Saturday, August 27, 2005 | After whizzing through a truncated, high-profile primary campaign at breakneck speeds, the two surviving candidates for mayor of San Diego have spent much of August lying low.
But a high-stakes, equally high-profile mayor’s race is simmering behind the late summer heat.
“You don’t see anything right now because it’s August and everyone’s either on vacation or not tuned into local politics. You’ll definitely see an up-tick in activity from both campaigns after Labor Day,” said Scott Maloni, consultant to former police Chief Jerry Sanders.
The campaigns have, however, made some subtle shifts during this down time.
Councilwoman Donna Frye’s famous grassroots network will be getting a bit more-high profile in its organization, as the populist has added Paul Worlie, a veteran strategist to numerous national Democratic Senate campaigns.
“I am ratcheting up this campaign a notch, as far as what we’re doing. It’s no less grassroots, but at the same point in time, I’m running to win,” said Frye, who spent this week catching up on council duties, preparing for the post-Labor Day push and searching for an environmentally-friendly exterminator to eradicate termites at her Clairemont home.
Both candidates have sought early on to tie the other to the past that has placed San Diego in a financial and political crisis highlighted by an oppressing pension deficit calculated to be at least $1.37 billion.
Sanders has set out to blunt the impact of Frye’s now famous vote against portions of Manager’s Proposal 2 – a deal made between city and pension officials that contributed to the pension shortfall and attracted local and federal investigators to City Hall – by highlighting prior votes by the councilwoman to increase pension benefits for employees.
Similarly, Frye has made efforts to paint Sanders as another version of former Mayor Dick Murphy, who stepped down in July under the weight of the city’s mounting troubles and a court challenge to his reelection. When Sanders announced his advisory team, for example, Frye pointed out that the governing-by-committee approach was the type favored by Murphy as well.
In a short speech to campaign supporters in Mission Valley last week, Sanders solidified what had been a muddied message on taxes and tried to define Frye’s tax stance.
“San Diego voters have a choice between myself and Donna Frye. They have a choice between raising taxes to solve the city’s problems or actually becoming a more effective city government,” Sanders said during a cocktail and appetizer party at the Town and Country Resort and Convention Center.
“I don’t think that we need to raise taxes. We will not raise taxes to solve this problem,” he continued, promising to bring efficiency to the City Hall operation.
Frye has said she doesn’t support raising taxes right now, but that it’s unrealistic to discount raising taxes with years of the city’s financial statements unverified. Sanders’ original campaign literature espoused a similar view, though he has shifted toward a stronger anti-tax platform since being attacked as pro-tax in the primary election by third-place finisher Steve Francis.
Francis has endorsed Sanders and the former police chief will certainly be aggressive in going after the 56,000 people who voted for Francis in the July 26 election.
However, there is a growing sentiment among those in San Diego’s political world that the city’s days as a low-tax haven may be numbered if it is to right its financial crisis.
“This is how strange things have gotten in San Diego: The head of the taxpayers association saying to you that at some point down the line, we may need to talk about raising taxes. We can’t take anything off the table,” said Lisa Briggs, president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.
Although pension and financial issues are sure to take center stage, some observers doubt that the differences between the candidates’ financial solutions will be great enough to steal the focus away from a simpler question: Who is the best person to lead the city out of its crisis?
“Both candidates will be trying to show that they are the better leader, that they can better handle the issues,” said Brian Adams, political science professor at San Diego State University.
Sanders and Frye both appear to have tempered the exuberant support offered to City Attorney Mike Aguirre by all the major candidates in the primary. Both support the continued work of the city’s audit committee in its efforts to ease the city’s legal and accounting woes. Aguirre recommended earlier this month that the council not renew the committee’s $800,000-a-month contract and questioned their expense reports.
Neither candidate has fully supported the city attorney’s 15-point recovery plan. In fact, Sanders has begun criticizing Aguirre for some of his actions.
Adams said Aguirre will be a tricky issue for both candidates because although he maintains public support, his popularity could be volatile.
“My guess is both of them will say positive things and certainly won’t attack him like other city officials have. But they don’t want to appear too close. It’s too risky,” he said.
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