Some California legislators bring arrest records to their campaigns

SACRAMENTO — It isn’t enough these days for certain state lawmakers to defend their voting records when seeking reelection. Some also have to explain arrest records.

Within the last 20 months, five state legislators and one former state senator with active campaigns have been arrested on suspicion of crimes including drunk driving, perjury, voter fraud, shoplifting and trying to carry a loaded gun through airport security.

Not since the FBI sting known as Shrimpscam, which targeted influence peddling in the Capitol in the 1990s, have so many state lawmakers posed for booking photos in such a short span of time.

“The people responsible for passing our laws should feel themselves under a special obligation to comply with those laws,” said Tracy Westen, chief executive of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit group promoting open government. “Apparently, a number do not.”

The handcuffs have come as the Legislature has struggled to improve its reputation with a skeptical public. Those under a cloud include:

•State Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), who faces eight felony counts, including voter fraud and perjury, for allegedly lying when he said he lived in his Senate district while running for his seat. He has pleaded not guilty. He has two opponents as he runs for reelection in June.

•Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-San Bernardino), who pleaded no contest last month to two misdemeanor charges for attempting to take a loaded pistol onto a commercial airliner at LA/Ontario International Airport. He faces two challengers, including the better-funded mayor of Big Bear Lake.

•Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina), charged Monday with drunk driving following a March 27 arrest while allegedly driving a state vehicle erratically. He has not yet entered a plea. Those running against him this year include a retired police officer.

•Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi (D-Hayward), who pleaded no contest in January to shoplifting clothes worth $2,500 from Neiman Marcus in San Francisco. Hayashi must leave the Assembly this year because of term limits but is raising money for a 2014 campaign for the state Senate.

•Assemblyman Martin Garrick (R-Carlsbad), who pleaded no contest in July 2011 to drunk driving. Garrick is termed out this year but is raising funds for a 2014 Senate bid.

•Former state Sen. Richard Alarcon, charged Thursday with 18 counts alleging that he lied about where he lived and voted fraudulently. Alarcon has pleaded not guilty. A member of the Los Angeles City Council, he is running for the state Assembly against four opponents, including another, better-financed Democrat.

Wright and Alarcon said they hope to be cleared before voters go to the polls in the November general election.

“There is nothing I can do about that,” Wright said of the charges against him. “All I can do is present my record of what I plan to do next year, and people will either accept that or reject that.”

Wright is running against teachers Paul Butterfield, a San Pedro Democrat, and Charlotte A. Svolos, a Torrance Republican. Butterfield said his interest in the contest was sparked by reports of the criminal charges. But neither opposing candidate has reported raising any money.

Meanwhile, Wright has kept his powerful post as chairman of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee and raised $555,000 for his reelection in the past three years.

Hernandez also has the bigger war chest and name as he competes against two others, including retired police officer Joe Gardner, a Republican from Hacienda Heights.

“I think people should expect more from their legislators,” Gardner said. The other contender, Azusa broker/tax preparer Mike Meza, lists no party affiliation.

Hernandez has apologized for his actions, which he called “poor judgment.”

He has held onto his position as assistant majority whip, and Hayashi remains chairwoman of the Assembly’s Business Committee.

Alarcon, who was charged anew by the district attorney this week after a judge tossed out a previous grand jury indictment, faces a better-financed Democratic challenger, Raul Bocanegra of Pacoima. A legislative aide, Bocanegra was convicted in 2002 of drunk driving.

The charge was later expunged, after he attended a driver-safety class. “I deeply regret the mistake I made,” Bocanegra said.

Alarcon predicted Bocanegra would try to make political hay of the councilman’s criminal case but said, “We’re quite confident the voters will see through that and vote for us.”

The contest also features three Republicans: Sylmar businessman Ricardo Benitez, Sylmar retired legal administrator Margie Carranza and Van Nuys parole officer Omar Cuevas.

For Donnelly, who did not return calls from The Times, the gun episode is an issue in his reelection effort. “It’s been a huge embarrassment to responsible gun owners like myself,” said challenger William Jahn, mayor of Big Bear Lake. The other contestant is John Coffey, a Democratic educator from Barstow.

It remains to be seen whether arrests will cost the lawmakers their jobs.

Voters do look at such things as candidates’ legal problems, said Allan Hoffenblum, who analyzes election contests in his nonpartisan California Target Book. But he noted that other elected officials have run afoul of the law and still salvaged their government careers.

Former state Sen. Art Torres, a Democrat from Los Angeles, pleaded no contest to drunk driving in 1987 and 1990 but was later elected to a third term and subsequently headed the state Democratic Party. After state Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield) pleaded no contest to drunk driving in 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to a $128,109-a-year post on the state Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board.

Voters may no longer see their representatives’ troubles as abnormal, said Michael Josephson, founder of an ethics advocacy group in Los Angeles.

“We’re in an era when people are on one hand more cynical and on the other hand more forgiving,” he said. “I guess there is a percentage of voters who are willing to say, ‘This is my guy, good or bad.’”