Jeff Jardine

Early on, Vogel saw upstart Flora as biggest Assembly seat threat

Of all the candidates who entered the 12th Assembly District race, voters knew the least about Heath Flora when this thing began.

In fact, the other four all enjoyed good local name recognition. Ken Vogel, pretty much guaranteed a spot in the November runoff, is a former San Joaquin County supervisor. Virginia Madueño served both on Riverbank’s City Council and as the city’s mayor. Harinder Grewal challenged Kristin Olsen for the 12th District seat a few years back, and also served on Turlock’s school board and the Stanislaus County Fair board. And Cindy Marks is a longtime member of Modesto City Schools’ board of education.

So of the field of five, you could say Flora stood out only for his anonymity in local politics. Not anymore.

Flora emerged from Tuesday night’s early returns in second place and, should he maintain his lead over third-place Madueño as the remaining votes are counted, he’ll face Vogel in November. But Flora didn’t sneak up on any one.

To the contrary, Vogel launched an all-out assault on fellow Republican Flora – not any of the three more established candidates – from the get-go and ignored the others as if they were inconsequential. They were not. Vogel led with only 25.5 percent of the vote, which is not exactly a mandate. Flora stood at 22.6 percent. Madueño hung close at 21.9 percent, with Grewal at 19.3 percent. Only Marks lagged way back at 10.9 percent.

What put political rookie Flora directly into the veteran’s crosshairs? State Sen. Anthony Cannella’s endorsement of Flora got the attention of Vogel and of the California Alliance for Progress and Education and the California Real Estate Independent Expenditure Committee. As of last week, the two groups had spent over $250,000, including $175,000 in May alone to attack Vogel or support Flora.

Vogel spent $175,309 since Jan. 1 from his campaign fund, while Flora spent half that amount from his own war chest.

Cannella said that while he endorsed Flora, a longtime friend, he had nothing to do with the big money rolling in.

“I’m terming out in a couple of years,” Cannella said. “I don’t think I have that kind of clout.”

Flora did the hard work needed to contend, Cannella said. “He walked (visited) about 10,000 houses,” Cannella said. “Maybe Mr. Vogel thought he was out working hard. I don’t know.”

Vogel has been around politics long enough to know that when an opponent has that kind of money working for him, it’s time go on the offensive.

“We didn’t focus on him until we got attacked,” Vogel told me Wednesday. And when his campaign saw the independent expenditure money – the hard money of politics – start to stack up on Flora’s behalf, Vogel knew Flora could be a serious contender.

He went to court to prevent Flora from declaring “farmer” as his occupation on his candidate declaration. Flora comes from a farming family, but his primary business is selling farm-related equipment, and he is also a volunteer firefighter.

Vogel also sent out several “hit” mailers against Flora, one of them in effect calling him a liberal posing as a conservative Republican. Yes, folks, Vogel called him the “L-word.”

And Flora – OK, his fans among the independent expenditures crowd – went after Vogel just as aggressively, challenging his voting record as a San Joaquin County supervisor, and his pension incomes along with what he would earn in the Assembly, and other vulnerabilities.

Flora, meanwhile, said he doesn’t know the people who run the groups funding the hit pieces against Vogel. “We had no idea of what they were going to do,” he said. “We were never informed.”

At the same time, he said he wouldn’t hesitate to exploit whatever weaknesses Vogel’s record allowed.

“We set out on our path a year and a few months ago,” he said. “We’ve run the campaign exactly how we had designed it, and let the chips fall where they may.”

Perhaps the intensity of the campaign might have worked in a way Vogel didn’t anticipate. By going after Flora – including in the courtroom – Vogel likely created more exposure for the first-time campaigner than Flora might have garnered had Vogel brushed him off and gone after Madueño and Grewal instead. The fight between Vogel and Flora elevated Flora’s name recognition.

And with the field about to be culled – presuming Flora holds onto second place – the tone of the campaign will get nastier and nastier.

As the campaign heads toward November, they’ll no doubt take their attacks to another level.