Adventures in Advertising

Local political observers are calling it the "most scurrilous and vile" campaign ad of the season, and it wasn't the deft handiwork of U.S. Congressman Bob Dornan, Orange County's most infamous negative campaigner. No, the ad–which critics say was designed to tap anti-gay sentiment–was sent by a college-faculty association on behalf of a slate of three conservative candidates and one Democrat vying for seats on the governing board of the Saddleback Community College District. Three of the candidates supported by the controversial ad–including the Democrat–won.

According to the four-page mailer, same-sex marriage advocates are plotting to "TAKE CONTROL of your tax dollars and your community colleges." The ad–sent to thousands of South County Republicans during the election's final three weeks–rails against domestic-partner health benefits and discussions of gay and lesbian lifestyles in college classes or seminars.

"Don't be misled by ultraliberal political groups. Keep Saddleback independent," read the red, white and black mailer. "Reject tax-paid health insurance for same-sex 'partners.' Vote to protect [their emphasis] the integrity of Saddleback Colleges."

But while same-sex marriage, domestic-partner benefits and gay-related curriculum are certainly inflammatory wedge issues, they had nothing to do with the nonpartisan race for trustee slots at Saddleback, the state's sixth-largest community college district with 33,000 students and an annual budget of more than $70 million.

"Personally, I am open to the idea of domestic-partner benefits," said Lee Rhodes, one of those blasted in the anti-gay mailer. "But it just isn't on the radar screen of pressing issues we face."

The nasty rhetoric obscured the real struggle: which group of trustees is likely to be more generous with teachers at the district's two community colleges, Saddleback in Mission Viejo and Irvine Valley in Irvine.

The anti-gay mailer was paid for by Taxpayers for Responsible Education, a political-action committee (PAC) established by the Saddleback Community College District Faculty Association. The "taxpayers" are mostly Saddleback Community College faculty eager to elect a board that will cut a better deal with teachers when their contract comes up for renegotiation this year.

Michael Channing, the association's treasurer and a Saddleback College English professor, said that he was unaware of the ad's content before it was mailed. "I really don't want to be associated with this," he said.

Channing declined to answer further questions and referred inquiries to Sherry Miller-White, president of the association. She could not be reached for comment. The faculty-controlled PAC reported spending $44,000 through Oct. 19 on behalf of ultraright-wing incumbents Steven Frogue, John Williams, Democrat Dorothy Fortune and Don Davis. Only Davis lost.

"The ad was manufactured lies and misinformation," said David Lang, a CPA who ran on a slate with Rhodes, Dianne Brooks and Suzanne Moraes. The ad targeted the slate for defeat; only Lang survived. "It's disgusting and shameful that they would involve the gay community in this [election], but it shows the lengths they will go to to control the colleges."

But the most interesting beneficiary of the mailer was Fortune, who was a presidential delegate for Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

"I had nothing to do with writing it, mailing it or paying for it," Fortune said after the election. When reminded that her picture and biography appeared in the ad, she said, "I'm sorry, but I was not in the loop at all."

Members of the Laguna Beach Democratic Club, to which Fortune belonged, were outraged by the ad and voted to strip their endorsement from her campaign in the final weeks. The club issued a statement decrying any candidate who attempted "to kindle fear and hatred in voters as a technique to garner support."

"Fortune may not have mailed it or paid for it, but she certainly was open to her campaign benefiting from it," said Anne Cox, club president. "I spoke with her at length after the ad came out and explained how betrayed people felt about its tone and message. But she made it clear her goal was to win the election–obviously at any cost."

Rhodes, the incumbent trustee and fellow Democrat whom Fortune defeated, called the brochure "despicable" and, along with Lang, charged that someone forged their slate's campaign brochures by inserting a statement that they were actively pushing for domestic-partner benefits at the colleges.

"That flier appealed to the worst in human nature by trying to incite certain elements in our community that are susceptible to hatemongering and hysteria," said Rhodes, a retired biology professor associated with Saddleback College for 28 years as a teacher and trustee. "The piece could not have been further from the real education issues at stake. It was just an underhanded smoke screen."

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