March 23 2005 12:00 AM

Locked-out liberals see an opportunity to storm the Board of Supervisors

With two county supervisor seats vulnerable in elections still more than a year away, local Democrats, progressives and organized labor are hoping to foment a political revolution. Or at least they're planning to put up a fight—something they haven't done in nearly a decade.

Encouraged by progressive San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye's success during last year's mayoral election and emboldened by the prospect of arguably wounded incumbents, the groups are in the process of planning an all-out assault against the county Board of Supervisors and the five Republicans whose rule there has, for the most part, gone unchallenged.

To date, their plans to break the Republican stranglehold include helping like-minded candidates secure a seat on the five-member board, as well as less-obvious approaches in the form of two possible ballot initiatives. And although it's still early and the details are a bit fuzzy, there's a definite determination among liberal organizers to join forces, make a stand and not repeat past mistakes.

“We are taking very seriously our role of fielding candidates and not giving the Republicans the opportunity to run candidates unchallenged,” said Jess Durfee, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party. Democrats are saying “there is no possible reason why we have a Board of Supervisors that is just totally Republican. It's a top priority to change that,” Durfee said.

And it's not just party affiliation that's fueling the call for change. Organizers cite a laundry list of gripes topped by land use and environmental concerns, cuts to social-service programs and a general unwillingness to institute various public-health initiatives as evidence that a more progressive influence is needed in county government.

“We have been effective in city elections and so now we are turning our sights toward the Board of Supervisors,” said Mary Grillo, executive director of Service Employees International Union local 2028, which represents more than 10,000 county workers with a considerable fund-raising and get-out-the-vote machine. “It's a major objective of our union to elect supervisors who will support not just employee interests but the community's need for services.”

So far most of what one might call the pre-pre-pre-election excitement seems to be focused on the fourth supervisorial district, which extends south from University City to the northern edges of downtown, where it doglegs east to the college area before extending south again to Paradise Hills. That's where incumbent Ron Roberts could face an uphill battle.

According to recent figures compiled by the county Registrar of Voters, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the fourth district by nearly 45,000, making it perhaps the county's most liberal district and giving organizers a reason for hope. Durfee also points out that in last year's mayoral election, Roberts finished third in his district, with just 28 percent of the vote, behind Frye's 40 percent and incumbent Dick Murphy's 32 percent.

Those numbers alone have Durfee promising that, for the first time in eight years, Roberts will face a challenger, and while that candidate has yet to be officially announced, San Diego City Councilmember Toni Atkins is loudly rumored to be atop a short list.

“I'm certainly considering running for that seat,” Atkins told CityBeat. “I'm getting calls from more than just one group of people, so it leads me to think about it.”

But an informal survey of political consultants indicates that Atkins may want to think again-her potential backers may be making much ado about numbers that mean nothing.

“The numbers do suggest that Republicans are significantly outnumbered in District 4, but these are non-partisan offices and party affiliation would not be the only issue,” said Tom Shepard, who has coordinated previous campaigns for all of the current supervisors. “So I'm not saying that it's not appropriate for Democrats to be looking at this, but it is, I think, a lot more difficult than just the registration numbers would suggest.”

Consultants Larry Remer and Scott Barnett expressed similar doubts, and all three agreed that as cuts to city services mount, so too will Atkins' problems. “I think people are going to blame the pension crisis and the City Council's management or mismanagement of that,” said Barnett, who notes that the county is recognized as one of the best run in the nation and gives credit to the current supervisors, who helped rescue the county from bankruptcy a decade ago.

And Remer questioned whether Roberts, a moderate on most issues, could be realistically painted as an extremist and called any strategy to cash in on party affiliation “a partisan ideological ploy.”

Roberts declined to comment on the brewing challenge or the possibility of facing Atkins, but a staff member confirmed that he will seek re-election. While that staffer wasn't willing to answer any other questions, he was eager to ask CityBeat about rumors that Murphy might face a recall effort in the coming months.

The possibility of Roberts making a fourth attempt for the city's highest office if the embattled Murphy is recalled or resigns, which Barnett says might be Roberts' best chance yet of actually winning, has been a subject of speculation for months and only adds to what Durfee sees as a growing advantage.

“It's a very simple message for the voters to pick up on, that his heart is not in being on the Board of Supervisors,” Durfee said.

And Roberts isn't the only incumbent with baggage. Organizers are eyeing Supervisor Bill Horn, who, despite previous challenges, has managed to hold on to power in the significantly more conservative fifth district, which stretches across the northern third of the county. They think Horn's alleged scheming during recent redistricting has created ill will among Hispanic voters, and Horn recently barreled into a hornets nest of negative publicity when he made a controversial and non-seconded motion to increase supervisors' pay by 25 percent, and then, citing a lack of funds to reward his own service, cast a lone vote to oppose rebuilding a county-run nursing home serving the poor and disabled.

“I think previously he was seen as pretty much unbeatable,” Grillo said. “But I believe that his comments on salary increases concerned a lot of people.”

While a prospective challenger has yet to be named, Horn says he's not worried and indicated he'll have a little something in store for opponents. “I've been challenged every time I have ever run,” he said. “That's why I usually keep a pretty good war chest.... We usually enter the races with $400,000 to $500,000.”

Organizers have yet to officially target Roberts or Horn, but there seems to be some disagreement about the viability of taking on both-they're already talking about launching serious challenges in 2008 against Supervisor Greg Cox.

Still, others are concerned that if only one or two of those efforts succeed, progressives would have a voice but no real power against a Republican majority. At a recent meeting of Progressive San Diego, a group that cultivates liberal candidates and fights for progressive causes, members discussed the possibility of launching ballot initiatives in 2006 or 2008 to impose term limits on the supervisors or divide their five districts into smaller segments and add additional representatives to the board.

“We are trying to look at it through a more comprehensive lens and kind of figure out how really in the long term we can get more accountability to the board, because at this point they feel very comfortable in those seats,” said Nicole Capretz, president of Progressive San Diego, who called discussions about potential initiatives “very preliminary.”

While the political consultants described term limits as a flawed idea that would probably receive voter approval, the prospect of adding supervisors, which has been broached in the past, might be a better choice.

“There has got to be some sensitivity to the fact that you have got an agency in the county that is the primary provider of social services and a lot of the communities that are the largest consumers of those services have difficulty electing representatives from their community,” Shepard said. “I think that pretty compelling public-policy argument could be made that it would be appropriate to expand the board.”

Yet others think local Democrats are getting carried away and should concentrate their efforts on protecting the spheres of influence they already enjoy. “If I were a small group of Democrats in San Diego County,” said Remer, “I'd figure out how to hold on to the second City Council district and make sure that [Councilmember] Michael Zucchet-not if, but when, he wins his corruption trial-gets reelected.”


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