Smearing a generation
Rookie candidate Emanuel Pleitez was written off early in his unsuccessful race for the 32nd Congressional District seat.
Still, the 26-year-old knocked on voters’ doors every day, tapped an online network for donations and fielded a passionate corps of volunteers who didn’t mind working 16-hour days, crashing on sofas and surviving on homemade tortas.
That’s the upside of being a young candidate: the energy, the idealism, the ability to manipulate giant social networks to spread your message.
The downside is your Facebook page.
With so much on the ballot to consider, Pleitez probably wouldn’t have registered a blip on the radar if not for the Facebook flap.
The campaign against him took an ugly turn when opponent Gil Cedillo -- a veteran state senator who also wound up losing -- used photos from Pleitez’s Facebook page in attack mailers intended to undercut the candidate’s clean-cut image.
One mailer asked in English and Spanish, “Should this man represent you in the House of Representatives or in ‘Animal House’?”
The photo underneath featured a group of young people, Pleitez in the rear, his face circled in red.
Like the other two guys, he is smiling and wearing a tie. The young women are wearing skirts, suits, sweaters. Some are mugging playfully for the camera.
All seven of the women are black. And one of them is my oldest daughter.
“You won’t believe this,” she said one evening last week, carrying her laptop into the kitchen to show me the fliers. “I’m in somebody’s campaign ad.”
Other snapshots showed Pleitez dancing, hoisting a drink, lounging with a guy in a baseball cap, hugging a procession of young white women.
“Lots of women, hard liquor, dancing on the table and all night partying,” the mailer said. ". . . Even nerdy guys want to be cool.” “PARTY ANIMAL” had been scrawled across one picture. Other photos showed Pleitez “flashing gang signs,” the mailer said.
The ad was supposed to frighten Pleitez supporters into Cedillo’s camp, and it did scare off some voters.
But others saw it as a desperate attempt to tarnish not only Pleitez, but also the hard-working young people associated with him.
The “Animal House” photo that includes my daughter was taken at a gathering of Stanford students during their study abroad semester in Santiago, Chile. Some of those young women are now in law school or working on PhDs. Others are teachers, nurses, directors of nonprofit groups. Hardly the stuff of “Girls Gone Wild.”
The guy pictured making a V sign with his fingers and wearing a hoodie and baseball cap? A USC student who mentors East Los Angeles youngsters and is “a rising star in the community,” Pleitez told me.
“We’re throwing up the peace sign,” Pleitez said Thursday of their hand signals, frustration evident in a voice still soaked in disappointment from his third-place finish.
“To try to say that I’m romanticizing gangs, to try to make college students look like thugs. . . . They tried to find pictures with white and African American women, and only mailed them to Latino households.”
“I expected to be hit at some point,” he said, “but I didn’t expect it to be as blatant as that.”
Millennial Generation meet Geezer Politics.
Cedillo saw nothing wrong with ads “intended to show voters that Mr. Pleitez lacks not only the experience to be a member of Congress, but also the maturity,” a campaign statement said.
But young voters lit into the tactic on political blogs, pointing out that the so-called gang sign in one photo is the symbol of Voto Latino, a national voter outreach program.
And the woman pictured making a V with her fingers alongside Pleitez is Rosario Dawson, who starred with Will Smith in “Seven Pounds” last fall. Either Cedillo didn’t recognize the popular young Latina or thought she was throwing a gang sign as well.
That made Cedillo look foolish. But it also put young activists on notice.
“This is an embarrassing ad,” one poster wrote on the Calitics political blog. “Everyone in the Facebook generation has photos like this. Will every Young Dem that decides to get into politics have to deal with this kind of garbage?”
On Tuesday night, Pleitez’s headquarters was packed with dozens of young volunteers. The only party animal I saw was his 58-year-old mother, Isabel Bravo, trying to impose a celebratory mood.
“I am so proud of Emanuel,” she told me. And ashamed of the political machine’s low-brow efforts to smear her son.
Cedillo ought to be ashamed as well. Pleitez is the kind of role model every neighborhood needs. He grew up in East Los Angeles, the son of an immigrant single mother so poor the family lived in garages and he slept on the floor.
Yet he became a sports star and honor student at Wilson High and earned a scholarship to Stanford, a job at Goldman Sachs and a spot on Barack Obama’s transition team. And he is being ridiculed for dancing at parties and having diverse friends?
His volunteers aren’t wasting time fretting over the blow. Did they learn a lesson? Maybe. Before you throw your hat in the ring, let Grandma scour your Facebook page.
But they have a lesson to teach as well. Many cut their teeth campaigning for Obama, who was also too young and inexperienced -- not to mention too dark -- according to conventional wisdom not so long ago.
“We’re not waiting for someone to pass us the torch of leadership,” said George Bahamondes, 22, a USC finance grad who left a job on Wall Street to join Pleitez’s campaign. “The era of getting to know the guy so he can tap you on the shoulder when it’s your turn is over.”
As Bahamondes talked, he looked around at high school students too young to vote “who came every single day to knock on doors” for Pleitez.
“Regardless of what the result is tonight,” Bahamondes told me Tuesday, “we’ve engaged this community in a way they’ve never seen before.”
And there’s no going back. So join them, or move over.