A recent campaign mailer urging voters to re-elect Grace Mah to the Santa Clara County Board of Education is sparking backlash and allegations that it misleads voters.
The mailer prominently features a supportive quote from U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, despite him endorsing only her opponent, Melissa Baten Caswell. The flyer includes a picture of Khanna, a Democrat representing California’s 17th District, along with a quote recognizing the work Mah did on Khanna’s diverse educational advisory committee.
The other side of the flyer includes the names and images of six Democrats who endorse Mah, plus an image of a kicking donkey. Mah is a registered Republican.
Although the flyer doesn’t directly claim that Khanna is endorsing Mah, Baten Caswell’s campaign chairman Sangeeth Peruri called the mailer “really deceptive,” saying that voters will assume Khanna is supporting Mah, when in truth he is endorsing Baten Caswell.
“The entire side of the mailer just has Ro Khanna, so that would assume that Ro Khanna has supported her campaign. There’s no other logical conclusion you can make,” Peruri said. “It’s completely unethical. There’s really no ambiguity here; it’s extremely amoral.”
Mah said she received Khanna’s permission to use his quote, and that the mailer specifically doesn’t say that Khanna is endorsing her – only that the Democrats listed on the other side are doing so. Mah added that she “just followed the instructions” Khanna gave her to use the quote.
“People can interpret things any way they like, but I think it’s reasonable,” Mah said. “He gave me permission, so I went ahead.”
Mah shared text messages with the Town Crier that she said were between her and Khanna. In them, he gives her the quote to use for a mailer, and says to “please be sure it’s not represented as an endorsement” but rather as praise for her work on his advisory committee.
Khanna released a statement Oct. 14 on his Facebook page that did not directly refer to the mailer, but he stated that he “only endorsed Melissa Baten Caswell for Santa Clara County Board of Education and look forward to her victory on November 3rd.”
In emails to the Town Crier, Khanna campaign manager Cooper Teboe reiterated that while Khanna gave Mah permission to use the quote in praise of her work on his committee, the campaign is only endorsing Baten Caswell, as made clear in his Facebook post.
“He has confidence in the judgment of voters in making the best judgment and not being improperly swayed by one mail piece,” Teboe said.
Friday, the Santa Clara County Democratic Party released a statement criticizing the mailer because it “implies falsely that she is endorsed by Congressman Ro Khanna and misappropriates the Democratic Party kicking donkey logo to suggest she is affiliated with the Democratic Party.”
Peruri also objected to her use of Democratic imagery and list of Democrats who endorsed her, saying that it “intentionally misleads” voters, given that Mah is a Republican, while Baten Caswell is a Democrat.
“Grace is clearly pretending to be a Democrat,” Peruri said. “And then to use someone’s image when they haven’t endorsed you, it’s just horrible.
Both Peruri and the county Democratic Party connected Mah to President Donald Trump, with county party chairman Bill James saying that she is receiving money from “out-of-town PACs (political action committees) who know she uses her position on the County Board of Education to advance the Trump-DeVos education agenda.”
Peruri said that using Khanna in her campaign mailer was similar to the president recently using Dr. Anthony Fauci’s words in a campaign ad, even though Fauci has not endorsed Trump. Fauci has called for the president to take down the advertisement.
Mah laughed at the comparison, saying that it was “totally ridiculous” because Khanna had given her full permission to use the quote. Although she’s a registered Republican, Mah said she doesn’t support Trump and that her party affiliation hasn’t been an issue in the 13 years she’s been on the board.
She also objected to Baten Caswell’s campaign bringing up the matter of party ID throughout the race, given that the board of education seat is a nonpartisan position. Mah said she used the donkey and list of Democratic supporters in her mailer to show she reaches across the aisle.
“Yeah, I am a Republican,” Mah said, “But I’ve got Democratic support.”
Mah is running to keep the seat on the county board that she has held since 2007. Challenger Baten Caswell has been a member of the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education since 2008. More than $200,000 had poured into the race as of Sept. 19, the date through which the most recent round of detailed campaign finance disclosures covers. At that point, Baten Caswell had raised $139,722.60 to Mah’s $79,884.99.
Since those disclosures, more money has streamed into the race. Although the next set of full disclosures aren’t due until Thursday, forms showing contributions above $1,000 indicate that Mah in particular has received large donations since Sept. 19, including two donations from the Charter Public Schools PAC – one for $75,000 and the other for $105,000. Since Sept. 19, Baten Caswell’s largest contributor is the East Side Teachers Association Political Action Committee, which has given roughly $30,000 across two donations.
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