Last Friday on his HBO show, comedian Bill Maher discussed how conspiracy theories are the mainstream ideology of the Republican Party. Obviously, Maher was talking about national politics. But what’s happening in SLO County is a microcosm of the conspiracy theory-thinking that’s pervaded our political discourse nationally.
Every registered voter in this county was likely deluged with mailers from District Attorney Dan Dow’s campaign. Instead of the usual mailers which highlight differences between the candidates, Dow is fixated on his opponent Judge Mike Cummins legally changing his first name to “Judge” last June — as if to deceive voters into thinking he’s still a judge. Dow is presenting a conspiracy that Cummins legally changed his name to deceive voters for his DA campaign. Ironically for the DA, there is no evidence backing his oft-refuted claim.
Here are the facts: Cummins has made it clear in his campaign materials that he is a former Stanislaus County judge who retired from the bench in 2006. That information was made readily available on Cummins website immediately after he announced his candidacy. “Judge Mike” is also his nickname as a musician. He’s performed with his country rock band Judge Mike & The Lawless Group years before he announced his candidacy in January this year. Perhaps Dow is insinuating that Cummins’ supposed conspiracy to deceive voters was years in the making. In any event, it’s literally Dow’s job to back his words with evidence. Having a district attorney spread conspiracy theories in political mailers is troubling if not beneath the dignity of his office.
And it gets worse.
According to a local campaign aide currently working for Dow, the DA has reportedly tapped controversial, alt-right personality Kevin P. Rice to be his campaign consultant. Rice reportedly played a “significant role” in crafting Dow’s messaging. I wonder if Dow is aware of Rice’s history of extensively harassing his adversaries. Whether Dow does or doesn’t know about his past, it’s troubling that Rice could hold that much influence in a campaign for a position that’s traditionally nonpartisan. After all, it was only a few months ago when Rice published a video that compared Parkland High School student and gun reform activist David Hogg to Adolf Hitler.
A political consultant with Kansas City-based Axiom Strategies, who’s representing Dow’s campaign, recently told The Tribune that they were “aware” that Rice was “putting something together.” That “something” is a Fair Political Practices Commission complaint that Rice filed on May 7 against Cummins, alleging at least 54 violations of state campaigning finance laws. As the New Times‘ Shredder mentioned recently, Rice has established a reputation for filing FPPC complaints against elected officials he doesn’t like. Rice’s complaint follows a number of hostile messages Rice left Cummins on his Facebook page.
This is not the first time Rice and Dow joined political forces.
In July 2017, Rice forwarded to San Luis Obispo city officials a private letter he received from the District Attorney’s Office regarding a housing-related ballot initiative that he supported and financed. In a letter written by Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham and signed by Dow, the DA’s office claimed the city unlawfully altered the citizen’s initiative to repeal and replace the city’s Rental House Inspection Program without citing evidence of violations. Cunningham also suggested that a “civil action may be [Rice’s] only remedy,” though the DA office traditionally refrains from making civil liability conclusions. The letter received a sharp rebuke from the SLO city attorney and Los Angeles attorney Craig Steele, who was retained by the city as an elections expert. Both blasted Cunningham and his “irresponsible,” “ridiculous” and “incorrect” analysis for misunderstanding the facts and the law. Despite the criticism, Cunningham stood by his letter. Rice never took the city to court over their framing of his ballot measure. His efforts were dismissed by the SLO City Council as a political stunt.
Rice isn’t the only conspiracy theory-peddling complaint connoisseur in this election cycle.
Los Osos resident Julie Tacker, who has filed 10 FPPC complaints over the past six years against her adversaries, alleged that District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson “has taken a strong and biased position in opposition to permitting new short-term vacation rentals in his district,” including vacation rentals near his properties in Cambria and Cayucos. In her FPPC complaint, Tacker alleges that Gibson has taken these positions because his property values could be affected by a nearby vacation rental; therefore he should’ve recused himself from any vacation rental votes pertaining to his district and any future opportunities to vote. Tacker is a vocal supporter for Gibson’s opponent Jeff Eckles.
Speaking of taking strong and biased positions, Tacker’s partner and developer Jeff Edwards represents two Cayucos vacation rental homes that are subject to a vote by the Board of Supervisors in July. Tacker claims she’s not reporting the allegations because of her business interests, though she credits her partner for bringing the issue to her attention.
Clearly Tacker hasn’t found a conflict that she doesn’t have an interest in. Her activities as a “government watchdog” often have a tie-in to her partner’s business interests.
For example, in 2014, Tacker and Arroyo Grande resident Otis Page submitted a complaint to the Arroyo Grande City Council and the SLO County Grand Jury, alleging the council attempted to “cover up” an incident involving the former city manager and a subordinate having drinks and entering City Hall late at night reportedly to sober up. Though Arroyo Grande’s deputy city attorney and an independent investigator found no violations of city policies or state laws, the “cover up” conspiracy fueled former Oceano Community Services Director Jim Hill’s write-in mayoral campaign that same year. Tacker is a vocal supporter of Hill, who previously expressed support for her partner’s controversial Oceano Airport development plans.
Both Rice and Tacker made news headlines with their complaints. Both complaints offer a smattering of conspiracy theory claims alleging their foes committed legal violations with the intent to violate. Both have a dismal record in proving their conspiracy theories are real or actionable. In Rice’s case, complaints alleging fraud, graft and corruption have resulted in candidates receiving nominal fines for clerical errors. In Tacker’s case, her actions have resulted in community disarray at the taxpayers’ expense with no net benefit. Her stubborn, or perhaps intentional, refusal to recognize her own conflicts of interest have only deepened the community’s wounds.
When asked about Tacker’s complaint against him, Supervisor Gibson succinctly responded, “Consider the source.”
Exactly. And voters should.