It was Thursday or Friday, just a few days after the election, when John Howard's phone rang. What followed was one of two phone conversations that day that prompted the attorney to scrutinize two of the city of San Diego's guiding documents and to ultimately challenge the legality of Donna Frye's write-in candidacy and the mayoral election overall.
Despite being eviscerated by a judge's ruling on Monday, Howard's legal challenge was a bold move and the first in a series of as-yet-unresolved post-election power struggles that have put the fate of the city's top office in the hands of the judiciary. Who was on the other end of the line, and what did they say that prompted Howard to act? A corporate lawyer representing mostly out-of-town clients, Howard, who describes himself as "aggressively apolitical," isn't telling, but that's not stopping denizens of the so-called downtown echo chamber from offering their best guesses. Their speculation posits schemes on behalf of both the Ron Roberts and Dick Murphy campaigns, proponents of the "strong mayor" form of government, downtown business interests and every combination in between. The talk circulating among the city's movers and shakers and policy makers this week ranged from the meticulously detailed who-done-it to outlandish conspiracy theory.
What is clear amid the chatter is that very few are accepting Howard's story-that his opposition to Frye's candidacy is based on principle and not politics-at face value. Why are they so quick to discount his apparently earnest attempt to make the city's electoral process conform to its written guidelines?
"I really doubt he would have done this without prompting from Roberts," says one city insider with ties to Howard, adding that Howard's not a political animal but does have strong views and isn't afraid to express them.
Much of that doubt arises from his record, which seems to contradict his claims that he operates outside the sphere of San Diego politics.
"You will never see my name on anything having to do with the city or city charter or city politics," says Howard. "You just won't, it's not my interest."
From the start, Howard was up front about voluntarily providing legal services to George Mitrovich's City Club of San Diego and his shift to supporting Roberts after a stint in the Murphy camp in 2000 and raising funds for Port Commissioner Peter Q. Davis in the 2004 primary election. He was adamant that neither point influenced his decision to take legal action.
But Howard wasn't as forthcoming about authoring a series of articles endorsing Roberts and blasting Murphy and Frye in the Presidio Sentinel, a small community newspaper covering his former Mission Hills neighborhood. And only when pressed by CityBeat, and with the explanation that he is simply a lawyer serving his clients, did he divulge that prior to the election he briefly represented Republican District 1 City Council candidate Phil Thalheimer in a defamation matter against Democratic opponent Scott Peters, an action that quickly fizzled. Or that he once represented Tom Shepard, a local campaign consultant who worked on Roberts' 2000 campaign, in a case against attorney Mike Aguirre. Add all of that together and the apolitical business attorney with out-of-town clients suddenly looks more like a Republican attack dog knee-deep in city politics.
All of that is what led some to the conclusion that Howard was acting not on principle but on behalf of Roberts, his favored candidate. That theory was bolstered when Roberts reneged on conceding the race and stopped short of denouncing Howard's legal challenge.
However, another more nefarious plot had Roberts playing into the hands of Murphy and his supporters, who some suggest have quietly instigated the legal challenges while simultaneously supporting a full vote count. In that scenario, Murphy supporters, namely the San Diego Republican Party, which endorsed Murphy, and downtown business interests with ties to the Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego County Taxpayers Association were not so quietly beating the bushes for a lawyer or independent party willing to launch a legal challenge.
Indeed, attendees reported that last Monday's regular monthly meeting of the Republican Central Committee (RCC), which Murphy attended, was abuzz with talk of ways to thwart a Frye victory. And earlier in the week, both RCC President Ron Nehring and Doug Sain, a lobbyist representing various business interests, were said to have called around to several players looking for support. Contacted by CityBeat, both Nehring and Sain deny making those calls or prompting anyone to take action.
"Nobody who has filed a suit has done so at my urging, and the party has endorsed Mayor Murphy, who has publicly attacked the suits that are currently in the courts," says Nehring, adding that the Republican Party can't be held responsible for the actions of individual Republicans.
But somebody was busy trying to drum up support, and phones were ringing around town.
"I was contacted very early and declined," says Mike McDade, a partner in Sullivan, Wertz, McDade and Wallace and chief of staff to former Mayor Roger Hedgecock. McDade declined to identify who called but categorized the caller as an outraged citizen from outside the respective campaigns.
Restaurateur Dan Shea also received a call. "I was called by an attorney-not involved-who asked me if I would consider funding the cost of a lawsuit, and my answer was no," Shea told CityBeat.
Both the Roberts and Murphy campaigns have kept their distance from the legal proceedings, and Murphy's campaign treasurer, April Boling, says there may be practical reasons for doing so.
"If they're not involved and not coordinating, then regardless of whether some legal authority would say that the suit is or isn't political campaign activity, they would be OK," she says. "The safest place for them to be legally is completely independent and separate from those [suits]."
Translation: with most attorneys' hourly rates exceeding the maximum $250 per individual campaign contribution, the law would make it difficult for candidates to coordinate with lawyers like Howard even if they wanted to.
Valuable insight, but Boling herself has been the subject of a great deal of post-election conjecture. As the treasurer of the Coalition to Keep San Diego Working, a political action committee known as KEEP PAC that funded nasty anti-Frye mailers just days before the election, some have claimed that she may have engaged in a little questionable coordination of her own.
City Hall watchdogs Mel Shapiro and Ian Trowbridge have focused their collective powers on KEEP PAC, and last week Trowbridge filed a complaint with the city's Ethics Commission accusing Boling and the PAC's director, Ron Zappardino, of at least four campaign-finance violations.
Back in the echo chamber, the mailers were largely interpreted as a last-ditch effort by Zappardino-who owns the Top of the Cove restaurant in La Jolla-and his PAC-mates to thwart Frye's lead in local polls. And there's also a tie to the aforementioned bush-beater Doug Sain, who is KEEP PAC's lobbyist.
The notion that Boling serves both Murphy and Zappardino and no collusion took place on the fliers is one prospect which many insiders doubt. That KEEP PAC players may be involved in fomenting the current legal challenges is another of which some say they are certain.
Despite her connections to Murphy and the fact that she voted for the mayor, Boling says the citywide turmoil caused by the lawsuits prompted her to write a letter denouncing them that was published in Thursday's Union-Tribune. "My personal opinion has nothing to do with any of my clients or my affiliations," she wrote. "I believe that whoever gets the most votes in this election should be the next mayor of this city."
It's worth pointing out that Boling wasn't the only person who wrote to the U-T last week apparently attempting to quash rumors. A note from City Club President George Mitrovich appeared on the same page that required a little less reading between the lines: "Before conspiracy theorists get carried away, let me make it clear: I am not a party to the lawsuit filed by John Howard to stop the vote count in the mayoral election."
It seems that because of Howard's link to the City Club and the fact that he provided legal assistance the San Diego Better Government Association-the group, co-chaired by Mitrovich and downtown real-estate heavyweight Malin Burnham, that helped draft the strong-mayor proposal that led to Prop. F-some observers have jumped to the conclusion that Howard is Mitrovich's legal lapdog. Not so, says Mitrovich. They have an attorney-client relationship and also happen to be personal friends-nothing more.
"The idea that I could tell John Howard what to do is ridiculous," he told CityBeat. "I've been married to the same woman for 40 years and I can't tell her what to do."
But some of those same conspiracy theorists see Howard's suit as a desperate attempt from a group of strong-mayor proponents, people like Burnham and biotech bigwig Ted Roth, who just can't handle the possibility that Frye, who opposed the change to the centralized form of government, might be the first to wield strong-mayor powers. That theory makes Mitrovich the guy in the middle-but he denies it.
As for who might have been on the other end of Howard's phone last week, Mitrovich provided a hint-that the caller was a "mid-level Democrat" with an axe to grind against Frye. Drop it into the echo chamber's Magic 8 Ball and the name that surfaces is Adrian Kwiatkowski, a Democrat and a registered lobbyist for the San Diego Better Government Association.
"I had one person actually call me last week and accuse me of being the "mastermind' behind these lawsuits," Kwiatkowski told CityBeat. "What we have here is a simple case of guilt by association and the conspiracy theorists creating, well, conspiracy theories."
With Murphy closing in on Frye's lead as county workers count provisional and absentee ballots, the political drama isn't finished-downtown phones are ringing once again and the word "recall" is already being whispered into eager ears.