It's early November in Sacramento. The leaves are changing, the nights are getting cooler and there's a campaign flier in your mailbox depicting a City Council candidate as a real-life Pinocchio.
These are the final days of campaigning, a period that Democratic political strategist Chris Lehane once famously compared to a "knife fight in a telephone booth." And as Tuesday's election approaches, the two City Council contests are living up to that billing.
There's the usual array of campaign mailers arriving by the pound. But there's also been a complaint filed with the state's political watchdog agency, a political consultant calling a candidate "despicable," and charges that one candidate is misleading voters by implying he has the support of President Barack Obama.
"Politicians are going to do what they think is going to help them win," said Rob Kerth, one of two candidates running for the District 2 council seat in north Sacramento.
Both council races are expected to be close. Spending is at an all-time high, with the four candidates combining to raise nearly $1 million. The seats are coveted after being controlled by incumbents for many years.
Kerth, 53, was north Sacramento's councilman for two terms in the 1990s before stepping down to make an unsuccessful run for mayor. He is seeking to capitalize on his experience against a political rookie.
His opponent, Allen Warren, 48, is a developer who has built large projects in the area and has attracted strong support in Del Paso Heights, his hometown, despite highly publicized legal and financial issues involving his firm and personal assets.
Kerth and Warren are vying to represent an area pocked with empty storefronts and burdened with some of the city's highest crime and foreclosure rates.
Also up for grabs is the District 4 council seat, representing leafy Land Park, the restaurants and skyscrapers of the Central City and the tidy developments of River Oaks in South Natomas.
Issues run the gamut here, from whether to build bike lanes on Freeport Boulevard to the continued development of downtown.
Candidate Steve Hansen, 33, is seen as the newcomer in the race, a downtown resident seeking to be the city's first openly gay council member and the first from the central city in 30 years.
Joe Yee, 62, has deep roots in the district, having lived in Land Park since before Hansen was born. He has owned businesses in the district for three decades. Yee is an architect and former city planning commissioner who promotes a deliberate approach to policymaking.
For months, their race was cordial. That began to change this week, when the Hansen campaign filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission charging that Yee had failed to report rent payments on his campaign office space in midtown. FPPC regulations state those payments must be reported during the time the space is used.
Yee, who is renting space in the Safeway complex on S Street from developer Paul Petrovich, said he takes the complaint seriously and will pay Petrovich as soon as he is billed.
"If I misinterpreted (the regulations), we will do whatever the FPPC believes to be the appropriate action," he said.
For his part, Yee's campaign has taken aim at Hansen over a mailer he sent out this week featuring a photograph of the president. Under the photo, it reads, "Democratic Leaders & Progressive Organizations Support Steve Hansen for Sacramento City Council."
Yee said he was "a little puzzled by the message." His campaign consultant was more direct.
"I guess it is Halloween and Hansen is trying to play a political trick," Andrew Acosta said. "Unless I missed a press release, the president hasn't endorsed Steve Hansen."
The Obama campaign did not return a message asking whether the president has, in fact, taken a stance in a Sacramento council race.
Hansen would not comment when asked whether he thought the mailer was misleading. His campaign consultant, Thomas Dodson, said he thinks the criticism "is a non- issue."
"The implication there is that Steve is a big supporter of President Obama and the values he stands for are the same that Steve has," Dodson said.
In north Sacramento, campaign mailers have created a furor.
An ad targeting Kerth shows him with an outlandishly long, Pinocchio-style nose, along with the caption, "Shame on you Rob Kerth." It charges that Kerth left his post last year as head of the Midtown Business Association "under a cloud of suspicion and rumors that he was forced out." And it says he took "nearly $40,000 in taxpayer funds with him."
Kerth and the business association board have an agreement not to discuss his departure in detail. But Kerth described it as "all fine" and said he stepped down to run for council. He acknowledged receiving $40,000 in severance pay, but noted that the Midtown Business Association is funded by assessments on midtown businesses and large property owners, not taxpayers.
"Allen's got to say something, and he's apparently happy to make things up," Kerth said.
The Warren mailer also attacks Kerth for taking credit for luring the Greater Sacramento Urban League headquarters to Del Paso Heights. Warren donated the land on which the center stands and was the developer of the facility a tribute to his father who was killed by a drunk driver.
It's that element of the campaign that has Warren's campaign consultant hurling insults.
"What (Kerth) is doing is despicable, it's like stealing from the dead," said political consultant Phil Giarrizzo.
Kerth counters that he did play a role in the Urban League project, since he was on the council at the time. He said he takes particular offense at the Warren mailer because the photo altered to make him look like Pinocchio was snapped while he was helping to clean up the wreckage of his family's Iceland skating rink, which was destroyed by arson in 2010.
"Having him trying to make things negative (with that photo) hurts," Kerth said.
Kerth isn't the only one taking a star turn in negative fliers. Warren is getting slammed by mailers funded by the building trades and plumbers unions. They depict the developer with his arms around a pile of cash.
All's fair in the political knife fight, Warren said.
"Tell (Kerth) not to be a crybaby," he said. "If he wants to start painting pictures of people, we'll start painting pictures of people."