Thursday, March 20, 2008 | Not long ago, I wrote a series of posts in the blog about what I thought the top 10 local political and policy stories would be in 2008. A lot of people were excited about it and shared their own thoughts about the biggest stories to come.

But I think I missed one. I highlighted the city attorney’s race as the community decision that will probably be the biggest story, if not the most vituperative and divisive contest this city has seen in recent memory. I still think that holds true. And I highlighted the City Council race to replace termed out Councilman Jim Madaffer in the 7th District. Two well-funded, articulate and impressive candidates are going to really battle it out there in coming months.

Again, I think I was right about that.

But I totally ignored District 3. The contest to replace City Councilwoman Toni Atkins is going to be healthy and fantastic politics watch.

It was a mistake to leave it out of the most interesting political stories to watch for in 2008.

What got my attention? It’s pretty simple. I saw that the city’s firefighters decided to endorse a candidate: Todd Gloria. I saw that the police couldn’t quite decide and ended up endorsing two candidates: Gloria and John Hartley. And then I saw the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council give an endorsement to three candidates: Gloria, Hartley and Stephen Whitburn. What does it mean to endorse when you endorse all three major candidates in the race?

Then the San Diego County Democratic Party decided to go for Whitburn. The Sierra Club went for Hartley and Whitburn. But the league of conservations voters went for Gloria.

Gloria is a legislative aide for U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, a former member of the Housing Commission and perhaps the most ambitious early campaigner. Whitburn was a strong leader of the San Diego Democratic Club, the gay and lesbian-focused political advocacy group with a lot of pull in the area. Hartley won the City Council seat in 1989 and now he wants to regain past glory. The guy is well-known in the area and is walking relentlessly, house to house, to earn a chance to get back to City Hall.

District 3 is a left-leaning district. But the more left-leaning organizations hoping to influence it don’t seem to know what they want.

Actually, maybe they do know what they want. They just know that they’ll get it regardless of who wins.

I decided I’d take a moment to find out what might decide the contest — what would distinguish each of the candidates, define them, and then what that definition might mean for their chances. Yes, some groups like the AFL-CIO might think they would be fine with all three and rejoice at the chance to sit one of these races out. But I’m a columnist. What kind of columnist would I be if I didn’t try to create a little division and exploit potential conflicts?

I’m not ready to find out.

I asked the three candidates what they thought the deciding factors would be in the coming months. Their answers and the way they answered might provide a bit of a guide for how things will go.

I was able to catch Hartley between his peripatetic rounds of the neighborhood. When I asked if I could call him back, he said he didn’t have much time as he had to get back out and walk door to door. I’m telling you, he’s walking around a lot.

He mentioned that he had “direct experience” exactly six times during our conversation. Direct experience solving problems. Direct experience finding resources and direct experience organizing the community. Those kinds of statements don’t usually do much for me.

But he clearly has two passions in the race — two things he can thinks he can make better: the infrastructure in the community and the policing of it.

“We have a city with misguided priorities. It pours millions into downtown development and turns around and tells the neighborhoods: ‘We don’t have money to pay for your needs,’” Hartley said. “They have to bring officers in for overtime just to meet fundamental standards for policing. Their equipment is deteriorating.”

He said the city needs to free up millions to hire new police officers and fix the streets. How would he pay for it? He’s the only one of the three candidates who said he would direct money away from a “readily apparent” source: The city’s Redevelopment Agency. Councilwoman Frye and others have long argued not only that the Redevelopment Agency (which is the City Council) owes the city millions, but also that it could absorb some of the payments the city’s general fund makes to pay off things like the downtown ballpark. If it did that, the city would have money available for other needs.

Hartley has to walk a lot because he’s battling to make sure this isn’t a race just between Gloria and Whitburn, whose campaign machines are growing strong — reflected in everything from the quality of their websites to the professional look of their signs. Hartley is hoping for a swell of support to come from recognition of his name and from his daily walks.

We’ll see — he does have “direct experience” doing it in the past.

Gloria has no experience running a campaign. He’s a relatively young guy. Not long ago he invited me to become his “friend” on Facebook. (Just to be clear: I will be Facebook friends with any registered candidate for office — good way to keep track of your Scrabble skills — Gloria’s just the only one so far to ask.)

What did Gloria say would be the deciding factor in the race? Voters making a choice about who is most effective. Most effective at completing the 29th Street Promenade. Most effective at getting the city and school district to allow Hillcrest residents to use the grass at Florence Elementary as parkland when school’s not in session. Most effective at stabilizing the eroding slopes in Kensington.

“The community is longing to see someone who is a champion for their causes. They want someone who’s going to continue with all these projects. They are passionate about them and they are not going to have a lot of patience for a transition,” Gloria said.

He left the door open for tax increases to pay for the increase in policing and funding for infrastructure that he claims the area needs. He says we need to have an “adult conversation” about all the options to increase revenue. But we definitely need to increase revenue.

“We have to be upfront about what it’s going to take to pay for things like shorter emergency response times and brush abatement,” he said.

Beating Stephen Whitburn is what it’s going to take for Gloria to get to City Hall. Whitburn and his supporters (who include City Councilwoman Donna Frye) are fired up. Asked what he thought would decide the race, Whitburn said it was clear: Voters would decide what to do based on who they thought “was going to stand up for the neighborhoods as opposed to the entrenched interests at City Hall.”

“A lot of people in District 3 have found our neighborhoods consistently on the defensive against the big developers and I think that people believe the neighborhoods ought to come first,” Whitburn said.

He made clear that the bellicose rhetoric against big developers and shady backroom schemers at City Hall was the “central position” of his campaign. He said it saddened him that despite neighborhood opposition, they couldn’t stop projects like 301 University, a 12-story housing complex many fret will change Hillcrest’s character. Large housing projects should be put farther east on El Cajon Blvd., Whitburn said.

“You have the traffic capacity and infrastructure there and a surrounding neighborhood which is multifamily and embraces multifamily developments,” Whitburn said.

Without first introducing “good and honest government” to San Diego City Hall, Whitburn said you can’t talk much about how the city might prioritize its budget or raise new funds. Asked where new revenues might come if you did get that nice, user-friendly government, Whitburn went after his favorite target: developers. They can pay more in fees, he said.

It’ll be a classic San Diego political contest. Watch it closely. These differences in style between mostly progressive candidates for a left-leaning City Council seat can alter the future of the city just as much as the traditional differences between liberals and conservatives.

Please contact Scott Lewis (scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org) directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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