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Republicans use scandal in fight for Ron Calderon's Senate seat

Republicans use scandal in fight for Ron Calderon's Senate seat
California Senate candidate Tony Mendoza, a Democrat and former Assembly member, talks with his son, Antonio, before a rally in Norwalk. (Cheryl Guerrero)

Even with indicted lawmaker Ronald S. Calderon unable to seek reelection, the scandal enveloping the Democratic state senator has rubbed off on the campaign to replace him.

The candidates, former Democratic Assemblyman Tony Mendoza and Republican businessman Mario Guerra, both vow to tackle Sacramento corruption. At the same time, supporters of each have accused the other candidate of committing ethical transgressions of his own.

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Democrats enjoy a big advantage in voter registration in the district, located mostly in eastern Los Angeles County, but Republicans see recent scandals involving Calderon and three other Democratic state senators as an opportunity for their candidate to beat the odds and take the seat.

Republican donor Charles Munger Jr. has spent $539,000 independently on ads, mailers and other attacks on Mendoza, while the Republican Party and political action committees have spent $242,000 to support Guerra.

Election handicapper Allan Hoffenblum says the amount of late Republican money is an indication that GOP leaders see a potential win.

"With very low turnout [possible] and the Republican himself being a Latino, they are looking for an upset," said Hoffenblum, editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan election guide.

Calderon, who is prevented by term limits from running for reelection, has been accused by federal authorities of providing official favors to a medical firm owner and an undercover FBI agent posing as a film executive in exchange for bribes. He has pleaded not guilty.

The 32nd Senate District's voters are 48% Democrat and 25% Republican, but Guerra surprised many by finishing first in the primary over four Democrats after campaigning on the corruption issue.

Guerra, a 55-year-old member of the Downey City Council, said ethics matters continue to resonate with voters as he and Mendoza do battle.

"This district is tired of the past, and they want a change," Guerra said. "It's sad that the Senate has a higher arrest record, percentage-wise, than the state of California."

Mendoza, a 43-year-old teacher who lives in Artesia, has highlighted his attempts to push through bills to toughen conflict-of-interest rules in the Legislature.

"Voters are sick and tired of politicians who violate the public trust," Mendoza said.

The newly drawn district includes the cities of Bellflower, Buena Park, Cerritos, Commerce, Hawaiian Gardens, La Habra Heights, La Mirada, Lakewood, Pico Rivera, Santa Fe Springs and Whittier.

To counter the flood of money from Munger's independent campaign, Spirit of Democracy California, the state Democratic Party recently wrote a check for $43,000 to Mendoza's operation, and Senate leader Kevin de León appeared with Mendoza in Norwalk on Saturday.

Guerra, who heads an insurance brokerage firm, separately has spent $527,000 for the year as of Oct. 18, compared with the $973,000 spent by Mendoza.

Television ads by the Munger group show pictures of Mendoza and Calderon side by side and assert that the two are alike. The ads and mailers cite Mendoza's acceptance of $27,000 in gifts, including travel expenses, from special interests, which is a common and legal practice by lawmakers.

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The ads also say that Mendoza is under investigation by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for political money laundering.

An FPPC spokesman confirmed that the agency has an open investigation into a citizen complaint filed in 2012 by a political consultant with ties to the Calderon family.

The complaint accused Mendoza of laundering campaign funds from a group tied to the Latino Legislative Caucus, which he formerly headed, through other channels to the 2012 campaign of Assembly candidate Rudy Bermudez.

Mendoza countered in a mailer that the charges were false and were retaliation by Calderon and his brother, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon.

"Two years ago the now indicted politicians Ron and Tom Calderon were upset with Tony Mendoza because he opposed their political empire, worked against their campaigns for office and authored legislation to clean up corruption," the mailer says.

Guerra, in turn, has denounced an anonymous blog that reportedly has ties to supporters of Mendoza. The Downey WatchDog blog said Guerra accepted thousands of dollars in stipends for serving on the City Council and spent city funds on a sister-city trip he and his wife took to Ireland.

Guerra said he donates the $700 monthly stipend he received for serving on the council to charity and that he personally covered his wife's expenses for the city trip to Ireland.

A Mendoza spokesman said his candidate has nothing to do with the blog.

On other issues, Guerra wants to reduce "over-regulation" and taxes that he says are too high in California. He opposes the planned high-speed rail project, while Mendoza supports the plan.

Mendoza's priorities include making sure public schools get adequate and reliable school funding, he said.

Experience has also been an issue.

Mendoza has taught elementary school in East Los Angeles for more than a decade and served as a board member for United Teachers Los Angeles and as a representative with the California Teachers Assn.

Mendoza cites his six years in the Legislature, "where I worked to protect consumers from predatory lending, passed legislation to reduce gang violence and addressed the epidemic of childhood obesity."

Guerra, who was brought to the U.S. from Cuba when he was 6, is president and co-founder of Scanlon-Guerra-Burke Insurance Brokers. He said that as a businessman he understands what it takes to expand the workforce.

"I'm the only person in this race who has created jobs," he said.

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