A furious election contest for a San Jose City Council seat escalated Sunday afternoon when police union leaders blasted the incumbent for a "slimy" campaign flier they said makes officers look like they're lying down on the job in retaliation for pension cuts.

"This is a new low," said Jim Unland, president of the San Jose Police Officers' Association. "It shows she's desperate."

About three dozen officers and supporters, including the mother of a slain patrolman, gathered at a small park in the east foothills to denounce Councilwoman Rose Herrera, a pension reformer who is running for a second term in District 8, which encompasses the Evergreen Valley. Reached later by telephone, Herrera shot back.

"They're angry about pension reform," she said. "They're angry I was the vote that put it on the ballot."

San Jose voters in June overwhelmingly approved Measure B to reduce pension benefits whose costs to the city have tripled in a decade. Herrera sided with a slim council majority forged by Mayor Chuck Reed to put the measure in front of voters. The police union has gone to court to stop the measure from taking effect and has since pumped thousands of dollars into the campaign of Herrera's challenger, Jimmy Nguyen, hoping for a victory that would tip the balance of power on the council.


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The focus Sunday was on the latest salvo in the campaign: Herrera's depiction of a police union "playbook" borrowed from a Southern California law firm. But instead of X's and O's, the plays call for police to slow down on the job and "chastise" city politicians for not caring about public safety. Herrera mailed the political literature to voters and posted it on her re-election website, www.roseforsanjose.com.

"It's about the police union leadership," Herrera said. "It's not about the rank-and-file."

But the speakers who lined up to denounce her said the flier was a cheap shot designed to turn citizens against the entire police force. They included Sandy Fontana, the mother of Jeffrey Fontana, a young San Jose police officer slain on duty in 2001.

"Rose Herrera telling the public that police officers are laying down on the job shows she has no grasp of reality and is ethically bankrupt," Fontana said at a podium set up by the police union at Groesbeck Hill Park. "As a mother who lost a son in the line of duty, it makes me sick."

Again, Herrera argued back, saying the police union was taking advantage of Fontana's loss to protect pension checks above all else.

"I think it's really unfortunate for them to recruit Mrs. Fontana," Herrera said. "I have nothing but respect for her son and other officers who gave their lives in the line of duty."

A few elected officials followed Fontana at the podium or stood in the background in political solidarity with the police union.

Councilman Ash Kalra said Herrera has refused to acknowledged a rise in city crime.

"She downplays it, sugarcoats it and then has the audacity to blame our police officers," Kalra said. "She goes on the attack and uses some slimy law firm's (playbook).

Santa Clara County Supervisor David Cortese, who once held the District 8 seat, said he had never seen a California politician "attempt to disparage an entire police force" until he saw Herrera's campaign flier. "It's the most outrageous political statement I have ever heard, period."

Kevin Smith, a Santa Clara County deputy district attorney, offered two examples of police officers helping him prosecute criminals on their own time as evidence that the rank-and-file aren't playing by the so-called playbook in Herrera's flier.

"I have faith in San Jose and the San Jose Police Department, and I wish Rose Herrera did, too," Smith said.

Standing in the background with rank-and-file officers were Councilman Xavier Campos and his sister, state Assemblywoman and former council member Nora Campos.

Herrera dismissed the police union's political allies as "the same labor union supporters" who opposed Measure B.

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 or jrodriguez@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter.com/JoeRodMercury.