Look, CityBeat understands that San Diego just finished its fifth election in two years. Really, we do. But look around: six San Diegans have already declared their interest in running for open City Council seats in 2008. The next election is upon us, and it's time to start thinking about it.
If you're a progressive, and three of those candidates are Republicans vying for crucial seats in swing Districts 1 and 7, and all three Democrats live in the safe liberal District 3 (just as District 5 is considered safe for conservatives), it's maybe time to start worrying-a bit, at least.
Right now, the City Council has a 5-3 majority of Democrats. Because of term limits, Councilmembers Scott Peters, Toni Atkins, Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer will all be departing City Hall. If Republicans take three of four, they will create a 4-4 ideological deadlock, and the lack of a tiebreaking mechanism could paralyze the City Council.
Historically, San Diego has been a Republican fortress, a launch point for Pete Wilson and an ally to Richard Nixon.
"This was a town controlled by development and tourism interests for decades," said Donald Cohen, executive director of the liberal-minded Center on Policy Initiatives.
But in the 1990s, a booming tech and biotech industry along with a tide of new immigration shifted the political and ethnic mix. That movement peaked with the 2002 Democratic sweep of four council seats to create an unheard of 6-3 majority (the mayor was a member of the council at the time). That council passed new laws-affordable housing, prevailing wage, needle exchange-that, according to Cohen, enraged the traditional elite.
"Those same forces became pretty unhappy with the fact that the Democrats are the majority of the City Council, that they had to share power. The level of backlash has been stunning," Cohen said. He expects the Republican base will be exceptionally motivated to pump money and energy into the 2008 campaigns.
That's when the mayor, the City Attorney, and those four open seats go up for grabs. Well, not really up for grabs. Mayor Jerry Sanders has not said whether he will run again, and the mere thought that he would silences even whispers of opposition. The far more controversial Mike Aguirre will almost certainly meet a challenger. And then those four seats. With Districts 3 (Uptown, Golden Hill) and 5 (Mira Mesa, Rancho Bernardo) considered safe, Districts 1 (La Jolla) and 7 (College Area, Tierra Santa) will swing. Demographically speaking, District 1 has a Republican edge in registration, but the area has been moderating as new people move into the district. Peters was the first Democrat in recent memory to win there, but his two victories may be harbingers. District 7 has an even registration of Democrats and Republicans, but Republicans there tend to vote in higher percentages. In either case, charismatic candidates from either party have a reasonable chance to win.
But to do that, Democrats need someone to actually run for the seat.
"We're having trouble getting people to run," said Lorena Gonzalez, political director of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council. "If you ask people, they kind of laugh. When we've asked people who would be credible candidates, they'll say there's just no way."
Environmentalists are no more sanguine about their 2008 prospects. "Good candidates don't want to immerse themselves in the slime of city politics," said Cory Briggs, an environmental attorney and prominent member of the group Progressive San Diego. "People say, I don't want to be part of that dysfunctional family-I've got one of my own.'"
Bear in mind, San Diego progressives and Democrats overlap, but are not the same people. The progressives are the interest groups, mainly the environmentalists and labor sympathizers. The Democrats are an arm of the larger state and national parties. While the party (really, either party) is primarily interested in finding winners, progressives have specific litmus tests that involve support for the working class and for environmental issues.
County Republican chairman Ron Nehring and county Democratic chairman Jess Durfee are not worried about finding good candidates at this point.
"To suggest we're already in trouble is a little silly," Durfee told CityBeat, noting that there's still 23 months until the election. "We're having productive conversations. I have lunch or coffee with a different person every day to talk about running for office."
But the Democratic Party organization in San Diego was repeatedly described to CityBeat as disorganized and not especially influential.
"My experience is that the political parties are not that successful at selecting candidates," said Glenn Sparrow, a political observer and SDSU professor emeritus. "Most candidates are self-selected or pushed by interest groups. [Interest groups are] the ones who understand how things work. They're the ones on the left who have been successful. I don't think they wait around for the parties to do anything. The parties around here, especially the Democratic Party are pretty disorganized."
For example, Todd Gloria, one of the Democrats prepping for a run in District 3, was approached by community groups, not the party. So maybe the progressives are right to worry.Possible candidates are put off by the situational politics of 2008, too. Republicans can rely on tourism and development dollars for funding, but, recently, Democrats have depended on the labor unions. And labor will be carrying pension-scandal baggage in the next election. With Sanders surfing a wave of popularity, neither he nor the editorial board of the Union-Tribune will ever let anyone forget that fact, and any candidate running with labor backing may be in a hole before they ever express an opinion on an issue.
Rumor and innuendo
As CityBeat surveyed San Diego's power brokers and politicos, we asked who was rumored to be running for the open council seats in 2008. Some of these people have gone public with their interest. Others may be surprised to discover they're running for office. But all of these names we heard from at least two independent sources. Three people who came up often, Steve Francis, Marty Block and Bob Ottilie, told CityBeat they do not plan to run.
Phil Thalheimer (R) Flight-school owner, former council candidate
Alex Barron (R) Runs an IT firm
Steve McMillan (R) Police union vice president
Steve Francis (R) Manages a healthcare firm, former mayoral candidate
Todd Gloria (D) Aide to Rep. Susan Davis
Adrian Kwiatkowski (D) Political consultant
Stephen Whitburn (D) San Diego Democratic Club president
Tom Hebrank (R) Pension Board member
Carl DeMaio (R) The Performance Institute director
Karen McElliott (R) Nursing-home owner, former council candidate
Jim Denton (R) Rancho Bernardo Planning Board chair
Leslie Devaney (R) Former deputy city attorney, former city attorney candidate
Karen Heumann (D) Deputy city attorney, former Assembly candidate
April Boling (R) Former San Diego County Taxpayers' Association president
Johnnie Perkins (R) Trash-company lobbyist, former firefighters union spokesperson
Marty Block (D) Retired SDSU professor Bob Ottilie (R) Parks and Recreation Board member, former mayoral attorney
Scott Peters (D) City Council president
Nada, zip, zilch