Friday, Nov. 16, 2007 | Many months ago San Diego City Councilman Kevin Faulconer had a difficult choice to make. Mayor Jerry Sanders had decided not to give the city’s firefighters a raise and the City Council was going to ignore him — and give firefighters a 2 percent raise.

Faulconer had received the endorsement of the firefighters in his election bid and he benefited from the union’s campaign spending.

But Faulconer was also a disciple of the city’s business community, a loyal Republican and ally of the mayor. It was a tough call.

He decided to go with the mayor, and there were many angry frowns — unhidden by the mustaches — of the firefighters filing out of City Hall. .

Faulconer had tried to do what Republicans have done at City Hall for years — be card-carrying conservatives and also be friendly and accommodating to labor unions.

Faulconer proved that in San Diego, you can still court some labor union support while aligning yourself with the business community. But at some point, you have to choose your side.

In San Diego, there are quite clearly, two sides. And if you are interested in being a candidate for local political office, you’re going to have to choose one.

You have to have money to run for political office. It’s a fact. We can complain all we want about the fundraisers candidates have and we can (and should) scrutinize who gives the checks.

But the cold reality is unavoidable: If you don’t have much personal wealth, you have to find someone to give it to you. Right now, two movements in the city have the power to raise it for you. You have to work, of course. You have to get on the horn and call their leaders. You have to make your case. You have to ingratiate yourself with their causes and prove you can do what you say you can do.

But if you push hard, you can make it with one of them. You can make it with the business community and their lobbyists will bundle dozens of checks together for you. Or you can make it with the labor unions, who can also, essentially, bundle loads of checks together for you and send you on your way. Both groups can, on the side, afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on your behalf.

They can give unlimited sums to the local political parties and those parties can work with you and spend unlimited sums to make sure you get enough exposure to get in office.

If you want to participate in local government — if you are an active, intelligent member of the community, who has long had pride in being nonpartisan and independent — you have to choose one of those approaches.

You may have heard someone at some time recently bemoan the fact that they don’t like anyone downtown — neither the leaders of the public employee unions nor the developers who preach about free market ideals only to manipulate the system to secure public subsidies for their projects.

And you may have heard someone wonder where the independents are.

Why can’t someone reject them both and run as some kind of fierce moderate.

I can see it now: Vote for me, Couger Ringwald, fierce moderate for mayor.

Sounds fun. Cougar sounds like a guy I could get behind.

But he doesn’t have a chance because of one major obstacle: As a candidate for mayor, Cougar Ringwald can only raise $320 from each of his supporters.

Cougar is stuck in the confines of the city of San Diego’s election laws — and unable to succeed within them absent the help of the developers, unions or the two big political parties.

That’s where the city of San Diego’s Ethics Commission comes in. It is set to discuss the future of the city’s campaign finance laws, and I have a suggestion: They need to craft plans to dramatically increase the limits on how much an individual is allowed to donate to a political candidate.

I might be wrong but let’s have the debate.

The $320 limit forces you to embrace the already entrenched bundling networks. At that rate, there’s no way to raise enough — more than $600,000 conservatively — without the entrenched networks of the unions or lobbyists.

So imagine an independent candidate for mayor unwilling either to placate the unions or shill for land developers. She respects the necessity of both — the benefit of their contributions. But she wants to be able to evaluate each situation independent of their agendas. Imagine her, angry at the suggestion that she has to join a political party. Picture her, running as a fierce independent.

Where’s she going to get her money?

I hope, and think, there are San Diegans out there interested in that kind of person. But without the infrastructure of a party or a labor union, without lobbyists bundling contributions for her from companies they represent, she’s going to have a tough go collecting all the donations. One at a time, they will trickle in.

At $320 a pop, she’s going to get nowhere fast. Yes, one of her big donors can spend $50,000 on her behalf by erecting a billboard. But she’s prohibited from helping that donor decide where to put it. It may not do any good.

Raise the limit. Let her get $1,000 from each of the supporters. Lobbyists may not drop bundles of checks off at her office, but with each fundraiser, she’d get closer to the magic number. You don’t need a lot of money to win a campaign, you only need enough money to compete — you need enough money to communicate a basic message. And the basic message she would have, that she’s not going to grovel to the same old forces at City Hall, would be pretty powerful.

And it could work. As many wealthy candidates have proven, you can spend millions, but someone who spends less than half that can still beat you.

Campaign finance restrictions are in place to force candidates to seek out numerous people to support their campaigns — it forces them to broaden their appeal. If there were no limits, a candidate could appeal to just one or two residents and use their money however they please.

But at $1,000 a pop, our candidate still has to do a lot of work to do.

She’ll have to appeal to a tremendous number of people. But she might not have to pander to the groups that have come to expect it.

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

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