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Assembly candidates' divergent pasts provide fodder for mudslinging

Assembly candidates' divergent pasts provide fodder for mudslinging
State Assembly candidate Prophet Walker hugs resident Betty Henderson on a campaign stop at Avalon Courtyard senior living center in Carson. She said he's got her vote. (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles Times)

Their platforms are similar and their party the same, but the candidates' profiles could hardly be more different.

One is a former police officer with a carefully crafted political resume and a campaign backed by business interests and big-name politicians.

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The other is a former prison inmate whose political debut rests on a stirring story of redemption and a campaign bankrolled by Hollywood stars.

With the election for the state Assembly seat they covet just three days away, the door-knocking and mud-slinging are in full swing. But the campaign claims in this race do more than frame the politicians; they erect a philosophical dividing line for voters to consider:

Are residents of this hard-knock district — which stretches from South Los Angeles through Compton and Carson to a sliver of Long Beach — apt to cast their lot with the clean-cut establishment guy or the young fellow who got caught up in the street life and managed to climb out?

Mike Gipson, 46, is the conventionally attractive candidate and presumed front runner. He was born and raised in Watts — in a two-parent family, his campaign literature notes — and entered politics in middle school, when he was elected class president. He grew up to become a police officer in Maywood and is in his third term as a Carson councilman.

"City Councilman. Youth Pastor. Former Peace Officer." That is how Gipson's campaign fliers introduce him to voters.

Prophet Walker, 26, is the street-wise upstart. He was raised by his father, after his drug-addicted mother abandoned him in a Watts housing project. He had a criminal record by the time he was 16 and served five years in the penitentiary for a strong-arm robbery. After his release, he studied engineering at Loyola Marymount University and launched programs that mentor teens and educate prison inmates.

"Ex-con. Education Extremist." That's how Gipson's campaign characterizes Walker. "Casting a vote for Walker is a gamble," the flier says, attributing that assessment to the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

What it doesn't say is that line is lifted from the newspaper's editorial endorsing Walker. "It's worth taking a risk" to vote for him, the editorial said; "hopefully [he] will not just legislate, but also inspire."

And here is what that editorial had to say about Gipson: "He has been on the council for more than a decade, but has few standout victories."

Don't expect to see that assessment on a flier with Gipson's grinning photo.

Gipson's campaign strategy seems to begin and end at "demonize opponent." The flier that landed Friday in voters' mailboxes features a doctored photo that makes Walker appear to be in thug mode, wearing a hoodie and pointing a gun — next to a photo of Gipson, who's no longer a cop, wearing a police uniform.

Even in this heated campaign, that strikes me as an ugly new low.

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I'd planned to rail about negative campaigning here; that's my political pet peeve. But the campaign consultants I talked to convinced me that stance is naive.

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In a race like this, between two Democrats likely to agree on important issues, bashing an opponent's character seems the one clear route to victory.

"This is not the Lincoln-Douglas debates," said veteran campaign strategist Mike Shimpock. "It's the power of the narrative that is shaping this race."

Will voters want to reward the guy who followed the rules, steered around trouble and with single-minded focus laid deep political roots? Or will they gravitate to the young man who knows what it's like to be angry and aimless and has the audacity to wade in swinging, pushing new ideas?

Poke holes in those narratives and you deflate your opponent.

In Gipson's hands, Walker becomes a "deadbeat dad" because he couldn't make child support payments while he was behind bars.

Walker paints Gipson as a politician who wants to lock up 5-year-olds because he authored an anti-bullying ordinance so harsh it was rejected by his Carson colleagues.

"You have to create a polarizing choice," Shimpock explained. "That's the role of negative campaigning. It creates a contrast, and that shapes the debate. The candidate who most effectively defines the choice that voters will make is the one who will win."

Think of it as a sort of "electoral jiu jitsu," he said. "You undermine the narrative … and use their own story to make the argument against them."

In this race, both sides accuse the other of going negative first. But Shimpock said it doesn't much matter who launched the first shot. "When one candidate cocks that pistol, everybody's going to pull out their guns."

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Gipson waltzed through the spring primary against three opponents, winning 51% of the vote to Walker's 21%. So Walker spent the summer knocking on doors, sharing his resurrection story to rally voters.

It's a story bound to strike a chord in pockets of the district, where incarceration rates are high and success barely a glimmer.

But the "deadbeat dad" characterization also resonates in an area heavy with single mothers — even though the mother of Walker's 8-year-old daughter said that label doesn't fit him.

"That's the biggest thing that comes up" on the campaign trail, Walker said, as we chatted Thursday outside a Carson senior center, where several residents said they had already cast mail-in ballots for him.

Some said they like Walker because he'll shake things up; they're sick of status quo. But their favorite politician is Rep. Maxine Waters — a fighter, they call her. And Waters is backing Walker's opponent.

That's bound to be a potent weapon in Gipson's arsenal. "We have a saying in politics," Shimpock said. "'Tell me who you're with and I'll tell you who you are.'

"That's the role endorsements play. It's an identification system for voters who don't have very specific ideas about what a candidate is all about."

And why don't they know what a candidate is all about?

Because the candidates are busy spinning colorful stories and insulting each other.

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

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