Denham wins in court, will be called ‘farmer’ on November ballot

Congressman Jeff Denham talks to a large group of new US citizens during a Naturalization Ceremony at the Ceres Community Center Monday July 31, 2018.
Congressman Jeff Denham talks to a large group of new US citizens during a Naturalization Ceremony at the Ceres Community Center Monday July 31, 2018. mbicek@modbee.com

A lawsuit meant to keep Rep. Jeff Denham from listing his occupation as “farmer” on the November ballot was dismissed on a technicality, because he was not served legal papers as required.

Whether the Republican congressman is or isn’t a farmer was not addressed.

Plaintiffs said Denham evaded process servers at his Modesto office and at his homes in Turlock and near Washington, D.C., while Denham’s camp said that’s nonsense.

“This lawsuit was thrown out because Jeff Denham hid and purposefully avoided being in his district so he could not be served the legal paperwork,” said Andrew Feldman, spokesman for Red to Blue California, which brought the lawsuit. “Let’s be clear; it was not thrown out because Jeff Denham is a legitimate farmer. He and everyone else knows he is not.”

Josh Whitfield, Denham’s campaign manager, said, “You have to call this (lawsuit) what it is: a stunt. They waited till the last minute to pull this kind of crap. It was a political tactic that shouldn’t have happened.”

Denham, first elected in 2010, faces a stiff challenge this year from Democrat Josh Harder, who does not figure in the lawsuit.

Steven Gevercer, a judge in Sacramento Superior Court, where the lawsuit was filed, said in his ruling that he “cannot conclude from the evidence presented that (Denham) is evading service. ... Accordingly the court will not hear the merits of the matter.”

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 20, claimed that Denham “is merely a landlord (who) leases land to a farming operation.” The income he gets from a 20-acre nut orchard in Atwater is rent and not listed as farm income on his 2018 financial disclosure, the lawsuit said, adding “he has not earned income from farming since at least 2015.”

Most of Denham’s income comes from his congressional salary, from renting out a Turlock property and from a company in Salinas he owns that sells plastic containers to growers.

Denham grew up farming in Monterey County, he said in an interview with The Modesto Bee’s McClatchy bureau in Washington, D.C., and he bought the Atwater land 15 years ago, converting it from a sweet potato farm to an almond orchard. He had called the lawsuit “ridiculous.”

When the Mercury News in San Jose noted in May that he “no longer personally farms the land he owns,” Denham was quoted as saying, “I call myself a farmer because it’s a way of life.”

Denham’s “Local Farmer” signs in previous campaigns were mocked by his then-political opponent, Michael Eggman, a beekeeper who put “Real Local Farmer” on his signs.

At an Aug. 7 public appearance in Modesto, some protesters outside the event chanted “fake farmer” as Denham arrived.

California’s election code allows candidates to include a three-word description of their “current principal professions, vocations, or occupations,” called a ballot designation, beneath their name on the ballot.

Before the June primary, more than a half-dozen congressional and statewide candidates were forced to amend their designation after being denied their first choice by California’s secretary of state or because of an opponent’s court challenge.

Two years ago, state Assemblyman Heath Flora’s opponent successfully sued to have “farmer” removed from Flora’s ballot designation, but he still won that election.

Denham has used “farmer” on ballots for at least eight years.

He knew full well he was being sued and even talked about it in The Bee’s Aug. 21 report on the lawsuit, said attorney Margaret Prinzing, representing Red to Blue California.

“We tried every which way we could” to serve him papers, she said, including four approaches here and back east and mailing or delivering legal paperwork seven times, but none was given to him personally.

“He had actual notice. He just avoided the process servers,” Prinzing said.

Denham’s attorney, Brian Hildreth, said the judge “rejected all (those) arguments and said he was not going to proceed on the case having only half the facts.” Hildreth attended a Thursday hearing on the matter; Denham did not.

Receiving notice and having “the opportunity to be heard” are “hallmarks of due process,” Gevercer said in his Thursday ruling.

“Accusing him of dodging service is absolutely silly, when in the last 14 days we’ve had many press releases on his public events,” Whitfield said. “They had ample time to make this an issue if they were concerned about it.”

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390