By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ Staff Writer
A Clovis native who now serves on a California city council is embroiled in a lawsuit that has already cost her city more than $538,000 in lawyer’s fees.
According to Julie Ruiz Raber, the case revolves around her decision to hand out cinnamon snickerdoodle cookies to poll workers in 24 of 30 voting precincts during a March 2003 election in the city of Carson, Calif. After Raber won by 181 votes, another candidate, Vera Robles DeWitt, sued in Los Angeles Superior Court seeking her removal from office.
Raber, a Carson resident for more than 30 years who never before sought elective office and who cited her experience with the local PTA and women’s clubs as reasons to vote for her, said she never expected what local newspapers have dubbed the “Great Snickerdoodle Debate.” Starting out as a local news story, the case grabbed national attention after the Associated Press carried a report of her trial that was printed nationwide, including the Clovis News Journal.
“Never having run for office, I was just amazed I won,” Raber said.
Raber said she was even more amazed when she began receiving calls from large papers including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
“We had a 10-week trial on cookies,” Raber said. “The bottom line is it is a frivolous lawsuit that has cost the city thousands of dollars, and now they are going to appeal.”
Carson’s local newspaper, the Torrance Daily Breeze, reported in January that while electioneering is illegal within 100 feet of the polls, neither California statute nor case law define what electioneering is.
“My one-word definition of electioneering is campaigning,” the case judge said. “That did not take place here.”
However, the judge said he could be wrong and ordered the two sides to have a mandatory settlement conference last week. No decision has yet been reached on a settlement, both candidates say.
The cookie court case wasn’t the first for Carson politicians. Newspaper reports indicate the last three mayors of the city of 90,000 people have been indicted on federal charges; Raber and another candidate won their seats succeeding two council members who pleaded guilty to extortion and bribery.
The woman who filed the lawsuit, herself a former mayor and councilwoman from 1984 to 1992, said she sued in an attempt to affirm an important principle.
“Julie trivializes this that it is just snickerdoodle cookies, but next day is it going to be gold wedding rings?” DeWitt asked. “There is a sacred space around the polling place where the candidate ought not to be going.”
DeWitt and Raber agree on at least one thing: They never expected the media attention their case has received.