Capitol Alert

Did Mike Gatto recruit write-in challenger to Adrin Nazarian?

Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian of Sherman Oaks listens during session in the Assembly chambers on March 11, 2013.
Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian of Sherman Oaks listens during session in the Assembly chambers on March 11, 2013.

There’s no love lost between feuding Assemblymen Mike Gatto and Adrin Nazarian, Democrats from Los Angeles. But there may be an election at stake.

Nazarian, of Sherman Oaks, did not draw an opponent last spring. But he faces a fall challenge from Angela Rupert after the Democratic attorney collected 131 write-in signatures in the primary.

Eric Hacopian, Nazarian’s campaign strategist, thinks Gatto and his allies are helping to orchestrate the nascent effort. Rupert, 38, is married to Jason Insalaco, Gatto’s former district director. And the two share other connections.

“There is no doubt, based on all the evidence, that Angela Rupert’s entry into this race was planned and organized by Mike Gatto,” Hacopian told The Bee.

“The notion that the spouse of an elected official’s district director would challenge one of his colleagues in a neighboring district without their consent is simply not believable.”

Gatto, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

Insalaco, speaking on behalf of Rupert’s campaign, said: “There’s no truth to it at all.”

“It’s sad to see that our opponent is clearly a subscriber to the ‘Tin Foil hat of the month club,’” Rupert campaign spokeswoman Michelle Olivas added. “Adrin and his team are trying to throw a Hail Mary without a football.”

See more at The Money Trail.

If what Hacopian alleges is true, the move signals a significant escalation in the rivalry between colleagues.

While Gatto is leaving because of term limits, challenging an incumbent member of one’s own party is virtually unheard of, and undermines a system in which legislators are expected to forcefully protect their own. Aiding in a campaign against an incumbent also would be considered disrespectful of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, and would put the caucus in the position of having to spend money to defend its member should things get competitive.

Animosity between Gatto and Nazarian burst into public view this spring amid debate over a Nazarian bill allowing ride-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft to request the criminal history of its drivers from the Justice Department. Gatto and others accused Nazarian of reneging on a promise to amend the bill; but Nazarian and Assemblyman Das Williams said he never agreed to the changes in committee. “It’s OK,” Nazarian said of Gatto’s rebuke. “Some of our careers are coming to a short end soon.”

Nazarian then accused Gatto of living in East Sacramento, about 400 miles outside his district.

Rupert has yet to raise much money, and though it is uncommon, there is precedent for a successful underdog challenge in the San Fernando Valley. Two years ago, Democratic Assemblywoman Patty Lopez shocked the political establishment by unseating Raul Bocanegra. Lopez’s underfunded campaign was run by friends and novices while Bocanegra relied on the professional services of a veteran Sacramento consultant.

There is no direct evidence linking Gatto and Rupert, but they have commonalities in addition to Insalaco.

Gatto and Rupert share the support of parents who advocated against Senate Bill 277, successful legislation mandating that all schoolchildren be vaccinated.

Gatto opposed SB 277, and earned the backing of many of its foes, including some who helped raise money for his aborted Senate race (he is running for state treasurer in 2018). Vaccine skeptics organized for Rupert when she launched her signature drive for the fall ballot. Among them was Kerri Kasem, daughter of the late entertainer Casey Kasem.

“My friend Jason’s wife Angela Rupert, is running for State Assembly and she is in the Sherman Oaks district. Wish you TONS OF LUCK!!!” she wrote.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Gatto’s Assembly Bill 1085 giving adult children access to an ailing parent. The legislation was pushed by Kerri Kasem.

“The truth is that the few people who do support Angela Rupert’s campaign are anti-vaccination activists who, in this case, organized the social media driven campaign to get her the 130 votes she received during the June primary election,” Hacopian said.

Insalaco stressed that Rupert is an “unequivocal” supporter of Senate Bill 277, adding that there’s no truth to the anti-vaccination claims by Nazarian’s team.

Rupert’s website is not the typical online profile of a write-in candidate. It features detailed statements about her policy positions, and includes dozens of high-resolution photos, suggesting a degree of political sophistication. Such images are generally included to be plucked by influential independent expenditure committees that align with the candidate.

Though it remains low-key, the battle between Nazarian and Rupert for the district that takes in Sherman Oaks, Panorama City and Valley Glen has begun. Rupert, who will appear ahead of Nazarian on the ballot, last month blasted him for initially withholding support for legislation giving overtime pay for farmworkers, comparing him to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Nazarian supported the bill when it returned to the Assembly floor in August.

Last month, a Sacramento judge ordered Rupert to drop “educator” from her ballot designation after Nazarian’s camp successfully argued that it wasn’t the attorney’s primary profession.

Editor’s note: This post was updated at 11 a.m. to include additional comments from the Rupert campaign.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago