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Monday, Aug. 21, 2006 | County Supervisor Bill Horn’s reelection campaign last spring was a political consultant’s nightmare.
Horn, already notorious for his sharp tongue, had to fend off allegations that he had an inappropriately cozy relationship with his chief of staff – both financially and romantically. He was also scrutinized for housing migrant workers on his North County ranch in a trailer that didn’t comply with basic health standards. Television cameras captured scenes of one employee defecating in his avocado groves.
The supervisor has often raised eyebrows with his assertiveness and candor. Last year, he rationalized his proposed pay raise by saying the board wasn’t obligated to take Franciscan-like vow of poverty. But the negative headlines and embarrassing television footage haven’t been enough to tip an election against him.
Horn is a part of a dauntless Board of Supervisors that has proven to be a virtually invincible force for more than a decade. And his recent election tale demonstrates just how tough it is to break the incumbent grip that the he and his fellow Republican supervisors have held on county government. Only one of the five supervisors has been forced past the primary since they took control more than a decade ago.
They don’t just beat their opponents; typically they obliterate them. More often than not, the “supes” – as they’re known around the county’s bayfront headquarters – face token challengers in the primary or run completely unopposed.
“They seem to be an entity unto themselves, kings and queens, and nobody can touch them,” said former Assemblyman Bruce Thompson, Horn’s opponent in the June primary. He was unable to sway the fifth district in his favor, earning 47 percent to Horn’s 53 percent, despite holding similar political stances as his opponent and enjoying the benefits of Horn’s miscues.
The Board of Supervisor’s membership has remained intact – with an image of unparalleled consensus to boot – since 1995, and experts say that Horn and his board colleagues Greg Cox, Dianne Jacob, Pam Slater-Price and Ron Roberts will likely carry the torch until one of them quits.
“Asking you to run against Dianne Jacob is like asking you to jam bamboo shoots under your fingernails,” said Jerry Butkiewicz, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council. “You’ll have to dedicate the next year and have to raise a ton of money, and for what? You’re still going to lose.”
It appears that the county could for a long time be in the hands of lawmakers that are, eerily similar, judging by their biographies.
All five supervisors are white, registered Republicans who attended San Diego State University. That’s not out of the ordinary for this region’s elected officials (three elected officials at the city of San Diego fit that bill, for instance). The superficial similarities are so apparent that, consciously or not, the three male supervisors are pictured on the board’s website sporting the same black-suit-and-red-tie motif and donning identical parts in their graying coifs.
But the coincidence rankles some who believe the county needs variance in its leadership to represent the diverse interests of the county. San Diego County, the third most populous in California, encompasses stretches of cityscape, suburbia and rural lands that house 2.9 million people of varying income levels and ethnicities.
But the supervisors’ grip has been able to transcend traditional politics, experts said.
University of California, San Diego political scientist Steve Erie claims that Roberts’ and Cox’s urban districts would likely be represented by Democrats if the elections there were decided along party lines. Those districts play host to more modest-earners who tend to vote Democratic than Republican.
Erie said Roberts and Cox have been able to secure their supervisor seats by holding moderate Republican views and because lower-income residents are less likely to vote. Also, it’s difficult to decipher candidates’ political leanings in county races where no party affiliation appears next a candidate’s name on the ballot.
Despite the fact that experts say Cox should be vulnerable in his district, he has only been challenged once in three elections. In 2004, he drubbed his opponent, 82 percent to 18 percent.
In June, Roberts faced labor activist Richard Barrera, a Latino who ran on a platform “for working families.” Roberts oversees District 4, the county’s most urban territory, which slices through the heart of California’s second largest city. It’s an ethnically and economically diverse stretch of metropolitan San Diego that mirrors the demographics of areas that frequently elect candidates like Barrera.
On paper, the race appeared competitive, as Barrera should have benefited from a Democratic advantage in voter registration. The race garnered scant attention. Only three total news articles about the race in the local newspaper. There was one debate, which Roberts and Barrera shared with the candidates from two City Council races.
The June primary wasn’t even close. Roberts avoided a November runoff election by cruising to victory with 60 percent while Barrera earned 31 percent.
Barrera said he thinks he could have been more competitive if he were able to more officially fly his Democratic colors, but he admits that knocking off an incumbent is a “long shot” for anybody.
It’s expensive to canvas a district that represents about as much sprawling territory as a congressional seat. Many voters are unfamiliar with the $4.33 billion worth of functions county government performs annually and know very little about the candidates’ political tendencies, rendering the race vote for supervisor comparatively inconsequential to more high-profile races.
For those already holding office, incumbency comes with the abilities to list accomplishments, stock up on name identification, and dispense funds to notable community groups – a practice critics liken to buying popularity.
Butkiewicz, the labor official, said he is frustrated with the grip current supervisors have on the board. It’s not worth recruiting a labor-friendly candidate to compete in a race that is costly, time-consuming and – very likely – unfruitful, he said.
La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid and two others ran against Jacob in 2000. Madrid said he ran for Jacob’s post because he disagreed with the supervisor’s environmental stances. “I ran with full the knowledge that I had a better chance of winning the lotto than of beating Diann Jacob” in her East County district, he said.
Madrid took second place with 24 percent of the vote, but got blown out by Jacob’s 62 percent.
The incumbents’ sizable campaign war chests often scare off would-be challengers before they even throw their hats into the ring. Two years before they’re due for reelection, Slater-Price ($241,797), Jacob ($217,658) and Cox ($191,697) have already amassed hefty reelection campaign coffers, according to campaign finance filings. Likewise, Horn and Roberts coasted to victory this spring after tripling the fundraising efforts of their opponents.
The supervisors’ longevity has caused a libertarian group to push for term limits, saying their potentially unlimited tenures have allowed the supervisors to become clubby and unaccountable. The term-limit activists argue that the supervisors are invincible as long as they are allowed to by a community project budget that allows them to distribute $2 million each to popular nonprofits in their district. In return, the officials receive favorable attention that buoys their campaigns, the activists say.
“You can use up to $8 million every term to buy allegiance from the groups you’ve paid money to, so you’ve got a much greater advantage,” said San Diego Tax Fighters chairman Richard Rider, who ran against Slater-Price in 1992 – before she was an incumbent.
On the contrary, some say the success at the polls is a simple byproduct of successful legislating. The board runs on its record of turning the county from being on the verge of bankruptcy into a government that is held up as an example of good fiscal management.
“San Diego has proved to be one of the most innovative boards in the state,” said Connie Conway, a Tulare County supervisor and president of the California State Association of Counties. Conway said she borrowed heavily from San Diego County’s financial plan when her county drew up its own budget.
Republican lobbyist Lou Wolfsheimer said the current set of officials is “the smartest and most interested Board of Supervisors I’ve seen in 40 years.” One longtime county staffer called this board’s stint the “golden age of county government.”
“Because we were in such dire straits, that has created a bonding among the board members,” Cox said, referring to the county’s turnaround effort beginning in the mid-1990s. He added: “We never want to find ourselves in that position again.”
The longevity has translated into a cordial relationship at the most, but the supervisors do not, in turn, shower each other with pet names or back slaps.
“I don’t socialize with them. Certainly I think we are collegial, but I don’t think that necessarily extends to spending time outside board functions,” Cox said.
County staffers said they see the relationship as professional only.
“They are all completely different people,” said Walt Ekard, the county’s top executive. “If you asked me which two are most alike, I couldn’t tell you.”
The supervisors take turns chairing the board, but officials say they don’t have a true leader. “There are five alphas,” Roberts said. He continued: “Some of us are better than others at controlling our strong personalities.”
Horn, Jacob and Slater-Price were unavailable for comment. The county is on a summer legislative recess.
Generally, officials say the supervisors follow the lead of the county’s professional staff or the supervisor whose district is affected by the legislation before them or whose pet project is being weighed.
But Roberts said he takes exception with the notion that the board acts as a rubber stamp or is in lock-step with each other on county issues.
“I think there is a feeling among the public that everything is a 5-0 vote,” Roberts said. “I could think of a whole series of issues where we split.”
Roberts is quick to point out that he opposes the lawsuit the county filed challenging California’s medicinal marijuana laws and that only he and Cox supported the half-cent TransNet sales tax ballot initiative in 2004 to raise money for road and mass transit construction.
The board has, however, stood united on controversial issues. They unanimously panned a nonprofit organization’s request to operate a clean-needle exchange program in an effort to stop the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.
The supervisors also regularly band together use their names to boost political causes outside of county government. They have publicly backed, in unanimity, political issues they had no direct control over, such as the war in Iraq, Brian Bilbray in the recent race to replace former Rep. Duke Cunningham, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor.
Those conservative stances irritate political leaders that find themselves on the other side of the issues, but having to work with the board.
“When we ask for a meeting with them, our conversations are similar to turning around and talking to the wall,” said Butkiewicz, the labor organizer.
He said it is “impossible” to crack this board in an election.
John Dadian, a political consultant and lobbyist, said the supervisor races will become much more interesting once a supervisor announces that he or she won’t seek reelection. Apparently, many politicos will come out of the woodwork for a chance to nab that type of job security.
“If any of them were to relinquish their position, it would be the political donnybrook of all time,” Dadian said. “That would attract a very, very large number of candidates.”