Friday, November 04, 2005 | With only four days left until voters make their choice, the race for mayor has evolved into something resembling class warfare.

As hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside funds pour in for the final days of the mayoral election, City Councilwoman Donna Frye and former police Chief Jerry Sanders have added a new edge to their stale attack lines. They are asking voters to decide whether it is worse to find support from large labor unions or from hoteliers, big business and developers.

Depending on whom you ask, the origin of San Diego’s chaotic financial mess and corruption is either big labor or administrations beholden to big business.

And both sides have shown signs that all the chips are in this election pot.

About 30 members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, or HERE, are walking San Diego’s streets in support of Frye, and more than $105,000 of the union’s treasure is backing them up

“Donna will do whatever is necessary to help workers have better lives, better pay, better working conditions,” said Brigette Browning, an organizer with HERE. “She’s the only person on the City Council that we feel understands what it’s like to live in poverty in San Diego.”

Shaping the new class-centered debate is the influx of outside cash in the waning days of the race. The San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council hit the airwaves this week with a major television advertising campaign tying Sanders to former Mayor Dick Murphy. The ad, which cost $111,000, brings labor’s spending in support of Frye to a total of $220,568.

Much more may be on the way, but City Hall’s once-influential employee unions have chosen to stay out of the race entirely.

In fact, the president of San Diego city’s Municipal Employee Association sent out a reminder to members Thursday that the union absolutely did not support Frye or anyone in the mayor’s race.

But Sanders and the conservative forces that have issued a flurry of checks in favor of his campaign have worked hard over the past few days to link union support to the perception that the city’s unions helped create the financial crisis the city faces.

The former police chief has benefited from the support of more than $316,000 in expenditures from the San Diego County Republican Central Committee, the Lincoln Club and other business interests

“Union bosses have had a death grip on San Diego for years now. San Diegans are opening their eyes and are now aware of the problems labor has caused on our city – people are making the connection,” said Chris Niemeyer, the executive director of the Lincoln Club of San Diego, a local conservative political action committee.

In case some San Diegans haven’t made the connection, however, Niemeyer and the Lincoln Club have themselves jumped into the mayor’s race, spending $17,800 on a flier highly critical of Frye’s likely support of a future increase to the city’s sales tax.

“We are simply educating people of the facts and who is really behind San Diego’s crisis,” Niemeyer said.

If that’s the case there is a lot of educating going on. Business leaders – including hoteliers – have opened their pocket books wide to balance the labor unions’ influx of cash.

And they’re not the only ones.

Individuals are giving heavily to both campaigns. And Frye seized on the name of one of the contributors to Sanders’ campaign whose name raised some eyebrows.

Frederick W. Pierce, IV, the former president of the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System, sent an invitation to friends and potential Sanders’ supporters asking them to join him for a fund-raiser Wednesday night.

Pierce presided over the retirement board when it approved a now-notorious arrangement at the heart of the city’s fiscal crisis and a number of state and local investigations. He was perhaps the deal’s most strident public supporter. At one point, he took out an advertisement in the local newspaper decrying allegations by pension whistleblower Diann Shipione.

Now, the pension fund faces a shortfall of more than $1.37 billion and few deny the system’s problems.

During a Thursday radio debate on the Roger Hedgecock Show, Frye questioned Sanders about Pierce’s support.

“Why would my opponent have a fund-raiser that was hosted by the ex-president of the pension board who tried to have Shipione arrested?” Frye asked.

Shipione is widely hailed as the whistleblower who first identified and broadcast the problems with the city’s pension system. Her actions eventually provoked investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the FBI and the local District Attorney.

Sanders countered that the fund-raiser was hosted by his campaign, not by Pierce.

“We held a general fund-raiser last night for anyone who wanted to come,” Sanders said.

Pierce said he did not host the fund-raiser. But he did confirm sending the e-mail invitation to “some people I know.”

Pierce is also a developer. In early 2004, his development project, The Paseo at San Diego State, was selected as one of five pilot projects for former Mayor Dick Murphy’s “City of Villages” program.

The program encourages smart growth around transportation hubs and offers developers infrastructure incentives, deferral on the collection of fees and rebates on property taxes.

Later in the debate, Sanders chided Frye for not reporting by name contributors who gave $99 or less. By law, candidates only have to report donations of $100 or more. Sanders said he has reported all donations, regardless of the size.

The councilwoman said many of her supporters are retired and would need to be contacted to see if they wanted their names revealed.

“They have a reasonable expectation when they made these donations of privacy,” she said.

As he did during Wednesday night’s debate, Sanders continued Thursday to press Frye on the support she is drawing from the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and some national unions.

Frye defended the union support, pointing out that the city’s employee unions have stayed out of the race. The labor council is the local AFL-CIO organization.

“I am absolutely pleased to have the support of the middle class and the labor unions that support them,” she said.

The unions at the heart of the city’s pension controversy are normally politically active and influential. In both the primary and general election for mayor, the unions have stayed on the sidelines. None of the five unions has reported lending their names, cash or manpower to any candidate.

The class theme extended beyond local topics and onto Sanders’ support of Proposition 75, a statewide initiative that would make it easier for union members to ensure that their membership dues aren’t used for political means.

Frye said her opponent supported the measure because it would make it more difficult for the working class to compete with big corporations, noting that many of those corporations support Sanders.

“I think union members should be able to decide how their money is spent,” Sanders said.

Sanders said he was proud of his support and noted that he’s received donations from people of all walks.

“I don’t have $400,000 in special interest money coming in to back my campaign,” he said.

However, since the primary election, records show, Sanders has actually benefited more from the outside giving than Frye.

The Republican Central Committee has raised a reported $865,600 since the beginning of the year – large chunks of which came from local businesses, hoteliers and housing industry representatives. Much more has come into the party in the form of individual contributions that have yet to be reported.

Under the state’s campaign finance laws, the Republican Party can spend unlimited amounts on so-called “member communications” to people who are registered Republicans. That support allows Sanders and other beneficiaries of the advertisements to focus their efforts on other constituencies.

Please contact Scott Lewis at

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