Racy words and slugfest in the desert

Times Staff Writer

The state lawmaker who Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said had a “hot” Latina temperament, landing him in hot political water, won points with conservative voters recently when she graciously dismissed the incident.

But less than a week before Tuesday’s election, Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City) is in danger of losing her seat, some political analysts say, and she has only herself to blame.

Garcia, who has made a few questionable comments of her own, caused a political ruckus last month when she answered a casual question in a classroom of La Quinta High School seniors by saying she wouldn’t kick the governor out of her bed.


She apologized days later, but in a desert district where Republican voters tend to be older and more conservative, the comment may not help her reelection efforts.

“Up until a couple of weeks ago, I would’ve said she had the edge and would win on name recognition alone. But then she had that remark,” said Bill Gudelunas, professor of American politics at College of the Desert, in Palm Desert.

Garcia’s opponent, former Democratic Assemblyman Steve Clute, has tried to capitalize on the gaffe, running TV ads that tried to link her racy remark about the governor to the House page scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Florida).

Democrats are eager to recapture the seat from Garcia, who has twice won despite the district’s Democratic majority, and have flooded Clute’s campaign with last-minute cash.

After trailing Garcia in fundraising through most of the race, Clute in October overtook the incumbent, raising $1.2 million as of last week, state elections records show. The bulk of the contributions came last month, from the Democratic State Central Committee and other Democratic candidates’ committees.

Garcia has matched Clute in campaign spending and raised $990,000, according to the most recent figures from the California secretary of state.


The fast-growing 80th Assembly District covers eastern Riverside County, including Indio and La Quinta, and all of Imperial County.

The political agendas of the candidates share a few similarities. Both agree that the region needs to nurture a more technology-savvy workforce by expanding high school students’ access to college and vocational training.

Making healthcare more accessible is also a common goal. Garcia wants it in the form of greater community outreach and public awareness, Clute through a bond measure that would pay for a new county hospital in the Coachella Valley.

Clute, 57, a former Navy pilot and director of the nonprofit Children’s Spine Foundation, represented part of eastern Riverside County in the Assembly from 1982 to 1992. He brought the first veterans home to Southern California, in Barstow, and thinks the district would be a good place for another. He also wrote a bill that was signed into law closing a gap in asset seizure laws, allowing law enforcement to seize assets belonging not only to drug dealers but also to those who make the drugs.

Soft-spoken and low-key, Clute bills himself as a refreshing contrast to Garcia and what he calls her hunger for publicity.

“I think the incumbent gets a little wrapped up in self-promotion over serving constituents’ needs,” he said.

Clute agreed that Garcia’s friendship with the governor was important for the district, but he criticized her for ignoring the one thing that matters most about the relationship.

“Is it professional, and does it deliver and work for the district?” he said. “She seems off on a tangent and thinks that it’s somehow social.”

Garcia, meanwhile, calls Clute a career politician shopping for a district to represent. She said he’s running in a district where he doesn’t live. A Clute campaign spokesman said that although for years the candidate’s primary residence has been his Palm Desert home, he is now a legal resident of the 80th District. Palm Desert is part of a different district.

“There is no community connection with him. He can’t raise money here, he can’t get volunteers to walk for him here,” Garcia said. “I think people see this outsider who is trying to buy a seat.”

Garcia said she didn’t think the race is close. Voters will pick her because they know her face, she said. She still works with a food bank and community shelters. When Spanish-speaking residents of her district see her around town, they call her La Bonnie, she said proudly.

Since taking office in 2002, Garcia helped secure $6 million for regional law enforcement teams to track sex offenders and wrote a bill the governor signed giving more protections to domestic abuse victims.

She strongly supports exploring alternative energy sources, co-writing a bill signed into law giving homeowners and businesses incentives to install solar panels.

“I am front and center every day,” Garcia said. “They know with me it’s all about working hard and speaking my mind.”