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[whitespace] John Jordan Golden boy: Wine heir John Jordan is spending millions to secure a state Senate seat, unleashing one of the region's most negative campaigns.

Michael Amsler

The North Coast state Senate campaign gets pricey, dicey, and a little strange

By Janet Wells

HAVING TROUBLE wading through your mail these days? It's that time of year again, and the race for the North Coast state Senate seat is doing the lion's share of clogging the mailbox. Indeed, the 2nd State Senate District race between Republican John Jordan and Democrat Wes Chesbro has evolved into a big-spending, name-calling campaign almost bizarrely devoid of substantive issues.

Between them Chesbro and Jordan have spent nearly $5 million parrying with one another, proffering mailers that are glossy, overabundant, and tabloid-esque. That figure is nearly twice as much as congressional candidates Frank Riggs and Michela Alioto spent in the 1996 election, and is nearing a state record, all for a $99,000-a-year job that falls under a four-year, two-term limit.

By contrast, the third-party challenger, Peace and Freedom candidate Brian Garay, has raised less than $1,000 and was incommunicado for two months, serving a jail term for petty theft and possession of drugs.

Jordan, the 26-year-old Healdsburg resident and heir to his father's Indonesian oil and Alexander Valley winery fortune, has replaced political experience with chutzpah, relying on tactics usually reserved for national politics. He has raised $2.9 million, most of it loans and contributions from himself and his father, Thomas Jordan. And he's spent it in some unusual ways. There are his "Happy Birthday" campaign coupons in which he offers potential voters free coffee at his Coddingtown cafe. There are slick jingles on every local radio station, and billboards along Highway 101. There is an aggressive phone-bank program that is reaching out and touching annoyed voters up to four times each. There's the story about Jordan's alleged surreptitious offer to help bankroll a third-party candidate to suck votes away from his Democratic opposition.

And there's that widely publicized botched surveillance incident. Last August, in an attempt to show that Chesbro maintains his primary residence outside of the district, Jordan campaign operative Andrew Andersen stalked Dannel Ward, a Sacramento woman he mistook for Chesbro's wife, scaring Ward and leading to a storm of protests from female political leaders on the North Coast.

"It's gotten a little out of hand," says Sonoma State University political science professor Don Dixon. "It seems like what you've got is a fairly strong Democratic candidate and a relatively weak, unknown Republican who is essentially trying to blur the partisan advantage by not campaigning as a Republican, but on these ostensibly personal issues."

Jordan's campaign has issued fairly standard attack pieces on Chesbro. The notable oddity about Jordan's strategy is that it seems to mention his Democratic opponent far more often than himself. "I think whoever is advising Jordan is taking money under false pretenses," says Dixon, referring to the Sacramento consulting firm Wayne C. Johnson & Associates, which has received more than $400,000 from the Jordan campaign. "[These are] some of the poorest examples of campaign pieces I've seen in 35 years.

"[The campaign] confuses name recognition," Dixon adds. "The pictures Jordan has of Chesbro are better than some of the pieces Chesbro has. I look at the Jordan pieces and think, 'Chesbro looks like a nice man, I'll vote for him.' And people think [Jordan's] radio jingle is for Chesbro. Whoever is advising Jordan not only misreads the North Coast, but is technically incompetent."

CHESBRO isn't exactly above the fray, spending almost $1.3 million of his $2.1 million war chest on a barrage of counterattack and attack campaigning of his own. "The interesting thing is that Chesbro felt he had to respond," Dixon says. "My guess is that the pressure on him from the campaign consulting types had to be 'Hit back when you're hit with smear pieces, and hit back on a personal level.'"

Jordan started his bid for state Senate way back in 1996, raising $20,450 that year. He apparently started reaching into his arsenal of hardline campaign tactics almost as far back. Al Liner, a Peace and Freedom candidate for state Assembly in 1996, says Jordan invited him to lunch in the spring of 1997 and asked if he was going to be running for the state Senate seat in 1998. At that time, it was assumed that the Democratic candidate for the seat would be Valerie Brown, Liner's formidable opponent in the '96 Assembly race.

"[Jordan] said that he would get people to contribute to my campaign, and would see to it that I got invited to every debate and was flown in his private plane to all the debates," says Liner, a Santa Rosa wine marketer.

Jordan, Liner alleges, assured him that he could help raise $20,000 to $25,000 for Liner's campaign, more than 10 times the amount Liner spent running unsuccessfully against Brown two years ago. Why? In exchange for the well-funded opportunity to put the Peace and Freedom party platform before the voters, Liner would help Jordan by siphoning votes from the Democratic opposition.

At a second lunch, Liner says he told Jordan he thought the offer was "inappropriate."

"I told him that if this conversation got out, this kind of stuff is not OK," Liner recalls. "If I took the money and anybody ever found out, this is the type of thing that ends campaigns."

Jordan's response, according to Liner, was that "'it's not against the law,' that he'd get a bunch of people to donate $99 apiece," thereby circumventing the campaign disclosure law, which requires itemization of donations of $100 and up.

"I said, 'That's not the point. It's the morality that's the point,'" Liner says.

Through his campaign spokesman Brian O'Neel, Jordan acknowledges that he did invite Liner to lunch, to Gary Chu's restaurant in Santa Rosa, but it was only to secure Liner's endorsement, which he declined to grant.

"Why would John need to pay $25,000 when there is always going to be a Peace and Freedom candidate anyway?" asks O'Neel, adding that he and Jordan theorized two "most likely scenarios" for Liner's story: "Al is realizing, for whatever reason, that John Jordan could very well get in--and who will represent his beliefs better?--or Wes Chesbro has put this guy up to it," O'Neel says.

"I don't think that Wes has got that silly, but I wouldn't put it past him."

Chesbro had nothing to do with Liner, he says, but he apparently is well aware of the impact third-party candidates can have on a race. Earlier this year, Chesbro asked Peace and Freedom Party Central Committee member Toni Novak if there was any chance that candidate Brian Garay would drop out of the race. "I presume that he thought that as a party official I would have some influence," says Novak, adding that she did not take his question seriously. "It was an absurd comment, so I treated it as an absurd comment."

"It was not direct interference; it was more along the lines of wishful thinking."

USING a minority-party candidate to split the majority-party vote is far from unusual, Sonoma State Professor Dixon says: "There's lots of evidence that the Nixon forces supported McGovern forces in the primary. The Greens are bankrolled by the Republicans in many instances to try in a marginal district to split the vote."

But influencing a candidate to withdraw from a race or offering money directly to someone to become a candidate would violate the state's Election Code, says Alfie Charles, spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office. "There's no prohibition on offering to help somebody raise campaign funds," he says. "It's a political tactic, a campaigning decision."

Jordan's campaign managers acknowledge that while the initial approach against Chesbro was a negative blitz, the late-campaign strategy is to lighten up. The "Greetings from Sacramento" billboards referring vaguely to Chesbro's residential status have been replaced by straight-ahead ads with Jordan's clean-cut picture and catch-all phrases about excellence and education.

The coupons for coffee simply are meant "to show not only that John is a good choice politically, but that he's a good man," O'Neel says. "We're getting more positive. Now that we've established who our opponent is, we can put out who John is. It's not enough to give someone reasons to vote against the other guy; you have to give them reasons to vote for you."

It seems--given the abysmally low voter turnout predicted--that neither candidate is offering much more than a protest choice against his opponent.

"I've gone to my mailbox every day this week, and I've had something every day from both Jordan and Chesbro. It's the same rhetoric. It's the same glossy paper," Liner says. "The difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is that the Republicans will look at you if you're not one of them and say, 'We're going to screw you and laugh about it.' The Democrats will say, 'We're going to watch the Republicans screw you and feel real bad,'" Liner adds.

"The issue is that this is about a system where winning is more important than leading."

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From the October 29-November 4, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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