Campaign attacks intensify with extreme ‘oppo drops’

One way to attack a political candidate without leaving fingerprints is to pass along a little opposition research to anyone with a sympathetic ear and access to a website, blog, television camera or printing press.

But the obvious problem when opposition research lands on a reporter’s desk is that it tends to be one-sided in the extreme.

With the clock running out on the 2010 primary elections, so-called “oppo drops” are coming fast and furious.

While some have more merit than others, all drops should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Here are a couple that are making the rounds:

OPPO DROP 1: Opponents of Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval are pushing the notion that the former federal judge was soft on crimes by illegal immigrants.

The research to back up the assertion, targeted at putting Sandoval at a dis­advantage in a Republican primary where conservative voters demand tough, anti-illegal immigration stances, is a selection of cases in which he gave defendants credit for time already served and passed sentences that were less harsh than prosecutors demanded.

The suggested narrative says Sandoval is “pandering to conservative voters by telling them he’s tough on immigration and tough on crime, while his record as a judge tells another story.”

Like most oppo drops, it starts with a kernel of truth. Sandoval did credit defendants charged with illegal re-entry with time served and didn’t always sentence in accordance with the demands of the prosecutor.

But as so often happens in politics, the narrative being peddled is a small and misleading slice of reality.

In nearly every case, the sentence included a remand to the custody of U.S. marshals, which for an illegal immigrant is a step in the bureaucratic journey toward deportation.

Sometimes the trip includes a stop in other jurisdictions where the defendant is accused of another crime. Other times, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is waiting to take over. But one attorney familiar with such cases says it almost always ends the same way for the illegal immigrant.

“They still were deported,” said the attorney not authorized to speak on the record, who explained that once an illegal immigrant is in federal custody it is unlikely they will remain in the country. “In other words, you are going to be deported even if you are found not guilty.”

In another case, Sandoval sentenced an illegal immigrant who re-entered the country several times to 20 months in prison with credit for time served, a sentence the Sandoval opposition claimed was light.

What wasn’t in the oppo drop was the fact it was the second time Sandoval had sentenced the defendant. The original sentence included the highest-level sentence enhancement Sandoval could assign. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the tough enhancement didn’t fit the crime and sent the case back for re-sentencing.

“If I get reversed, I have to comply with what the 9th Circuit says,” Sandoval said.

The oppo drop also overlooked the fact that many consider deportation preferable to imprisonment because it saves taxpayers the cost of housing the inmate.

In Texas, federal Judge Sam Sparks was so fed up with prosecutors seeking to imprison people convicted of illegal re-entry he wrote an order in February that said detainment in such cases “is neither meritorious nor reasonable.”

OPPO DROP 2: Sometimes oppo drops are technical and heavy on paperwork, as in the case of Sandoval’s immigration case record. Others come in the form of a hallway whisper and are more salacious in nature.

An example would be allegations about Assemblyman Mark Manendo, who is running against Assemblywoman Kathy McClain in the Democratic primary for state Senate District 7.

The oppo line on Manendo is about sexual harassment and attempts to build on old allegations of sexual harassment toward women that cost him a committee chairmanship in 2003.

The new twist comes as Manendo is battling McClain in a tough campaign that has turned bitter and personal. It comes in the form of whispers from anti-Manendo Democrats who won’t go public with an alleged recent incident of harassment that can neither be proven nor debunked.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at
bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

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