You'd think that a city mayor would be yelling from the rooftops if a public-opinion poll put his job-approval rating at close to 80 percent. But last week that wasn't the case. On local news website Voice of San Diego, co-executive editor Scott Lewis posted on his blog that in a recent poll of 502 likely San Diego voters, 78 percent think Mayor Jerry Sanders is doing a swell job. City Councilmember and 2005 mayoral contender Donna Frye got a 67-percent approval rating and firebrand City Attorney Mike Aguirre got a not-too-shabby 57 percent.
Unlike most political polls, this one got little public play. Lewis mentioned only that Job Nelson from political-consulting firm Tom Shepard & Associates, with help from pollsters Competitive Edge Research, were behind the poll. Shepard was the mayor's campaign advisor; a logical conclusion would be that the poll has something to do with a Sanders '08 reelection bid.
It ends up the poll, commissioned by a group backing two citywide measures on the upcoming November ballot, was looking not at how people regard their elected officials in general, but rather which public officials' support would likely ensure a yes vote for the initiative package.
Nelson, indeed, told CityBeat the poll had nothing to do with gauging Sanders' reelection support. “I can absolutely tell you it is not that,” he said. “We have a number of clients around town-some private, some campaign—so this is a private client.”
Because of a confidentiality agreement, Nelson couldn't disclose the name of the client or the cost of this particular poll, but said most run between $12,000 and $20,000. “Normally polls done on behalf of a private client stay private,” he said. In this case, though, the client opted to share results with the mayor. The mayor's advisors, pleased with the numbers, told Voice of San Diego. Lewis contacted Nelson, and Nelson shared with him the same information reported to the mayor's staff. Likewise, on Monday, Nelson provided CityBeat with a condensed version of the poll.
“Basically, our client said the numbers were interesting to the mayor's office, and the client said if the mayor's office would like to see these numbers... we'll be willing to let them view [a selection] of questions,” Nelson said. “They didn't get to see the whole thing. They just get to see what the client wants them to see.”
Nelson declined to say whether the client was connected to any other campaign, but a question in the poll offered a clue: Is the mayor “too tough on city employees?”
In November, San Diegans will vote on two Sanders-supported local ballot initiatives. One would require any plans to increase city-employee pensions to be OK'd first by voters. The other would allow the city to increase “managed competition,” a euphemism for outsourcing jobs to the lowest-bidding private company.
Steve Erie, a political science professor at UCSD, described the latter initiative as “a handy club any time that [organized] labor gets uppity.... It produces a vulnerability, a job insecurity.
“It's all about leverage,” he said. “You may not use it, but it's there in reserve if you ever need it.”
A 2005 report, “Target San Diego,” commissioned by the labor-backed Center on Policy Initiatives, invoked anti-tax, small-government activist Grover Norquist in describing the ballot-measure package, especially the privatization initiative. Carl DeMaio, who heads right-wing think-tank The Performance Institute, was the main sponsor of the privatization initiative.
DeMaio confirmed that a group called San Diegans for City Hall Reform commissioned the poll. He wouldn't elaborate on who's part of the group or whether he's the leader. The group's website domain was registered by The Performance Institute, however. Other names attached to the group include hotelier and Navy Broadway Complex developer Doug Manchester and former mayoral candidate Steve Francis.
The point of the poll, DeMaio said, was “to assess public attitudes on the ballot initiatives and reform in general at City Hall.” The portion of the poll shared with CityBeat mentioned nothing about the ballot initiatives, and DeMaio wouldn't say exactly how they fared—only that his group was “very pleased with where we are with the ballot initiatives.”
DeMaio said the poll gauged the popularity of elected officials, especially the mayor, to determine whether their support would help get the measures passed.
“The mayor's support for the ballot initiatives will be key to ensuring [public] support,” he said. The poll, he added, was “not anything special. It's part of an ongoing initiative that we do to keep abreast of public attitudes on the city's financial condition.”
Erie thinks the poll has deeper significance. In addition to being the mayor's campaign advisor last year, Shepard is also the campaign consultant for San Diegans for City Hall Reform. Not only does the poll show SDCHR who to look to for leadership, it shows Sanders whether he's in line with public opinion.
“Shepard gives [Sanders] the poll numbers on everything,” Erie said. “On the airport, on toilet-to-tap”—the controversial water-reclamation proposal—“he is the local Karl Rove of San Diego politics,” Erie said of Shepard.
Shepard bristled at the assertion. “The only client I have here is the initiative,” he said. “I have absolutely no official capacity with the mayor or his office.”
A spokesperson for Sanders said the mayor doesn't yet know if he'll run for a second term. When asked whether he'd recommend Sanders give it a go, Shepard replied, “I haven't even thought about it.”