Assemblyman Mike Gatto's political director sent out an email blast urging Democrats in the 43rd Assembly District to show up with “as many friends and family as possible” on Jan. 12 at the IATSE union hall in Burbank to elect a dozen delegates to the party's state convention.
“Mike has endorsed a slate that is running, and there is another slate that has formed with individuals who have not supported Mike in the past. We would like to support the individuals who support Mike,” wrote Stacey Brenner.
Gatto, who lost eight of the 12 seats to these groups in 2010, expressed his delight on Facebook: “A heartfelt thanks to everyone who came out and voted in the delegate elections today. I am so happy that the Gatto slate won 12 of 12 spots. I appreciate so much everyone's hard work, and all of the support from the community.”
Responded one excited supporter: “Wow, sounds like the beginning of the Gatto Machine!”
That's exactly what the head of the Burbank teachers union and a large group of Armenian Americans who attended the election felt — but in the most negative way imaginable.
They accuse Gatto's team, led by Brenner, of using threats, intimidation, unethical tactics and racial profiling of Armenians to crush all opposition — actions that smack of machine politics, and that have made the Democratic Party appear to bear a striking resemblance to those they have so sharply criticized for voter suppression tactics.
In an email exchange, Brenner denied the accusations, saying incongruently that “Mike didn't run a slate.”
“Mike endorsed a group of people running,” she continued, “just like he endorses people in other races … I did not challenge prospective voters. From what I saw, some voters were challenged because there was a concern that people were bringing Republicans to vote in a Democratic caucus.”
Later in an interview, Gatto political consultant Mike Shimpock said: “We were merely trying to get our slate elected. No one was targeted based on ethnicity or for any reason other than we were questioning their eligibility to vote, which was well within the rules.
“In the give and take of politics, sometimes people get upset. If that's the case, I know Mike is always open to resolve those conflicts.”
The teacher slate fell apart when school board candidate Steve Ferguson, who helped organize the successful 2010 delegate election, failed to show up, claiming Gatto threatened him.
“I got a call from Gatto and he made it very clear that he wanted me to abandon my slate and pass out literature for his slate or support for me in the school board race would be pulled,” Ferguson said. “So I just stayed away and knocked on doors.”
Burbank teachers union leader Lori Adams was so angry she fired off a letter to Gatto, copied to union leaders across the state, urging the assemblyman to stop using “unethical tactics.”
“My only issue is that you do not have the right to threaten a candidate in order to suppress a vote. That is not democracy,” she wrote.
Many participants came away infuriated, claiming Armenians were singled out by Brenner for challenges in an attempt to intimidate them out of voting — a claim that was given credence by the regional party official overseeing the election.
“There were 30-some challenges issued to voters, and it was relatively noticeable that most of the people who were challenged had Armenian surnames — whether that was intentional or coincidental, it certainly didn't look nice,” recalled Karen Wingard, who oversaw two other delegate elections where there were no challenges or controversies.
“I doubt that an Assembly member who was a good Democrat would indulge in what appeared to be voter suppression. It had an unpleasant appearance. I have never seen anything like it so I emailed two party officials afterward about what happened.”
The phrase “good Democrat” came up a lot that day.
A flier circulated at the meeting attacked Garen Yegparian, an activist and columnist for the Armenian publication Asbarez, regarding his tough criticisms of the assemblyman in a six-part series of articles labeled “Grimy Gatto.” Noting his support for Republican election candidate and longtime friend Greg Krikorian, the flier questioned Yegparian's party loyalty, saying in large black letters that he “SUPPORTS REPUBLICANS OVER GOOD DEMOCRATS.”
In an impassioned one-minute speech, Yegparian recalled saying: “I held up that piece of paper and said, ‘It's all true except for one thing, Mike Gatto is not a good Democrat. Mike Gatto is a vile creature. We have to work to eliminate this blight from our district.'“
Zanku Armenian — a prominent community leader who writes an occasional online column for the Glendale News-Press — was more moderate in his language but no less angry over finding himself and his wife subject to challenges.
“The only person challenging anyone was Stacey Brenner,” he said, contradicting Brenner's statement. “She was walking up and down the aisle essentially picking out people who looked Armenian because she thought those were people who would not support the Gatto slate.”
He continued: “It's like such hatred toward certain people and they all happen to be Armenian. That's what is so disappointing and troubling. [Gatto] has the right to support who he wants, but what he doesn't have the right to do is achieve his goals through bullying and intimidation and outright violation of the party's values. When the party turns a blind eye, it is fueling a cancer.”
At the least, there are a lot of hard feelings among Democrats in the district and, as Wingard observed, the appearance of serious misconduct. That ought to be sufficient for the Democratic Party's leadership to fully investigate what happened and clear the air.
RON KAYE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Share your thoughts and stories with him.