we think it's important that people see he's been less than truthful."
Many residents, faced with a political maelstrom rare for their community, are still trying to make up their minds on where they stand, said Mayor Kimball.
On one hand, many people believe they deserve to know about any skeletons--such as a felony conviction--that might reflect on an officeholder's character, Kimball said. At the same time, people don't want to be too harsh in judging Lent until all the facts come out about his son's death, he said.
"I would not be surprised to see Mr. Lent continue on as a supervisor if some of the things he says prove out. I think the community has a large sense of forgiveness, and we'd put it behind us," he said.
One man not so quick to forget is Lent's defeated opponent, Supervisor Bob Michener, who says many residents unfairly assumed he was behind the child abuse "smear" disclosure.
"It's a sad day for Inyo County--not because I lost, but because the public supported a convicted felon. I think we better start looking at our moral standards," Michener said. "I don't think I want people convicted of certain crimes making decisions that impact me."