Voters in El Cerrito and elsewhere received "Democratic" campaign mailers that seem to be from the Democratic Party but contain several paid endorsements that do not match the party's official endorsements.
The mailer bears a "Vote Democratic" logo with a donkey inside a red, white and blue stars-and-stripes shield. The title of the endorsements section says, "The Team for Democratic Voters."
The mailers are targeted by locality, so the content varies. In one sent to an El Cerrito address, more than half of the mailer's 18 endorsements are marked with an asterisk (*). Readers who look at the mailer's fine print will see that endorsements with an asterisk were paid for.
There's "absolutely no connection" between the mailer and the Democratic Party, said Chuck Carpenter, chairman of the party's Contra Costa County committee.
"I know people are confused," he said. "It's a deceptive form of advertising that that they actually make good money at."
The mailer's fine print says it was prepared by Democratic Voters Choice, "not an official party organization." The tiny print also explains the asterisks: "Appearance is paid for and authorized by each candidate and ballot measure designated by an *."
The mailer's endorsements for big-name races, including Barack Obama for President and Diane Feinstein for U.S. Senator, match those of the California Democratic Party.
One mailer sent to an El Cerrito address begins with "ATTENTION: EL CERRITO Democrats" and also has endorsements for Democrats in local races, including Congressman George Miller, state Senator Loni Hancock and Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner. A copy of one of the mailers distributed in El Cerrito is attached to this article.
None of the endorsements for those individuals is marked with an asterisk.
The endorsements that carry asterisks include two West Contra Costa County school measures, Measures E and G, and nine of the 11 state ballot propositions.
The mailer recommends "Yes" votes on Measures E and G. The El Cerrito Democratic Club also supports both measures.
On the state propositions, however, the mailer's paid endorsements do not match the state Democratic Party's positions on five measures. The party, for example, supports Prop. 34 to abolish the death penalty and Prop. 37 to require labeling of genetically modified foods, while the mailer recommends a "No" vote on both.
Democratic Voters Choice sells many of the endorsements and adds big-name Democratic Party candidates for free, Carpenter said.
"That's how they hook people," he said, adding that the paying clients, which often include smaller campaigns, realize that such a mailer "is a lot cheaper than printing your own material."
Hilary Crosby, controller of the state Democratic Party and past president of the El Cerrito Democratic Club, said in an email to Patch, "It's a common misleading tactic during election campaigns for 'slate mailers' to put prominent Democrats (like President Obama and Sen. Feinstein) on a piece of mail and then put other things – such as No on Prop 37 – to mislead voters. If they do it late enough in the campaign, they may get fined after the election, but the damage has been done to the vote by then."
The mailer also lists a polling place for the address that it is sent to, though a mailer sent to a Patch reader on Barrett Avenue in El Cerrito listed the wrong polling place for that address.
Patch attempts to reach Democratic Voters Choice were not successful. The mailer lists an address for the group in Covina, CA, and no other contact information.
In June, local Democrats in Bakersfield objected to a Democratic Voters Choice mailer that included endorsements for two Republicans running for county supervisor, according to the Bakersfield Californian.
"These kinds of slate cards," Crosby said, "have been very harmful in rural counties where combining a photo of the Democratic presidential candidate with recommendations to vote for local Republicans in the 'non-partisan' races for school board, city council, irrigation district, etc. can put a Republican onto the first rung of the ladder to running for Assembly or State Senate by riding our coattails!"
"This tactic is not new," said Democrat Assemblywoman Skinner. "I always advise people to look at the small print."
Scott Lyons, president of El Cerrito Democratic Club, said official party materials will say they're from the party. Door hangers, for example, have CADEM at the top, for California Democratic Party. A party mailer for Prop 30 says, "Paid for by the California Democratic Party."
The Bakersfield Californian offered background about Democratic Voters Choice: "The state Fair Political Practices Commission identifies Democratic Voters Choice as a for-profit business that spends millions of dollars each election cycle to influence votes. In the 2007-08 election cycle, the commission listed the group as the fourth largest such group by expenditures, at $920,596."
Carpenter said similar endorsement-for-sale mailers are used by other profit-seeking entities that present themselves as public safety organizations or environmental groups.