In February, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean made an unscheduled stop on his fundraising swing through scenic Southern California at the Encinitas headquarters of congressional candidate Nick Leibham. Dean stood and joked with the attorney and his cadre of volunteers as cameras clicked away. A video of the event shows Dean asking an off-camera person named “Ira” if anyone else was on the ballot for the primary. When “Ira,” who turned out to be Leibham campaign chair and Democratic activist Ira Lechner, said “No,” Dean grabbed a homemade “Pick Nick” sign and held it up for the cameras. The picture ran in the North County Times with a caption suggesting that Dean had endorsed Leibham in the Democratic primary.
But Leibham did—and does—have a challenger, a school psychologist on the verge of retirement named Cheryl Ede. Luis Miranda, a DNC spokesman, later emphatically told CityBeat that the photo was not an endorsement because “Chairman Dean does not endorse in Democratic primaries.”
But even a seeming endorsement by the party's national chairman dealt a blow to Ede's fledgling campaign, since it gave the impression that Leibham's advancement was a foregone conclusion. The impression may not have been far off. Not long before the photo moment, Ede met with Lechner, who had been Virginia chairman for Dean and then John Kerry in 2004, and is currently active with Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
“I told her we need to unify against a Republican who's going to raise over a million dollars,” Lechner told CityBeat. That Republican is Brian Bilbray, a conservative incumbent considered vulnerable by the Democrats. Lechner told Ede that she should bow out so that Leibham wouldn't have to spend money defeating her in a primary.
“He kept saying how Nick had raised $200,000, and he shouldn't have to waste it in beating me,” Ede recalled.
On President's Day, Ede met with the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council. She said her “interview” consisted entirely of hearing Lechner's arguments repeated by Lorena Gonzalez, the council's secretary-treasurer, and Evan McLaughlin, its political director.
“It shouldn't be all about money,” Ede said.
Ede's campaign is grassroots by necessity. While her opponent has raised $315,000, she has brought in $3,500. She has no paid staff, and her husband is her treasurer. Yet she's certain she can win, and the pressure from outside groups has only motivated her to dig in deeper.
One way to read Ede's tale is that she's just learning the lessons of hardball politics, as everyone must, through experience. But Ede is just one of dozens of candidates who have been labeled “second-tier,” “underdog,” “also-ran” or “fringe” because they've entered high-stakes political races with little in the way of background or preparation.
They run because they want to serve the community, raise awareness of a specific issue or hear their names on the radio. But so many of these campaigns are over before they start. They run into a wall of entrenched power, whether it's the press' familiarity with their opponents, the preference of influential community organizations for big names or the failure of anyone to take them seriously.
And it's hardly just a Democratic Party problem. In the race for the 52nd Congressional District, long held by Duncan Hunter, Republican politicians and conservative groups have already coalesced behind Hunter's son, Duncan D.
Hunter, despite his total lack of experience in politics. There are five Republicans in that primary, including Brian Jones, a Santee City Council member who had been running for a full year despite minimal name recognition. But Jones' candidacy was relegated to underdog status when Hunter the Younger entered the race. Hunter swiftly collected the endorsements of more than 100 members of Congress and has raised $503,000. Jones has the endorsement of some local officials from around East County, but he's fourth in overall fundraising with $160,000. He's only just about to start sending out mass mailers this week, less then a month before the vote.
Jones said that, like Ede, he has been asked to abandon his quest, though he wouldn't specify who was doing the asking.
“At the beginning, they weren't trying to dissuade me,” he said, referring to the period before Hunter let it be known he'd be running. “More recently, before the filing deadline, I was approached, and people were encouraging me to reconsider my ambitions, to reconsider my run at this time.”
Some candidates aren't even taken seriously enough to be asked to drop out. San Diego City Council candidate Paul Broadway, who hopes to replace Toni Atkins representing an area including Hillcrest, North Park, City Heights and part of Golden Hill, can't even get invited to some forums. He never knew about last week's Mid-City Mobility Coalition Forum, but that was nothing compared to being denied the right to participate in the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center breakfast debate in April.
“They made me pay for breakfast. They said, ‘You can stay if you want,'” Broadway said.
Amy Lepine, a candidate for San Diego city attorney, had to bully the Downtown Partnership, a business group, for the right to participate in a debate it held last week. “They sent out a press release without me on it,” she said.
“Then they made it sound like I should have come to them.” She was eventually invited to participate but had to decline because of a last-minute work commitment.
Lepine gets riled up when she tells the story, partly because it makes her feel like she's being denied the right by establishment powers to run for office.
“I didn't know we had to ask permission to run. Silly me, I thought this was democracy,” she said. “How naïve are we?”
So what's the difference between electable and not?
“Name recognition and money and connections,” said Glen Sparrow, a San Diego State University professor emeritus. The groups that make endorsements find themselves weighing those considerations. A candidate's viability matters almost as much as whether a candidate's views align with their own.
The Labor Council's Lorena Gonzalez said the group's members, simply don't have time to interview the hundreds of candidates running for public office locally.
“We base our endorsements on viability, support for working-family issues and ability to be effective if elected,” she said.
Lechner, the Democratic activist, believes candidates should be thinking about the strategic big picture as much as their own desire to win public office.
“Where there's an open seat, then people can compete in primaries—it's very healthy for the party,” he said. “But for the most part, the goal should be to find the best candidate, find the consensus and put the egos aside. There's precious few Democratic dollars to go around—we can't waste them on useless primary campaigns.”
If John Hartley's 1989 campaign for City Council is any evidence, hard work can replace a huge war chest. At the time, he was only known for leading the charge to replace citywide council elections with district-by-district elections. But he defeated the far-better-funded (and widely endorsed) Gloria McColl by knocking on every door in the district—not once, not twice, but three times.
But to win that election, Hartley had to make running for office his full-time job. Sitting politicians have an advantage—just doing their work can generate free press, but candidates who have regular office jobs often must take a leave of absence to make time for campaigning. But many of the second-tier candidates have not done that.
Lepine, Broadway and Ede are still working. Jones only went on leave at the start of April.
And some candidates do suffer for their lack of experience. When Gonzalez met with Ede, she asked about Ede's campaign.
“I asked her if she had a campaign plan, a fundraising plan, a strategy for winning, and she didn't,” Gonzalez said.After thinking it through, Sparrow said that maybe some of the underdog candidates are underdogs for reasons of substance, whether it's because they're unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to run or they're too inexperienced or they hold fringe political views. Sometimes the problem is not with the press or the endorsing organizations or the money. Sometimes it's the candidate.
“They're second-tier people,” Sparrow said. “Not everyone gets to grow up and become president.”