Eclipsed by the growing intensity of the mayoral election and the daily rancor at City Hall, the contest to determine who will replace former City Councilmember Michael Zucchet is quietly taking shape and heating up.
Most of the 17 candidates vying for the District 2 seat have spent the past two months fundraising and knocking on doors throughout the district-comprising Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, Point Loma, Mission Hills and Downtown. With so many contenders, it seems nearly certain that no candidate will secure the number of votes needed to win the Nov. 8 election outright-50 percent plus one vote-and the top two finishers will meet in a January runoff. However, a handful of frontrunners have emerged.
Kevin Faulconer, a former City Hall lobbyist and current public-relations executive who unsuccessfully ran against Zucchet in a contentious and expensive 2002 battle for the seat, has returned as the odds-on favorite for a first-place finish in November. Although he's run here before, this time the racetrack and its hurdles have changed dramatically.
In terms of timing, this contest will be a relative sprint compared to the nearly yearlong campaign Faulconer ran against Zucchet in 2002. That means candidates will have less time to get their names out, which gives Faulkner, who still enjoys high name recognition from his last campaign, an advantage. Moreover, name recognition may gain additional weight in a race where traditionally salient neighborhood issues-environmental concerns, parking, traffic, infrastructure and public safety-have all been diminished by the city's fiscal woes, and most candidates-lacking concrete plans -sound strikingly similar when expressing the obvious need to address the financial crisis.
But name recognition may be where Faulconer's advantage ends. Formerly a Republican stronghold, the balance of power in District 2 has shifted since Faulconer last ran for office.
Three Republicans held the District 2 seat before Zucchet, a Democrat who managed to end the streak in 2002 despite the fact that, at the time, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats by nearly 2,000. The district has since leaned to the left-today it's Democrats who enjoy the registration advantage, with an edge of more than 3,500 voters.
However, the one constant in District 2 has been sizable portion of voters-currently nearly a quarter of the district's 80,000-who decline to state their party affiliation. It's generally accepted among campaign professionals that these voters tend to lean toward the liberal end of the political spectrum. That means Faulconer, who received the endorsement of the county Republican Party, will have to appeal to voters beyond his base if he hopes to win.
"It's not a "safe' partisan seat at all-quite the opposite-so anybody who is going to be successful here has to pick up votes on other side of the registration isle," Faulconer said.
To win those votes, Faulconer will have to convince voters that he's a moderate, which has his opponents accusing him of trying to confuse Democrats.
"He's a chameleon. He's trying to be everything to everybody," said Lorena Gonzalez, who has received the local Democratic Party endorsement and is one of the leading candidates vying for a spot in the general election. "Suddenly he's the open-government, reform environmentalist, when we all know that he is a lobbyist for developers.... If he was really an environmentalist, I promise you the [Building Industry Association] and [Associated General Contractors of America] would not be supporting him."
Hoping to force Faulconer to a runoff, Gonzalez, an environmental attorney who worked for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, is facing her own battle for the support of the district's environmentally conscious voters against Carolyn Chase, a city planning commissioner and environmental organizer. In a controversial September decision, the local chapter of the Sierra Club endorsed Chase-the club's political chair prior to announcing her candidacy-before the field of candidates was officially set.
Gonzalez has managed to pick up the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters, of which she is the vice president, and Vote the Coast, a state environmental group with a political focus.
The difference between the pair, according to Gonzalez, may come down to personality.
"I don't think that there is a big difference policy-wise between Carolyn and I," she said. "I think it's a style difference."
Chase, 48, who's known about City Hall for her no-nonsense style and at times gruff demeanor, chalks the difference up to age and experience.
"What's her experience? Working for Cruz Bustamante," said Chase. "All of her titles are because of her relationship with Cruz. She's only 33 years old, and what's been wrong downtown? Thirty-somethings who got elected and couldn't attract good enough staff so they could swim with the sharks without being eaten."
While Chase and Gonzalez vie for the environmental vote, two dark-horse candidates with deep roots in the district are quietly working to gather votes.
Rich Grosch, a community-college trustee and self-described "community-planning guy," is off to a late start but is hoping that after 30 years of serving as a teacher, planning-board member and City Council staffer, he can mount a significant effort.
"I waited a week after papers had been filed to see if there was someone that had experience that I could vote for, that could really help get us out of this political mess we are in-the pension fiasco and the budget crisis-and there was nobody with any experience at all in those regards," Grosch said. "I'm really used to coming from behind or being the underdog and kind of enjoy that."
A long-shot from the right, Tim Rutherford, a fiscal conservative and Republican who describes himself as "unabashedly a Christian" and serves as vice president of Episcopal Community Services, a faith-based charity organization, is hoping to tap into the district's religious electorate. He's making the rounds to community churches.
"My sense is that the voters are upset and want something different than the typical planning commissioner or also-ran politician," he said.
Any gains that Rutherford makes will likely cut into Faulconer's Republican base, something that, like everything else, doesn't seem to phase the frontrunner. "I'm not intending to get into a back-and-forth with anybody," he said. "If [the other candidates] want to do that, that's fine."
As the apparent man to beat, Faulconer is an obvious target, but his current strategy of brushing off attacks may not prove effective for long. Several candidates are crying foul over last week's endorsement of Faulconer by Local 145, the union that represents city firefighters
In 2002, Local 145 supported Zucchet, who had been a lobbyist for the union. Zucchet took aim at Faulconer, who opposed union efforts to increase public-safety funding. Zucchet's campaign was run by Jennifer Tierney, a political consultant with close ties to John Kern, chief of staff to former Mayor Dick Murphy. Tierney also worked for Local 145, and Zucchet's wife Teresa has worked for Tierney in the past. Now Faulconer has hired Tierney to run his current campaign.
"The fact that the firefighters who spent so much money... last time to defeat Faulkner could change 180 degrees and now support him-not based on having candidates who [don't] support public safety-but just because, who knows, they also happen to share the same political consultant, I find interesting," said Gonzalez.
"They are all circling together over there," Chase said of Kern, Faulconer, Tierney, Zucchet and the firefighters union.
Johnnie Perkins, director of government affairs for the union, could not be reached for comment, but Tierney said any insinuations of coordination between her clients-a violation of state law-are "ridiculous." Over the phone, she read part of an Oct. 6 letter from a Local 145 attorney canceling her contract for the stated purpose of avoiding a "presumption of coordination."
In 2004, similar allegations of coordination between the firefighters and Murphy, also one of Tierney's clients, were investigated by the city's Ethics Commission and the state Attorney General's office but were ultimately dismissed.
Faulconer said he would have applied for the endorsements of the city police and fire unions in 2002 had they conducted interviews.
Gonzalez also called on Faulconer to make public a list of all of the organizations and individuals he has previously represented as a lobbyist and public-relations representative.
"It's astonishing that he's talking about getting fair market value for [city] leases, and he won't even release how many of his clients have had these leases in the past and are benefiting from... closed-door meetings," she said.
Asked by CityBeat to release a list of those interests he has represented in the past, Faulconer named a number of national companies and made a vague statement about doing so in the future."If you and I want to talk about it, and I'm sure, like, there is going to be a runoff, so let's sit down and talk about it," he said.