“Xavier Becerra . . . in the News” reads a cheery handmade sign that hangs prominently over an assortment of newspaper clippings tacked to the wall in the congressman’s mayoral campaign headquarters.
Conspicuously absent from the collection are the recent news stories about local politicians who took up the cause of a Los Angeles man convicted on drug charges.
These are not the stories that Becerra wants dominating the news just as the mayor’s race is beginning to capture public attention.
Recent reports that he and mayoral opponent Antonio Villaraigosa, along with other area leaders, wrote letters on behalf of a drug trafficker whose sentence was commuted by former President Bill Clinton have sent both candidates scrambling to contain the damage.
For Becerra, the controversy has tested a campaign that many analysts say is struggling to keep up with those of the other top five mayoral hopefuls.
Carlos Vignali walked out of prison Jan. 20 after serving six years of a 15-year sentence for participating in a major cocaine ring.
Vignali’s father, Horacio, a major political donor, persuaded various public figures--including Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, county Supervisor Gloria Molina, former Rep. Esteban Torres, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and state Sen. Richard Polanco--to write letters to the White House on his son’s behalf.
Becerra, one of the last officials to add his voice to those seeking an evaluation of the younger Vignali’s case, spent last week repeatedly defending his actions in newspaper, TV and radio interviews, worried that the perception that he had pulled strings for a donor could taint his clean-cut image.
Villaraigosa tried quickly to distance himself from the story, apologizing last week for writing a letter for Vignali in 1996.
But even as his campaign gained steam last week--winning the endorsement of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the support of other key Democratic groups--he was forced to field questions about his involvement with the case.
The former Assembly speaker’s relationship with Horacio Vignali could provide ammunition for his opponents if the race gets nasty, analysts said.
The candidates’ actions also drew criticism from African American leaders and parents of drug offenders, who complained that the officials had done a favor for a well-connected donor.
“If they are going to fight for the rights of one drug offender,” Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the National Alliance for Positive Action, said in a news conference Thursday, “then they need to be prepared to do the same thing for other drug offenders.”
Both Becerra and Villaraigosa have said that they were moved by Horacio Vignali’s passionate pleas to help his son, adding that the parking lot owner’s donations to their campaigns did not sway them.
Over the years, Vignali donated $2,795 to Villaraigosa, $2,475 to Becerra, and an additional $10,000 to Becerra’s political action committee. Vignali and his family have given $3,500 to Becerra’s mayoral campaign and co-hosted a fund-raiser for him last June.
At Becerra’s storefront headquarters in an Art Deco-style building across from Staples Center, the staff tried to go on with business as usual last week while calls about the Vignali case poured in.
Organizers hunkered down in long meetings, training new field volunteers; advisors planned how to unveil Becerra’s policy proposals in the coming weeks.
“It didn’t bump us,” insisted campaign manager Paige Richardson, who said Becerra did not change his schedule last week to deal with the controversy.
But the press secretary was besieged with inquiries from reporters asking about Becerra’s role.
Loyal staff members were distraught at the prospect that Becerra’s reputation would be sullied. Worried supporters called, wanting to know why the congressman had written a letter on behalf of a convicted drug financier.
“It is having an impact,” grumbled longtime Becerra aide Henry Lozano. “People are talking about it.”
Becerra has maintained that he did nothing wrong, and admitted in an interview Thursday to some anxiety about how the controversy could affect Los Angeles voters who are just getting to know him.
“I’m somehow stuck with getting this guy off,” he said. “That’s what’s frustrating.”
The congressman insists that he was merely seeking a review of the facts of Vignali’s conviction, and never pushed for a presidential commutation, even though he did make a phone call to a White House counsel Jan. 19, in the waning hours of the Clinton administration, to ask about the case. That phone call was merely to get information for a worried Horacio Vignali, he said.
“What I wanted to know was, ‘Can you give him some information?’ ” he said. “If I was going to try to put pressure on, I would have tried to call the president.”
Becerra said he resisted writing a letter on Vignali’s behalf until he learned that Mahony had written one in July 1996. (Mahony said last week that he made a mistake weighing in on the case.)
Even then, Becerra said, he refused to push for presidential clemency as Vignali urged him to do. The congressman eventually wrote to Clinton on Nov. 21, asking him to evaluate the case.
“I thought . . . if Cardinal Mahony has written a letter, I can ask for a review as well,” Becerra said. “I didn’t know whether the guy was innocent, so that’s why I didn’t push for a commutation.”
The controversy comes as Becerra tries to rev up his campaign, which has less money and fewer prominent backers than those of the other five major candidates. Questions about his involvement in the commutation could blemish the reputation of an elected official who some refer to as “the Boy Scout” of politics, analysts said.
Some Call Flap Inconsequential
“The question remains . . . whether people will adjust their image and their understanding of the ‘golden boy,’ ” said David Ayon, a political analyst at Loyola Marymount University who says the Vignali controversy could further dim Becerra’s mayoral hopes. “What this does is make even the idea of a decent showing [on election day] questionable at best.”
However, political consultant Rick Taylor doubts that the case will affect the perception of the candidates because voters already assume that politicians do favors for donors.
“This is such inside baseball that voters won’t remember or know or care about it when April 10 rolls around,” said Taylor, who is not working for any mayoral campaign.
Villaraigosa’s role in the case dates back five years and appears to pose a lesser threat to his candidacy, which enjoys growing support from a wide swath of backers.
“It’s very possible that our opponents will try to resurrect it at some point,” acknowledged consultant Parke Skelton. “But people will look at how Antonio dealt with the problem. He was very forthright and did the honorable thing.”
In an interview last week, Villaraigosa said he wrote one letter for Vignali in 1996 to the judge overseeing the appeal of the case, asking him to review the issue. He insisted that he never wrote to the White House.
“I wrote that letter without talking to prosecutors on the other end,” Villaraigosa said. “I shouldn’t have done that. I went with my heart as a father, and not with my head.”
However, the letter the former Assembly speaker wrote May 24, 1996, was addressed to the pardon secretary at the White House, and in it Villaraigosa stated that Vignali had been wrongly convicted.
“After reviewing Mr. Vignali’s case, I am convinced that he has been falsely linked to a drug ring . . . and that his conviction is a product of ‘guilt by association,’ ” Villaraigosa wrote.
Later, Villaraigosa said he had not reviewed the letter before speaking to a reporter. He said he incorrectly recalled details of his correspondence.
Times staff writer Sarah Hale contributed to this story.