Oct. 8 2014 10:49 AM

In the race for District 6, the conservative effort looks polished

Carol Kim mistakenly accused Chris Cate of fraud during a press conference last week.
Photo by David Rolland

It's unclear what kind of big policy plans the lefties on the City Council will unveil next year, but it'll be something of a moot point if the race for the redrawn District 6 goes to the conservatives.

At least until December, council Democrats will retain their ability to override mayoral vetoes using their 6-3 majority to push through legislation, such as the recent minimum-wage increase. However, that could come to an abrupt end after residents vote on Nov. 4 for the next City Council member for District 6—which encompasses Rancho Penasquitos, Mira Mesa, Sorrento Valley, Miramar, Kearny Mesa, North Clairemont and Clairemont Mesa.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer would be able to block any legislation that he and the business community oppose if Democrats can't win the council seat; and it looks like an uphill battle for the blue team.

Facing a well-oiled Republican machine, Democratic candidate and political newbie Carol Kim has struggled to get her campaign in gear. Most recently, Kim held a press conference incorrectly accusing her opponent of committing fraud. Renting out his condo in Carlsbad, Republican hopeful Chris Cate moved in August 2012 with his fiancée to Mira Mesa. At the same time, he continued to collect a homeowner's property-tax exemption on the condo, which can be applied only to a primary residence.

However, following the allegations, county officials quickly took the blame for mistakenly applying the tax credit, which amounted to $75.20 a year. Kim's campaign continued to attack Cate, arguing the fiscal conservative should have noticed the error.

Lost in the flap was that Cate, a Filipino-American, moved into the district after redistricting in 2011 ensured there would be a council race in 2014 with no incumbent and where local residents had fought hard to redraw lines empowering the Asian and Pacific Islander voting community.

For more than a decade, District 6 residents have struggled for ethnic representation on the City Council, said Lani Lutar, former president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. "It's been far too long since we've had an Asian-American representing on City Council."

As the vice president of the Taxpayers Association, the 31-year-old Cate honed his craft under Lutar for several years. Then when the time was right, the Lincoln Club of San Diego County and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce paid for a textbook campaign that helped him emerge out of the primary with 47 percent of the vote.

Less organized than their opponents, Democrats were happy to find Kim, a 38-year-old Korean-American and mother of two. As a former public school teacher with only a couple of years of volunteer activism under her belt, the highly articulate candidate emerged out of the primary race with 32 percent of the vote.

While a recent SurveyUSA poll shows Cate in the lead, Kim has gained ground, with more than one in four likely voters still undecided. In the district, Democrats have a slightly higher registration than Republicans, but about a third of all voters state no party preference.

"We've heard rumors that Chris' own polling is showing it close," said Mike Zucchet, a Kim supporter and general manager of the Municipal Employees Association, which represents the city's white-collar workers. "Their rhetoric is that they've got it in the bag, and that's a dangerous attitude to have."

Encouraged by Zucchet to run for the office, Kim's secured endorsements from the San Diego County Democratic Party and the non-partisan political-action committee Run Women Run, as well as several major unions, including the San Diego Fire Fighters and Service Employees International Union Local 221.

Predictably, Republicans attacked Kim for her union backing, which she played into by proposing a 20 percent pay increase over four years for unionized police officers. While the city is moving toward pay increases to address lagging police-officer retention, Cate took a much safer stance, getting behind Faulconer's plan to study the issue. A report is due this month. The police union hasn't yet endorsed in District 6 but might do so by the end of this week.

Chris Cate

In contrast to his opponent, Cate enjoys a more than two-to-one fundraising advantage and has political composure years in the making. Having started at the Taxpayers Association in 2006, he also spent a year working as a staffer for then-Councilmember Faulconer.

"It was just so obvious to me that Chris would be an incredible public servant," Lutar said. "After having worked with him for seven years, I know he works extremely hard."

Faced with a well-groomed adversary and a storm of attack mailers landing in District 6 mailboxes, Kim's campaign started several weeks ago to sling some mud of its own.

"I think we're doing it because they've been doing it to us since the primary," said Jen Tierney, Kim's campaign manager. "For us to sit back and let them negatively define Carol and not respond puts us at a disadvantage."

In September, Kim attacked Cate for not being civically engaged, saying on NBC's Politically Speaking, "I believe when we looked, it looks like he's only voted in 20 percent of his eligible elections for the past two years. So that's interesting." However, Cate quickly provided records showing he'd voted in 13 consecutive elections since 2006. During that same period of time, Kim missed three elections, including the 2012 primary, around which time she was volunteering for President Barak Obama's reelection campaign.

Then Cate responded by blasting a campaign pledge by Kim to shrink class sizes in public schools as a pie-in-the-sky idea that showed her inexperience. Pointing out that some municipal governments provide public school districts with additional funding, Kim stood by her vow, styling herself as an out-of-the-box thinker.

While the candidates agree on a few issues—no taxpayer money for a new Chargers stadium, for example—the choice for voters really couldn't be starker. For example, Kim supports the local minimum-wage increase, whereas Cate vehemently opposes it. Both agree that infrastructure is a top priority, but while Cate wants to continue the use of high-interest lease-revenue bonds to fix roads and potholes, Kim said she's open to looking at a general-obligation bond paired with a tax increase.

Asked about his priorities for the district, Cate said he sees a need for more neighborhood-watch groups, as well as several emergency-response councils modeled after a residents' group in Rancho Peñasquitos, which received training from the Fire Department.

"The question is, ‘How do we get residents to look out after each other?'" he said.

For her part, Kim's more interested in expediting community-plan updates that prioritize smart growth and public transportation.

"I absolutely want more transit options up here," she said. "I'd be advocating that from the get-go."

Despite Kim's political campaign stumbles, the race will likely come down to voter turnout. In San Diego, conservatives consistently come out to the polls while Democrats have already snoozed through February's mayoral special election and then allowed Republican City Councilmember Lorie Zapf to take more than 50 percent of the vote in June's District 2 race, ending the contest early.

"I'm hopeful [Kim will win], but I'm not optimistic, especially in an election like this, where voters are bored out of their minds with what's on the ballot," said Democratic strategist Chris Crotty.

Generating some optimism among progressives, District 6 overlaps with the race in the 52nd Congressional District, which features incumbent Democrat Scott Peters and Republican firebrand Carl DeMaio. However, while many liberals love to hate DeMaio, it's far from clear if that'll be enough to get San Diego out to the polls.

Democrats "just don't do a good enough job of identifying, and don't have the resources to provide candidates like Chris Cate, where they found him a job and allowed him to campaign and get paid for it," Crotty said. 

Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.


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