Battle for state Senate seat in Riverside County turns nasty

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Few of the primary contests that voters will decide Tuesday are as rancorous as the one between two Republicans who once served together in the Legislature.

The fight between John Benoit and Russ Bogh, who once sat a few feet apart in the Assembly and rarely differed on issues, has grown so acrimonious that they are practically accusing one another of criminal acts.

The battle has escalated with a flurry of attack ads aired against Benoit by a group called Desert Taxpayers for Truth, which has not fully revealed its donors or organizers. Benoit, in turn, has filled voters’ mailboxes with brochures that accuse Bogh of using his office to help his family business.

The men are vying to fill a state Senate seat held by Jim Battin (R-La Quinta), who will be ousted in December by term limits. The primary election winner is practically guaranteed a seat in November because Republican voters dominate the 37th Senate District, which covers half of Riverside County.

“They both want the job so badly they’re willing to be nasty trying to get it,” said David Peters, 41, an algebra teacher and school board member from Hemet who is the third Republican in the race. He advocates laws to increase disclosures to home buyers about their financial obligations.

Bogh, 38, served six years in the Assembly but was forced by term limits to leave in 2006. He once directed the Inland Empire office for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and now works as a vice president for his family’s business, Bogh Construction.

Benoit, 56, worked for more than three decades in law enforcement and retired in 2000 as a California Highway Patrol captain. His Assembly term will end in December.

Arthur Bravo Guerrero, a computer systems analyst, is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

With the two candidates in agreement on most major issues, Benoit’s tenure in law enforcement has become a key element of their dispute.

Bogh criticized what he called Benoit’s “hypocrisy” in voting against a 2005 bill that aimed to make it easier for public safety employees to qualify for workers’ compensation payments for diseases, including cancer.

Bogh noted that Benoit had retired on a disability pension because of skin cancer on an ear.

“He’s recklessly using” disability benefits, Bogh said. “He clearly doesn’t have skin cancer that prevents him from working. He’s just abusing the system.”

Benoit counters that in 2000, his Highway Patrol bosses ordered him to retire rather than return to work after his skin cancer treatment.

Last month, Desert Taxpayers for Truth began airing television ads in the district that accused Benoit of playing in the annual legislators’ softball game at the same time that he was “suing California, claiming he was too disabled to work.

Benoit said that although he initially sought workers’ compensation for hearing loss and knee injuries, he later dropped those claims and won compensation only for the skin cancer, which was presumed to be work-related.

“No one caught me playing anything,” Benoit said. “I wasn’t hiding anything.”

Bogh said he does not know who is behind the ad or the Desert Taxpayers for Truth website, which claims to be registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a “social welfare organization.”

IRS spokesman Jesse Weller said the group has received no such recognition.

Such groups are not required by federal law to publicly disclose donors, but California law requires groups that broadcast ads mentioning candidates to report campaign expenditures made within 45 days of an election.

Last week the group reported to the secretary of state that it spent $118,000 on television ads about Benoit. The group also reported receiving $75,000 in donations from storage business owner Jay Rentz, Assemblyman George Plescia (R-San Diego) and another group called New Faces California. State officials said Thursday that they knew nothing about New Faces California.

Unlike many Republicans, Bogh has been a strong supporter of proposals to increase the salaries and pensions of police officers and firefighters. In 2006, Bogh argued forcefully for a bill that would have required the state to pay its firefighters based on the average wages given in other fire departments. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, vetoed the bill.

“My general philosophy is,” Bogh said, “it’s government’s responsibility to protect the public. And so I think money should go first to police and firefighters.”

Benoit said that with his law enforcement background, “it’s not easy” to vote against bills to sweeten benefits and salaries for public safety officials, “but it’s something a responsible conservative Republican lawmaker does.”

A mail brochure produced by the Benoit campaign accuses Bogh of using his post as assemblyman to help his family business land millions of dollars in construction contracts. It lists several ways Bogh sought to increase funding for the Beaumont Unified School District in the last several years, including testifying before the State Allocation Board, campaigning for a local school bond and carrying legislation to allow the district to sell surplus property.

Since 2005, Bogh Construction has won $32 million in school construction contracts from the district.

Bogh called the mailer “slanderous” and said: “When I was in the Legislature I had no ties to my family company.”

Benoit argues that his maturity would serve the district better than Bogh’s firebrand style. He said he has worked to maintain relationships with the Assembly’s majority Democrats, which has helped get tougher penalties for street racing signed into law.

“Russ has a tendency to stand up on the floor, call them all names and throw the mike down,” said Benoit.

Bogh said he is a leader, “not really the go-along-to-get-along kind of guy.”

He served as Republican caucus chairman during his Assembly tenure and helped create a caucus for legislators representing the Inland Empire.

Special interests acting to influence voters for or against Benoit and Bogh have thrown more money at this race than any other Senate Republican primary contest. More than $805,000 has been spent by groups that include public safety unions, dentists, a Temecula developer and construction-worker unions. By law, such “independent expenditure” campaigns must be run with no input from the candidate.