It's not surprising that a former candidate is stirring the pot in the all-but-stagnate District 2 City Council runoff election. And it's not entirely unexpected that it's Carolyn Chase, the colorful, sometimes volatile environmentalist, who's doing the mixing, endorsing Kevin Faulconer-widely viewed by environmental leaders as the lesser candidate when compared to opponent Lorena Gonzalez.
It's the timing of Chase's endorsement, which coincides with her attempt to land a job with Mayor Jerry Sanders-who has also endorsed Faulconer-that has members of the environmental community choking on their granola.
Chase, a member of the city's Planning Commission, is best known for her ubiquitous sun hats and, at times, gruff demeanor. A well-known environmentalist with the endorsement of the Sierra Club, she managed to garner nearly 9 percent of the vote in a crowded field in the November District 2 primary election.
Every one of those percentage points could prove critical in a runoff after Faulconer beat Gonzalez in the primary by approximately the same margin.
"I don't know of anybody else in the environmental community supporting Faulconer," said Peter Anderson, current chair of the Sierra Club political committee, which has endorsed Gonzalez.
Anderson says Faulconer isn't without environmental credentials, noting that he has fought to retain funding generated in Mission Bay Park, but said Faulconer's accomplishments are eclipsed by Gonzalez's record of working as an environmental attorney, as Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante's appointee to relevant state commissions and as a leading member of various local environmental groups.
What tipped Chase's hat in Faulconer's favor?
"I'm not doing it based on his environmental record," she told CityBeat. "While, yes, I care about that... it's really my interest in a combination of other issues-what's going on in the city right now."
For Chase, that means dealing with growth and infrastructure issues in light of the city's financial crisis. Faulconer, she said, "understands that he is going to have to be a part of pulling this city out of a hole and the developers are going to have to do it," she said. "He's got a much better chance of getting the development community to do the right thing than Lorena does."
"I guess it depends on if you think the developers will come around with a carrot or a stick," countered Gonzalez. "I'm very confident that Kevin will use a carrot with developers, and I'm much more prone to using a stick."
From the outset of the campaign in August, Chase and Gonzalez were rivals as they vied for a second place finish and a chance against Faulconer, the favorite, in a runoff. While jockeying for position as the choice for environmentally conscious voters, Gonzalez has claimed that she and Chase hold similar ideals while Chase has openly criticized Gonzalez for her youth and a perceived lack of experience and accomplishments.
"Lorena's main claim as an environmentalist is being Marco's sister and, frankly, that just doesn't cut it," Chase said, referring to Marco Gonzalez, a prominent local environmental attorney and clean-water activist. "Ask her what she saved, what she accomplished. She has no great environmental record to stack up against anyone."
Gonzalez said she's reluctant to take sole credit for successes on which many groups have worked but said she's proud of her role opposing the expansion of SeaWorld, working to limit pollution from a South Bay power plant and creating a statewide policy for regulating seawalls, which cause beach erosion.
Asked which of Faulconer's accomplishments impressed her most, Chase said, "Well, he's not out there claiming he's an environmentalist having accomplished a lot of things, but he does seem to care about these issues," she said.
For his part, Faulconer told CityBeat he's "somebody whose going to be able to work with coalitions on all sides of the isle and I think that's something Caroline had recognized."
Meanwhile, Chase, burnt out on her position as a city planning commissioner and preparing to resign in the coming months, said she met with Sanders last week and offered her services as an aide on smart-growth issues or as a city ombudsman, fielding complaints citywide.
"I had an interview with him, and nothing about the campaign in any way, shape or form was raised," she said.
Chase insists her endorsement and her job search "are on different tracks," but news of her application and endorsement prompted Councilmember Donna Frye-a close friend of Chase who has endorsed Gonzalez over Faulconer because she has "a far superior understanding and commitment to the environment"-to privately warn Chase about the appearance of her actions and how they might be perceived.
"I can advise my friends. I can counsel my friends. But I can't save my friends." Frye told CityBeat. "I can't save them from themselves."
Overall, Chase's "sour grapes" endorsement of Faulconer is "shocking but not surprising," said the Sierra Club's Anderson.
Indeed, this isn't the first time Chase has spurned the environmental community with an endorsement-it's the second time she's done so in favor of Faulconer-nor is she a stranger to charges of using her environmental clout for her own personal gain.
In 2000, Chase, then-chair of the Sierra Club's political committee, led a successful effort to endorse Dick Murphy, running for mayor in a tight race against Ron Roberts, and was criticized when Murphy later nominated her for a spot on the Planning Commission.
In 2002, amid a bitter battle between Faulconer and Michael Zucchet, Chase endorsed Faulconer-again widely viewed as the inferior environmental candidate-shortly after losing the presidency of the local chapter of the League of Conservation Voters to Zucchet. Don Mullen, Zucchet's campaign manager in 2002, said Chase also attempted to use her influence as political committee chair to keep Zucchet from getting the Sierra Club's endorsement in time to print it on the ballot statement.
"It wasn't about environmental issues for her," Mullen said. "It was about her personal distaste for Mike."
Recently, an article in the Reader probed deals that Chase, then chair of the Sierra Club, negotiated with developers in 1998 and later profited from personally. And in August, Chase threw her hat in the ring for the District 2 race and managed to secure an "early endorsement" from the Sierra Club before the field of candidates was set. Subsequent attempts by members to co-endorse Gonzalez failed.
Some prominent environmentalists are wondering if Chase has lost her credibility.
"I just don't think that Carolyn has the clout anymore," said Bruce Reznik, a Gonzalez supporter and executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper. "I think she is somewhat living on borrowed time... and, to be honest, this move... makes her even more of a pariah than she has been in the environmental community."
Anderson, of the Sierra Club, called the idea that Chase has lost clout with the political committee a "gross underestimate."
"There is this image out there of this person who has been a loose cannon, and this isn't going to do anything but reinforce it," he said. "I would say she is not looked upon favorably by a lot of people in the Sierra Club right now, that's for sure."
Chase brushes off those comments as attacks from her usual detractors.
"These are people who don't like what I've done, and therefore they are going to try and smear me," she said. "I can't make my own decisions based upon the reactions of people who have always criticized me for years."
But even some of Chase's former supporters are now balking at her endorsement of Faulconer.
Martin Eder, director of Activist San Diego, who endorsed Chase in August and contributed to her campaign, said he was disappointed to learn of her decision."I like Carolyn. I admire her, but I think she's dead wrong on this," he said. "Since she has a great desire to serve in public life, my question would be: Is there something in it for her."