SACRAMENTO (AP) — Assemblywoman Beth Gaines has been a state lawmaker since she won a special election to fill an empty seat last year.
But voters can't tell that from her ballot designation, which identifies her as a "small business owner" as she runs for re-election. The issue has taken center stage in her primary battle with another Republican, who has criticized her ballot label as deceptive.
It's also not surprising. With the public taking a dismal view of the performance of the state Legislature, at least 10 current state lawmakers who are running for re-election or new seats are not disclosing their political office on the ballot.
"It's not something that I'm that proud of, being a California legislator these days, quite frankly," said Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres.
He identifies himself only as a "farmer" as he runs for the state Senate, a designation he hopes will draw a more positive response from voters in his Central Valley district.
"The voters are frustrated with our inaction and our inability to work together up here in Sacramento," Berryhill said. "We're not held in very high esteem, where farmers people trust. Legislators, they don't have so much trust for, and understandably."
Ballot descriptions matter particularly in primaries like the one June 5, said Shaun Bowler, a University of California, Riverside political science professor who studies voter behavior.
Voters often search for clues as they sort between unfamiliar candidates. They examine names, gender, political affiliations and occupations — and more so this year because lawmakers are running in new political districts drawn after the 2010 census.
"'Incumbent' is a bad word," Bowler said. "This year, the Legislature is in low standing, Congress is in low standing, and candidates can be part of the problem because they campaign against the institution they're trying to join."
Gaines, a Republican from Roseville, won a court fight to keep her ballot listing because she and her husband, state Sen. Ted Gaines, run their own insurance company even as they make a combined $190,000 a year from their state legislative salaries. Her husband has been a lawmaker since 2006 but also lists himself on the ballot as "small business owner."
Beth Gaines' Republican opponent, Andy Pugno of Folsom, has aired radio ads and mailed political fliers accusing Gaines of trying to hide her full-time, publicly funded job while she spends 10-15 hours a week on the insurance business. The ads say Gaines is "cheating" and being "dishonest."
"The voters I talk to are offended and insulted that any politician would play these games and try to appear as something they're not," Pugno said in an interview.
"It's an issue that goes straight to the trustworthiness of the candidate or the incumbent."
Gaines said she is really good at multitasking as a legislator, business owner and mother of six children, two of whom still live at home. She denied any intent to deceive voters or shortchange taxpayers.
"I don't think of myself as a politician in any way, shape or form," Gaines said. "I am here to be a voice for small business. And when I am done, I will go back to my small business."
Like Gaines, Pugno describes himself on the ballot as a "small business owner," yet he is best known as the attorney who represented supporters of the 2008 Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriages. A Gaines political mailer and an independently funded radio advertisement point out that Pugno's primary occupation is practicing law.
"You don't want to list 'lawyer.' They probably hide that one more than they do incumbent," said Bowler, the voting behavior expert.
Polls show voters have regarded state lawmakers negatively for the past 10 years, and the distrust has deepened during the recession as California has dealt with multibillion dollar budget deficits.
Recent polls show just one in five voters thinks the Legislature is doing a good job. The distaste is particularly apparent among Republican voters, 87 percent of whom disapproved of lawmakers' performance in the Field Poll's most recent snapshot in February.
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, identifies herself as a "state legislator" as she runs against "farmer" Berryhill for the Senate.
"I've identified myself as a lawmaker because I'm proud of my record and I want to be forthright with voters. I know that there are people who are unhappy with the Legislature right now. But I'm a legislator and I'm not going to hide from that," Galgiani said. "I think he should be forthright, too."
Assemblymen Dan Logue, Mike Morrell and Richard Pan are running for re-election but are not advertising their role in the Legislature. Logue, of Linda, and Morrell, of Rancho Cucamonga, identify themselves as "small business owners." Pan, a Democrat from Sacramento, lists his occupation as "pediatrician/physician."
Logue and Morrell, both Republicans, said they consider themselves to be citizen-lawmakers. Both said they listed "small business owner" because they were restricted to just three words as their ballot designation.
There is an alternative. At least 20 other current state legislators chose a hyphenated approach such as "businesswoman/senator" or "Assemblymember/attorney."
Pan noted that an asterisk placed by his name on the secretary of state's official candidates list identifies him as an incumbent, although the mark does not appear on the actual ballot sent to mail-in voters in his district, where he is among six candidates.
Republican Assemblymen Jeff Miller of Corona and Kevin Jeffries of Lake Elsinore also list "small business owner" as each seeks another office. Miller is a candidate for the 31st Senate District and Jeffries is running for Riverside County supervisor.
"They know I'm an elected official," Miller said of his constituents. "A lot of them don't know I own my own business."
The ballot description for Bob Dutton says "independent small businessman" in his bid for the 31st Congressional District seat. What he does not include is that he is a current state senator from Rancho Cucamonga who until this year was the Republican minority leader.
Similarly, Assemblyman David Valadao, a Republican from Hanford, is running in the 21st Congressional District as a "small businessman/farmer."
Dutton and Jeffries did not respond to requests for comment. Valadao said he actively farms and believes voters won't be fooled by a legislator who is just trying to avoid being labeled a politician.
"I think the voters are smart enough to see what's really going on between just a picture of a guy standing in front of a tractor and someone who actually does what they do," he said. "I am who I am."