Monday, June 4, 2007 | Next year’s San Diego City Council races are beginning to take shape as several hopefuls said they will take full advantage of the one-year campaign fundraising window that opens this week.

The 2008 contests will be the first large-scale makeover of the city’s legislative branch in nearly a decade, as term limits will compel four of San Diego’s eight council regions — Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7 — to replace their current council delegates with a new batch.

The Next Generation

  • The Issue: Beginning this week, prospects for the four City Council elections in 2008 can begin raising money for their campaigns.
  • What It Means: Still a year away from Election Day, the field for the races in Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7 are coming into focus as candidates start their fundraising efforts.
  • The Bigger Picture: With the current holders of all four council seats termed out next year, the races will likely shape up to be very competitive without incumbents. The four termed-out council members have been in office since 2000.

The successors to Scott Peters, Toni Atkins, Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer will follow a period of exceptional turmoil in our city’s history. The four council members presided over the municipal government at a time when federal and local officials launched investigations into the city’s pension dealings and bookkeeping practices, and their popularity gradually wilted with the bad news that trickled out of City Hall for several years.

The absence of incumbents has drawn a litany of candidates to the field, as challenging a seated politician has proven to be a virtual impossibility in recent city races. The already-bustling council races contrast with a lack of chatter about challenges to Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who will both enjoy incumbent status when standing for re-election next year.

Council aspirants are trying to make it well known that they will be running in hopes of staking turf among political donors and community groups in the year leading up to the June 3, 2008, primary election.

“What you try to do is get in as soon as possible,” said local consultant John Kern. “Usually incumbents have the advantage, but because these are open seats, now it will be a fight among the various candidates.”

While voters likely won’t see the flood of yard signs and campaign mail until closer to next year’s election, they may become more familiar with some of the contenders trying to get an early jump by walking door-to-door and mingling in community groups now.

And party activists say they are cognizant that the 2008 races could reshape the politics of the council, which has titled slightly to the left in recent years with the Democrats’ 5-3 edge. While District 3 is considered a safely Democratic seat and District 5 has a significant Republican edge in registration, the two remaining districts are seen as swing seats that could determine the political composition of the officially non-partisan council.

An early review of some of the possible candidates suggests that some faces among the likely crop of contenders will be recognizable from previous elections, as at least one elected official and several other former area candidates are slated to run. Several others have made news of their own as unelected advisers or activists in City Hall affairs. One probable candidate has appeared on San Diego television sets for decades.

The races will also feature candidates who are well known within their neighborhoods, but are less familiar in San Diego politics.

District 1

The district, which includes the city’s northwestern neighborhoods from La Jolla to Rancho Peñasquitos, has only one contender who says he will begin campaigning right away. Three other prospects are mulling runs. They are:

  • Peter Q. Davis, a two-time mayoral contender who has served on the Port Commission and the city’s downtown redevelopment board. The Republican said he is interested in running, but has not decided. Davis spent part of his personal fortune on his mayoral bids, parting with more than $1 million during his 2000 run. Davis’ latest public service stint was an appointment by Sanders to the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System.
  • Steve McMillan, a San Diego police officer. He said he is also considering becoming a candidate. McMillan, a Republican, was a vocal critic of the mayor’s handling of police officers’ rapid departure from the city while a member of the police union’s leadership.
  • Wade Sanders, a former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy. He said he would like to run, but that he must first move into the district. Currently, Wade Sanders resides in South Park, outside of the council district, he said. He is a Democrat who campaigned with Sen. John Kerry.
  • Phil Thalheimer, who lost to Peters in 2004 after spending more than $1 million on his campaign. Thalheimer said he will run and has plans to work with a professional campaign strategist. He has been active in conservative campaigns, including the effort to preserve the Mount Soledad Cross, and formerly worked for the San Diego Data Processing Corp. Thalheimer is a registered Republican.

District 3

The race for District 3 — which encompasses mid-city neighborhoods including Hillcrest, North Park and City Heights — includes five candidates who say they are all definitely running. They include:

  • Todd Gloria. He said he will hire a campaign consultant once he begins raising money this week. Gloria is the district director for Rep. Susan Davis and a trustee of the San Diego Housing Commission. He also serves as chairman of the San Diego Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Center. Gloria is a Democrat.
  • John Hartley, a former District 3 council member. He said he also has a campaign consultant lined up. Hartley, a Democrat, is a campaign veteran, running for the council several times and once for mayor. He leads Neighborhoods for Clean Elections, which advocates for publicly financed campaigns.
  • Robert E. Lee. He moved into the district after running for the District 2 seat in 2005, when he and 16 others fought for the chance to replace resigned Councilman Michael Zucchet. Lee describes himself as an independent who tends to adopt “moderate Republican” views.
  • Rocky Neptun. He said he is “unquestionably” running. Neptun is the director of the San Diego Renters Union, which advocates for the rights of apartment tenants. Neptun said he is politically affiliated with groups such as the Peace & Freedom and Green parties.
  • Stephen Whitburn. He is a Democrat who served as the past president of the San Diego Democratic Club, a political organization that advocates on behalf of the gay community. Whitburn said he is definitely running and will hire a professional campaign consultant.

District 5

In District 5 — which encompasses the northeastern suburbs up and down the Interstate 15 corridor — two local leaders have confirmed that they will run, and one shied away from explicitly saying he will. They are:

  • Carl DeMaio. He said he will open up a fundraising committee this week, but that it’s only “exploratory.” DeMaio burst onto the San Diego political scene several years ago as president of the Performance Institute, a think tank that advocates against taxes and for more efficient government. He was at the forefront of the 2006 campaign to allow the city to privatize city services. DeMaio is a Republican.
  • Bob Ilko, chairman of the Scripps Ranch Planning Group. Ilko, a lawyer, said he will be running. He is a Republican.
  • Mitz Lee, a San Diego Unified School District board member. She said she will open a fundraising committee this week as well. But unlike DeMaio, Lee said she will definitely run and has spoken with political consultants to run her campaign. Lee is a Republican.

District 7

Only one candidate said she would definitely run in District 7, which includes eastern neighborhoods such as Tierrasanta, San Carlos and College Area, while another said she is undecided about launching a campaign. They are:

  • April Boling, who said she plans on running and will set up a fundraising committee this week. Boling served as chairwoman of the Pension Reform Committee, which recommended several fixes to the city’s retirement plan, and is the past chairwoman of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. She is a Republican.
  • Marti Emerald, an investigative television reporter for 10News. Emerald said she is undecided about running, but has been talking to campaign professionals about the possibility. She said she will make a decision closer to the end of her contract with Channel 10 in September. Emerald is a Democrat.

What to Expect in the Coming Year

Even though this week marks the beginning of campaign fundraising, candidates can also begin their normal campaigning by meeting with neighborhood associations, glad-handing at street fairs and knocking on the doors of voters. Candidates will not have to formally declare their intentions to run until next year.

Local political consultants said it was prudent for candidates to begin spreading their name out now, even though the election is a full year away.

“There are one or two seats where there are candidates who may or may not get in to discourage someone else from getting in,” consultant Christopher Crotty said. “They have to get in so they can start letting people write checks.”

But voters shouldn’t expect to be inundated with campaigning for the races until next year, after the presidential primary election that is slated for February.

“It’s far too early to be going to community groups,” Crotty said. “Nobody that the voters meet in next three to six months is going to be remembered a year from now.”

The Other Players

City Council candidates are permitted to collect $270 per person, a $20 increase in the limits that were used in the 2006 council races.

But the funds raised by committees that candidates organize this week will represent only a fraction of the money that will be spent on the 2008 council races. Outside organizations will play a tremendously influential part in the election by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on their favorite contenders.

Groups such as the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, a conglomeration of local employee unions, and the Lincoln Club of San Diego, a pro-business political group, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in past council races on signs, mail and broadcast commercials. Those “independent expenditures” can advocate for or against a candidate, but they cannot be coordinated with the candidate’s own advertisements. The expenditures are limited to a dollar amount equal to $270 per member of the group.

In addition, the most formidable forces in recent elections have been the political parties, which have elevated the importance of the endorsements by the county Democratic and Republican parties. Those political organizations are allowed to coordinate their advertising with the endorsed candidate and spend an unlimited amount of money — allowing campaign donors to avoid the cap meant to limit individual influence on elections. However, the phone calls or mail paid for by the political parties are required to be directed only to individuals who are registered to vote with their party.

Not in the Running

Just as most of the probable contenders will be quick to throw their hat into the ring this week, others were eager to dispel the buzz around their names.

“I couldn’t call you back fast enough to tell you I’m not running,” said Julie Dubick, a policy adviser for the mayor. Dubick was rumored to be planning a run for District 1 or city attorney.

Besides Dubick, District 1 residents who said they will not run despite the speculation are: Kathryn Burton, a top aide to City Attorney Mike Aguirre who ran against Peters in 2004; Greg Vega, a local attorney; and Frances O’Neill Zimmerman, a former school board member.

Additonally, Karen Heumann, an assistant city attorney under Aguirre and District 5 resident, said she would not run in 2008. After years of speculation, District 7 resident Johnnie Perkins said last month he wouldn’t run for council.

Next year’s mayoral race has not yet attracted any challengers for Sanders, but businessman Steve Francis, who narrowly lost to Sanders in the 2005 mayoral primary has said he has not ruled out a run against the mayor. Francis spent $2 million of his own money in that race and has been a rare business-community skeptic of Sanders since.

At present, Aguirre has no announced opponent in the 2008 race.

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

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