The District 3 City Council race sure took shape in a hurry. Just six months after candidates could file, already there's a clear frontrunner in Todd Gloria, a challenger in Stephen Whitburn and even a dark horse in campaign veteran John Hartley. With all the district walking that will soon be going on, area residents may need new doors. When it comes to the big problems facing the district, there's a common theme: infrastructure in disrepair, too-tall apartment towers and rising crime. The challenge for the candidates will be to somehow separate themselves in the minds of voters.
Gloria, an aide to Congresswoman Susan Davis, is a third generation San Diegan with a reputation for attending as many as 20 community meetings a month on Davis' behalf. His connections in the community helped Gloria raise almost three times as much money as his nearest contender, Whitburn, with roughly $48,000 to Whitburn's $17,000 as of the last filing deadline, July 1. Gloria put that cash to work immediately, hanging giant banners in front of the businesses that support him along major thoroughfares like University Avenue and Washington Street. This past weekend, Gloria had volunteers at the Adams Avenue Street Fair and a crew doing the AIDS Walk down Sixth Avenue. Gloria's roots run so deep he can tell you where in the city his mom had her first kiss and his dad got his first job.
'It's his race to lose,' said political consultant Chris Crotty. 'But I've been surprised at all the mainstream endorsement Whitburn has.'
Indeed, Whitburn has managed to rack up important endorsements from City Councilmember Donna Frye and the San Diego Democratic Club, the influential organization in the gay community.
Democratic insiders said Frye gave her endorsement because of her affinity for outsiders-any outsider. But Frye told CityBeat she's known Whitburn for a long time and that her intuition leads her to believe he'll be a superior City Council member to the others.
Also, consider that Whitburn's rhetoric, when he sat down with CityBeat, was Frye-esque.
'We want our city government to work for more people. Too long has City Hall served the interests of the few,' he said. 'I'm passionate about open, honest government.'
While Whitburn also worries about infrastructure and crime in the area, what he really wants to do as a City Council member is 'ask the tough questions of city officials.'
City Councilmember Toni Atkins, the district's current representative who's being termed out of office, has not yet made an endorsement, but she thinks Frye's backing will help people in the district who don't know Whitburn consider him seriously.
But other observers wonder if Frye may not have undermined herself with her recent vote against a citywide ban on big-box super-stores-albeit for nuanced reasons-and her vote in September that delayed the approval of a resolution in support of gay marriage. Opposing gay marriage for any reason does not go over well in a district dominated by lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender politics, and the negative vibe could hurt Whitburn.
District 3 has for the last four elections sent a lesbian to City Council. This year, it's faced with a choice between Gloria and Whitburn, both of whom are gay. The locus of gay politics in San Diego is the San Diego Democratic Club. The group's backing has provided both the money and volunteers that helped launch Christine Kehoe and Atkins to City Council victories.
The club gave out its endorsement last month. Each of the candidates, Robert Lee and James Hartline included, got to speak at one of the largest forums in club history, with some 280 people in attendance. All spoke, but everyone knew the endorsement would go to either Gloria or Whitburn. As a former three-year president of the club, Whitburn had a strong advantage. Club President Andrea Villa said the forum was respectful and engaged, but other insiders said it was a seesaw battle. Whitburn won the endorsement, but not by much.
Villa suggested that Whitburn prevailed because the group was more familiar with him, but one Democratic insider who asked not to be identified, thought it might have had more to do with orneriness in the LGBT community.'Nicole Murray-Ramirez wanted them to wait, so they voted to spite him,' the source said.
Murray-Ramirez, an activist, a columnist for the Gay and Lesbian Times and a one-man force of nature in the LGBT community, can be a polarizing figure. He does not blindly back gay candidates, a fact that upsets some members of the community. He supported one of Christine Kehoe's opponents the first time she ran for office, and he is just as active in the Latino community as he is in the LGBT community. And for the District 3 election, he backs Gloria. This may say more about Gloria than about Murray-Ramirez.
'The way I see it is that Todd is the community candidate that happens to be gay; Steve Whitburn is the gay candidate,' Crotty said.
But the close vote may also dilute the value of the endorsement. Gloria has already proven a powerful fundraiser and recruiter without the club's help, and we won't know what the endorsement has meant for Whitburn's campaign account until January, the next fund-raising-disclosure deadline.
In the meantime, Gloria must cope with all the demands of being the putative leader of the pack. His forbidding lead in fund-raising might be seen as simply meeting expectations. Rumors abound that his war chest will hit $100,000 before the next deadline, but there again, he is merely meeting expectations.
And, of course, being in the lead also means having the metaphorical target painted on his chest. Last week, Hartley, the former City Council member who's running again, accused Gloria of holding a fund-raiser at a non-union hotel. The move was an attempt to gain the support of labor, a key player in any progressive politics in San Diego. Thus far, labor has remained on the sidelines in the race.
Hartley has little money, just $8,000 as of the last filing, $5,000 of which he loaned himself. Still, he's never been much of a fund-raiser, relying instead on pure effort to win. Hartley led the charge to switch from citywide elections to district elections in the 1980s. Then, in 1988, he ran against the much better established Gloria McCall for the District 3 seat. Murray-Ramirez, who worked for McCall, remembers that she had $500,000 in her war chest and high-profile political consultant Tom Shepard, who helped get Mayor Jerry Sanders elected in 2005, working her campaign. She relied on billboards and mass mailings, the traditional techniques used to win citywide elections.'John Hartley campaigned out of his trunk, but he walked the entire precinct three times, and that's why he won,' Murray-Ramirez said.
And that, everyone agrees, will be the key to winning this time. Walking the district, connecting with voters, articulating ideas on how to solve problems of infrastructure, crime and development.
Which is why the business community is still on the fence. District 3 is a dense urban district with a lot of small businesses. Many of the owners don't live within its boundaries, but they still must be courted because they give money.
'We want to see more streetlights. We're worried about crime,' said Elizabeth Studebaker, executive director of North Park Main Street, a business improvement district.
She said many business owners are waiting to hear how the candidates will address these issues.
And in that respect, some business owners who prefer not to be named told CityBeat they like what Gloria has to say.When CityBeat met with him, Gloria articulated a vision that included specific improvements he'd to implement: traffic lights that favor pedestrians, important but inexpensive improvements like handicapped access ramps, and the growth of small businesses that add services to the area and don't harm neighborhoods.
'Like Ace Hardware, instead of Home Depot,' he said. 'And things like when a curb is the same level as the street. You don't think of those things as important until they're in front of your house.'
Cecilia Moreno, owner of Crest Café in Hillcrest, also sounded a common theme with her concerns about the big buildings sprouting up.
'There are some of us up here that are very concerned with the city's downtown-ification of Hillcrest,' Moreno said.In particular, she spoke about the 12-story building projected for 301 University Ave., a proposal opposed by many residents but supported by some business owners who like additional parking spaces it includes. All the candidates have gone on the record as opposing that project, but some citizens fear that Gloria may be a little too inside the establishment to be an effective advocate for neighborhoods.
This wellspring of dissatisfaction comes from the feeling among some in the community that Atkins is too cozy with those same builders. Her vote in favor of the 301 University project was extremely unpopular in Hillcrest, and voters want a successor who will take a stand against such developments. Also, as a consequence, Atkins' endorsement may be of questionable value.
In addition to good-ol' pavement pounding, Atkins offered another piece of advice to the candidates. 'If I were a candidate,' she said, 'I would be looking for any community group able to endorse, or names of community leaders that are well-thought-of in each community.'
She believes these political tastemakers working on behalf of a candidate, combined with hard work by the candidate, can be more valuable than any amount of money.