REGION — On Dec. 24, 2019, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor ruled that San Diego County Supervisor District 3 candidate Terra Lawson-Remer must change her job title on the March 3 primary election ballot, calling it “misleading,” in a case brought by supporters of her opponents in the primary election.
Lawson-Remer, one of the two Democratic Party candidates for the officially nonpartisan race to unseat Republican incumbent Kristin Gaspar, initially listed herself as an “Economist/Environmental Attorney” as her ballot designation. But Judge Taylor ruled that, because Lawson-Remer is licensed to practice law in New York and not California, she must remove the title from the ballot.
“(Lawson-Remer’s] chosen designation would be misleading, as it would cause a reasonably prudent voter to assume (she) is a member of the California Bar when she is not (and by her own admission has never been),” wrote Taylor, adding that only members of the State Bar of California can use the words “attorney,” “lawyer” or “counselor at law.”
“The only way (she) could honestly refer to her status as an attorney would be to describe herself as a ‘New York Lawyer,” Taylor said.
In the aftermath of the ruling, Lawson-Remer changed her description to “Economist/Community Organizer.” She told The Coast News that she still believes the title will resonate with voters, comparing it to President Barack Obama, who had a background as both an attorney and community organizer.
“I am honored that our campaign is the No. 1 target of a Republican Super PAC,” she told The Coast News. “We’re being targeted because they know we will put the public interest over special interests in San Diego County. My dedication is to serve my community in every possible way.”
Plaintiffs who support Gaspar and Lawson-Remer’s Democratic Party challenger in the race, Escondido City Councilwoman Olga Diaz, brought the legal challenge. Court documents show that Melinda Vásquez, a volunteer for the Diaz campaign, also brought her own complaint to the San Diego Registrar of Voters on Dec. 12, a week before the plaintiffs brought their legal complaint.
“If Ms. Lawson-Remer doesn’t refer to herself as an Environmental Attorney on her CV, or her campaign website where she has the control to disclose her work history, then why would she be referring to herself as an Environmental (sic) to the voters?,” wrote Vásquez. “Additionally, the title of Environmental Attorney implies that Terra is licensed to practice law in California as she is a second-generation resident growing up in San Diego.”
Vásquez said that she and the legal team did not coordinate and she had known Lawson-Remer did not have her license to practice law in California since the summer. She also said that she had a familiarity with ballot designation law from her own time as a candidate running for the California Assembly during the 2016 election cycle.
Centrist — and until recently Republican Party consultant, before he left the party — Ryan Clumpner, also said that the two teams did not coordinate.
“This is what campaigns do, whether candidate or PAC,” he told The Coast News. “I’m more surprised that Gaspar’s campaign didn’t act than I am that Diaz’s campaign did.”
Clumpner helped to shepherd the legal efforts through his recently formed political action committee, Community Voices San Diego. Clumpner, the publication Voice of San Diego reported, donated $100 to Diaz’s campaign
“I admire the spin Terra used to concoct this ballot designation. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Clumpner told The Coast News. “But it was a false statement and would have grossly misled voters as to her qualifications. The plaintiffs and I are pleased that a court agreed, took swift action to protect the voters, and held Terra accountable.”
In the legal case, the plaintiffs received representation from the Sutton Law Firm, a Los Angeles-based firm. Sutton also recently represented the company Newland in a successful ballot language lobbying effort to amend language on the looming primary election referendum vote over its proposed Newland Sierra housing development proposal, slated to sit on county land between Escondido and San Marcos.
According to campaign finance disclosure documents, Community Voices San Diego owes $7,500 in debt to Sutton Law Firm so far for its legal work on the case, as of Jan. 14. Lawson-Remer received representation from the firm Strumwasser & Woocher.
Clumpner said the legal team will next seek legal fees for the case.
“No one in the public should have to bear the cost of correcting her attempt to mislead voters. If the court disagrees, I will have to raise new funds to cover the debts incurred,” he said.
In their complaint, the plaintiffs argued not only against Lawson-Remer’s attorney description, but also her economist designation.
“In sum, talking to clients about ‘labor markets, automation, property rights, economic development and econometrics’ does not make one an Economist, and preparing research papers in graduate school, while pursuing a PhD in philosophy, also does not make one an Economist,” they wrote. “This term is at best misleading and at worst false — and in either case not allowed by the Elections Code.”
Responding to the complaint, Lawson-Remer’s team posited that regardless of status with the state bar, her training in law school and graduate school — and how that applies on a day-to-day basis to the work she does — merit the professional titles she had placed on the ballot.
“(O)nce acquired, a person retains a ‘profession’ throughout her lifetime, because it depends not on the specific nature of the person’s present job or employment activity, but on the education, training, and special knowledge that the person possesses,” her legal team wrote, pointing to the definition of “profession” found in 20714(a)(1) of the California Code Regulations. “Whether Ms. Lawson-Remer qualified as an ‘attorney’ due to her membership in the California or the New York Bar should be of no consequence; she is entitled to consider and call herself an ‘attorney’ in either case.”
Lawson-Remer has a PhD in political economy from New York University and works as a research fellow studying those topics at University of California-San Diego at the Center on Global Transformation, which works to “disseminate research that addresses global economic and technology transformation,” according to its website.
Robert Otille — a San Diego attorney with experience litigating a slew of ballot language challenges — said legal challenges of this sort are a “cottage industry” for a handful of California law firms during election season, including the ones involved in this case. But done right, he added, they can leave a big imprint on local electoral races.
“The reason this becomes important to people on lower-ballot races is because most people don’t know anything about lower ballot races except for what they read in the voter pamphlet or what they see on the actual ballot,” he said. “Sometimes all they hear about the candidate is those three words … So, a lot of candidates believe that it’s worth a massive expenditure to fight these ballot designation fights.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Ryan Clumpner as a conservative. The Coast News regrets the error.
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at email@example.com.