Harder wrote of Trump on candidate statement. Stanislaus registrar told him to stop.

Stanislaus County Clerk Recorder Lee Lundrigan in 2013.
Stanislaus County Clerk Recorder Lee Lundrigan in 2013. Modesto Bee file

Josh Harder of Turlock, a Democratic candidate for Congress, said his younger brother’s need for health coverage was a big reason that he’s running in the 10th Congressional District.

His candidate statement turned in last week at the StanislausStanislaus County Elections Office said his brother, who suffers from effects of a premature birth, would lose his health care under President Trump’s plan to eliminate provisions in the Affordable Care Act.

The Elections Office determined that Harder couldn’t use Trump’s name in the statement. He first needed to get written permission from the president.

That sounded weird, said Daniel Martin, the finance director for Harder’s campaign, who dealt with the Elections Office last Thursday. "It seems clear they did not have the authority to reject the candidate’s statement,” Martin said.

Citing the cost of legal fees, Harder has no plans to take the matter to court. "In censoring my candidate statement, the Registrar of Voters deprives the Valley from understanding the key issues in this race,” said Harder, who supports universal health coverage. "The voters have the right to know where the candidates stand. I’m running for Congress to fight for their right to access to healthcare."

The flap over Harder's candidate statement, which will appear in a voter information guide mailed before the June primary, has substance because the incumbent congressman Jeff Denham's seat is considered vulnerable. Denham sided with President Trump and Republicans in Congress who tried to repeal the ACA, while he represents an area where an estimated 100,000-plus residents received benefits from former President Barack Obama's health program.

The state Elections Code has boundaries for what can be said in the 250-word candidate statements. But Harder maintains the elections office was far too restrictive with the statement his campaign submitted.

Lee Lundrigan, county registrar of voters, said in emails Monday that Harder was treated the same as other candidates in the race. She said her office has a policy of not allowing candidates to name other people in their statement of qualifications without their permission.

Martin said he spent hours talking with a staff member Thursday. With each question, he said, the staff member would leave for about 20 minutes and then return with an answer.

He said Elections Office staff told him the reference to Trump's name did not comply with the law. When the statement was amended, the office did not allow a reference to "Trumpcare" and the "current administration" in the additional drafts, Martin said.

Harder got written permission from his brother to mention him in the statement. The final draft of his statement did not include Trump's name and it did not mention Denham's name. Everyone in this dispute agrees the Election Code prohibits a candidate from mentioning an opponent's name in the statement.

Lundrigan said four different areas of Harder's proposed statement did not comply with the law and he was asked to re-work parts of the statement that included names, people and organizations. Beside removing Trump's name, Harder was asked to remove a reference to "local Democratic leaders".

She said her office's requirement for candidates to get permission to use someone's name in a statement applies to all levels of government and the public.

"The candidate statement is designed to describe the candidate's education and qualifications ... and goals," Lundrigan wrote. "They may not use the name of anyone else, especially their opponent, without written permission. Although most candidates wish to use local or state names, this follows our usual procedure."

According to Martin, the San Joaquin elections office deferred to Lundrigan's decision because Harder lives in Stanislaus County.

Martin noted that four large counties in Southern California, including conservative Orange County, allowed congressional candidates to include Trump's name in candidate statements for the June primary.

As an example, Dave Min, a Democrat and university law professor in the 45th congressional district, wrote in his statement that: "President Trump's attacks on immigrants, women, Social Security and economic opportunity are making (the) American dream unattainable to many Orange County families."

Orange County also allowed Democrats Harley Rouda and Hans Keirstead to mention Trump by name in their candidate statements in the 48th Congressional District, where they are challenging veteran GOP Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.

Attorney Fred Woocher of Santa Monica, who handles election law cases, said he did not understand where Lundrigan was getting her interpretation of the law.

Woocher said a court case established that candidate statements may go beyond basic qualifications and provide the candidate's political views and ideas. The statements may not discuss an opponent’s qualifications and are not a forum for ranting and profanity, he said.

Woocher said he had never heard of a county Elections Office requiring written permission for use of a person's name in a candidate statement.

"If you say in terms of your position on issues, 'I am against everything that Trump is for,' I don’t see that you need to get Donald Trump’s permission,” Woocher said.

Sacramento Attorney Steve Churchwell said the law prohibits one candidate from mentioning the name of an opposing candidate, which has been interpreted to mean candidate statements are not to be attack advertisements against an opponent in the race.

"Trump is a lightning rod in our state,” Churchwell said. "Whether you are on one side or the other, I would think knowing where the candidate stands on these issues is pretty important.”

Churchwell, who handles election law cases, said candidate statements are usually challenged in court when a candidate exaggerates or lies about his or her qualifications.

Though his statement does not refer to Trump, it's possible Harder's campaign will get more mileage from the dispute than from a candidate statement buried in a voter pamphlet.

“We are just trying to let voters know about this and that we are here to stand up for them, even if the registrar is going to censor us,” Martin said.