Tuesday, July 26, 2005 | In an era like no other, in an election like no other, San Diegans traipse to the ballot booths today in what could be the most important decision in the history of the bayside city. And as that deadline looms, polls and public sentiment etch a hazy outline of Tuesday’s potential darlings and derelicts.

After a campaign conducted at breakneck speeds over a two-month stretch that featured numerous daily debates, the campaign trail was left vacant Monday as candidates largely kept to themselves. The silent void left observers to assess the primary race to replace the resigned Dick Murphy and pollsters to prognosticate on the final results.

The assessments were as disparate as some of the poll results in an election that focused almost singularly on how to solve a financial crisis highlighted by a pension deficit of at least $1.37 billion.

“I think we’ve had a rather dishonest discussion … on how to get out of here,” said political science professor Steve Erie of the University of California, San Diego. “We’re going to have to raise taxes to get there.”

The election came on the heels of a study that confirmed what had long been discussed anecdotally: that San Diego residents and businesses pay substantially less in taxes than their big-city counterparts, and correspondingly, receive substantially less in services.

However, the election also comes at a time when distrust, and even anger, toward local government rage at all-time highs and Democratic-friendly labor unions bear the brunt of much criticism for today’s problems. Such emotions leave tax increases unpalatable to the citizenry.

Indeed, a poll released by Competitive Edge Research & Communication found that 73 percent of San Diegans polled believe the city is headed in the wrong direction, with more than 50 percent feeling strongly so.

“In 18 years of conducting political research, I have never seen an electorate in a worse mood,” said John Nienstedt, the firm’s president.

Some, such as Erie, trace the pension problem back to San Diego’s low-tax culture, as officials looked to the pension system with creative ways to free up cash for pet projects and daily services. The conservative candidates on the campaign trail blamed it on elected officials’ cozy relations with labor unions. As such, with five of the six major candidates either Republican or Libertarian, the no-tax mantra dominated discussion in the last two weeks of the campaign. The banter was punctuated as Steve Francis attacked the records of opponents Donna Frye and Jerry Sanders in a media blitz and politicians maneuvered to be the most “no tax” candidate.

“A whole point of view is essentially silenced and we’ve got to change that,” Erie said.

Yet, others saw this election cycle as a forum for a robust public discussion toward a City Hall rocked by the recent conviction of two sitting city councilmen on federal corruption charges and ongoing probes by multiple levels of federal and local investigators into corruption and city finances.

“I actually for the first 90 percent of the election enjoyed it. It was refreshing for people to hear candidates talk about the issues and not the personalities,” said Andy Berg of the National Electrical Contractors Association, which didn’t endorse any candidates in the primary.

His tastes only soured after Sanders and Francis began sparring over their records in the closing weeks, something Berg and pollster Richard Babcock, president of Datamar Inc., attributed to Frye’s recent surge in polls.

Scott Barnett, a former Republican consultant who now works as a freelance writer, wasn’t as impressed. He said candidates got their sound bites in, but no one gave any clear idea of what they would do about the city’s fiscal issues with the exception of Pat Shea, who believes Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is the only way to fully heal San Diego’s many ills.

“I’ve been involved in enough political campaigns to know that most answers to the questions are written by consultants. So I have a pretty good idea of what the views of the consultants are,” Barnett said. “Then, once somebody’s elected, we’ll hopefully find out what the mayor can do.”

A flurry of polls in an otherwise poll-light election season released Monday showed baseline trends that have been apparent to political watchers for months: Frye remains ahead of the pack, with Sanders and Francis jousting for a second spot that could push one of them into a potential runoff with Frye in November.

Two of the three polls that surfaced Monday gave a smidge of credence to Frye’s assertion – long-dispelled by local experts – that she could potentially grab more than 50 percent of the total votes. Such a showing would give the environmentalist enough to win the election outright and eliminate the need for a runoff election.

Surveys released by KGTV Channel 10 and Datamar put Frye’s support at 45 percent and 44 percent, respectively. The Channel 10 poll showed Sanders with 24 percent and Francis with 23 percent, while the Datamar poll left the two rivals deadlocked at 22 percent heading into Election Day.

However, the third poll released by Competitive Edge gave the appearance that the election was certainly headed for a runoff, registering Frye at 36.8 percent, Sanders at 27 percent and Francis at 22.5 percent of voter support.

The remaining eight candidates didn’t register significant support. The Competitive Edge poll found 9 percent undecided, and the Datamar survey discovered 8 percent undecided, whereas Channel 10 reported only 1 percent without a preferred candidate.

Pollsters didn’t give Frye much of a shot at capturing the necessary majority votes to win outright today, but her campaign continued to note her edging toward 50 percent. In a debate Sunday, Frye urged voters to make her mayor today in order to get the city moving with an elected mayor swiftly. Pollsters agreed that a low voter turnout would help the councilwoman, who has a strong grassroots base of supporters.

Babcock predicted turnout would be around 30 percent, whereas Nienstadt said it would be between 40 percent and 45 percent.

“Here you have a special election in the middle of the summer, so the key is who is best at targeting their supporters and getting them out to the polls,” Barnett said.

Just who those supporters are has also become an issue in the race. The Competitive Edge poll showed three fairly simple breakdowns in each camp: Frye had the support of liberals, Sanders of Republicans and moderate Democrats and Francis of conservatives.

“So in a sense, this is déjà vu all over again. In the November election, we saw Donna Frye taking the liberal side of the ideological spectrum, and we saw two Republicans splitting the right side of the spectrum,” Nienstadt said of Murphy and county Supervisor Ron Roberts.

Murphy won after a judge disqualified more than 5,000 write-in votes for Frye, enough to tip the results in the former mayor’s favor.

Campaign contribution records show similar trends.

Frye, who collected a total of $180,941 through July 9, finds her support among a collection of such people as community activists and teachers and professors, although her second filing of the election season showed more support from business interests than in the past.

Sanders continued to receive much of his contributions from the downtown establishment and the law enforcement community, netting a total of $300,074 through the last reporting deadline.

Casting himself as an outsider not attached to special interests, Francis has largely financed his own campaign, pouring in $1.7 million in less than two months. He has reaped the dividends of his record-setting war chest, as he’s shot dramatically upward in the polls following absolute television blitzes. Despite his outsider label, Francis’ campaign contributions show strong support from such politically-connected developers and hoteliers as Corky McMillin, Doug Manchester and Bill Evans.

On Monday, Councilwoman Toni Atkins became San Diego’s third acting mayor in a little more than a week after Murphy’s July 15 resignation and former acting Mayor Michael Zucchet’s criminal conviction July 18. She’ll either continue in that role until the Registrar of Voters certifies a winner in Tuesday’s primary or November’s runoff.

But either way, Babcock doesn’t believe the mayoral-go-round of the past week will have an effect on voters’ psyche.

“I don’t see that really happening. Most of the time people don’t vote real strategically,” he said.

Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at

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