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Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2007 | State Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny is being recruited to run for mayor of San Diego in 2008 by Democratic activists hoping to find an alternative to Mayor Jerry Sanders and fellow Republican Steve Francis.

Among the Democrats courting Ducheny, sources said, is City Attorney Mike Aguirre. The city attorney’s marriage of convenience with Sanders has fissured in the last several months amid disagreements on the Sunroad controversy, water conservation strategy and the city’s finances.

Dialing Ducheny

  • The Issue: Without an anointed candidate for mayor, Democratic activists are courting state Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny to challenge Jerry Sanders in 2008.
  • What It Means: Democrats enjoy an advantage in voter registration citywide, and party boosters want an alternative to choose from in a field that appears will be dominated by Republican candidates.
  • The Bigger Picture: With the possibility of Steve Francis siphoning votes away from Jerry Sanders, Democrats see an opportunity to make a viable push for the city’s highest office.

Ducheny said she is taking their advances under consideration.

“You always have to be open to listening to it,” said Ducheny, who resides in Logan Heights. “I appreciate that Democrats are looking for a Democratic candidate.”

The recruiting efforts of Aguirre and others come as Democrats find themselves with an advantage in voter registration over Republicans, but without a likely mayoral candidate for the party to back — a common theme in recent elections. The most legitimate threat to Sanders’ reelection appears to be coming from Steve Francis, a Republican businessman edged out by Sanders in the 2005 mayoral primary.

With that dynamic for the June 2008 primary lingering, Democrats close to the discussions with Ducheny said the current situation breeds an opportunity — and a necessity — to field a left-leaning alternative.

They view Francis, who spent about $2 million on his 2005 bid, as capable of chipping into Sanders’ bases of support in the business and Republican communities, despite the county Republican Party’s early endorsement of the incumbent. A viable progressive candidate would be able to capitalize from the split and compete come November 2008, they predict.

And with his spending power, Francis also worries Democrats. The healthcare magnate is perceived by the party’s insiders to be more right-wing than Sanders. It was Francis who pressured Sanders in 2005 to adopt a hard line against using a tax increase to solve the city’s billion-dollar shortfalls.

“There’s a certain kind of equation that Democrats are doing,” Ducheny said. “Their concerns are that it’s Sanders and Francis and, gosh, is there anybody else?”

With City Councilwoman Donna Frye declaring she has no plans to make a third run for mayor, the local Democratic Party and organized labor don’t appear to have a mayoral candidate to rally around next year. Frye mounted a write-in bid in 2004, when she received the most votes but was disqualified, and advanced to the runoff in 2005 before losing to Sanders.

Democratic supporters often lament their recent record of running unseasoned candidates, or no candidates at all, in local races. It was only when Frye jumped in as a write-in candidate weeks before the 2004 election that the party had a legitimate candidate to back. Aside from Frye’s races, Democrats haven’t fielded a competitive candidate for mayor in San Diego since Peter Navarro ran unsuccessfully against Susan Golding in 1992.

Democrats have suffered from a lack of strength in rounding out their ticket in other elections as well. In 2006, Republican candidates at all levels of government in San Diego County won races that Democrats were either favored to win or competitive in.

Next year’s race for mayor could be a similar situation. Although Democrats currently hold a 38 percent to 32 percent advantage in registration over Republicans, there isn’t an anointed progressive candidate. Most insiders predicted that any prospective challengers to Sanders would have surfaced — if in rumor only — by Labor Day. Sanders plans to officially kick off his campaign Thursday. Francis continues to play coy about his aspirations.

Ducheny said she has no timeline for deciding one way or the other. She estimated that she started receiving requests that she consider a run around Labor Day, but that she has been busy studying the thousands of bills that cleared the statehouse at the end of the legislative season last week.

A lawyer by profession, Ducheny has represented swaths of southern San Diego in the Assembly and Senate for more than a decade. She was reelected to her second term in the upper house in 2006 and heads the Senate’s powerful budget committee.

Democrats encouraging Ducheny to run said they see her leadership of both the Assembly and Senate budget committees as experience that would prove helpful in a campaign that will be focused largely on the city of San Diego’s finances.

“She is an incredibly bright person when it comes to talking about dollars,” said one of the several Democratic sources who agreed to speak about the discussions on the condition of anonymity. “She is incredibly capable of understanding the budget, and I would certainly say that’s a great strength to bring to the table.”

If viable candidates do emerge, the 2008 mayor’s race will likely become a referendum on the leadership of Sanders, who won his first election by pledging to fix the financial problems of the city government. The city suffers from sizable shortfalls in funding its employee pension system, retiree healthcare and improvements to San Diego’s crumbling infrastructure.

The senator also gained her political experience in the state Legislature, far from the City Hall dysfunction of recent years, something local Democratic activists see as a positive.

“She’s been elected several times, and she has the advantage of not being involved in any of the problems at the city of San Diego,” another insider said.

Her boosters said they sense her Sacramento experience will become an obvious target for her potential Republican opponents, as the state government is held in disregard by voters for frequently failing to balance its budget on time.

Democratic activists also said she has taken positions that have created sometimes chilly relationships with some of the party’s key constituencies, such as the gay and lesbian community, labor unions and environmentalists.

“But, given the alternatives, I think they hold their nose and vote [Democratic] if she runs,” a third activist said.

Several sources said Aguirre was among the callers for Ducheny. Other than Frye, Aguirre has been the most popular Democrat in city politics, although his legal attacks on employee pension benefits and union leaders have embittered much of the labor community.

His involvement in seeking an alternative to Sanders shows how fractured his relationship with the mayor has become. By appearing amicable and side-by-side at press conferences, they have presented an image of a united leadership. That cooperation has dissolved recently, as Aguirre accused the mayor of being corrupt and of glossing over the severity of the city’s problems with its future water supply and financial deficits.

Although he would not comment on whether he had recruited Ducheny, Aguirre gave her a plug that could prove important to her candidacy, should she run.

“She’s a proven problem-solver,” he said. “We need that in the city of San Diego, where there are too many problems but not enough problem solvers.”

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

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