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Thursday, June 1, 2006 | When two seats on the City Council opened up last year amid the resignations of two convicted councilmen, a stampede of San Diegans dreaming of a stint in politics rushed to declare their candidacy. Between those two open council posts, 26 residents launched official campaigns.

Just months later, those seats are up for grabs again, this time in a normal election. But the campaign trail is a much quieter place as the June 6 primary election nears. A combined 10 candidates – four of them current council members – are vying for the four council posts are up for election Tuesday, a marked shift from the council primaries that were held last November.

The change of heart demonstrates the role of incumbency and money in elections, experts said. Topping an incumbent’s fundraising abilities and name recognition is a tough task, and the heaps of money spent in the last election likely frightened away the casual candidate that seemed so common months ago.

“I learned my lesson,” said retired scientist Ian Trowbridge, one of the 17 candidates in November’s District 2 election.

Trowbridge had gained some name recognition over the years as an activist and also spent $10,000 during last year’s special election – half of which came from his own bank account. He made campaign flyers, attended voter forums and visited with many of the districts’ residents.

But Trowbridge’s effort garnered him less than 4 percent of the vote, which earned him seventh place. He said running for a council seat in San Diego was a daunting task, pointing to the money available to political groups and candidates that flex big-name endorsements.

Others apparently agree. Only one candidate challenged Councilman Kevin Faulconer this election, shortly after the rookie councilman shook off 16 competitors in last year’s primary – and squeezed by his Democratic competitor by 724 votes in the January general election.

The trend continues in the other districts. Only one challenger is taking on Councilman Tony Young in District 4. Councilwoman Donna Frye and Councilman Ben Hueso face two opponents each in Districts 6 and 8, respectively.

“You can be the best person in the world, but if you don’t get your message out, it doesn’t make any difference,” said attorney Tim Rutherford, who earned 5 percent in the District 2 primary last November. “It’s all about one thing: name recognition.”

Christopher Crotty, a local political consultant, said civic-minded citizens like Trowbridge might otherwise run for office if it didn’t appear to be so expensive.

“I think people in those districts know how much money is spent on behalf of the candidate and came to the realization that if they didn’t have a half million dollars that they weren’t going to be competitive,” Crotty said.

Indeed, each incumbent has easily raised and spent more money than their challenges. Faulconer has raised $104,216 and spent $75,801 during this campaign, leading all candidates. Young, Frye and Hueso have far outdistanced their opponents in fundraising as well.

“You can never dismiss the advantage incumbents have in raising money and in getting free publicity,” political consultant Scott Maloni said.

Maloni said money would be less of an obstacle for challengers if the local political parties recruited and supported candidates for these races, which he said are otherwise lopsided toward the incumbent.

“There are no people coming through the ranks, being groomed to run for office,” he said. “Both the Republicans and Democrats suffer from a lack of bench strength.”

Faulconer, for example, is essentially running unopposed. His opponent, Kennan Kaeder, bowed out because of health problems this spring.

“If you’re a Democrat, you have to be disappointed that you can’t field a candidate against someone whose background is a public relations executive and has strong support from the building industry,” he said.

Another political consultant, John Kern, said he thought term limits have allowed interested, would-be candidates from postponing their candidacy until the incumbent leaves office. It’s more advantageous to run for an open seat than against someone who is already holding the office, and prospective candidates know that, he said.

“Why go out and risk your political career when in four years this guy or this gal will be out of there?” Kern said.

But the incumbency for three of these council members – Faulconer, Young and Hueso – has been short-lived so far. Hueso and Faulconer assumed the seats of Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zucchet, respectively, six months after the two former councilmen were convicted on federal corruption charges. (A judge later dismissed most of Zucchet’s conviction and ordered him another trial on the remaining charges.)

In early 2005, Young replaced the late Charles Lewis, who died in 2004.

In District 8, two of the eight candidates who ran against Hueso last fall are competing with him again. Teacher Remy Bermudez said she’s running because “the debate is not over” and businessman Tim Gomez said he thought he gained valuable experience during his last run. Both failed to make the January runoff last time around, with Bermudez’s defeat coming at a slight margin.

However, many of the District 2 candidates, including Trowbridge, said they opted to not run this June to give Faulconer time to prove himself. The district needs more than just a few months to monitor Faulconer before determining whether he’s fit to serve the district, he said.

“I probably didn’t want to believe it at the time, but he deserves four years,” Trowbridge said.

Young is running against education administrator and former political aide Bruce Williams in District 4. Frye is running against homemaker Judy Riddle and businessman Sandy Summers.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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