Wednesday, June 7, 2006 | Four sitting members of the San Diego City Council were poised to coast to reelection Tuesday, marking the first bit of political stability the embattled city government has seen since the city was thrown into turmoil amid resignations, corruption trials and the pension scandal.
Council members Kevin Faulconer, Tony Young, Donna Frye and Ben Hueso all appeared to successfully defended their posts from a scant number of challengers and did it in such convincing fashion that no November runoff will likely be needed; the largely uncontested and quiet election reflected a marked change from last year’s special election in Districts 2 and 8, when seats opened up by the corruption convicts of two sitting councilmen attracted throngs of candidates with large sums of money.
The campaign was relatively uneventful, with incumbents building sizable, but unused, war chests while the typical big spenders in these municipal races – political parties, business groups and labor unions – stayed on the sidelines this spring.
A rare steadiness was struck Tuesday at a time when the city limps through a financial crisis that has seen mounting legal and consulting bills, two unrelated criminal cases and the resignations of two members of the City Council and a mayor. The officials sitting in the even-numbered council seats wrapped up their reelection campaigns in convincing fashion, without the need for party or interest group support, and without the need for a runoff this November.
The status quo, which has been so often ridiculed in city campaigns, was defended handily.
“The general sense is that there was a terrible problem, Jerry Sanders was elected mayor to address that problem, and he’s trying to fix it,” said political consultant Christopher Crotty, referring to last fall’s contentious election between Sanders and Frye.
In that race, each side tried to waive his or her banner of reform higher, and occasionally they derided the other for propping up plans that were “business as usual.” On Tuesday, business as usual appeared appealing.
“We’re happy with how things are going down there with Jerry’s leadership and having Kevin on board. They’re making the right kind of changes,” said Chris Niemeyer, the executive director for the Lincoln Club of San Diego County, a conservative pro-business group.
Faulconer benefited from the tens of thousands of dollars the Lincoln Club spent on his behalf just months ago when the District 2 seat, which hugs the coast from Mount Soledad to downtown, was unoccupied. Niemeyer said his group was confident that incumbent Faulconer could carry the race on his own, even though he’s held the post for less than five months
“There isn’t the need for the huge outside resources, like in the past, to get him to that point,” Niemeyer said. “With the political realities of incumbency, you’ve got to choose your battles.”
As of press time, Faulconer led attorney Kennan Kaeder by a 74-to-26 margin for the District 2 seat with 11 percent of the precincts reported.
In District 4, which represents the city’s southeastern neighborhoods, Young led Bruce Williams, an educational administrator and former aide to Murphy. Formerly the chief of staff for the late Councilman Charles Lewis, Young won a special election to replace his boss, who died in 2004. Young garnered 75 percent of the vote and Williams earned 25 percent with 19 percent of the precincts counted.
Frye had easily outpaced homemaker Judy Riddle and businessman Sandy Summers in District 6, which includes Mission Valley, Clairemont and Kearney Mesa. Some had thought the councilwoman was vulnerable in this district initially because Sanders prevailed in many of the district’s precincts in the November mayor’s race, but the Republican-endorsed Riddle never garnered the financial support needed to compete with Frye.
“As soon as the sanity reentered and the testosterone died down, people realized she’s pretty well entrenched in her district,” said Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.
With 11 percent of the precincts reported in this race, Frye had 70 percent, Riddle had 23 percent and Summers had 7 percent.
In District 8, which encompasses neighborhoods along the border and south of downtown, Hueso led teacher Remy Bermudez and Tim Gomez, who had both competed against the councilman when the seat was open last year. Hueso won 70 percent, Bermudez earned 19 percent and Gomez earned 11 percent with 13 percent of the precincts reported.
Bermudez turned some heads in last year’s race when she garnered support from the county’s Democratic Party and several labor organizations, but she failed to make the runoff, finishing third behind Hueso and school board president Luis Acle. Bermudez did not garner those groups’ support this time around.
Instead of having to deflect the blame doled out by opponents, the four council members handled incumbency like they would any normal, midterm primary election, Luna said.
Luna said that he has observed a sense of complacency among city voters. San Diegans’ outcry last summer, when Mayor Dick Murphy resigned, lived only as long as the Mayor’s Office was vacant.
“I think the pressing need to do something is over,” Luna said. “You just had the mayor’s position filled, so why mess around with [the makeup of the council], although most of the structural problems have not been solved.”
The four incumbents of Tuesday’s election had an advantage that their odd-numbered council colleagues would not have enjoyed: They did not vote for the controversial pension benefit increase in 2002 that has resulted in criminal charges of pension and union officials and a bevy of lawsuits. Faulconer, Young and Hueso were not on council at the time and Frye voted against the increase.
They all also enjoyed at least a vague endorsement of Sanders, who enjoys higher approval ratings than the rest of the council, experts said.
The mayor and council this year decided to craft a hold-the-line budget, where cuts made by the Murphy-led council last year were maintained and the city’s efforts to pay down its $1.4 billion pension deficit were acknowledged as low but legally sufficient. The city is still awaiting a report by outside consultants that is supposed to lead the municipality back to the public bond markets, where it has been shut off from borrowing for the past two years.
One sector of the city that has suffered through the city’s financial crunch is the police department, where officers are leaving for law enforcement agencies that provide better wage-and-benefit packages.
The police union, which hasn’t signed a labor contract with the city for the last two years, has been increasingly critical of Sanders, a former police chief, and the council.
However, Police Officers Association President Bill Nemec said union officials had a good relationship with the council members, even though they disagree on a number of points. Reconsidering its previous endorsements of the sitting council members wouldn’t have made a dent in these races, Nemec said.
None of Tuesday’s challengers approached the police union about an endorsement, he said.
The power of incumbency is accompanied with exceptional advantages in name recognition and fundraising. Sitting officials had much larger war chests than their opponents, according to records kept with the city clerk.
District 2: Faulconer raised $104,216 and spent $75,801, and hotelier C. Terry Brown also spent $27,331 on Faulconer’s behalf. Kaeder raised $4,350 in addition to a $2,700 loan, and spent $6,199. He dropped out of the race early because of health issues.
District 4: Young raised $41,416 and spent $36,015. Williams raised $6,463 and spent $1,557.
District 6: Frye raised $55,722 and spent $49,329. Riddle raised $3,796 and loaned herself $220, spending $3,559. No records were available for Summers.
District 8: Hueso raised $48,460 and spent $23,584. Bermudez raised $2,010 and loaned herself $7,000, and she spent $3,632. Gomez raised $625 and spent $561.