An unprecedented attack mailer timed to suppress the ability for City Council candidates and the press to respond before the election Tuesday hit mailboxes on Friday.
The double-sided flyer, titled “Vote Yes on Veronica Vargas,” takes direct aim at candidates Dan Arriola and Dotty Nygard as well as Councilwoman Rhodesia Ransom, who is not up for election.
The flyer superimposes the images of all three people over an image of an MS-13 gang member, who has identifying tattoos on his face and torso. Under the heading “My Opponents Hidden Agenda” the flyer states that Arriola “could be the third vote for tent city.” It goes on to state that “Ransom and Young both failed to bring the tent city to Tracy” and that Nygard and Arriola “support their hidden agenda to bring these tent cities here.” The mailer states it was paid for by “Vargas for Tracy City Council 2018” and bears her campaign's Fair Political Practices Commission identification number.
The Tracy Press has made multiple requests to Vargas and her campaign staff for an interview to elaborate on the images and messages via email and phone, but the mayor pro tem did not answer the requests.
“This is simply dirty politics,” Arriola said in an interview Saturday. “This was done purposely and with the intent to demean particular candidates including myself. The fact that there are outright lies on this piece is really disappointing.”
Nygard gave the Tracy Press an interview Saturday while on a break from her job as an emergency room nurse at Sutter Tracy Community Hospital, saying she was “disappointed.”
“My first reaction was, the people in Tracy are just so much better than this,” Nygard said. “It’s unfortunate that type of behavior happens during election cycles. I don’t think in my 25 years of being in this area, ever seeing anything this devastating.”
Ransom said she was not surprised.
“I felt disgusted that she would go that low,” she said Saturday. “Up until this point, Veronica Vargas was seeming to run a surprisingly clean campaign. I say ‘surprisingly clean’ because these are the types of tactics that she used when I originally ran for council.”
The images of Arriola, Ransom and Nygard on the flyer are in the middle of a circle and crossed lines that evoke a firearm scope, which troubled the emergency room nurse, who has had to treat gunshot victims.
“It’s so hurtful,” Nygard said. “It’s pretty hard to describe in words when you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut.”
Ransom said the flyer seemed designed to stoke people’s “nightmares.”
“It is trying to appeal to people’s fear and strike at their implicit bias,” she said. “You’ve seen some of the attacks against me on the City Council that have been orchestrated by people like Ms. Vargas with the help of her friend Alice English. You will see that they refer to me as ‘criminal’ and they will say ‘Ransom’s gang.’”
Arriola, who has prosecuted gang members and violent criminals, called the imagery of him linked to violent gang members “hateful.”
“MS-13 have victimized thousands of people and done reprehensible things. To be juxtaposed next to them is simply unacceptable,” he said. “Their reputation is one of being one of the most dangerous gangs in all of America. They’re known for engaging in murder and violence, human trafficking, narcotics sales. To be placed in an ad next to them, to imply that I have any connection to gangs, is disgusting.”
One line in the mailer, superimposed over images of Nygard and Arriola, entreats people to “Vote no on bringing homeless encampments to Tracy.”
Ransom believed the language was a reference to a recent agenda item to declare a shelter crisis in Tracy, which would have qualified the city and nonprofits within it to get money for both services and facilities.
“It was about removing the need for tents by making sure that we had the services and the enforcement efforts — a balanced approach to making sure that there aren’t people occupying our parks,” Ransom said.
Nygard said that homeless camps already exist here and that acting as if they do not will solve nothing.
“I have been an advocate for the homeless,” she said. “I have publicly stated that, yes, we need to address this issue. The only way we are going to resolve it is the city has to own it. We have to know that there is a crisis happening. There isn’t a community that is not affected by homeless.”
The mailer hit Tracy mailboxes on Friday, leaving little time for the candidates to respond before the election Tuesday or for the Tracy Press to verify the veracity of the claims. Ransom believes that timing was intentional and targeted commuters.
“We live in a town where the local newspaper comes out once a week, on Friday. We don’t have a local news channel,” she said. “They’re going to check their mail and they’re going to go, ‘Wow, look at these gang members. Ransom, Nygard and Arriola.’”
The flyer was distributed at the same time that a website targeting Arriola, Councilwoman Nancy Young and Nygard sprang up.
“The recent spread of the hate blog Realtracynews.com is obviously an attempt to oppose my candidy,” Arriola said of a website that now is inactive.
One post on the site implied that Arriola was homosexual and that because of that he did not reflect “Tracy values.”
“I think there no room for those type of hateful tactics in this community or anywhere. I was really offended by the statements. This particular piece used a photo of me at L.A. Pride,” he said. “This particular post really made it obvious that they were implying that someone in the LGBT community could not support Tracy family values or didn’t play a role in Tracy’s values. Such an insinuation we should not tolerate as a community.”
The post was so inflammatory that the San Joaquin Pride Center hosted a rally against hate speech at City Hall on Friday night.
“We simply cannot tolerate such hateful actions in our town,” Arriola said. “When looking at politics and elections, it really is a way of seeing where the future of our community is going. If we permit such hateful action today, we’re going to set a precedent for hateful action in the future. We have to stand up today and oppose such hate.”
Another post on the site accused Arriola of a felony: misstating his address on election documents.
“I did see that particular question posed to me and I was offended by it,” said Arriola, who graduated from West High School and returned to the community after getting his law degree in Southern California. “At the end of the day, I came home to Tracy because I wanted to make a difference in my community. As a law enforcement officer and current elected official, to think that I would engage in felonious criminal behavior is outrageous, uncalled for and offensive.”
Arriola lives in Tracy a mile from his parents’ home and talked about how the attacks against him have impacted them.
“They were also disgusted by it. They also believe that politics should be about the issues,” he said. “My mother called me this morning and she couldn’t believe the hate that was going on in this community.”
Ransom said she believed the mailer would harm relations and the effectiveness of the City Council.
“To say that you have so much desperation for your campaign and so much hatefulness for your fellow people,” she said, “colleagues that you’re supposed to work with because the people of Tracy have put us together, that you have this much hatefulness and this much disdain for us that you would put out something that not only is dishonest but creates fear in the community and creates fear for public servants. … It’s very disheartening.”
Nygard believes voters will see the attack mailer as a desperate last-minute attempt to trick people.
“We are better than this. This community deserves better than this,” she said. “We have great people in this city and I think the majority of people in Tracy, I think, will see right through this.”
Arriola worries that this tactic might reflect the thoughts of some other Tracy residents.
“I don’t know. I really hope it doesn’t,” he said. “I don’t think it does and I would like to believe it doesn’t, but I don’t know. We will learn on Tuesday.”