Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Castro Valley is photographed on Thursday, July 19, 2012 in Hayward, Calif.  Hayashi was convicted earlier this year for
Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Castro Valley is photographed on Thursday, July 19, 2012 in Hayward, Calif. Hayashi was convicted earlier this year for shoplifting from a San Francisco department store. (Aric Crabb/Staff) ( ARIC CRABB )

If politics is about appearances, let's just say that the police mug shot of Mary Hayashi -- a convicted shoplifter and state Senate candidate -- is not a good look. Her hair is stringy. Her face is blotchy. Her jaw looks clenched.

It's perfect fodder, however, for her prime opponent and fellow Democrat, Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, who has launched a ubiquitous "Mug Shot Mary" attack campaign featuring the unflattering image with online banner ads proclaiming "Mary Hayashi is a Criminal" and "Character Matters."

With this kind of skeleton in her closet (or to be precise, in a Neiman Marcus dressing room where she filled a shopping bag with clothing), why would the former assemblywoman hold herself up to relentless ridicule by running for office again?

Is she just the latest example of political hubris -- like sexting U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner and crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford -- where pride and arrogance distort reality and lead to political demise? Or is she like so many tainted politicians -- like Casanovas Gavin Newsom and Bill Clinton -- who rise again, with the appropriate contrition and faith in the American soft spot for second chances?

"There's no shortage of elected officials who've overcome embarrassing episodes," said Dan Newman, a prominent Democratic campaign strategist. "But it's not easy -- particularly now -- to argue that the Legislature needs another member with a criminal record."


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In an interview this week, however, Hayashi said she should be judged by her nearly three decades of public service, not a "mistake that transpired over a few hours."

Hayashi has said she was distracted on her cellphone when she walked out of a San Francisco Neiman Marcus in 2011 with $2,450 worth of clothing and forgot they were in the shopping bag she brought with her. She pleaded no contest in 2012 and is still on probation.

Politicians who have done worse, especially men, tend to get a "free pass," said Hayashi's campaign strategist Josh Pulliam.

Pulliam pointed to Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from San Bernardino County, who remains in office after he was caught in 2012 with a handgun going through airport security and pleaded guilty to carrying a loaded firearm without a permit. He's running for governor.

"There's a double standard for men and women," Pulliam said. "How can you not think that?"

When asked about Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor who had an affair with his campaign manager's wife in a moral -- though not a legal -- transgression, Pulliam called it "almost Shakespearean." Newsom still went on to be elected lieutenant governor.

Courtesy Tucker Politics -- Pictured is an online banner ad that has been popping up related to Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi’s 2011 arrest on felony
Courtesy Tucker Politics -- Pictured is an online banner ad that has been popping up related to Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi's 2011 arrest on felony grand theft charges and subsequent 2011 no-contest plea to shoplifting in 2012. Hayashi paid a fine and is on probation.

Still, it raises the question: Is Hayashi betting that voters in Senate District 10 -- from San Ramon and Hayward down to Fremont and San Jose -- are forgiving, forgetful or just plain ignorant?

Wieckowski said this week he is making it his business to ensure none of those applies. He won't rest until the entire district has heard about the shoplifting episode, especially in Milpitas and San Jose, where news of the scandal wasn't as prominent as in her East Bay Assembly district.

"If everyone knows this is the same Mary Hayashi and they don't want Bob Wieckowski, I will go on with my life," Wieckowski said. "The fear is that people don't make the connection."

A poll from Wieckowski's camp, conducted in late March and early April, shows that among the five contenders, he's leading with 26 percent support to Hayashi's 19 percent. Hayashi conducted her own poll early this month, which shows her ahead of Wieckowski 21 percent to 18 percent. The top two finishers in the June 3 primary face off again in November.

"I think it takes an extra dose of ego to imagine that people will give you that second shot, to expect it or to at least hope for it," said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political science professor. "Most of the time, where there's criminal activity, people resign in disgrace, go quietly and disappear into the fog."

Not Hayashi. Just six months after her shoplifting conviction, she ran for the Alameda County supervisor's seat vacated by Nadia Lockyer, who resigned after a drug-fueled sex scandal. Hayashi didn't even come close, finishing third out of four.

Undaunted, she is now running for an even higher office: state Senate, a body that has seen three of its members arrested or convicted of a crime since January. That includes state Sen. Leland Yee, who was indicted in March on corruption and gun trafficking charges. (He also was arrested in 1992, while he was a San Francisco school board member, for shoplifting a bottle of suntan oil in Hawaii -- an episode he also called inadvertent.)

Disgraced, Yee gave up his run for secretary of state, and it's hard to imagine resurrecting his political career. Discredit doesn't stop plenty of others from trying.

In New York, Weiner, who resigned his congressional seat in 2011 after he was caught sending photos of his private parts to young women via Twitter, appeared to be in the midst of a stellar comeback when fresh sexting revelations torpedoed his run for New York mayor.

Speaking of guile, Ford, the disgraced Toronto mayor, registered to run for re-election after outrageous behavior during a substance abuse scandal. A trip to rehab that started last week has put his campaign on hold.

"I think it's a sad statement that we have all these white men in Congress and elected office who do terrible things that have an impact on other people," Pulliam said. "Mary didn't try to carry a loaded gun like Donnelly. She didn't drive a woman off a bridge like Ted Kennedy. Yet every single article includes this, and it's the focus of Bob's campaign. I think voters don't have that double standard."

Double standard or not, shamed politicians who survive tend to do the best job of apologizing, like Newsom's model for mea culpas: "I want to make it clear that everything you've heard and read is true," the then-mayor said, following his scandal, "and I am deeply sorry for that."

Hayashi said she is sorry, too. "I accept responsibility and make apologies and not excuses," she said. "We should all be held accountable for our mistakes, even if we didn't intend to do anything wrong."

Soon, voters will decide whether Hayashi's apologies are enough to send her back to the state Capitol. No matter what they do, there's one place she can't return: She is banned from the Union Square Neiman Marcus.

Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at Twitter.com/juliasulek.