In political campaigns, it's almost a given that it's an incumbent's race to lose—unless that incumbent's only sort of an incumbent.
In 2011, redistricting—the redrawing of electoral boundaries based on new census data—put Lorie Zapf's house in San Diego's District 2, just west of District 6, the City Council seat to which she was elected in 2010. This left her with two choices: Move into the new District 6 or run for District 2's open seat in 2014. She opted for the latter.
So, what does that mean for Sarah Boot, who, so far is Zapf's only challenger? The new District 2 includes a small part of the old District 6—the neighborhoods of Bay Ho, Bay Park and Clairemont Mesa West—making Zapf a true incumbent to enough voters to push her to a win in a tight race. The district also includes Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, Point Loma, Loma Portal and Midway.
Though City Council seats are technically nonpartisan, Zapf is a Republican, with the backing of the Republican Party, while Boot's been endorsed by the Democrats, who have a slight voter-registration advantage in District 2.
But, "as far as the practicality of the campaign," Boot said, "it's definitely against an incumbent. She's got the Republican machine behind her, but she also has the establishment, and folks with business before the council feel uncomfortable going against her.
"But when I talk to folks out in the district," she added, "a lot of them have never heard of her."
A lot of folks in the district haven't heard of Boot, either. Better-known, perhaps, is her campaign manager, Laura Fink, who, in July, was the second woman to accuse San Diego Mayor Bob Filner of sexual harassment.
But Boot, who's 32, didn't come out of nowhere. In 2010, she was selected as a fellow for the San Diego chapter of the New Leaders Council, which aims to train "progressive political entrepreneurs" for leadership roles, elected office among them. She's also a founding member of Run Women Run, a local organization focused on getting politically progressive women in office. She was student-body president at the University of Michigan, where she earned her undergraduate and law degrees. There, Boot founded the Students First party and recruited a slate of candidates.
"I felt like the government needed to be more inclusive and have a lot more different perspectives," she said. "We pulled together this coalition. We had the change message. The folks who were there, they had been there for a long time, and we felt they were becoming a little insular."
Most of her slate won, and she eked out a 34-vote victory.
Up until recently, Boot was an assistant U.S. attorney, prosecuting sex traffickers and bank robbers. But because the Hatch Act bars federal employees from engaging in partisan politics, Boot couldn't start campaigning until she resigned from her job, which she did in August. That meant a late start on fundraising, too. Boot declined to say how much she's raised so far, or what her target goal is, but Zapf's already proving to be a formidable opponent. By July 30, the first filing deadline for the campaign (the next isn't until Dec. 31), she'd already raised $130,000, including $50,000 from the San Diego County Republican Party—that's more than a third of the roughly $370,000 she raised in 2010. In her 2010 bid for City Council, Zapf had the backing of the Lincoln Club, which runs a super PAC that flooded voter mailboxes with attacks on her opponent, former City Council and state Assembly member Howard Wayne.
"If Sarah raises a lot of money and gets boots on the ground, I think it's entirely doable," said Ryan Trabuco. Trabuco's president of the Clairemont Town Council, but said his comments on the race were his own.
Trabuco noted that the parts of the old District 6 that are now in District 2 tend to lean Democrat.
"If Clairemont hadn't have been split up, I'm sure Zapf would have been elected pretty strongly," he said.
For now, it's Boot's boots that are on the ground. Leaving the U.S. Attorney's office means she's been able to spend a lot of time getting to know voters and the issues.
"I've watched—I've kind of monitored both [candidates]—and Boot has gone to what seems like, literally, every community meeting imaginable, and there are many of them in O.B.," said Dave Cieslak, who sits on the Ocean Beach Town Council. Cieslak, who also said he wasn't speaking on the council's behalf, said he's not made up his mind in the race but that Boot's made a good impression simply by showing up.
"She was at our [Ocean Beach] pier breakfast on a Saturday morning at 7 a.m., flipping pancakes in that café on the pier, where it's 120 degrees inside with all the ovens running. That says a lot about her character and her commitment to the community."
Boot's father was an engineer with Whirlpool, and the family moved around a lot when she was growing up, finally settling in St. Joseph, Mich., a small town that's dubbed itself "the Riviera of the Midwest." Just across the river was Benton Harbor, a town with high poverty and crime rates and crumbling schools. That disparity is what helped shape Boot's political ideology and sparked her interest in urban politics. It's ultimately what pushed her into law enforcement, too. While at the University of Michigan, she volunteered for The Detroit Project (now called The Detroit Partnership), a mentorship program focused on underserved communities. On Fridays, she'd go into Detroit and work with kids after school.
"The kids couldn't walk home alone at night because of gang violence," she said. "People don't necessarily consider [public safety] a progressive value, but from my perspective, if you don't feel safe in your own neighborhood, what kind of life is that?"
Between college and law school, Boot worked as Sen. Joe Lieberman's New Hampshire field coordina tor and then as campaign finance director for Harold Brazil, a member of the Washington, D.C., City Council. After law school, she was offered a job at the tech-focused law firm of Cooley Godward Kronish, and she and her husband moved to San Diego. In 2010, she went to work for the U.S. Attorney's office.
It's that experience that's appealing to voters, Cieslak says—"the fact she has a real, firm understanding of the crime situation, neighborhoods and what neighborhoods need."
It's quality-of-life issues that Boot's hearing about from voters, with property crime topping the list. Homelessness and infrastructure— traffic, street repairs—come up, too. They're all nonpartisan issues in a race where both political parties have a lot to lose: Democrats currently hold five of nine City Council seats. Should Boot win, they'd have a comfortable, six-vote majority. District 2 also includes parts of the 52nd Congressional District, where Republican Carl DeMaio is aggressively challenging Democratic incumbent Scott Peters, meaning the District 2 race will likely get pulled into that fray.
Boot says she's "very intrigued" to see how the local GOP and organizations like the Lincoln Club come at her.
"Unfortunately, it's just the reality of politics nowadays; I guess I'll know I'm a serious candidate when they start attacking me aggressively."