Where mailers can be costly, a candidate’s official ballot statement is one of the cheapest ways to convey themselves to voters en masse in an election year. 

This year, battles have been playing out in Orange County over what candidates can say about each other and themselves on the form. 

Most recently, Orange County Superior Court Judge Craig Griffin ruled on March 29 that 2nd District OC Supervisor candidate – and Santa Ana Mayor – Vicente Sarmiento couldn’t include an endorsement by the Democratic Party of Orange County in his official ballot statement. 

Griffin’s ruling came after a self-described 2nd District resident, Ivana Unger, challenged Sarmiento’s statement on the grounds it violated California elections law, which bars a candidates’ “membership of, or activity in partisan political organizations” from being mentioned in the document. 

Sarmiento received the party endorsement last month.

In court, Sarmiento and his lawyer, Glenn Ward Calsada, argued that the original ballot statement never directly identified Sarmiento as a Democrat. 

The original text read: 

“Please join the Democratic Party of Orange County, the Orange County Labor Federation, United States Senator Alex Padilla, and elected officials, organizations and residents in supporting Mayor Sarmiento’s campaign for a brighter and more prosperous future for all in Orange County.”

While Griffin’s ruling acknowledged the challenged phrase “does not expressly state (Sarmiento) is a registered Democrat,” it’s “virtually inconceivable that the Democratic Party of Orange County would endorse a Republican, or anyone else who is not a Democrat.”

“Certainly, that is how voters will see it,” the judge added. 

The “manifest purpose” of the relevant state election code, Griffin wrote, “is to keep nonpartisan contests truly nonpartisan. The inclusion of a partisan political party endorsement in a candidate statement is simply an end-run around (the law), and defeats its purpose.”

This June, Sarmiento’s up against four other candidates for the 2nd District seat, which represents swaths of central county communities from Orange to Garden Grove. 

The other candidates are Orange Councilman Jon Dumitru, former Santa Ana council member Cecilia Iglesias, Garden Grove council member Kim Nguyen, and former Santa Ana council member Juan Villegas. 

The decision on Sarmiento’s ballot statement comes shortly after the conclusion of another candidate statement dispute revolving around another county-level race. 

On April 1, Orange County Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott ruled that progressive District Attorney candidate Pete Hardin can’t write about scandals involving the opponent he’s challenging, current District Attorney Todd Spitzer, on his ballot statement. 

Hardin’s original ballot statement repeatedly criticized Spitzer’s office as “plagued with scandals,” and sexual harassment issues. 

Namely, Spitzer’s office faces a wave of lawsuits from his own prosecutors over his handling of workplace harassment issues. And this week, three more prosecutors stepped forward, with one adding fuel to previous claims by another prosecutor that Spitzer used racist language complicating criminal prosecutions.

Following Hardin’s ballot statement submission, Spitzer sued to block it from moving forward, under state law barring candidates from making “reference to other candidates for that office or to another candidate’s qualifications, character or activities.”

“The District Attorney’s Office is not ‘plagued with scandals,’” said a court filing at the time by Spitzer’s attorney, Mark Rosen, adding the accusations “have all been investigated and rejected.”

Scott ruled on the final case last Friday.

“When I read the case law … what I see is that a candidate statement is the place for a candidate to express their own views, their own ideas, their own platform and their own opinions and in doing so they can touch on general institutional figures and interests,” Scott said. “But what a candidate cannot do in a candidate statement is comment on an opponent, attack an opponent, make a direct criticism of an opponent.”

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