A battered black Acura Integra pulls around the corner of Laurel and 56th streets and parks at the curb amid a residential setting that seems uncommon in an urban area, let alone San Diego's District 4. Built along the western edge of a hilltop, many of the large single-family homes in this Oak Park neighborhood have yards and pools and boast panoramic views of the city's skyline and Coronado.
But Tony Young has little time to waste admiring the landscape. After spending most of the day frustrated by rain, only a few hours of this precious Saturday remain. He spends a couple of minutes pawing through the piles of campaign literature and "Young for City Council" lawn signs that litter the Acura's interior before finally finding the folders he's looking for. Heading up the sidewalk toward the first house on his list Young, 38, seems a bit anxious, and he probably should be. On Jan. 4, District 4 will go to the polls for a special election and make a choice between Young-best friend and chief of staff to the late City Councilmember Charles Lewis, and the Rev. George Stevens, 72, who represented the district for 11 years prior to Lewis' term.
The apparent differences between the candidates are striking. Young, a former teacher with a degree in socio-economics, is a soft-spoken and articulate District 4 native with a gentle nature that contradicts his solid build. Having worked for various elected officials over the years, this campaign is his first run for public office. Stevens, on the other hand, is a product of the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s and is well known in the African American community and beyond as a fiercely outspoken and loquacious leader with a distinguished, if sometimes controversial, record. Stevens has also run unsuccessfully for both mayor and the state assembly.
But those aren't the only factors making this contest worth watching. Born from unforeseen events, the race for the remaining two years of Lewis' term has already taken several bizarre turns. Just weeks after Lewis' August death, the date of the special primary election became the subject of a contentious debate among local officials and community activists. A judge ultimately ruled that Stevens was eligible to run again after terming out of office in 2002. Last month, in a special election that attracted only 21 percent of eligible voters, Young eked out a 204-vote victory over Dwayne Crenshaw and five others candidates to advance to the January general against Stevens, who received more votes, by a wide margin, than anyone.
Narrowed to two, any conventional wisdom surrounding the race and who's the frontrunner seems, at best, open to interpretation. Although Stevens emerged from the primary as the leader with 34 percent of the vote compared to Young's 23 percent, now that Crenshaw has endorsed him, Young seems likely to capture the majority of Crenshaw's 21 percent of the votes.
What is clear is that the winner's vision of the future and his style of leadership will take the district in a very different direction than his opponent's would have. That this district-comprising 24 neighborhoods, including Skyline, Paradise Hills, Encanto and Mountain View, home to possibly the widest ethnic and economic spectrum of residents in the city-has reached a tipping point is hard to dispute.
Long suffering from a lack of respect, attention and resources, District 4 now reportedly boasts San Diego's highest rate of homeownership and the lowest rate of overall incidents of crime, according to police statistics. Moreover, as a crowded city looks for places to expand, a flurry of planned redevelopment projects, condo conversions and rising property values have all contributed to push the district toward inevitable change.
"It has always been viewed by the rest of the city as the "down there' place, and the people were viewed as a little bit less deserving than others," says Leon Williams, who represented the area for 26 years as both a City Council member and county supervisor. "I think that as more people come to this area and as the stigma is diminished in this part of the city, there is going to be a lot more investment and I think you could maybe call it a sea change in the next few years."
That means the voters of District 4 have a decision to make. They can entrust the fate of their community to a familiar yet old-school leader or gamble on a transfusion of young blood.
Back on Laurel Street, Young is hoping to cover a lot of ground before sunset, and he knows he'll have to cover a lot more if he's going to win. In the next several weeks, his challenge will be to introduce himself to as many voters as possible who might be predisposed to voting for Stevens and convince them that there's another option.
As his campaign consultant April Goldstein admits Young's name recognition in the district-at an estimated 30 percent-pales in comparison to Stevens', which she figures to be nearly universal.
And that's why Young is visiting this neighborhood for at least the second time-to make sure he hasn't missed anybody, convert the unconvinced and remind his supporters to get out the vote. He's been at it for the past several months, and so far today he hasn't taken a break.
Young's Saturday starts with an 8 a.m. meeting of Black Men United, a group that gathers regularly to discuss community concerns. They meet in the chapel of the Southeast Community Church, the very same place where the body of 15-year-old Michael Beckwith was laid to rest the previous day. One of three people murdered that week, Beckwith was yet another victim of an ongoing wave of gang-related violence.
According to police statistics, District 4 had the third most incidences of violent crime among eight council districts last year. But with the recent murders, the district is pulling closer to District 2, which includes downtown San Diego and Pacific Beach and is statistically San Diego's most violent region. The recent bloodshed has made gang-related crime the No. 1 issue of the campaign.
Formerly a gang counselor with the Urban League and a middle school teacher, Young says he wants to focus the district's resources on giving youth alternatives to gangs.
"I have a very strong understanding of the future of our young people," he told CityBeat. "Not young people in their 40s or 50s, young people today-young people that might have their pants drooping down that have a 150 IQ though."
Young says he wants to reinstitute summer job programs, increase internship and mentor opportunities, expand SAT and college-prep courses and focus community development block grants on youth-related services.
"When we came into office, there was almost no funding of alternative programs for neighborhood kids who might be involved in gangs and I think that needs to be a focus," he says. "I have worked with these men on a human level. Many of them are salvageable."
Young also wants to continue working with community groups to identify gang activity and promises to take a tough stance toward criminals. That's partly why he's come to the Black Men United meeting, to advise the group that the police have arrested suspects in all three shootings and inform them of his plans to take action.
Working with police and various government agencies, Young has plans to force the owners of the Meadowbrook Apartments, the complex where Beckwith was killed, to improve security. He says he'll organize the residents, increase police patrols and file lawsuits, if necessary, to make sure that happens. His ideas are received with applause, and a few "amen"s.
"Our community is going through a renaissance, and that's a big story," he tells the crowd. "Sometimes our media outlets don't get that story. They get the shooting and the drive-bys, which are important stories, but I'll let you know that when it comes to the Fourth District we are going through something that's unprecedented."
It's a point he reiterates later in the day, pausing outside his Imperial Avenue campaign headquarters in a light rain to show off several blocks he wants to redevelop into something he calls "Gaslamp East." Envisioned by Lewis, Young says he hopes this strip of single-story storefronts will, in the near future, be transformed into a mixed-use development complete with apartments, retail space, restaurants and bars. He says it will allow dollars to be recycled in the community and be a fitting tribute to his late friend.
Hoping to fuel that renaissance and realize the agenda set forth by Lewis, Young says that although his campaign mailers emphasize their relationship, he's not simply resting on his connection to Lewis.
"I'm running on my leadership abilities and my ability to understand and articulate the issues here in the community and also down at City Hall," he says. "I mean, yes, I worked for Councilman Lewis, and we were doing a good job, and I was a part of it, and I'm going to let people know about that, but that's not the only thing I'm running on."
Nor is Young relying upon the considerable list of endorsements he's racked up in the past several months. Even with the support of Lewis' family, six members of the City Council, the area's representatives in Congress and the state Senate, the San Diego County Democratic Party and labor unions (including police officers and firefighters), Young says the backing of established interest won't carry much weight in District 4. In some cases, he says, they could hinder his candidacy. It's a point he concedes repeatedly this afternoon while speaking with absentee voters from a phone bank in Bankers Hill.
"The bottom line is Mr. Johnson down the street wants to know if you are going to sell us out or not," he says. "It could be a detriment if they say, "Oh, OK, he's in there to go along to get along,' and that's definitely not the case."
The endorsements that really seem to matter, at least those that are emphasized on Young's campaign literature and website, come from more than a dozen religious leaders. "The residents of this district, for whatever reason, really have a moral conscience, so they look to those leaders to kind of guide them," says Goldstein, Young's consultant.
Without a doubt, religion will play a role in the race. Both candidates are making the rounds to local churches on Sundays, and Stevens, who has claimed from the outset that God told him to run, recently made it an issue, quipping that he prays for Young's salvation.
Seeming reluctant to engage in a battle over who's holier than whom, Young describes the religious nature of his campaign in practical terms.
"It is something that is going to prove to be a very big advantage for me to show that I am a Christian and I have worked very hard with the churches in the community," he says. "I wish I was as privileged to have God talk directly to me, but I'm not."
The afternoon sun has finally chased away the rain, and Young still has a few stops to make on his way to Oak Park. First up is a kids Christmas party at the headquarters of Union Local 127, representing 2,200 blue-collar city employees, before heading south to a Filipino Christmas festival at Saint Rita's Catholic School in the heart of District 4.
It's here where Young meets up with Joann Fields, a leader in the Filipino community and a prominent force in district politics. She explains that the establishment of a Filipino advisory board under Lewis and the failure of Stevens to show up at a candidate forum hosted by the Asian Pacific Islander Alliance are two reasons she's supporting Young.
After chatting with festival attendees and graciously accepting a meal, Young departs and heads north toward Oak Park, passing an enthusiastic supporter waving a sign in the median of Euclid Avenue along the way. Arriving at the corner of Laurel and 56th, he finally has the opportunity to get out and meet the district's voters face to face. It's something he has wanted to do all day, and before long he's shaking hands with Ed Fletcher and making small talk in his living room. Ed, who says he's supported Stevens in the past and knows him well, takes a moment to expound on the candidates and the upcoming election.
"I'm concerned because [Stevens was] termed out," he says. "I believe in term limits and I think we should have new people and new blood.
"I think it is going to be tight," he adds. "I think it is going to be very tight, very tight. I hope it is, because that will mean [Young] has a shot.... You have to figure Stevens is the favorite."
Fletcher may be right, but Young continues canvassing the neighborhood until dark and gets an overwhelmingly positive response.
Over at Stevens' campaign office on Federal Boulevard, in the late afternoon, the doors are locked and the windows are dark. From the front door, the day's mail can be seen piled up the other side. It doesn't appear the opposition is working on the weekend.
It's late on a Tuesday afternoon when Stevens arrives at his campaign office. He's supposed to be calling potential campaign donors, but he lingers in the driver's seat of his silver Jaguar for several minutes to make sure he's gotten his point across.
"This is not about no pride in running for an office," he says "This is not about what Tony Young says. No, he's not a viable opponent to me and, no, I'm not taking him serious... because if God wants me there, can't nobody stop me."
It's a statement that's typical of Stevens' cocky demeanor. Despite a lack of activity at his headquarters, Stevens says he is campaigning, and somewhere volunteers are distributing yard signs, hanging banners, manning phone banks and raising money. According to his campaign manager, after taking several weeks off, the Stevens camp will be moving into high gear in the weeks before the holidays.
As for the candidate himself, he's making the rounds to churches and attending community events, but he's not sweating anything. He's counting on his name recognition and record to propel him into office. According to a campaign mailer sent out before the primary, Stevens says he's responsible for attracting a Home Depot, siting grocery stores and building affordable housing, a senior center, a post office, the Malcolm X Library and the Mountain View Recreation Center.
"George is basically the foundation that most of us are standing on, including Tony Young," says Abdur-Raheem Hameed, president of the Black Contractors Association and a Stevens supporter.
However, to succeed he'll have to not only rally the faithful but also annex a sizeable portion of the voters who supported other candidates in the primary.
It's almost noon and although he's supposed to be making calls to raise funds, something he calls "dialing for dollars," Stevens happily greets a stranger who appears unexpectedly in his doorway. Deryl Wallace takes a seat across from Stevens at a large wooden desk flanked by two large potted pants. In the corner an American flag rests on its pole, giving the setting an official feel, but Stevens, who usually sports a hand-tailored suit and fedora, looks grandfatherly in a plaid button down, blue jeans and cowboy boots.
That's not to say he looks old. Svelte and exhibiting hardly a wrinkle, Stevens possesses an energy that belies his age-a sharp mind and fully functional set of vocal chords.
Those attributes are on grand display as he takes most of an hour to answer Wallace's question about securing government funding to aid his low-income real-estate ventures. Stevens spins one yarn into another and broaches dozens of seemingly unrelated topics before finally sending Wallace off with the phone number of the city's real-estate-assets management office.
Throughout the conversation he also fields several calls and scribbles notes on the various notepads that litter his desk. One call is from a woman who's worried about her 14-year-old grandson. He doesn't want to attend school anymore. They talk for a bit before Stevens gives her a good-natured grilling.
"Does he tie his tennis shoes up yet?" Stevens asks. "Oh, he's wearing boots that don't have no strings in 'em? Oh, OK they have strings. I'm not going to ask you how he wears his pants. Oh, Lord Jesus, he's going to rub a sore in between his legs with his pants dropped all the way down there."
In the end he takes down the number to the boy's cell phone, something he cites as "one of the other problems," as well as the number of his estranged mother, promising to contact both.
The conversation illustrates Stevens' approach to youth issues, something he discussed, in his unique style, at a candidate forum the previous evening.
That night, after introducing himself and admonishing the crowd of "church-going folks" for making him jump through the same hoops as his unproven opponent, he responds to a question about how he'll increase opportunities for youth by telling the audience that the district's kids don't really need more programs or resources, just better parenting.
"You've got to give them hard love," he says. "You have got to change their attitude at home. You're putting it on teachers. You're putting it on people at the playground. Put it on yourself."
As for providing young people with better job options, he recommends they take an entrepreneurial approach. He suggests they try starting their own businesses stenciling house numbers on curbs or drilling peepholes in doors. It's not clear if he's joking.
He tells the crowd he'll focus on crime prevention using many of the tactics from his previous terms, including prayer, providing citizens with video cameras to document drug deals, enforcing a 10 p.m. curfew, adding more undercover officers and engaging the participation of neighborhood councils.
His righteous rhetoric stems from his faith, his strict Southern upbringing and a life spent working hard from an early age. His comments seem to strike a chord with at least one older woman. On her way out the door before Young's turn to speak, she says she already knows whom she's voting for. But others in attendance say they believe Stevens' approach will only widen the divide between the district's generations.
Stevens told CityBeat he doesn't buy it.
"Young people themselves lose respect for you when you don't take action as an adult and exercise authority yourself."
Settling into a booth at Home Town Buffet for a lunch of chicken and biscuits, Stevens is a little perturbed by a question about who he thinks is the frontrunner.
"I know there's no polls, so the only numbers that came out was the election numbers, and I'm 10 points ahead of everybody. So how could I be behind?" he asks, his voice rising. Brushing aside the possibility that Crenshaw and Young voters might merge, he points out that a similar theory fizzled two years ago when Crenshaw lost to Lewis.
And he doesn't feel satisfied by simply saying he thinks he's in the lead.
"No, I'm not comfortable with that," he says. "I believe I'm going to win."
He's also not comfortable being described as a controversial leader but admits he's done a lot of things-including once threatening to kick another City Council member's ass-that were indeed controversial.
"My district had to have more things said, had to have more attention than any other district in the city of San Diego because it was so far behind," he says. "I don't go along to get along. I made that statement the first day I took over."
And that's why Stevens thinks all of the Democrats on the current City Council are supporting Young. He also thinks they're worried he'll make them look bad.
"Nobody has done this [job] better in any council district, not just the Fourth District, which is at least one of the reasons why council members themselves don't want me back in there," he says. "You don't want somebody to show you up for what you didn't do in your district but they did in theirs."
Of course, it might also have something to do with the fact that Stevens broke party ranks in 2002 to support Republican Shirley Horton over Democrat Vince Hall for state Assembly. Although the move landed him a job in Horton's office, it has cost him in local political circles and among the district's voters.
"You have got to understand that George has been around for a long time but when George supported Horton, some folks were disappointed," says one minister who's backing Young.
"That's a price," says Stevens, "but there's no debt that I can incur that God can't cover."
Skipping dessert, he pilots his Jag toward an event at the House of Metamorphoses, a drug and alcohol rehab facility for adults. A little spooked by questions about his record, including his obviously hostile attitude toward the city's gay community, he's concerned that a darker side of his opponent won't be exposed because his past isn't as well documented. Stevens pulls the car to the side of the road and floats several theories about Young. They're all low blows, but he isn't willing to throw any of his punches on the record.
At the treatment center, he enjoys near celebrity status and mingles with everyone from the director to the kitchen staff, passing out envelopes for campaign contributions before making a donation of his own and heading out.
Back at the office, sitting in the parked car, he says he doesn't believe Young's plan to build a Gaslamp East will work, pointing out that many of the buildings in the area are currently occupied by storefront churches.
"You think that anybody is going to vote for closing those down to put in some bars like downtown Gaslamp?" he says. "Get serious."
With that, he says goodbye, offering to meet again to talk about this reporter's personal salvation in Jesus Christ before heading inside to make his calls. Bthe era of George Stevens