The Fallout of Fear, Postage Paid

Why the David Rabbitt mailer still matters


For those terrified that violent Mexican immigrants might invade their calm afternoon picnic and murder their families, it was the perfect hit piece. But to the Latino community at large, it represented the worst kind of campaign race-baiting, and a cynical yet successful tactic that continues to resonate sourly nearly two months after David Rabbitt’s defeat of Pam Torliatt in the race for Sonoma County Second District supervisor.

In the ongoing fallout after Nov. 2, the campaign mailer supporting Rabbitt continues to feed virulent accusations of racism from members and allies of the Latino community. Seizing a late-election-cycle move expressly geared to tap into fears about undocumented immigrants in Sonoma County, the independent expenditure group Citizens for Transportation Funding chose to feature on the mailer the image of an empty picnic table headed by the bold quote “Pam Torliatt’s Sanctuary Idea Is No Picnic.”

On the back, a front-page Press Democrat headline declaring Torliatt’s support of a sanctuary policy is reproduced beside two San Francisco Chronicle articles about the 2008 murders of Tony Bologna and his two sons at the hands of an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. While a direct connection has never been made between San Francisco’s sanctuary-city status and the murders, the mailer doesn’t back down in stating ominously (cue horror movie music here), “Pam Torliatt wants to make Sonoma County a sanctuary county for illegal immigrants. Remember how this idea worked in San Francisco?”

“It was the worst kind of pandering and fear-mongering, and so unnecessary,” says Lisa Maldonado, president of the North Bay Labor Council, about her group’s decision to sever ties with the Sonoma County Alliance (SCA), an influential North Bay business lobby that partially funded the mailer. “We were concerned about anyone in the labor movement being associated with the scapegoating of immigrants.”

In a private email sent to SCA executive director Lisa Schaffner and other members, Maldonado castigated the mailer, describing it as “one of the most despicable and racist campaigns I have ever seen.” She went on to declare that the implication made by the mailer that “Mexican immigrants were awaiting Ms. Torliatt’s election so that they could come to your picnics and murder all white people” was “truly beyond the pale.”

Davin Cardenas, a community organizer in Santa Rosa’s Roseland district, agrees. He points out the irresponsibility of implying that all undocumented immigrants are violent criminals, and notes that it’s especially ironic considering Sonoma County relies heavily on the labor of immigrants. “I don’t think it helps anybody to create fear and animosity in our county,” he says. “It doesn’t help the anti-immigrant or immigrants or any sector in the community to have hate-based or fear-based mail sent out to the populace.”

According to Susan Gorin, Santa Rosa mayor from 2008 to 2010 and current councilmember, this was an unfortunate aspect of an election that was marred by excessively nasty and expensive antics. “Torliatt’s offhand comment about sanctuary was blown up in such a negative way,” says Gorin, who compares the use of racially charged subtext in the mailer to the Willie Horton’s “weekend pass rampage” television ads used by the Bush campaign against Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential race. “This kind of campaigning is not helpful for a thoughtful dialogue about what sanctuary means,” continues Gorin. “It casts a shadow. We should be sensitive to how immigration benefits our communities in many ways, whether people are undocumented or not.”

The sanctuary snafu began with a simple one-word answer, given at the tail end of a Latino Community Conference forum held on the Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus in early October. In one of the last questions fielded by the candidates, a female audience member asked Rabbitt and Torliatt whether they would support—or, according to eyewitness and former mayor of Rohnert Park Tim Smith, if they would merely “consider”—sanctuary status in Sonoma County. Torliatt answered with a simple yes. Less than a week later, Torliatt’s stance on sanctuary was splashed across the front page of the Press Democrat.

This is problematic, especially coming on the heels of an endorsement for David Rabbitt by the Press Democrat editorial board. Since Torliatt simply said she would consider a sanctuary policy, and since sanctuary is a known hot-button issue in Sonoma County—as even a cursory glance at the inflammatory comments infecting the Press Democrat‘s forums confirms—the headline appeared as a direct hit on Torliatt. It also provided the perfect visual fodder for the incendiary mailer.

Even more important, were any Press Democrat reporters actually present at the forum? Smith states in a phone interview that while articles had appeared in the Press Democrat and the Petaluma Argus-Courier agitating for a forum, and although this particular event was advertised beforehand, no reporters from either paper were in attendance. A report by Press Democrat writer Brett Wilkinson used interviews conducted after the fact, while an item in Chris Smith’s Nov. 4 column recreated the original question: “Would the candidates support a ‘sanctuary’ policy to curtail local authorities’ cooperation with federal immigration officers seeking to seize undocumented immigrants?”

According to Torliatt, Wilkinson refused to quote or print responses from her campaign after the forum. “Every time Mr. Wilkinson called us regarding an article, he threatened—and followed through with his threat—to print in the articles that we were not available for comment when in fact we did provide information and access,” she says.

If the initial question was in fact whether the candidates would “consider” rather than “support” a sanctuary policy, that alters the discussion significantly. Reached by phone, Ted Appel, business editor and moderator of the Press Democrat‘s local-politics site Watch Sonoma County, confirms that no Press Democrat reporters were in fact present at the forum.

In reality, the concept of sanctuary isn’t nearly as terrifying as opponents make it out to be. From the imagery and information in the Rabbitt mailer, you’d think sanctuary is a wholesale free-for-all, where violent Latino criminals are allowed to roam the streets unchecked, like a pack of wolves, attacking innocent people at will. In reality, a “City and County of Refuge” ordinance simply prohibits city and county employees (including police and sheriff) from collaborating with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on immigration investigations and arrests unless such help is required by federal or state law or a warrant.

In fact, that’s ostensibly what’s in place now; court rulings have found that local law enforcement doesn’t have the authority to uphold federal immigration laws. But sanctuary became a lightning-rod issue after activists rose up in protest when the Sonoma County jail, in March of this year, started automatically sending inmates’ fingerprints to ICE after booking.

According to Santa Rosa&–based immigration attorney Richard Coshnear, 55 percent of those taken from jails and deported by ICE have not committed a violent crime. “It’s OK [under the sanctuary policy] to put ICE holds on people with violent records or drug use,” says Coshnear, a member of the Committee for Human Rights. “The goal of sanctuary is to provide protection from deportation for those without such records.”

In Sonoma County, which is dependent on immigrant and undocumented labor for large-scale agriculture and vineyard operations, families often live in fear of raids and deportation even as their labor is exploited. In a situation scarily similar to the conditions fought by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and other leaders of the United Farmworkers of America, workers are afraid to speak out against injustices and raids because of these overlying threats.

“The fact of the matter is that they are not criminals,” Maldonado says. “Being undocumented is a civil penalty, but it’s not a criminal offense. People think it gives them license to talk about [Latino immigrants] as if they are scum of the earth. To dehumanize them is so unfair and unnecessary. If they really wanted to talk about the issue of sanctuary, they could have done that without going directly to the implication that these people are going to murder you.”

While David Rabbitt, who won with 53.4 percent of the vote, can’t and won’t claim responsibility for the actual mailers—published as they were by an independent expenditure committee—his campaign definitely benefited from them. Rabbitt originally responded to the outcry about racism with a shrug (“It is what it is,” he said to the Press Democrat), but he’s since upgraded his stance. In a phone call, Rabbitt claims he didn’t initially see the inclusion of the murders in San Francisco as inflammatory. “In Sonoma County, there might be a racial implication,” he says, “but it’s not based on race. You shouldn’t be prohibited from talking about fixing immigration and be called a racist because you want to do this.”

Pointedly mentioning his own background as a first-generation American, Rabbitt continues. “If I was designing the mailer, I would have put the financial implications of sanctuary in the county. At the end of the day, there are certain trades that lose out because of the use of undocumented workers,” he says, going on to admit that the mailer “would have been just as strong if it had not included references to any crimes anywhere.”

It’s the widening divide between communities that concerns Torliatt. “The Latino community is a growing segment of our population—approximately 23 percent in Petaluma. We have real economic challenges facing us and so much work to do,” she says. “This behavior is not an example of leadership; it is one of maintaining power for corporate special interests on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.”

As Cardenas points out, the sentiment expressed in the mailer sets a negative precedent for constructing community relationships, and “any politician that supports immigrant rights,” he says, “has to worry that they will be demonized.” At the same time, the Latino population is expanding and becoming a powerful and sought-after voting demographic. Is this really the time when business groups in Sonoma County should be alienating a growing segment of the population?

The mailer continues to open up a Pandora’s box of issues with diversity and discrimination, especially in regards to the Sonoma County Alliance’s relationship with the Latino population. In the late Jim Wilkinson’s guide to the power struggles within Santa Rosa politics, Who Rules Santa Rosa and Why It Matters, the neighborhood activist describes how the organization’s “bedrock” interests benefit the development, construction and finance sectors. Made up of a laundry list of powerful Santa Rosa businesses and large corporations—including Bank of the West, Kaiser Permanente, Comcast and Wells Fargo Bank—the alliance also has a strong political apparatus, geared toward supporting so-called pro-business candidates.

Yet it goes unspoken that some of the businesses that are part of the coalition actually benefit from the labor of undocumented immigrants since membership includes a number of wineries and building contractors.

In fact, the Sonoma County Alliance could well be on an express path to alienate the Latino population of Sonoma County. On a Saturday afternoon a month before the election, 150 people attended a forum organized by the North Bay Organizing Project titled “New Voters, New Visions.” Held at Roseland Elementary, the event provided a chance for predominately Latino voters to meet with candidates for the Santa Rosa City Council, all of whom were invited to appear. Lowrider car clubs, high school students and recently registered voters from the neighborhood filled the hall, and all of the candidates showed up—except for the three comprising the “pro-business” slate, backed by the Sonoma County Alliance.

Thus, not only has the Alliance ignored an open invitation to dialogue with the Latino community, but it has also shut off any dialogue about why the mailer might have employed questionable race-baiting campaign tactics. Surprisingly, the SCA leadership has shot back at Maldonado with counter accusations of racism. To the Press Democrat, Schaffner said that Maldonado “just likes to fight.” Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange and a key SCA member, has called her a “sore loser.” Maldonado claims that no one at the alliance will admit to creating the mailer or to signing off on it. “If there was nothing wrong with it, then why not just admit responsibility?” asks Maldonado. (Repeated calls and emails to Schaffner for this story were not returned.)

Other members of the SCA have tried to distance themselves from the mailer, including Chris Snyder, head of Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3. But these small efforts by some members have not been enough for many Latino leaders. Laura Gonzalez, president of the Sonoma County Latino Democratic Club, says that this is not an issue of sour grapes just because Torliatt lost the election; what’s really at stake is the offensive nature of the mailer and the risky precedent it sets.

“It’s not just about Torliatt and Rabbitt and the race,” she says. “We have to say why this is offensive to us. If you look at the numbers in California and statewide, when people go after Latinos, illegal and nonlegal, we view it as an attack on our ethnic group.”

That’s a group that’s only getting larger. Considering that every year for the next 20 years, half a million Latino youths will reach voting age, and that as of October 2008, enrollment in Santa Rosa elementary schools stood at 52.5 percent Latino, now is probably not the time to consciously construct such a large and growing segment of the population as the dangerous “other.”

In November, Gonzales and her organization mounted a letter-writing campaign to members of the SCA that serve a large Latino clientele, including Kaiser Permanente and others, to “repudiate this incendiary mailer.” The organization asks the businesses to consider the following questions: “Do these tactics fit with your mission? When you joined this group with the hope of making important professional contacts in the county, did you realize your money would go to demonize the fastest growing demographic in the county, your employees, your vendors, your colleagues and even your own friends and neighbors? We ask if you, as service providers, differentiate between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal?'” Gonzalez says the responses have been fairly positive so far.

The group is also working with Bobbi Salazar, the Region 1 chair of the Latino Caucus of the Democratic Party, to propose a policy that discourages scapegoating or race-baiting campaign tactics. Theoretically, that would include mailers using racial subtext to imply that immigration reform will lead to mass-murder rampages across the parks and picnic tables of Sonoma County.

“You can’t keep maligning such a large group of people and expect them to be OK with it,” Gonzalez says. “Sometime in the future, mailers like this one will be a death knell for a candidate.”

Sonoma County Library