It was a crowded field in the 39th Congressional District, to be sure.
Drawn to a rare open seat in this diverse, well-to-do corner of Orange County, 17 candidates placed their names on the ballot to replace Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton). Six of them were Democrats and, until recently, Herbert H. Lee didn’t stand out among them.
He was a political unknown who paid the filing fee to get on the ballot but raised virtually no money. His fellow Democratic opponents had already spent millions and had been running for the better part of a year.
But with weeks to go before the June 5 primary, Lee, a gastroenterologist, pumped $1 million into his campaign coffers and spent most of it.
Who was this mysterious candidate with little presence on social media or on the streets? Amid rising concerns that California’s top-two primary system could lock Democrats out, party operatives began to worry Lee was a potential spoiler who could sap votes from top contenders and keep them from advancing.
His campaign spending — much of it on Chinese language and Spanish advertising — seemed hyper-targeted to Asian Americans and Latinos in the district. His website and mailers, cheap looking and basic, offered vague policy positions and emphasized his personal biography — his wife’s name, the ages, occupations and college majors of his children, and that he is a “well respected Catholic family man.”
“At this point, any under-performing and virtually unknown Democrat spending last minute money is harming Democrats’ chances,” said Drew Godinich, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the weekend before the primary.
Lee only registered to vote as a Democrat in Los Angeles County in November. He told state officials that he’d registered in Orange County as a voter, but election officials there said they had no record showing he had. Voting records prior to last week’s election suggest he hadn’t voted in California in the last 10 years. Lee’s campaign did not return repeated calls for comment.
His last-minute campaign spending also raised some eyebrows.
The biggest chunk of it — some $162,000 for “campaigning” — was paid to a Delaware company called “Alpha Elephant Data” with an address for a suburban mailbox store. No such company is registered in that state, but an “Elephant Data LLC” can be traced to an Ivy Vernon of Omaha, who registered the company in February.
Vernon, who goes by Yuyan Vernon, told The Times she is a part owner of Elephant Data and that the firm provided Lee’s campaign with voter and consumer data for targeting. The company’s website says it specializes in “conservative campaign solutions.”
In 2016, Vernon donated $5,000 to the Republican National Committee and more than $2,300 to the Donald Trump campaign. She also donated $900 to a federal political action committee run by the California Republican Party. She’s also been quoted as a member of the Chinese Americans for Trump movement, founded by a man who lives in the 39th District.
Vernon, who said she’s a registered Republican, said she sees no conflict in working with Lee. “We always want to promote Asian candidates to get more involved in political campaigns,” she said. “Dr. Lee is a really nice person … He believes in bipartisanship in a lot of his policies. This is not just Democrat, Democrat, Republican, Republican. We don’t divide people that way.”
Vernon said she had not been working for Lee very long but declined to elaborate on how they met or how she became involved with his campaign.
Vernon’s name and phone numbers are also tied to a diverse array of businesses: a corn and soybean agriculture business, an online lingerie retailer, a website selling wedding rings and a Nebraska meat processor.
The spending is curious, considering Lee’s high-spending opponents paid just a fraction for data services to firms considered industry standards in California’s expensive and competitive campaign world. Healthcare executive Andy Thorburn, a Democrat who spent more than $2.8 million in the same race, reported spending just $8,500 with Political Data, Inc., one of two data firms most candidates use. Gil Cisneros, the Democrat who ultimately made it through the primary, spent $3.9 million, but only $12,704 of it on Political Data’s services.
Depending on the level of services, most congressional campaigns in California spend between $20,000 and $50,000 for data firms.
Another company that received a large sum from Lee’s campaign was Int’l Bothwin Enterprise, which was paid $93,500 for “campaigning materials.” The company, registered with California officials as a marketing services company, has an address in an apartment complex in downtown Alhambra. A woman who opened the door there last weekend spoke limited English but said the homeowner was out of the country. Phone calls made to Grace Wei, listed as the chief financial officer of the company, went unanswered.
In the end, Lee didn’t come close to advancing in the 39th District primary. As of Sunday he was in ninth place with just 4% of the vote. But he received 4,135 votes, just 751 fewer than Mai Khanh Tran, who had been running for a year with relatively impressive fundraising and the backing of national group Emily’s List.
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