Candidate Challenged on Letter

Times Staff Writer

An illegible scribble on an endorsement letter has become the first controversy in what is expected to be a hotly contested Assembly race in San Bernardino County.

Candidate Joe Baca Jr. -- the son of Rep. Joe Baca -- says the signature represents an endorsement from former President Clinton. But a Clinton spokeswoman insists he has given no such backing.

"President Clinton has not endorsed anyone in this race," Tammy Sun said.

The denial drew the ire of Rep. Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino), who said he was the one who handed Clinton the endorsement letter at a national Democratic party fundraiser in October and saw the 42nd president sign it.

"That is the president's signature," Baca said.

Baca Jr., a substitute teacher, is vying to represent the 62nd Assembly District, a seat being vacated by Assemblyman John Longville (D-Rialto), who is being forced out by term limits.

The other candidates are David Roa Pruitt, the former chief of staff for San Bernardino Mayor Judith Valles; Walter Hawkins, a Democrat and member of the Rialto school board; and Marge Mendoza-Ware, a Republican and member of the Colton school board. The primary is March 2.

Pruitt leads the fundraising race, having taken in about $226,000, followed by Baca, who raised nearly $194,000, according to campaign finance records.

The 62nd Assembly District is a working-class area that includes Colton, Rialto, San Bernardino and Bloomington. Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 54% to 30%.

Baca Jr.'s campaign has included Clinton's name at the top of a two-page endorsement list that has been distributed at campaign functions, fundraisers and debates.

The endorsement controversy centers on a half-page form letter that is used to accept endorsements or contributions.

It begins with the words "Yes, I will help elect Joe Baca Jr.!" The purported signature of Clinton is below a checked box that declares "You may use my name publicly as someone who supports Joe Baca Jr." It is dated Oct. 27, 2003.

The Times sent a copy of the signed document to Clinton's New York office, asking for verification.

Clinton's spokeswoman responded Monday with an e-mail that said simply: "President Clinton absolutely has not endorsed anyone in this primary."

Although he is out of office, Clinton continues to appear at numerous Democratic fundraisers and political events.

In 2001, Clinton delivered about 60 speeches, traveling throughout the world, fetching as much as $350,000 per appearance, according to financial disclosures. Whatever the case in the endorsement, political analysts say the controversy could play a role in the campaign, particularly if voters don't look beyond the endorsement lists.

"If voters are relatively unfamiliar with both candidates, then the endorsement from someone they are familiar with could make a difference," said Martin Kaplan, director of USC's Norman Lear Center, which studies the intersection of politics and entertainment.

Voters in the district can expect to hear more about the endorsement controversy as the campaign gears up for the primary election.

A campaign spokesman for Pruitt said his campaign is likely to hammer Baca Jr. on the endorsement controversy.

"It raises a credibility issue," said Pruitt's campaign manager, Andrew Acosta.

The senior Baca has also been accused of misleading voters about endorsements.

When Baca was a candidate for the Assembly in 1988, his opponent accused him of sending out a mailer purporting to be an endorsement by U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

But Kennedy denied giving the endorsement and a jury later convicted an aide to Baca of two counts of forgery for fabricating Kennedy's signature.

Baca said he did not know about the Kennedy mailer before it went out.

When Baca ran for Congress in 1999, his opponents accused him again of claiming an endorsement by Clinton that was not legitimate.

Baca was not endorsed by Clinton, and the White House said the photo was used without permission.

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