Gone is Marti Emerald the blustery TV reporter-cum-District 7 City Council candidate whom CityBeat met in a Del Cerro restaurant in March. Gone is the red suit and careful makeup. Gone is the bravado of those early days when the campaign could boast about a January poll that put her up 35 points on her opponent, accountant April Boling. Where did that Emerald go? Gone to a June night when Boling came within 1,022 votes of defeating Emerald outright.
Replacing that person is a newly chastened candidate. When CityBeat met her at campaign headquarters last week, she was quiet. She answered questions, but her eyes often flicked over to her campaign manager, Xema Jacobson, for support. She's walking the precincts more, nearly every day, she says, since July 4. She's switched campaign consultants, dumped her slogan as the “Troubleshooter” and tried to remake her image as a serious City Council candidate. She's no longer doing polls, she said.
“Why make myself even more depressed?” Emerald said. She may have been joking about that. Or maybe not.The mostly suburban District 7, which includes the College Area, Tierrasanta and part of City Heights, is split in registration between Democrats and Republicans, so both candidates have a fighter's chance. Though the City Council is technically nonpartisan, there will be at least four Democrats and at least two Republicans after November's election. Five votes are needed to pass legislation and to override a mayoral veto. One of the two undecided seats is in District 1, a race between Democrat Sherri Lightner and Republican Phil Thalheimer that, for some reason, has been written off by many Democrats. That leaves Democrat Emerald versus Republican Boling as the “balance of power” race.
When Emerald announced her candidacy, many Democrats breathed a sigh of relief. She had name-recognition, she knew people around the city, and her reputation as a consumer investigator was generally positive in the eyes of voters. When the January poll came out, people started to assume Emerald would win easily. The complacency among the Democratic base meant the campaign had trouble keeping up with Boling in fundraising and struggled to attract volunteers. Many activists decided to invest themselves in an intense District 3 race, while others were focused on the city attorney contest.
“It took quite a bit of convincing to tell people that it was going to be as tough as it was going to be,” said Jess Durfee, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party.
Then there was trouble with the candidate. She didn't walk the district every day. She was dividing her time between running for office and fulfilling consulting contracts. Some people thought she wasn't taking it seriously, though Emerald denies it.
“She thought it was a coronation,” said John Kern, who worked for 10 years in District 7 politics as the chief of staff for three successive council members.
Then in April, the San Diego State College Democrats held a forum where Emerald said some things many might consider impolitic: She might need a second job if elected, and it might be necessary for residents to pay for garbage pickup, among others. She says now that she thought the session was “like a seminar,” rather than a campaign event. An attendee taped the forum, and then KOGO radio host Roger Hedgecock used the audio to trip Emerald up in a live interview.
Boling refused to be interviewed for this story, but it's clear that her campaign team jumped to exploit the gaffes. They cranked out at least 18 mailers that portrayed Emerald as an out-of-touch TV star and Boling as a hard-working accountant who digs into arcane financial documents. Boling's campaign and surrogates like the San Diego County Republican Party and the Atlas Hotel Political Action committee spent at least $470,000 on her behalf, 32 percent more than the $350,000 spent by and for Emerald. The mailers were devastating. A tracking poll taken in mid-May obtained by CityBeat showed Boling leading by 10 points.
To keep up with the soft-money expenditures, Emerald looked to the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, an umbrella group for 110 local unions. Labor Council secretary-treasurer Lorena Gonzalez had said repeatedly that the Emerald race was a top priority. In the end, labor spent $81,000, mostly on a mailer that didn't leave much of a mark. Emerald campaign consultant Larry Remer believes labor let his candidate down.
“We looked for the cavalry, and they weren't there,” he told CityBeat. “I feel their commitment was more lip service than reality.”
Remer compared labor's efforts for Emerald unfavorably to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it spent to help Democrat Michael Zucchet get elected to the City Council in 2002.
Gonzalez believes labor did what it could.
“I'm confident we'll work within the legal confines to do what we can for all of our candidates,” she said.
In the final weekend of the campaign, Emerald's volunteers and the Labor Council joined forces to walk the district in a massive get-out-the-vote effort, which may have been the key to Emerald's survival for the runoff.
On primary day, turnout was abysmal: 28 percent, a record low for a state primary. The voters in a low-turnout election tend to be the most partisan. In District 7, the most partisan voters are Republicans likely to vote for Boling, observers said.
“It'll be a totally different election next time around,” said Donald Cohen, executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a think tank that advocates for working-class San Diegans.
Cohen's talking about the massive turnout expected for Barack Obama in November, plus the fact that students who make up a chunk of the Democratic electorate in District 7 will be back at school. The Emerald campaign is already enjoying some of the Obama effect in the form of student volunteers and registration drives at San Diego State that add hundreds of new voters to the rolls.
Emerald has retooled her campaign, switching campaign consultants from Remer to Richie Ross, better known for state races. Emerald said she made the change to “avoid distractions” but would not elaborate. Her consulting contracts done, Emerald is now walking precincts every day.
CityBeat joined her for a couple of blocks in Tierrasanta. In worn-down running shoes, black shorts, a collared shirt and diamond earrings, Emerald is targeting Republicans, who are the high-propensity voters in the district, so they are crucial, even in a high-turnout election. Armed with a dog-eared list and an SUV full of yard signs, she is working the doors, showing off her neighborhood knowledge to anyone who'll listen. Some do. One woman runs from Emerald as if frightened. Emerald marks her list and moves on to the next house.