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Politics

Trump’s latest flare-up stirs an already sizzling Northern California congressional race

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones
Republican Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones is challenging Rep. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) for Congress.
(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Sacramento County sheriff and law-and-order congressional candidate Scott Jones already has taken heat for saying he’ll vote for Donald Trump this November, and his rival is doing his best to turn the burner to high.

In a race tinged by accusations of sexual harassment and financial misdeeds, Democratic Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove called on Jones to denounce the GOP presidential nominee for feuding with the Muslim parents of Humayun Khan, an Army captain killed in the Iraq war.

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Jones isn’t the only Republican in California being forced to delicately — or not so delicately — maneuver around the latest Trump tempest.

Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) on Tuesday called Trump’s comments about Khan’s parents “deplorable,” and Republican Assemblyman David Hadley of Manhattan Beach penned an opinion piece in the Daily Breeze saying he won’t vote for Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton. Both are locked in tough reelection fights and were called out by Democratic rivals to denounce Trump.

In July, Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) said he wouldn’t vote for Trump because he “denigrates people based on their ethnicity, religion, or disabilities.”

Jones has faced nettlesome questions about Trump since May when he first said he would vote for the New York billionaire. In a district that leans a hair to the left, the sheriff has tried hard to keep Trump at arm’s length, insisting that his vote is not an endorsement while criticizing Trump’s “hate speech.” 

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Bera’s closely divided 7th Congressional District has been a prize coveted by both parties. Democrats hold an edge with 39% of registered voters compared with 35% for Republicans. The district includes Folsom, Elk Grove and a portion of Sacramento, a region where state government is a crucial engine for the local economy.

Bera and Jones were the only two names on the June 7 primary ballot, with Bera winning 54% of the vote and Jones 46%.

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Rep. Ami Bera
Rep. Ami Bera
(Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee )

Bill Hitchcock, a 20-year Air Force veteran and member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Elk Grove, said Jones and anyone else supporting Trump were displaying a lack of good judgment.

VFW national leader Brian Duffy denounced Trump on Monday for his comments about the Khans, saying they were “out of bounds.” Hitchcock, a Republican, called Trump’s remarks “disgusting” but not surprising. He noted that Trump last year questioned the heroism of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was tortured during his five years in a North Vietnam POW camp.

“Every time Trump speaks, he shoves his foot deeper inside his mouth,” said Hitchcock, 83, a former weapons system engineer who served two tours in Vietnam. “From a military aspect, we’re all leery of him.”

Hitchcock plans to vote for Clinton. And Bera.

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The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has launched an aggressive effort to tether GOP candidates to Trump, hoping to win over voters who may be spooked by the presidential nominee. It’s a well-worn political tactic, and one Bera’s campaign has latched onto with glee.

Dave Gilliard, a consultant for the Jones campaign, dismissed the Bera campaign’s call to denounce Trump as a political stunt done in concert with the Democratic Party.

Jones has said he plans to vote for Trump because he is the Republican Party’s presidential nominee and because he opposes Clinton.

Still, Trump may be down the list of Jones’ concerns.

The Sacramento Bee reported that a female deputy at the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department said in a court deposition that 13 years ago, Jones made unwanted sexual advances, groping and kissing her. Jones, who was a sergeant at the time, denied the allegation, saying the deputy was the aggressor. The deputy’s statement surfaced in a discrimination lawsuit filed against the Sheriff’s Department by female deputies. A jury in May awarded the women $3.6 million.

Jones emerged last November as a formidable challenger. The popular sheriff and conservative Republican stepped into the public spotlight in 2014 when he decried President Obama for the nation’s immigration problems shortly after a twice-deported Mexican national killed two police officers during a Northern California shooting rampage.

Bera, a physician, has been a ripe target for the Republicans ever since he unseated GOP Rep. Dan Lungren in 2012. Bera survived a bitterly fought challenge by former Republican Rep. Doug Ose two years later, a race that attracted more than $24 million in campaign spending. Bera won by less than 1% of the vote.

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He appeared vulnerable again this election after national labor organizations denounced him for supporting the Obama administration’s Pacific trade deal. Jones even picked up an endorsement from a Northern California chapter of the Teamsters union — a rarity for a Republican — only to see it withdrawn in May when the sheriff announced he would vote for Trump in the general election.

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Ose, in an interview this week, dismissed the Bera campaign’s efforts to link Jones to Trump as a political ruse to deflect attention away from a scandal involving Bera’s father, who diverted more than a quarter of a million dollars to his son’s congressional campaigns.

Babulal Bera, 83, pleaded guilty to the charges in May. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 18 and could face up to 30 months in prison. Federal prosecutors said he and his wife asked “relatives, friends and acquaintances to make the maximum allowable federal campaign contributions” and paid those donors back with his own money.

Federal authorities said there was no evidence the congressman was aware of the scheme.

“His dad is going to prison, and the guy who benefited is on easy street,” said Ose, who has endorsed both Jones and Trump.

Ose believes the sheriff’s chances of unseating Bera in November only grow stronger with Trump on the ballot.

Rancho Cordova City Councilwoman Linda Budge, a Republican who has endorsed Jones, offered a less sympathetic view of Trump’s latest entanglement. 

Budge noted that her city, a Sacramento suburb, is home to many veterans who worked at the nearby Mather Air Force Base before it was shuttered by the Pentagon in the late 1980s.

“Regardless of your politics, we need to look at the people who are serving and the people who have served and just honor them for what they did for their country,” said Budge, who grew up in an Air Force family. “Especially when their family members don’t come home.” 

Still, she doubts the controversy surrounding Trump and the anger many voters feel about Washington politics will have much of an impact on the outcome of the area’s congressional race. Budge said most people see the Jones-Bera contest as a local race, focused on local issues.

“They’re way more concerned about what’s going on in their own backyard,” she said.

phil.willon@latimes.com

Twitter: @philwillon

ALSO:

‘I have, in fact, done the crime': Rep. Ami Bera’s father admits illegal campaign contributions

No regrets for taking on fallen soldier’s parents, Trump says

Republican Rep. Steve Knight calls Trump’s comments on Khan family ‘deplorable’

South Bay assemblyman says he won’t vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton

Meg Whitman joins chorus of Republicans supporting Hillary Clinton

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