Robert Price

Saturday, Apr 24 2010 10:48 PM

Trustee Mettler giving students a civics lesson

By Robert Price

Kern High School District trustee Ken Mettler believes in civic education. We know this because in 2007 he enthusiastically endorsed the creation and classroom placement of 3,000 "In God We Trust" posters declaring that "Civic Education is Fundamental."

As valuable as those posters might be in impressing American values on the hearts and minds of Kern County students, they pale in effectiveness next to Mettler's own vivid example.

His lesson for the kids: Our electoral process still works fine after all these years, but a little lubrication sometimes comes in handy.

Mettler, who is running for Jean Fuller's soon-to-be-vacant 32nd Assembly District seat, has oiled things up by throwing a straw candidate into the proceedings. Faced with an opponent, Shannon Grove, from the formidable camp of political consultant Mark Abernathy, Team Mettler "invited" another Shannon -- Shannon Holloway -- to run against him too. Mettler's ally and fellow trustee, The Rev. Chad Vegas, helped secure the signatures needed to qualify her candidacy. Doppleshannon would split the "Shannon" vote and lift the crafty school board trustee to victory. "It's a political strategy," Holloway confessed to radio host Ralph Bailey last week. The assumption behind the strategy, of course, is that voters are as malleable as sheep. Which may be correct.

In addition to demonstrating to government students across the San Joaquin Valley the depths to which some candidates will sink, Mettler, consultant Tracy Leach and their associates have struck a blow for bored campaign advisers everywhere. Politics need not be so gosh-darn serious all the time! Underhandedness adds an entertaining dimension to the enterprise that folding brochures and knocking on doors could never offer.

Of course, there's downside to all of this for Mettler, who has always tried to position himself as the voice of the moral majority. He might come across as just another politician willing to check his honor at the door of the campaign office.

Fact is, he has shown dubious judgement before. Remember the street-corner scuffle with the No-on-Prop. 8 protester who had obtained and defaced a Yes-on-8 sign? You'd think a fiftysomething school board member would have the sense to walk away from a 21-year-old knucklehead, but instead Mettler took a swing -- and was spared a juicy YouTube moment only because the camera angle wasn't up to optimal production standards.

And you might recall the dust-up over the 2002 Rosedale Union School Board race, when incumbent trustee Mettler was charged with vandalizing an opponent's sign by covering portions of it with white paper. The case went to trial, but the judge dismissed the charges, saying the alleged actions didn't meet the definition of graffiti under the penal code section that Mettler was charged with.

Now, with this ham-handed attempt to confuse voters, Mettler has succeeded in the previously thought-to-be-impossible task of making the Abernathy team look like the aggrieved party.

No small chore, that. The folks from Abernathy's Western Pacific Research have seen every trick in the book, and may have written a few.

The Abernathy crowd isn't so clumsy they'd spell it all out in e-mails, but their footprints are at a few crime scenes. Consider the role played by candidate Phil Wyman in the 2006 GOP primary for this same 32nd Assembly District seat. When the votes were counted, it was clear that Wyman had successfully split the anti-Jean Fuller vote (i.e., the anti-Abernathy vote), resulting in Fuller's election and the defeat of well-funded businessman Stan Ellis, a level-headed guy whose heart seemed to be in the right place. Did Abernathy recruit Wyman to enter the race? There's no telling, but after the election, Fuller and Congressman Kevin McCarthy, a longtime Abernathy client, officially sponsored a fundraiser to pay off Wyman's campaign debt.

There's got to be a temptation among people who run campaigns for a living to run with the big boys and engage in a little political larceny. Campaign intrigue gets the heart beating faster. Stamping envelopes is boring. Finding ways to exploit the quirks and vulnerabilities of the multiple-candidate ballot has got to be downright fascinating.

But there's an ethical line there somewhere that separates gamesmanship from fraud, and if Mettler, et al., didn't cross it, they stepped on it.

Shannon Holloway dropped out of the race Friday (her name will still appear on the ballot), but her place in the annals of Kern County political shenanigans is assured. She can thank Ken Mettler for that -- as can high school government teachers across the county. Lessons so rarely write themselves before our eyes.

rprice@bakersfield.com

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