Monday, Oct. 16, 2006 | It’s difficult not to draw parallels between Francine Busby and Sisyphus.
Like the mythological king condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill only to perpetually lose control and watch it roll to the bottom, Busby seems fated to struggle valiantly to secure the congressional seat in California’s 50th District just to see her efforts once again fall short.
When Busby, a Democrat, first decided to run for Congress against Randy “Duke” Cunningham in 2004, the political newcomer knew she didn’t stand a chance against the entrenched incumbent in a district where Republicans enjoy a heavy registration advantage.
With Cunningham now in federal prison for bribery, Busby’s running her third campaign for the seat in eight months, and odds-makers see little indication that her prospects have improved. She’s still on Republican turf and facing a new incumbent, Rep. Brian Bilbray.
But if Sisyphus’ fate is a form of punishment, Busby seems to relish the agony of the struggle. Unpretentious and matronly, Busby has never been one to shrink from a challenge. The 55 year old has a history of stepping up when she finds a need in her community and has garnered a reputation as a determined and effective campaigner. Along the way she’s earned the respect of many of her supporters and adversaries alike.
While political observers say Busby doesn’t have a chance of winning, she’s used to being underestimated. She points to how far she’s come since first challenging Cunningham and the fact that she’s still here, and in some sense feels she’s already victorious.
“No one is going to convince me that this is a safe seat the way it used to be,” she said. “We have exploded the myth of the safe seat. We have shifted the electorate and now it’s just a matter of shifting it a little bit more and the winds of change in this country are certainly helping us.”
Busby hasn’t always been a political animal, though she credits her upbringing in a large Italian-American family and attendance of Catholic school for cultivating a value in community service at an early age.
Busby said she’s always been drawn to public service and had thoughts of working in Washington since she was a child. However, after obtaining a humanities degree from the University of California, Irvine, she spent seven years working for Disney’s in-house travel agency.
It wasn’t until Busby moved to Cardiff in 1988 that she became politically involved. A mother of two, Busby became active in the small Cardiff school district’s parent organization and in 1998 she volunteered to manage a bond campaign to fund improvements to the district’s two schools.
The effort came just short of passing, but in 2000 the district revised the measure and Busby once again led the campaign. After staffing phone banks, going door to door and raising roughly $16,000, Busby helped the proposition pass with more than 81 percent of the vote.
“I have to give her triple A’s,” said Warren Cobb, an Encinitas resident who opposed the first initiative. “She really organized a lot of people to get that second bond passed.”
That same year Busy was appointed to the school board. The district was riding high on the new cash flow, but the situation quickly turned grim.
In 2003, Cardiff’s superintendent resigned and a principal was demoted, plunging the normally placid district into turmoil. Even more pressing, a state budget crunch and a change in the method used to calculate the district’s share of state funding cast a cloud over its fiscal future.
The board, with Busby serving as its president, voted to lay off teachers and to permanently dismiss students who attended Cardiff’s schools but lived outside the district.
Michael Polan, a former school board member who served with Busby in 2003, remembers contentious meetings filled with angry parents and staff. Although Polan often found himself on the short end of some of those divisive votes, he nonetheless credits Busby’s leadership for helping the district through a rough year.
“She made some tough choices that were not necessarily what the community wanted but she felt were in the best interest of the Cardiff school district,” Polan said. “She tried to be compassionate but at the same time she had a job to do and she did the job.”
Polan also gives Busby credit for taking on the bond measures and her position on the school board, which she still holds, after her children had departed the Cardiff schools.
“She did it because she loved the district,” he said. “She did this for the right reasons.”
When Busby decided to challenge Cunningham in 2004 her reasons had more to do with what was wrong.
Frustrated with the congressman’s combative leadership style and the overall direction of the country, Busby set out to volunteer for his opponent’s campaign. After finding that no one else was willing to run, she nominated herself.
Facing a double-digit registration disadvantage and with virtually no name recognition, Busby was a sacrificial lamb to the enormously popular Cunningham. But as Cunningham focused his efforts on helping fellow Republicans get elected elsewhere, Busby ran a spirited campaign.
She walked the precinct and managed to raise more than $235,000 – more than 20 times what her Democratic predecessors raised in the two previous elections combined.
Busby lost the election but she kept Cunningham from getting more than 60 percent of the vote – something a candidate hadn’t managed to do in a decade. For Busby, putting that little dent in Duke was a victory in itself.
“I showed that people in this district, given an opportunity and a chance, would vote for a change in a significant way,” Busby said. “I did that without name recognition, money or party backing, just by going out and meeting with people, talking to them, showing them what I believe and who I was.”
Shortly after the election, Busby announced that she would challenge Cunningham again, and hoping to get a head start on another uphill battle, kicked off her campaign in June of 2005. Her timing was uncanny.
Questions surrounding Cunningham’s shady real estate dealings surfaced the following week and by November the eight-term congressman had resigned his seat and pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes from government contractors.
With a campaign already up and running, Busby was propelled to the front runner spot in the race to fill the vacancy. Meanwhile, 18 Republican candidates scrambled to establish themselves as Cunningham’s heir.
After a chaotic race, Busby earned 44 percent of the vote in the April primary. It wasn’t enough to win outright, but it was better than many expected and the possibility that a Democrat might usurp a Republican safe seat grabbed the attention of the national political establishment.
With the November midterm looming, political pundits dubbed the race a bellwether of the GOP’s ability to retain control of Congress in the fall. Republican and Democratic Party interests turned their attention to the 50th District and poured millions of dollars into television advertising on behalf of Busby and Bilbray, who emerged from April’s Republican melee at the top of the heap.
After an ugly three-month battle, Bilbray beat Busby by 4.6 percent in the June election and went to Washington to finish out the remainder of Cunningham’s term. But both candidates qualified to face off again in the regularly scheduled November election.
Busby began the campaign process anew after taking a few weeks to recuperate. She’s currently immersed in the heavy lifting of a political campaign, attending community events and walking precincts with the help of a small cadre of dedicated supporters.
Though Busby insists she has real chance of prevailing in California’s 50th district, she admits that her efforts can only take her so far.
While ethics reform dominated her previous campaigns, Busby, like Democrats across the country, is now hoping to capitalize voter dissatisfaction with the Republican-led Congress and President Bush fueled by recent congressional scandals and the War in Iraq.
Although she faces a 14-point registration disadvantage in a race that has received little media attention, Busby said she feels she has momentum and is sensing shift in the district. She points to the nearly $90,000 that the Republican National Congressional Committee has spent funding mailers against her in recent weeks as evidence that she’s not the only one who thinks she has a chance.
But putting the Republican registration advantage aside, observers say it’s Busby’s background and a resulting lack of political gravitas that hurt her the most.
Jack Orr, a longtime Republican political consultant in North County and a close friend of Bilbray, said he credits Busby for having guts and tenacity, but said she lacks the voice of authority and frame of reference to win seat in Congress.
Carl Luna agrees. A political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, Luna said Busby’s never succeeded in portraying herself as anything but a generic Democrat.
“She needed to establish herself as a heavier weight than she was,” Luna said. “She came from a school board, so what?”
Indeed, Busby has always seemed to be her own worst enemy. Warm and genuine in person, she said people frequently tell her she reminds them of their mother. But Busby admits she came off as stiff and contrived in her own TV ads during the June campaign.
Although she regularly refers to herself as one of the most dynamic public speakers in the Democratic Party, she often flubs her lines and her public statements can be difficult to follow.
Busby dismisses the idea that she lacks any of the traits or experience to represent the district.
“If you’re looking for courage and backbone I think that I have proven that I have that just by standing up and doing what I have done for three years,” she said.
As for emerging victorious in November, Busby said that if she doesn’t win she may not run again but she plans to maintain the organization she’s built over the past three years for the next Democratic challenger. For now, she’s already counting the spoils of the struggle.
“It’s not about the winning,” she said. “It’s about standing up and fighting and creating something that matters and we have succeeded in that.”
Editor’s Note: A profile of Rep. Brian Bilbray will run Oct. 23.