Tuesday, June 6, 2006 | Across San Diego County, voters will file into garages, churches and school auditoriums to cast ballots in a myriad of contests – from party candidates for California governor to trustees for community colleges. When sifting through the election literature, voters might scratch their heads about some of the questions they’re expected to answer. In this relatively quiet election season, we took a look at five important – but sometimes obscure – issues that might have flown under the radar in Tuesday’s election.

A Taxing Question

Voters from a few spots in the county will be asked to raise taxes, one way or another, to pay for public services and facilities.

In National City, voters are being asked to raise the sales tax in their South Bay burg for the second time in a year. Solana Beach residents will be asked to approve a hotel room tax hike in order to replenish the city’s sandy beaches. Voters living in two healthcare districts, Grossmont and Tri-City, will decide whether they want to help the public hospitals pay for improvements to their facilities.

Experts say taxes are a tough sale no matter what the merits.

“You can expect that 25 percent of the people are always a ‘no,’” said political consultant John Kern.

Tax initiatives that include specific information about how the money generated from that tax is spent are more likely to fall in voters’ good graces, experts said.

“You increase the trust in a tax measure by stating exactly what it’s used for,” said San Diego State University political scientist Brian Adams.

TransNet II, the countywide, half-cent sales tax measure that passed in 2004, was approved because of a vast communications campaign that helped explain to voters what they were getting in return for the tax, consultant Christopher Crotty said.

“They drafted it in a way where they could go to voters in Escondido or Chula Vista or Lakeside and point to specific projects that would directly benefit them,” Crotty said.

However, propositions that specifically earmark the new tax revenue – such as those being proposed in Solana Beach and the healthcare districts – require a two-thirds vote. Only a simple majority is required to approve tax increases that will head into a municipality’s budget without any strings attached.

Earmarking generally is seen as a way to give voters confidence in knowing where the new money will be spent.

Plus, TransNet II continued a tax that was already on the books.

“You can have a 20 to 30 [percentage] point swing if you extend an existing tax rather than impose a new one,” consultant Craig Benedetto said.

The Power of Incumbency

The effort it takes to unseat an incumbent is immense, experts say. So immense that many of the elected officeholders often have to be heavily outspent to lose a race – or be involved in a scandal to get ousted.

Consultants say there are three basic reasons why incumbents have the advantage: They usually have better name recognition, they enjoy a fundraising advantage by attracting donors who potentially want to curry favor, and they are generally considered to be doing a good job unless there is a community outcry for change.

The only two incumbents who experts say are facing significant challenges in the region are Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla and county Supervisor Bill Horn, only because there is controversy attached to their tenures.

But consultants, a skeptical bunch, don’t necessarily see a mandate for change in Tuesday’s races.

“The only people we’re losing are people who quit or are convicted of something,” said Crotty, referring to an upheaval last year that saw a mayor, congressman and two San Diego city councilmen step down from office among mismanagement, scandal or corruption charges.

Adams, the political scientist, held a more optimistic view for challengers, pointing to a recent primary in Pennsylvania where 13 incumbent state legislators were ousted because of a pay raise they afforded themselves just before Election Day.

From the Bench to the Stump

Voters will be also taking a look at candidates for Superior Court judges on Tuesday. While judges are charged with keeping political pressure out of the courtroom so that the letter of the law is followed, those without lifetime appointments have to do some politicking if they get challenged.

A political campaign “is the type of thing you try to avoid, because above all you want an independent judiciary,” Kern said.

The vast majority of sitting judges’ reelections go uncontested, as the attorneys are largely concerned with having to appear before a judge that he or she may have challenged in an election. Of the 48 judicial races that have incumbents standing reelection, only two are contested.

“Occasionally, you find people running who’ve got grudges, like they didn’t like one of their decisions,” Kern said. “There are virtually no serious candidates that take on sitting judges.”

Two judicial posts are open here, and a number of attorneys have jumped in.

Besides the rating a candidate receives from the Bar Association, candidates for judge usually seek the endorsements of law enforcement and are more popular if they tout prosecutorial experience.

Central to Other Elections

If you are registered with a political party, you’ll be asked to select six fellow party members to serve as volunteer decision makers for your party’s central committee.

Central committee members, who stand election with other partisans in their state assembly district, help determine the stance parties take when they shape their platforms and endorse candidates.

A party’s central committee has played a much bigger role in municipal elections in recent times, as the passage of Proposition 34 in 2000 allowed political parties to spend an unlimited amount of money communicating with their registered members. While party endorsements in partisan races such as Congress and the state Legislature are pretty straightforward, the central committee’s endorsement and spending in nonpartisan races such as mayor, city council and ballot propositions can significantly bolster an endorsed candidates chances.

Crotty used the recent city of San Diego mayor’s race in November as an example of how a party’s member communications can help shape an election.

“When Jerry Sanders won, the money spent on his behalf by the Republican Party was on member communications to make sure the base got out to vote for him. That way, Jerry’s campaign could spend time and money appealing to more moderate voters,” he said.

Putting up Duke’s

In the 50th Congressional District, Democrat Francine Busby and Republican Brian Bilbray are vying to replace incarcerated Rep. Duke Cunninghan, who admitted last winter that he took bribes from defense contractors and struck a plea with prosecutors.

Tuesday’s election will feature two different questions for voters in that district, which stretches from Mount Soledad to Encinitas and Escondido.

First, voters will choose a candidate between Busby, Bilbray, independent William Griffith and Libertarian Paul King to hold office for the rest of the year. A primary for the special election was held in April.

Secondly, Tuesday’s election will also serve as the primary for the regular two-year term that begins next January.

Busby, Bilbray and 15 other candidates – many who failed to advance in April’s special election – will seek their party’s nomination for the upcoming term. However, only Bilbray and Bill Hauf are actively campaigning for this overwhelmingly Republican district. The top vote-getters from each party will advance to a November runoff.

Polls show the race to be quite tight in the runoff between Bilbray and Busby, although experts are mixed about what the possible outcomes mean for the candidates.

If Busby wins, consultants say Bilbray still has a good shot at winning in November because the governor’s race will turn out more Republican voters when Arnold Schwarzenegger stands reelection.

If Bilbray wins, ideas are mixed about Busby’s chances in November.

“The Democrats have a number of targeted seats they’ll want to focus on and the best chance they had to win this seat is Tuesday,” Crotty said. “If Busby doesn’t win, they’re basically going to say, ‘we can’t win,’ and pull out of town.’”

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

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