Donna Frye or Jerry Sanders? Who's it going to be?
San Diego-God and registrar willing-will have an answer to that pressing question next Tuesday night. But with less than a week to go until Election Day, and the race tightening, both candidates-as well as some of their technically unaffiliated supporters-are planning final efforts in hopes of securing the mayor's office.
While Sanders is widely thought to enjoy a lead over Frye, neither campaign insiders nor outside observers are sure exactly how large, or small, that advantage may be. A recent poll produced by Datamar Inc. shows Sanders has a 13-point advantage. However, $3,250 worth of contributions from the firm to the San Diego Republican Central Committee have many, including Sanders' campaign consultant Tom Shepard, questioning the credibility of that poll.
Shepard says he's not comfortable with the size of Sanders' lead and won't be until late Tuesday evening. In the meantime, a lot can happen.
In the highest-profile events of the coming week the candidates are scheduled to face off in five debates, three of which will be televised. So far, Wednesday night's two-hour mega-debate, presented by Envision San Diego, is creating the most buzz. Featuring a live studio audience of more than 600 people and brought to you by 16 TV, radio, print and online news organizations, the debate is expected to reach tens of thousands of San Diegans.
But after months of campaigning, during which any “surprise questions” have been thoroughly explored, can a few remaining debates really make much of a difference so late in the game?
One need only look back to the 1992 mudslinger between mayoral hopefuls Peter Navarro and Susan Golding for proof of the impact that a single televised debate can have on a local race. Shepard, who ran Golding's campaign at the time, remembers the debate, held the Sunday night before the election.
“At the end of the debate, Golding said the personal attacks that Navarro had launched over the past week... had hurt her and her family,” he said. “Navarro turned to her and said something to the effect that he thought she had probably been rehearsing that line for weeks.
“In delivering that line, I think the post-mortem analysis was that he came across as very mean-spirited and lost a significant number of votes.”
Two days later, Golding, who had been trailing in the polls, managed to beat Navarro.
Veteran political consultant Larry Remer, who is currently working for pro-Frye groups, says he thinks the fate of both Frye and Sanders depends on the outcome of the debates. Considering voter-turnout numbers in the past two mayoral elections, Remer said he expects between 250,000 and 300,000 voters to make it to the polls Tuesday.
“So if 300,000 votes are going to be cast, and there are 30,000 people who haven't decided how they are going to vote watching the debate, then that's pretty damn important,” he said. “That's 10 percent of the electorate.... That's win or lose for Jerry or Donna.”
If the debates matter-and not all experts agree that they will-how should Frye and Sanders approach their final stands before the electorate? The answer to that one is, at the very least, debatable.
When it comes to Frye's strategy, observers differ on how aggressive she should be and on what topics she should focus.
Remer wants Frye to be firm with Sanders and hammer home a message that she's the only candidate voters can trust. “Donna just has to remind people that she's the only one who has been honest,” he said. “She's the only one who has not broken faith with the voters.”
Similarly, Carl Luna, a local political pundit and professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College, suggests that Frye needs to convey that “she's the voice of change while Jerry's more of the same.
“That would be the one message she might be able to get out, and she should have started on it a month ago,” he said.
Political consultant Christopher Crotty, who's working on behalf of some pro-Sanders groups, said he thinks Frye needs to ditch her focus on her fiscal plan and return to quality-of-life issues and good-government themes in order to attract moderate Republicans and undecided voters.
“People are starving for that type of message, and that's why they voted for her as a write-in; that's why she did well in the primary, and that's why she's losing ground in this race,” he said.
“The thing that has been baffling to me is why Donna continues to talk bout the fiscal recovery plan.... She has made a classic mistake in as much as she is talking about Jerry's issues, not her issues.”
Frye's campaign manager, Nicole Capretz, said she thinks voters are familiar with Frye's stance on open government and environmental matters.
“Guess what: We did that in the primary,” she said. “They already know that. Donna's main message, her main theme, is going to be that [she] represents the new San Diego, the San Diego that is going to be truthful and confront its problems head on.”
When it comes to Sanders, there's nearly universal agreement that he needs to focus on his financial plan, avoid Navarro's mistake of coming off as mean-spirited and, as Crotty put it, “not fuck up.”
That doesn't mean Sanders doesn't have his work cut out for him.
Robert Fellmeth, a law professor and executive director of University of San Diego's Center for Public Interest Law, said he thinks Sanders' recent television ads attacking Frye are “intellectually dishonest” and that he has failed to adequately explain his financial plan.
“He's going to have to explain how you make up $1.4 billion without [reducing] spending or increasing revenue,” Fellmeth, a Republican, said. “He has a mathematical burden on him.... I think in the debate he has got to do that and if he doesn't, how can anyone take him seriously?
“People are not idiots who will be voting in this election.”
Luna said he doubts Sanders will grant Frye any quarter during the debates.
“I wouldn't be surprised if Sanders comes out really brass-knuckles on Frye,” he said. “He wants to come out of this with a high percentage of the vote to give him that mandate to be a strong mayor. So I think he will be looking for the sucker punch, the kidney punch and anything else he can land on her to make her look bad.”
Shepard said Sanders has gotten more assertive when dealing with Frye. “He has gotten a lot more direct in drawing distinctions between her record and her rhetoric, and I would expect that he will continue to do that.”
Although the debates will provide much of the fodder for this week's news coverage, an expected flurry of efforts from groups outside the campaigns designed to promote or malign a specific candidate-so-called independent expenditures-are also likely to create controversy. Groups that fund independent expenditures are prohibited from coordinating with a campaign, but their actions can impact a race.
Frye was targeted by a group of Republican restaurant owners in the final days of her November write-in campaign, yet Capretz is hesitant to criticize independent expenditures.
“It depends on the content,” she said. “If it's mean-spirited and full of lies... I don't find that helpful.”
Sources tell CityBeat that Frye, who didn't raise enough money to launch her own TV ad campaign, will benefit this week from commercials paid for by unknown supporters. Also, a group called Democrats for Jerry Sanders will send out a mailer in the coming days.
Other independent expenditures are expected.
“We plan to be hit pretty hard,” said Capretz.
One other possible source of controversy would be a surprise last-minute endorsement of either candidate by one of the city's public-employee unions. Former political powerhouses, the unions, including those representing firefighters, police officers and blue-collar city workers, have become political lepers in a race where public-employee pensions have been one of the hottest topics.
Johnny Perkins, director of government affairs for the San Diego City Firefighters Association, told CityBeat that there is “absolutely no” chance that his union will make an endorsement.
Barring any unexpected moves from the unions, the final unknown going into Tuesday is voter turnout, long thought to be a key component of a Frye victory.
“That's a huge focus for us,” Capretz said. “We are proud of the field program we put together and the number of volunteers we have to get out the vote, and I don't think our opponents can even touch it.”
Candidates in action
* Envision San Diego: The Race for Mayor televised debate Wednesday, Nov. 2, 6 p.m., at the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center. All seats are taken. Check envisionsandiego.org for radio, TV and online broadcast information.
* KUSI televised debate Friday Nov. 4, 9 p.m.
* Clairemont Town Council forum. Thursday, Nov. 3, 7 p.m., at Clairemont High School, 4150 Ute Drive.
* Catfish Club mayoral forum. Friday, Nov. 4, noon, at KGTV studios, 4600 Air Way, San Diego. $15 for lunch.
* KNSD 7/39 televised debate Sunday, Nov. 5, 6 p.m.