May 27 2008 07:54 PM

Elections in odd-numbered council districts and an odd trio challenging an odd city attorney make for odd times


Ah, the beginning of summer. All over San Diego, people are revving up for their ritual of springtime's end. And, no, I'm not referring to people hosing off the ice chests, tuning up the SUVs and dusting off the travel maps while visions of vacations dance in their heads. With gas heading past $4 toward maybe $5 or more a gallon, the farthest San Diegans are going this summer is Mission Valley to play tourist at a mall. (Not that they'll be able to buy much, stimulus checks or no.) I'm talking about our biannual end-of-spring pilgrimage to voting booths. It's primary season, San Diego. Start your ballots.

Then again, wasn't it just yesterday (or 112 yesterdays ago, to be precise) that San Diegans went to the polls? And haven't San Diegans been to the polls 10 times in the last four years? The upshot: The voting-fatigued voter turn-out rate should end up being around 40 percent, a third lower than this past February and perhaps even half of what might turn out this November. In San Diego, low voter turnout means disproportionately older and conservative voters. That should put smiles on the faces of GOP candidates for City Council and city attorney. But this is 2008, when conventional political wisdom has had about as much credibility as the sub-prime mortgage markets. And that should put smiles on Democratic candidates.

I know, I know. These local elections are “nonpartisan.” Uh huh. And we actually trust in God to protect our currency.

(Which, if it were true, means Divine Providence has surely abandoned us in favor of the Euro.) In red/blue modern times, nothing is nonpartisan. Which party ends up in control of the City Council and City Attorney's office matters.Currently, the City Council has five Democrats and three Republicans. Two of each—Dems Scott Peters (District 1) and Toni Atkins (District 3) and the double-M GOP'ers of Brian Maienschein (District 5) and Jim Madaffer (District 7)—are termed out. Depending on who replaces them, the council could swing back to more traditional GOP dominance or emerge with an overwhelming—and veto-proof, charter reforms or no—progressive ascendancy.

In District 1, Phil “Save the Cross” Thalheimer is trying, once again, to convert his social-conservative-champion credentials and personal cash into elected office. This time it might have worked. The district has a slight Republican edge in registration, but that didn't stop Peters from racking up two terms there. Sherri Lightner, the community-activist Democrat pulling in all the usual big Democratic endorsements in her quest to succeed Peters, is not, however, pulling in the kind of money Peters used to fight off Thalheimer's million-dollar challenge in 2004.

Green grassroots are great, and Lightner has plenty of those. In this, the third century of the Republic, however, green cash usually prevails. If fellow wealthy GOP businessman Marshall Merrifield hadn't chosen to throw his own hundreds of thousands into the race, Thalheimer would probably have won it all June 3. Now, given his name recognition and track record, he'll advance to the fall runoff against Lightner. But come fall, the electoral landscape will be much more crowded with voters. If Obamamania catches fire and progressives flock to the polls, Lightner will have reason to be merry: District 1 stays Democrat.

The only question in District 3 is which Democrat will win the seat and in which election—primary or runoff—he'll do it. Perennial politico John Hartley added new relevance to the phrase “pissing it all away” two months ago. That leaves fellow Democrats Todd Gloria and Stephen Whitburn to slug it out with money and endorsements. Who wins is more relevant to the candidates in contention than the political makeup of the council. Either would be solid progressive votes.

Inverse-ditto District 5, where government-reform guru Carl DeMaio is the odds-on favorite to replace Brian Maienschein. Am I the only one mildly creeped out by Carl DeMaio? He shows up on the local political scene six years ago, fully formed but without any real history behind him, like he had just emerged from a pod cultivated at the Reagan Ranch and dispatched to infect San Diego with his conservative mantra: Government is bad, taxes are too high, downsize this, outsource that, reform government by taking it back to 19th-century laissez faire, etc. Every time I hear or see him, I wonder if little Carl DeMaio doppelgangers in smooth suits are peddling the same neo-con gospel in city councils and boards of supervisors from Klamath Falls, Ore., to Beaufort, S.C. Then I snap out of it and realize: Of course they are. DeMaio will win District 5, and the conservative Maienschein vote becomes a reactionary DeMaio vote.

And District 7? In a district that leans slightly toward Democrats, former TV news reporter and Democrat Marti Emerald has the name-and-face-recognition edge over stolid GOP accountant April Boling to put her over the top in the primary.

Likely upshot of all this: Either the Democrat majority on the council remains 5:3 (Dems win Districts 3 and 7, Republicans Districts 1 and 5) or Democrats add District 1 in the fall and move to 6:2. The GOP might luck out next week and actually win in Districts 1 and 7 outright to give them a tie vote on the council, but don't bet a $100 tank of gas on it.

And, lest I seem preoccupied with the partisan politics of all of this, ask yourself, “Does it matter which ideological bloc controls the council?” And the answer, “Yes.” If you thought council votes in favor of a living wage, water recycling, gay-marriage rights and protection of current municipal pensions were good things, you want a Democratic majority on the council. If you want more municipal outsourcing, privatization and de-unionization, you're in the GOP camp. As much as we say we abhor partisan politics, the simple fact is that it matters. Adjust.

And vote accordingly.

Yet much of the change, if there is to be any, in San Diego city politics will be a function of who is elected mayor.

While the pages of this publication endorsed, albeit it with tepid resignation, Jerry Sanders for yet another four years, I seem to recall that insanity is doing the same thing over and over (like electing likable but ineffective Republican former judges and top cops mayor) and expecting different results. As such, when given an existing bad choice and a possible new bad choice—which could also be a possible new good choice—I tend to go with the latter, to heck with the devil you know. And the new devil in San Diego's mayoral inferno is Steve Francis. (Although Francis' penchant for the likes of Carl DeMaio does give me pause).

With a Sanders reelection, the council would be dealing with a mayor who is fiscally conservative (seeking outsourcing of services and reduction of city pensions, albeit without great result), progressive on social issues like gay rights and generally a patsy for development interests, be it in Kearny Mesa or Otay Mesa. With Francis, the council would deal with a similar conservative on fiscal matters, but one who has promised to be much tougher on business and development interests. An increased Democratic majority on the council could probably contain and override Sanders easier than Francis. But a progressive council might actually find more points of alliance with born-again populist Francis. Either way, the tension between the council and the semi-strong (at least until the veto-override requirement is increased) mayor is bound to continue into the next administration, whoever is in charge.

And then there's the other leg of the San Diego political triad: City Attorney Mike Aguirre. Given how determinedly the anti-Aguirreistas have been savaging Mikey in the media for the last year and his own missteps (like escalating the Sunroad controversy by calling Jerry Sanders “corrupt”—a position recently repudiated by the state Attorney General's office), Aguirre should be ripe for picking off. Maybe. Maybe not.

I've said and written before that Aguirre sails under a lucky star. He got to challenge the heir-apparent to much maligned Casey Gwinn in 2004, winning a narrow victory. This time, his GOP detractors thought they could put meddlesome Mike (bane to developers and sports-franchise owners near and far) away in the June primary by locking ranks behind former judge and ferret champion Jan Goldsmith. Had that been the end of things, Aguirre probably would have been sent packing in the primary. But luck has interceded in the form of two termed-out council members looking for their next political gig. Polls show that Peters and Maienschein have split the anti-Aguirre vote with Judge Jan three ways even. While Peters is slightly ahead of the other two in the polls, the lower voter turnout next week could skew things to Goldsmith, sending him into the fall runoff with Aguirre, where Mikey's lucky star—thanks to the Obamamania factor—could give him a second term.

The big question of the Aguirre stewardship has been who, exactly, does the city attorney work for if push comes to shove: the people who elected him or the council and city government that rely on his counsel and advocacy? A second Aguirre term resolves this question in favor of the people. His defeat moves the office back to the Casey Gwynn status quo as lapdog to the council. Given that Aguirre has managed to alienate members of both parties on the council, which party is in the majority probably won't matter if he remains in office. A Peters victory with a Democratic council majority, however, could produce a closer alignment of the council and city attorney in competition with the inevitable GOP mayor. A Goldsmith victory, likewise, could tilt the balance of partisan politics to the GOP Mayor's office. Oh, the possibilities.

So where does that leave San Diego once the candidates and the Santa Anas have ceased with their hot winds? Oddly enough, for all the politics and Machiavellian maneuvering, likely pretty much where it's been for the last few elections: with a Republican mayor, a Democratic City Council and a city attorney often operating in his own dimension, while the city staggers through fiscally bad times driven by national, state and local economies slipping into recession. Except maybe San Diego won't have another election until the regularly scheduled one for even-numbered council districts in 2010.

No mayoral resignations, no recalls, no council indictments and convictions, no special elections—now that would be odd.     Carl Luna blogs at Write to and


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