Is it possible to talk smack about someone without even mentioning them? According to an order issued this morning by Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Timothy Canning, the answer is “yes.”
Canning found that a short sentence in the official candidate statement submitted by Tiffany Hunt Nielsen violated the state’s elections code by indirectly throwing shade at Juan Pablo Cervantes, her challenger in the November runoff election to become Humboldt County’s next clerk, recorder and registrar of voters. This despite the fact that the sentence in question doesn’t even mention Cervantes’ name or existence.
Here’s the deal: Among the many rules laid out in California Elections Code there’s one — Code Section 13308 — that says candidates for office can’t belittle their opponents in their official ballot statements. In fact, the code says candidate statements:
shall be limited to a recitation of the candidate’s own personal background and qualifications, and shall not in any way make reference to other candidates for that office or to another candidate’s qualifications, character, or activities.
A couple of weeks ago, shortly after submitting her official candidate statement for the November ballot, Hunt Nielsen received a notice from Kelly Sanders, the current county clerk, recorder and register of voters, informing her that an unidentified someone had lodged an objection to this sentence:
“I am the only candidate with experience working in both offices.”
Hunt Nielsen works as a senior documents examiner at the county recorder’s office, way up on the fifth floor of the county courthouse, while Cervantes works as
an elections specialist the elections manager in the county’s elections office, located in a former shopping center at the north end of town. Each candidate’s relative lack of experience in the other’s office has been a source of contention on the campaign trail.
In her notice to Hunt Nielsen, Sanders said that she had reviewed California Election Code Section 13308 and concluded that the objection had merit. The sentence may not reference Pablo Cervantes directly, but Sanders concluded that it comments on his qualifications by way of inference.
“I agree that the sentence in question makes reference beyond your own personal background and qualifications,” Sanders wrote. She added that if Hunt Nielsen had instead simply written, “I have experience in both offices,” there wouldn’t have been a problem.
After conferring with the county’s legal counsel, Sanders decided to delete the offending sentence from Hunt Nielsen’s candidate statement prior to printing it in the official voter information guide.
But Hunt Nielsen wasn’t satisfied with this proposed fix. She didn’t dispute Sanders’ conclusion about the sentence, though she may have had a good argument. A quick google search reveals that this particular formulation — “I am the only candidate … ” — has appeared on dozens of California ballots in recent years, in statements from candidates for everything from school boards to judge to the mayor of Los Angeles. The phrase will even appear on this year’s statewide ballot, in a statement from Board of Equalization candidate Sally J. Lieber, meaning the phrase must have been approved by the Secretary of State.
Regardless, Hunt Nielsen didn’t fight that part of Sanders’ actions. She just wanted to be given a chance to submit an amended statement of her own, rather than leaving her original statement with one sentence erased.
Hunt Nielsen retained attorney Dustin E. Owens from the Eureka firm of Owens & Ross, who petitioned the court for a writ of mandate that would allow her to replace the contested sentence with one saying, “I have experience working in both offices.”
When the Outpost asked Hunt Nielsen about the matter on Aug. 20, while she was campaigning at the Humboldt County Fair, she downplayed the significance of the whole affair, saying she didn’t want anyone to get the impression that she was suing her boss.
In an email, Sanders said she was unable to comment and referred us to the court documents.
In response to an inquiry, Cervantes replied via email, “In my capacity as Elections Manager I’ve stayed removed from Tiffany Hunt Nielsen’s actions. Kelly [Sanders] has been directly handling everything that has to do with the Clerk, Recorder & Registrar contest.”
This morning, Judge Canning issued an order granting the peremptory writ.
“Having considered the evidence and heard the argument of counsel, the Court finds by clear and convincing proof that the original candidate statement of Tiffany Hunt Nielsen contains a sentence that is inconsistent with Elections Code § 13308,” the order says
It also directs Sanders to replace Hunt Nielsen’s original candidate statement with her amended one, which is identical except for that one sentence.