Two California legislative races featuring Latino candidates have drawn charges of racism, adding a caustic ingredient to the home stretch of the 2016 election.
In one case, a Latino Republican candidate has accused Democrats of doctoring photos to make him appear darker and threatening. In the other, the California Latino Legislative Caucus has assailed ads linking a Latina Democrat to a Spanish-speaking cartoon character, Dora the Explorer.
Both involve hotly contested districts that figure prominently in Democratic ambitions of winning a two-thirds supermajority.
In the 38th Assembly District, where Republicans are trying to defend an open seat currently occupied by Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, voters have gotten mailers depicting Santa Clarita Mayor Pro Tem and Republican candidate Dante Acosta wearing a chain against a dark background. Acosta held a news conference to denounce the images as racist.
The photos in question are are publicity shots from Acosta’s work as an actor. Acosta argued that the pieces deliberately used “the most menacing photos they could find” and then doctored them to make him appear darker.
“They tried to make me look as dark and menacing and evil as possible simply to scare voters, and that’s blatant racism,” Acosta said.
Funded by the California Democratic Party, the mailers landed in a race where state and local Democratic Party committees have poured over $1 million into electing Democrat Christy Smith, Acosta’s opponent. A spokesman for the California Democratic Party said there was nothing unusual about the images.
“We reprinted photos from Dante Acosta’s own website, and the main alteration we made was to print them in black and white, which is standard procedure in campaign mailers,” spokesman Michael Soller said in an email. “Acosta’s own actor website lists his past roles as ‘Mafia boss,’ ‘Latino crime boss’ and ‘angry Middle Eastern Driver.’ If anybody should apologize for trafficking in stereotypes it should be Dante Acosta.”
Dave Jacobson, a spokesman for Smith’s campaign, said the criticisms from Acosta, “a candidate who refuses to denounce or reject the racist and hate-fueled campaign of Donald Trump, make it clear that he’s drowning in duplicity just like his Republican Party’s nominee for President.”
The same day that Acosta publicly denounced the pieces, the California Latino Legislative Caucus Leadership PAC issued a statement criticizing ads that call out Democratic candidate Abigail Medina for using public funds to travel while serving as a San Bernardino school board member.
Appearing on social media, the spots refer to Medina as “Abigail the Explorer” with brightly colored letters mimicking those used on the children’s show “Dora the Explorer,” a Latina character. Medina’s challenge to Assemblyman Marc Steinorth, R-Rancho Cucamonga, ranks near the top of the Democratic party’s list of targeted races.
“ ‘Dora the Explorer,’ an educational children’s cartoon that represents the best of what the Latino culture has to offer, has been used to denigrate and reduce our endorsed candidate into a caricature,” Latino caucus chair Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville said in a statement, calling the tactic “deeply troubling amidst an already divisive political climate.”
Those ads were paid for by an organization called the Accountability and Safety Education Fund PAC using funds from Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia. Matt Shupe, a consultant who worked on the spots, called allegations of racism “obnoxious and baseless.” He said the Dora the Explorer reference was intended to be familiar to parents, noting similar pieces have linked Medina to the character Carmen Sandiego, and noted that Medina’s Instagram account has in the past used an #AbigailtheExplorer hashtag.
“I was trying to think of ideas that resonate with parents” because the spots reference school district dollars, Shupe said, “and I thought of cartoons.”