The top contenders to be California’s next governor have similar low points in their political careers: extramarital affairs that exploded in public view during their tenures as big-city mayors.
And in a twist that reveals the small world of Golden State politics, they’ve each hired advisors who know the most intimate details of those transgressions — about the other guy.
Sean Clegg was Antonio Villaraigosa’s deputy mayor in 2007 when the then-Los Angeles mayor and wife Corina separated after two decades of marriage. Soon after the news came out, Villaraigosa revealed that the cause of the split was his relationship with Telemundo reporter Mirthala Salinas, who covered the mayor at City Hall. It was his second acknowledged extramarital affair.
Clegg is now a top advisor to Villaraigosa’s chief opponent, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Eric Jaye was Newsom’s chief political strategist when he was the mayor of San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle once described Jaye as Newsom’s “political touchstone, mad scientist and wizard behind the curtain” and the “brains behind his City Hall administration.”
Jaye was at Newsom’s side when the mayor disclosed a sexual relationship that occurred shortly after his divorce with his appointments secretary, who was the wife of Alex Tourk — Newsom’s deputy chief of staff and campaign manager until he learned of the affair. Jaye and Tourk are close friends, and Jaye is now Villaraigosa’s senior strategist. Tourk also briefly worked for Villaraigosa’s political action committee last year.
Political consultants sign nondisclosure agreements, so Jaye and Clegg can’t share any secrets they learned when they worked for Newsom and Villaraigosa. But both men have a valuable and unusual degree of insight into their former bosses’ habits and foibles, a familiarity that could give both candidates a boost.
“One of the first rules of campaigns is know thy enemy as you know yourself. The more you understand not only their positions on the issues and their vulnerabilities, but how they’ll react, the more it gives you an edge,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a veteran Democratic strategist.
She said a critical part of running a campaign is catching the opposition off guard. “You have an advantage any time you can do something unexpected that your opponent won’t know how to react to, and these guys have a deep understanding of how their former bosses [and] current rivals will react under pressure.”
Clegg and Jaye both insist that their history is irrelevant and dismissed the notion that it offers any added benefit.
“I certainly don’t candidly feel like I have much of an inside track on any information about Antonio, and it’s certainly not our strategy to make this campaign a referendum on things that happened 10 years ago,” Clegg said. “Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa are two of the most experienced, seasoned elected officials in the state, and they’ve both held a variety of offices.”
Noting that they served as high-profile, heavily scrutinized mayors in two of the nation’s largest cities, Clegg added, “Newsom and Villaraigosa are guys … who can take a punch and not take the bait.”
Jaye said he felt “privileged” to work for both Newsom and Villaraigosa but believes Villaraigosa is best suited to lead the state.
“I know and respect them both,” he said.
The familiarity the political strategists have with the men they previously worked for — including an encyclopedic knowledge of their track records in office and an understanding of what makes them tick — offers advantages in the battle to replace termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown.
The consultants could use their inside knowledge to point reporters toward political missteps made in their former clients’ lives, and help their respective candidates prepare for debates and campaign stops by anticipating how their rivals will perform and what they might say.
Stuart K. Spencer, a veteran GOP strategist who worked on Ronald Reagan’s 1966 and 1970 California gubernatorial campaigns, said he used his knowledge about the actor-turned-politician to rattle him while working for President Ford during the 1976 presidential primaries.
“When you got under [Reagan’s] skin, he staggered around for a couple of days,” Spencer said. “You just knocked him off his feet.”
Spencer, who later worked on Reagan’s successful presidential campaigns in 1980 and 1984, said he was skeptical that the Democrats in next year’s gubernatorial contest would be able to keep the race as clean as Clegg and Jaye promised.
“Old wars are very common in politics,” he said. “They would probably do anything they can to beat each other. This is an old-fashioned political brawl. Everything is going to get thrown in.”
But if either Newsom or Villaraigosa raises his opponent’s dalliances, it’s all but certain there will be return fire.
“It’s like, let he without sin throw the first stone. Neither one of these candidates can get into a negative campaign against the other talking about their personal lives, because that opens up a whole can of worms,” said Garry South, who worked on Newsom’s short-lived 2010 gubernatorial bid and has informally advised Villaraigosa over the years. “They cancel each other out.”
Both candidates’ indiscretions were widely publicized when they emerged in 2007. While Newsom and Villaraigosa alienated some longtime supporters because of their affairs, their political careers survived largely unscathed. They were both reelected to second mayoral terms — Newsom later that year and Villaraigosa in 2009.
And both men have moved forward in their personal lives. Villaraigosa is newly married, and Newsom has four young children with his second wife.
Newsom and Villaraigosa’s past improprieties could be raised if only one of them makes it to the general election and faces off against a candidate with less personal baggage, a possibility given the fluid gubernatorial field. But it’s unclear whether voters would care.
The country seems to have moved past a time when some questioned whether Reagan could be elected president because he was divorced and remarried. President Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his affair with an intern, yet years later remains one of the Democratic Party’s most valued voices. President Trump has been married three times and has acknowledged being unfaithful to at least one of his prior wives.
South also noted that Californians elected Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 shortly after allegations that he groped women without their consent emerged.
“In California, the bar has been set so low, you couldn’t limbo under it,” he said.
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