The 21st Congressional District race started sizzling this week as Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, dropped a hard-hitting attack ad on Democratic opponent Emilio Huerta.
The ad marks a dramatic turn in the tone of the race with just 20 days left before Election Day.
Valadao has seized on a 2006 Los Angeles Times story that profiled a 2004 land deal Huerta was involved in in Fresno.
A company Huerta was a partner in purchased, and quickly sold for a $1.1 million profit, property from the National Farm Workers Service Center that had once been intended for low-income housing.
Prior to the deal, Huerta was on the Service Center board; Valadao's ad insinuates Huerta used his influence to get a sweet deal and rob poor people of affordable housing.
Huerta called the ad misleading.
“I expected that kind of hit piece a long time ago. I’m surprised it took them so long,” Huerta said. “They’re trying to twist the truth for their own purposes.”
Valadao campaign spokesman Cole Rojewski defended the piece.
“There’s a lot we still don’t know about Huerta,” he said. “I see it as us putting out facts and letting voters decide what they see in the facts.”
THE HIT PIECE
The piece opens with Valadao walking with a supporter in a sunlit orchard. In a voice-over, he acknowledges he approved the message.
Then the image shifts to a black silhouette of an iconic Fresno city sign backed by an apocalyptic sky filled with rushing red-tined clouds.
Words fill in the sign, as a voice intones the same message:
“It was one of the worst real estate scandals in Central Valley history.”
A video of Huerta leaps onto the screen, stuttering in a string of strobe-lit jerks.
“Emilio Huerta used his influence to take land from the United Farm Workers,” the narrator says, “that was intended for low-income family housing.”
The video then intersperses fun-house mirror images of Huerta with sepia-toned pictures of a sad little girl staring out a window and a family staring sadly into the camera.
“Huerta sold the land to developers for a million dollar profit,” the ad states, finishing with, “Abusing his power and turning his back on the families who needed an affordable place to live - Emilio Huerta, just another politician looking out for himself.”
The details of the real estate transaction were outlined in a 2006 Los Angeles Times piece that was part of a series of stories about the UFW that Huerta called “attack” articles.
Then-California Attorney General Bill Lockyer investigated the claims contained in the articles to determine if Huerta and other UFW leaders illegally abused their positions on a number of UFW-affiliated nonprofits to benefit themselves.
Lockyer’s investigation did not discover any illegal acts.
“While we did not conclude that any of the reviewed transactions violated charitable trust law, the appearance of impropriety existed,” said the report by Supervising Deputy Attorney General Kelvin Gong.
The report advised the UFW and its nonprofits to avoid actions that appeared to be a conflict of interest.
According to the Attorney General's report, National Farm Workers Service Center bought a piece of land in 1996 and began developing a low-income housing project. But that idea was dropped when opposition developed.
The next idea was entry-level single family homes.
A subdivision of 53 homes was tentatively approved for the property. But the Service Center’s staff later determined it would take $600,000 to finalize approval and the group would only net around $800,000 profit at the end of the long development process, Lockyer’s report stated.
At the same time, the Service Center was hoping to buy a new radio station to strengthen Radio Campesina, the UFW’s iconic radio brand.
The Service Center decided to sell the property, hoping to get between $1 million and $1.2 million.
There were two bids for the project from Explorer General and Landmark Residential, where Huerta was a partner.
The bid went to Explorer General, the Attorney General’s report stated, which offered $1.8 million for the land.
But the Service Center board wanted to get money out of the deal quickly so it could bid on the radio station.
The Service Center came to Huerta and asked if Landmark would match the $1.8 million price and close escrow faster. Landmark went for the deal.
According to the Attorney General’s report, Landmark had already started marketing the property and got a bid from home developer Ennis Homes for $2.9 million.
Landmark bought the property from the National Farm Workers Service Center and carried the property until June 2005, when Ennis was able to finance the purchase.
All this occurred at the height of the real estate boom.
So is the Valadao ad accurate or fair?
Rojewski said the ads raise valid questions about Huerta, a candidate not many people know much about.
“I think it’s important to voters to understand the facts about the people they’re voting on,” he said.
But Huerta said the deal he struck was on the up and up and the inferences that he took advantage of low-income families are inaccurate.
The radio station purchase fell through, he said, and money Landmark paid the Service Center was eventually used to develop low-income housing in another area.
“I’ve never taken advantage of any position I’ve ever had,” he said.
He did not, he said, make even close to $1 million. He had two other partners and after all the transaction costs were deducted and his partners got their share, he only made around $100,000 on the deal.
He did the deal, he said, to try and help the center out.
“In hindsight should I have been so eager to come to the rescue of a client? Probably not,” Huerta said. “I was eager to help the farmworkers.”
But Huerta said he, at least, has tried to build something in the valley doing pro bono legal work and supporting projects for low-income people.
“Mr. Valadao has never built anything for anybody in the community,” Huerta said.