Accusations over what is, and isn't, perceived as an official Republican campaign effort in the special election for an East Bay state Senate seat have now sparked a federal lawsuit.
On Friday, the California Republican Party filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against a political action committee that sent out mailers in support of the GOP candidate on the ballot in Senate District 7, Michaela Hertle, which include a tiny elephant logo.
"The Elephant Insignia trademark is commonly used in Republican politics throughout the United States," says the lawsuit. "Moreover, it has acquired secondary meaning through its use, for decades, in California and national political discourse to signify the Republican Party's official imprimatur."
But it's the story behind the lawsuit that's most intriguing, one that's become a key issue in the race to replace Mark DeSaulnier, who resigned the seat after winning a November 2014 race for the U.S. House of Representatives.
The mailers in question were produced by a campaign committee, the Asian American Small Business Political Action Committee, that includes traditional Democratic donors among its contributors. And the GOP candidate it endorses, Hertle, isn't even campaigning for the job but has instead endorsed Democrat Steve Glazer, the mayor of Orinda.
Glazer is the candidate perhaps best poised to win crossover Republican votes on March 17, in part because of a long and heated fight with organized labor. A former top campaign aide to Gov. Jerry Brown, Glazer was shunned by labor groups after his 2012 work as a campaign consultant for a business-backed committee that sought to defeat a handful of incumbent Democratic legislators. He then lost a bitter 2014 race for the Assembly.
But back to the mailers.
Bill Wong, the campaign consultant who oversees the Asian American Small Business PAC, says the elephant logo is not intended to suggest to voters that the pro-Hertle flyers are from the GOP or that she's been endorsed by the party.
"I don't think it's false advertising," he said in an interview on Friday.
Instead, Wong claims the logo is a "stock image" that an outside vendor provided to his political action committee. And he insists the committee would like to see Hertle, who isn't campaigning, elected.
But the committee also would like to see Glazer lose out in a race that also features Democrats Susan Bonilla, a sitting assemblywoman; Joan Buchanan, a former assemblywoman; and newcomer Terry Kremin. Earlier this week, the PAC began sending out anti-Glazer mailers to Republicans.
"What we're trying to do is educate the public," said Wong.
The California Republican Party sees it differently. Its lawsuit accuses the political action committee of using the elephant logo "with the intent to cause confusion and to deceive consumers."