The crowded race for retiring Congressman Ed Royce’s seat is thinning out ahead of California’s primary election in June. Democratic candidates Jay Chen and Phil Janowicz, both early front-runners, bowed out of contention in the 39th Congressional District. With the vote drawing nearer, two of several still remaining contenders are now locking horns. Gil Cisneros filed a lawsuit on Monday challenging fellow Democrat Sam Jammal’s ballot designation as a “civil rights attorney.”
Cisneros hired an Oakland-based law firm in pressing California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to disallow the designation on the State Voter Information Guide before a Mar. 29 deadline. In court documents filed in Sacramento, Cisneros claims that Jammal’s description is “false and misleading” in violation of state election codes. Candidates running for office can designate themselves by any elected office title they hold, as “incumbents,” or choose up to three words that describe their “principal profession, occupation or vocation” so long as that’s what they did up to a year before formally entering a race.
Jammal chose three words, “civil rights attorney,” when he filled out ballot designation paperwork earlier this month. The suit alleges that’s inconsistent with the “Senior Business Development Consultant” or “Associate Manager & Regulatory Counsel” job titles Jammal held in the previous year when working for a technology company and Tesla, respectively. “According to Jammal’s own admissions in official filings and public records,” court documents read, “it appears that he has not practiced civil rights law since 2009.”
The challenge to Jammal’s ballot designation gave his campaign the opportunity to strut progressive credentials in defense while painting Cisneros as a big money bully. “An out-of-district millionaire is trying to use his high-priced, Sacramento attorneys to bully our local grassroots campaign into submission,” Jammal said in a statement. “Washington D.C. is full of millionaire bullies already. I’m running to stand up to them, not join their club. It’s a shame that our judicial resources are being wasted on such a frivolous claim.”
An article in The Intercept this week noted that Cisneros is one of three self-funded millionaires in the race. A former Republican who won a $266 million Powerball jackpot in 2011, Cisneros donated $1.3 million to his own war chest, a feat only outdone by fellow Democrat Andy Thorburn’s $2.33 million. His campaign manager did admit that Cisneros owned a home in wealthy Newport Beach, but that the family lived in another home in Yorba Linda in order to be closer to relatives.
The Jammal campaign formed a legal response stating the “civil rights attorney” designation a firm one based on his professional career last year and associations throughout his adult life. They explain that his consulting job with RapidSOS was just part-time. As an attorney with Tesla, Jammal presented to various civil rights groups about the benefits of solar energy for environmental justice. The campaign argues that coupled with his outreach efforts to companies about minority recruitment, he’s more than involved in “civil rights work.” It’s a case they’re currently making in talks with Padilla’s office.
Off the clock, the campaign points to Jammal’s board membership with Mi Familia Vota and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles (CHIRLA) during his time with Tesla, both invitations that came because of his civil rights background. When Brea attempted to clamp down on freedom of assembly in downtown this December–an ordinance effort the city council eventually backed off of after public outcry–there was Jammal again, enlisted in the fight.
The Weekly asked the Cisneros campaign for comment on the suit, but received no response. His legal team is arguing that Jammal shouldn’t be able to offer a substitute designation should Padilla reject his current one.
Jammal, who’s half-Arab and half-Latino, chaired President Obama’s Latino Voter Protection Team in 2008 and started his career with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). Cisneros re-registered as a Democrat in 2015. Thanks to California’s top-two primary system, it’s possible that the candidates for Royce’s vacated seats in November could both be Republican, a real fear among Democrats.
If that happens, Jammal and Cisneros will share the same unofficial designation: losers.
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.