Capitol Alert

Barack Obama flashpoint in California schools chief race, though he hasn't weighed in

The front cover of a mailer supporting state superintendent of public instruction candidate Marshall Tuck features former President Barack Obama, even though he has not weighed in on the race.
The front cover of a mailer supporting state superintendent of public instruction candidate Marshall Tuck features former President Barack Obama, even though he has not weighed in on the race.

Who gets to use Barack Obama's image in a political advertisement and when?

State superintendent of public instruction candidate Tony Thurmond and his supporters are trying to make a campaign issue out of a mailer for opponent Marshall Tuck that prominently features the former president.

Thurmond, a Democratic assemblyman from Richmond, and Tuck, a former charter school executive, are locked in a wide-open race for the nonpartisan office that oversees California's Department of Education. It has attracted interest from teachers unions on one side and wealthy individuals who would like to overhaul public education on the other, resurfacing a dynamic that drove a contentious and costly election in 2014.

The mailer, which was independently funded and produced by retired Los Angeles businessman Bill Bloomfield, displays a full-page image of Obama on the cover and quotes him: "In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education."

Inside, it touts Tuck's "innovative and progressive plan" and an endorsement from Obama's former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, then encourages recipients to "vote for Democrat Marshall Tuck" on June 5.

Thurmond's allies have denounced the advertisement as "shameful," arguing that it misleads voters into believing that Obama is backing Tuck's campaign. He is not. (Charter school backers of Antonio Villaraigosa's gubernatorial campaign have similarly produced a television ad and sent a mailer that falsely implies that Obama has endorsed Villaraigosa.)

Thurmond backers also criticize Bloomfield, who served as the national director of volunteers for Republican nominee John McCain during the 2008 presidential election, for capitalizing on Obama's popularity to benefit a white candidate, Tuck, at the expense of a black candidate, Thurmond, endorsed by the California Democratic Party.

California NAACP President Alice Huffman in an open letter last week demanded an apology from Bloomfield for "exploiting our first African American President against an African American candidate." Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles; Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena; and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, have since joined her, with Holden asking Tuck to renounce Bloomfield's "sleazy and dishonest political tricks."

Tuck's campaign declined to comment.

Bloomfield disputes that there's anything confusing about the mailer. He said he merely used a quote a from Obama to introduce the importance of education, which tied in with Duncan's endorsement. He added that it has nothing to do with his campaign work for McCain, "a friend of mine," in 2008.

"Last time I checked, President Obama was the president of all Americans," he said. "I don't know what their problem is and, frankly, I don't care."

He also pointed out that Thurmond did not object in 2014 when an independent committee sent voters a pro-Thurmond mailer with a full-page image of Obama and a quote about the importance of turning out in the midterm election on the cover. Alongside pictures of then-Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the mailer encouraged recipients to "vote for Tony Thurmond for state Assembly" on Nov. 4.

Thurmond spokeswoman Maddie Franklin said the intentions of the mailers are different. While the pro-Thurmond mailer was a "get-out-the-vote piece," she said, Bloomfield's is a "persuasion piece" trying to convince voters to support his candidate over the candidate endorsed by the Democratic Party.

"It's a ridiculous comparison," she said.

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