Say you live in City Council District 4: Southeastern San Diego, Encanto, Skyline and Paradise Hills. You're a responsible voter, casting your ballot in every election. In the past 14 months, you've been to the polls five times. There was the special election to replace deceased District 4 representative Charles Lewis, held two weeks after the Nov. 3, 2004, presidential election. That one went to a runoff, sending you back to the polls six weeks later. Then there was the July primary for the mayoral special election, which, too, went into a runoff in November.
And you'll be returning again this coming June when District 4 representative Tony Young-coming up on his one-year anniversary in office-is up for reelection, along with each City Council member in an even-numbered district-Districts 2, 4, 6 and 8.
Doctors have a name for your condition: chronic voter fatigue.
But what about the folks on the receiving end of the vote? Young, no doubt, started thinking about the June 2006 primary even before he was sworn in. And how about Kevin Faulconer and Ben Hueso, elected last week to represent Districts 2 and 8, respectively-districts that have been without leadership since Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zucchet resigned last summer. Now Faulconer and Hueso have to set up their City Council offices, learn the ropes at City Hall, catch up on what's not gotten done in their district over the past several months and start campaigning all over again.
“Usually, if there's a special election, you have at least a year in office to solidify your base,” said Carl Luna, professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College. “I can't think of a situation recently where you've had so much commotion... and then they're right back up for reelection again.”
Will the fact that there are four councilmembers running for reelection affect how city government functions over the next few months? It's not an unusual thing-three incumbent councilmembers successfully held on to their seats in 2004-but the past year at City Hall hasn't exactly been business-as-usual. “There's a lot of things that have converged to make this a first,” District 3 City Councilmember Toni Atkins pointed out.
San Diego has a new mayor and a new system of government. In the next few months, Jerry Sanders will need the eight-member City Council's cooperation as he struggles with a bare-bones budget, attempts to launch his reform plan and deals with increasingly costly consultants who arguably have San Diego at their mercy in the slow-as-molasses work of getting the city's fiscal books in order.
Faulconer was the only one of the four candidates in the Districts 2 and 8 races to return a questionnaire sent out by the mayor to gauge whether candidates agreed with his reform proposals. For his cooperation, the Republican Faulconer got Sanders' endorsement. He beat Democrat Lorena Gonzalez-but just barely-ending up with 700 more votes than Gonzalez, out of roughly 29,000 votes cast.
“Notice [Faulconer] was supposed to be part of the Jerry Sanders coattails,” Luna said. “But those coattails weren't very long. He just barely squeaked by.”
A larger voter turnout, which tends to help Democratic candidates, might have pushed Gonzalez ahead. Indeed, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in District 2, 34,673 to 32,085. And the June primary will include Democrats vying to challenge Arnold Schwarzenegger in November. “One would anticipate the June primary to be larger than this January special election,” said Luna, “which, I think, was 43 people, two dogs and a canary that turned out.”
Gonzalez told CityBeat Monday that she hasn't yet decided whether she'll try again for the District 2 seat. The deadline to file candidate papers is Feb. 9.
Sanders' support of Faulconer could work in Gonzalez' favor, Luna added. “After the April budget comes out, if enough oxen are gored that Sanders looks bad, that endorsement may come back to haunt Faulconer.”
There's one other endorsement Faulconer may come to regret: the firefighters union-the “kingmaker” endorsement, said Luna, which helped Zucchet beat Faulconer in 2002. Union president Ron Saathoff, however, was indicted two weeks ago on federal corruption charges and is also facing a criminal trial for his involvement in the city's pension scandal, sullying his organization's endorsement.
But if all goes well for Sanders during the next few months, his endorsement could be gold, political consultant Christopher Crotty said. “Since Sanders endorsed Kevin Faulconer as somebody who's going to be part of his team, it will be very interesting to see who he endorses in all four of the races and who he considers part of his team. Will he endorse somebody against Donna Frye?”
Crotty hasn't heard any names, but said he knows there are a number of “high-profile Republicans... looking to recruit someone” to run against Frye in District 6. “I wouldn't be surprised to see another Steve Francis-type-somebody who's wealthy and not overly conservative and who doesn't have much of a record,” Crotty said.
Frye might have to do a little damage control in her district, said political consultant Larry Remer. “Donna's going to have to go out and campaign a little bit because she ran for mayor twice and she's going to [need to] reassure voters that she cares about them.”
As Luna points out, Sanders won District 6-Frye's district-in the mayoral special election. Frye got 47 percent of the vote to Sanders' 52.6 percent. “That could have been like a lover's spat-she's deserting them, could be they like her as a city councilwoman, they don't want her as mayor,” Luna said.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in District 6, but just barely: 29,440 to 28,634.
Like Crotty, Luna wonders what Republican politicos might have up their sleeves when it comes to Frye. “How the mayor is doing can have an impact... potentially even on Donna,” Luna said. “If his popularity stays up, he could potentially try to get rid of Frye.”
Luna said he doesn't see Sanders directly trying to oust Frye. “I don't think he's going to have the time to worry about it, but the political operatives surrounding him are going to be thinking about it.”
The District 8 winner in last week's election, Ben Hueso, was one of the three who didn't return Sanders' candidate questionnaire, but neither did his opponent, Republican Luis Acle, who's on the San Diego Unified School District's Board of Education-a seat Hueso lost to Acle in November 2004. Hueso, Crotty, said, “mopped the floor with Luis Acle,” garnering 71 percent of roughly 9,000 votes. “I'd be surprised if anyone gave him a run for his money in June,” Crotty said. In District 8, a Republican doesn't stand a chance, with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans almost 2-to-1.
During his campaign, Hueso struggled to distance himself from his predecessor, Ralph Inzunza, and the Inzunza name-National City Mayor Nick Inzunza earned a reputation as a slumlord after two Union-Tribune articles revealed squalid living conditions at several properties, most of them located in District 8, ostensibly owned by Inzunza's wife, Olga Payan. Hueso's sister Virginia manages several of the Inzunza properties, and Hueso family members, too, own buildings in disrepair-though none quite as bad as Inzunza's.
“Hueso protested that he wasn't part of the Inzunza-Vargas crowd,” Luna pointed out. (Vargas is Assemblymember Juan Vargas, who's running against Bob Filner for Congress.) “But [Hueso] was Vargas' man, no matter how you look at it, and Inzunza was Vargas' man.”
A source involved in District 8 politics-who asked not to be named-said there are people currently looking at whether there's a viable Democratic candidate in District 8 to challenge Hueso in June.
The only City Councilmember who seems likely to retain his seat with little effort is District 4's Young. Remer calls Young “almost unbeatable.”
“Tony is a very decent guy and a diligent council member. Every single [news] story has said that the city's problems occurred before he came to office.”
Remer said that having four City Council members up for reelection should be a non-issue, regardless of the state of the city. “How is this going to impact the functioning of the council? I would argue that it's going to impact it in a good way. Council members are elected by the public, and all the council members should be constantly worried about what their bosses want them to do. An election shouldn't be an inconvenience from doing the business of the city; it should be a chance to show your bosses that you're doing the business of the city well, or you're solving the city's problems. It would be good for the city if all eight of them were up for reelection.”
But District 3 City Councilmember Toni Atkins said it can be tough juggling duties and running for reelection. “It's like doing a double job. You're... trying to cover your entire district, trying to cover the council meeting, and you end up having to do campaigning and fundraising, which takes up a lot of time,” she said.
“Council members run from within their districts based on, ‘I'm going to work hard to bring improvements into the district,'” Atkins said.
Atkins, who'll be term-out in 2008, is considering running for Ron Roberts' seat on the county Board of Supervisors-another race on the June ballot. So far, she's opened a campaign account and assembled a committee to explore whether she'd have a chance against the three-term supervisor and three-time failed mayoral candidate. But, she said, she's also weighing whether it's the right time to focus on such a campaign.
Sanders recently appointed Atkins to head up a newly formed committee on budget and finance, which begins meeting this week.
“If council members are busy getting their wish lists together,” Atkins said, “the message that I've received from the finance people is it's going to be difficult, if not near impossible, to put new things [in the budget].
“We've said that every year for the last three years, but I think it's going to continue to be true. It's going to be hard for all of us, frankly, to produce things in our district.”
At the same time, though, there are those smaller quality-of-life items that remain important to voters: things like library hours, swimming-pool hours and park-and-recreation facilities maintenance. “Those two things [constituents' expectations from their representative versus city finances] are going to bump up against each other, and I do think that will play out in any election,” Atkins said.
Unlike in the past, when members of City Council would go to the city manager to ask for funding for special, district-based projects, now that there's no longer a city manager, they'll have to go to the mayor with those requests, Atkins noted.
“Not one council member can call the city manager now, who we hire and fire, and say, ‘Can't you find a way to do that $30,000 project in my district?' or ‘We just need $30,000 more to do this.' If we're responding to a constituent who's had an issue... and the community has come together around it... if [the money] isn't to be found, it isn't to be found.
“When you have to [tell constituents], ‘I'm sorry, there are no funds to do this,' it'll be attached to the mayor's name.”
But one could also conclude that perhaps the elected official didn't exercise enough influence over the mayor, something that could reflect badly on her or him. Atkins conceded that that could be the case.
“We're going to have to learn how to operate and, to be honest, how to work our influence in a new system. And there's checks and balances because the mayor needs the council to docket some of his priorities.”