Photo by Jason Digiesi
With less than two weeks to go, the battle for the District 2 seat on the San Diego City Council has reached a fever pitch, with accusations flying more frequently than planes out of Lindergh Field.
In the March primary, firefighter union rep Michael Zucchet and public-relations executive Kevin Faulconer finished one-two after months of searing invective and mudslinging. On Nov. 5, voters in the district that stretches from the south end of La Jolla down to Point Loma and east through a major chunk of downtown face a critical choice that some City Hall observers say will chart the direction of city business for years to come.
In campaign fliers, Faulconer touts his endorsement from fellow Republican Mayor Dick Murphy, who is quoted as saying, “The City Council is at a crossroads. I need Kevin Faulconer on the City Council to help me protect taxpayers.”
Faulconer's opponents read between the lines and insist that his battle plan is simple: attack the unions representing city employees as arbiters of overpaid, incompetent bureaucrats who care more about pay raises than raising the quality of life in some of the district's oldest and most neglected neighborhoods.
Zucchet, who once staffed for ousted Councilmember Valerie Stallings, opines that Faulconer's relentless attacks mask a desperate campaign floundering in red ink that will need the resuscitation of gobs of money from Republican sources in the coming days. Zucchet continually hammers at Faulconer's past as a registered city lobbyist for the mega PR firm NCG/Porter Novelli, which boasts a client list of utility companies, the San Diego Unified Port District and other business interests.
Political observers believe this race will shake down into one of the nastiest council campaigns in recent years. “It's billed as the union representative versus the non-union guy,” one political handicapper said privately. “I think this is pretty scary to insiders. The mayor clearly feels this could shift the balance of power, and you can see that in all the items he is cramming through the council before the election-and I suspect right up until the new council members are sworn in.”
The winner in District 2 will replace the termed-out Byron Wear, whose popularity has dwindled as his days in office do likewise. Wayne Raffesberger, a longtime Republican and Point Loma activist who finished third in the March primary, says Wear has actively campaigned and raised money for Faulconer, his heir apparent. A Wear detractor, Raffesberger has endorsed Zucchet, the Democrat in the race.
The campaigning has been intense in recent weeks-in the last half of this month alone, the two candidates will have squared off in a dozen forums and debates. At a recent forum in Bankers Hill, the two looked like schoolboys sitting in front of the class. When answers began to slide from issues into personal attacks, the moderator even chimed in: “I have teenagers at home!”
On that night, an audience of about 40-including some campaign insiders-fired more than two-dozen issue-oriented questions at the pair. Only on four did they disagree. On the question of the dispersal of medical marijuana, Zucchet said the people of California have spoken and that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, which has amped up its harassment of pot activists, should “get their act together.”
Faulconer, on the other hand, opposes the program, calling the three-pound limit on marijuana possession for medical purposes “ludicrous.” He also opposes the city's pilot needle-exchange program, which Zucchet supports.
They also stand worlds apart on the rise in popularity of so-called project labor agreements, or PLAs, which place union-representation requirements on developers who want to build in town. Faulconer labels them “anti-competitive” while Zucchet backs the agreements as a way to ensure fair wages and safe treatment of workers.
The Chargers, despite their recent winning ways, apparently won't be a chief concern of either candidate. Both say they will oppose any attempts by the team to curry public subsidy for a new stadium. “I don't respond well to blackmail,” Faulconer said about the team's incessant moaning about Qualcomm Stadium. Zucchet views the Chargers' plight in the same light as the team's sweetheart ticket guarantee-“both failed policies of our previous mayor.”
The issue getting the most mileage so far has been the 30-foot height limit imposed on coastal areas. Both claim the other will approve exemptions to that ceiling, most notably in the Sports Arena area, where redevelopment talk is all the rage. This week, Faulconer charged Zucchet with winking at developers while telling voters he would not support any exemptions, while Zucchet alleged that a Faulconer supporter illegally taped a phone conversation with him in which he set out a “fantasyland” scenario where he would OK an exception-when all community groups and citizens in an area back a project.
“That would be an unbelievably rare circumstance,” Zucchet said yesterday.
They both look warily upon the City of Villages concept and snicker at the proposed bay-to-bay channel and red-light cameras. They both insist that road improvements and amenities must come to neighborhoods before new housing.
Faulconer, who has chaired the city's Mission Bay Committee, constantly refers to the aquatic recreational area as a city jewel that has been neglected far too long. “As of this year, we are $200 million behind in improvements there,” Faulconer likes to say. While both Zucchet and Faulconer promised to join Councilmember Donna Frye on the city's new Mission Bay Landfill Toxic Oversight Committee (Frye is the only council member to sit on the panel), only Zucchet said he would willingly seek a moratorium on hotel development around Mission Bay.
Faulconer said he would look at each proposal individually. Heavily backed by local developers, builders and hoteliers-to the tune of nearly $500,000-Faulconer is aware that hotel proposals are floating around behind the scenes, but he insists that Mission Bay's environmental problems need addressing first.
They both say they got the political bug early in life. While studying at UC Santa Barbara, Zucchet, 32, said he even impersonated a rooster to protest a condominium development's complaint about a nearby organic farm that used manure from the comb-headed birds. Ultimately, he birds got to stay, he said.
Faulconer, 35, says he was a Democrat during his high-school days in Oxnard, as were his parents, and he recalled many a heated political discussion at the dinner table. Later at his alma mater, San Diego State University, he served as student body president and hitched onto the Republican philosophy.
In addition to the mayor, Faulconer boasts endorsements from the Building Industry Association and Sheriff Bill Kolender. Zucchet has the backing of the six newest members of the San Diego City Council, police and fire employee organizations and a bevy of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters, which he worked for years ago.