Friday, April 11, 2008 | From the outset, the District 3 City Council race had the makings of good political theater with two young up-and-comers going up against one of the city’s legendary precinct walkers. In recent weeks, however, it’s felt like an episode of “COPS.”
Going into the last week of March, Democrats Todd Gloria, Stephen Whitburn and John Hartley all had reasonable expectations for a strong showing in the June 3 primary for the seat being vacated by a termed-out Toni Atkins.
Then, on March 27, the race changed drastically. Hartley, sitting in his truck parked on Vista Street in Kensington, was allegedly spotted masturbating by two women. Hartley was subsequently arrested, and last week pleaded no contest to committing a lewd act in public.
The incident and the resulting media coverage effectively doomed Hartley’s chances; even he admits it would take a “miracle” for him to win. But the 65-year-old, known as an indefatigable canvasser of neighborhoods, has pledged to stay in the race, saying, “I need to give the voters a chance to speak out.”
Even with one of the frontrunner’s chances imperiled, the race is promising to be a hotly contested one in an urban district where infrastructure and development stand as key issues. And the divide, or in some cases lack of decision altogether, among the area’s entrenched, political groups underscores the struggle the candidates have faced to put together a united coalition.
Stretching through the heart of the city, including the neighborhoods of Golden Hill, City Heights, Normal Heights and Hillcrest, District 3 has elected only Democrats since the advent of district-only elections in 1988. Its voters generally require candidates to be worker-friendly, skeptical of developers, environmentally conscious and palatable to the gay and lesbian community.
This makes for an uphill battle for the other three candidates in the race: Republicans James Hartline, Robert E. Lee and Libertarian Paul Broadway. But they are giving it a go, and basing their campaigns on variations of cleaning up City Hall.
Hartline, a 49-year-old ex-con turned Christian conservative from City Heights, is the most strident — promising to bring a “political, moral and civic revival to District 3.”
The 45-year-old Lee said he is focusing on the small base of moderate Republicans in the district.
“I’m finding a lot of people who are moderately conservative like myself, who agree with my core message of restoring integrity to City Hall,” said Lee, who works for a private security company and lives in Normal Heights.
Broadway, a 43-year-old Navy veteran and factory worker who favors Hawaiian shirts, wants to get back to the days when the city worried about fixing streets and tree removal, not credit worthiness.
“I want to go in there, and get the city to eliminate all closed-door meetings,” said the South Park resident. “I want it all out on Front Street.”
This rhetoric brings applause at candidate forums, but the numbers are daunting for Broadway and the other non-Democrats. Voter registration breaks down to roughly 50 percent Democrat, 20 percent Republican and 25 percent non-partisan, with a healthy percentage of the non-partisan voters likely to go with the most liberal candidate in the race.
“It’s solid Democratic turf,” said Christopher Crotty, a Democratic campaign consultant. “Republicans need not apply.”
Separating the leading Democrats is the trick this year. Both Gloria and Whitburn have similar stances on issues ranging from the living wage ordinance (both are strongly in favor) to outsourcing city government service (both are strongly against). The two front-runners are also equally active in the gay community and each says he wants more cops on the streets.
Given their parity on the issues, the campaign narrative has taken on a tone reminiscent to the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama contest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Gloria, despite his youth (he’s 29), is running on a message of experience, while Whitburn, 44, has fashioned himself as the candidate for progressive change.
This narrative played out at a recent candidate’s forum in Golden Hill. Two teachers talked up their favorite with language that has become commonplace this political season.
“You have to honestly feel a need for change in city government,” said Kevin Beiser, a 39-year-old Whitburn supporter.
Across the room from Beiser, 45-year-old Richard Weinroth, who said he will likely vote for Gloria, hit on the experience theme, saying the district needs someone with a “strong background in government.”
Born and raised in City Heights, Gloria has been building a career in politics since his days included recess. As a fifth-grader at Hawthorne Elementary in 1989, Gloria was among 10 finalists in a “Mayor for a Day” contest.
“I’ve been volunteering for campaigns since I was old enough to get a bus pass,” Gloria said. “I’m a lucky person in that I knew what I wanted to do early on.”
While in high school, Gloria landed an internship with the county of San Diego’s Department of Social Services, which later turned into a permanent job with the county’s Health and Human Services Agency.
In 2000, after graduating University of San Diego with a degree in history and political science, Gloria went to work as a community representative for U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, who had been Gloria’s youth mentor since 1992. He has stayed on Davis’ staff and now also serves as a board member on the San Diego Housing Commission.
Most of Whitburn’s working life has been spent as a radio journalist.
He began his broadcast career in 1983, covering state government in Albany, N.Y. In 1985 he moved to Madison, Wis., where he lived for 15 years. While in Madison, he worked in radio and earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.
He came to San Diego in 2000 to take a job with Westwood One, a nationwide radio network. After a year with Westwood One, Whitburn switched to public relations, becoming the spokesman for American Red Cross Blood Services in San Diego, a job he holds today.
“A lot about Madison inspired me to run for office,” said Whitburn, who lives in North Park and serves on the North Park Planning Committee. “In Albany, I saw a government based on a political machine. In Madison you saw city government done right — out in the open with vigorous debate.”
Gloria’s deep roots in District 3, and that he has been preparing for this run for several years, give him the clear edge, say most race watchers.
“Gloria was the front runner, is the front runner and will continue to be the front runner,” said John Kern, who was former Mayor Dick Murphy’s chief of staff and now works as a campaign consultant.
That said, several political consultants say Whitburn has made significant progress in recent months, especially among progressives.
“Whitburn went out and got [endorsements] that you would think would go with Gloria,” said Christopher Crotty, a Democratic political consultant. “But Whitburn got them, and boom — he’s in the race.”
Among those endorsements are the San Diego Democratic Party, the Sierra Club (which also endorsed Hartley) and Councilwoman Donna Frye. Gloria’s big endorsements include the police and firefighter unions and the Chicano Democratic Association. The San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, in an unusual move, endorsed all three Democrats.
The race for campaign cash has been relatively even: Gloria has raised $138,408, and had $64,374 in the bank as of March 17. Whitburn has raised $126,390, and has $51,888 in the bank. Each, however, has vulnerabilities relating to their fundraising.
Gloria has received more than $20,000 from the real estate and development industry, a fact that his opponents are quick to allude to at candidate forums. Whitburn has received far less from developers than Gloria, but he’s also been a less effective fundraiser in general. A third of his money came from a personal loan he made to his campaign last year.
The developer money was a big reason why both the Sierra Club and the local Democratic Party decided to endorse Whitburn.
“We had concerns about who has donated to Mr. Gloria, and whether he would have the ability to say no to developers,” said Richard Miller, chairman of the Sierra Club’s San Diego Chapter.
Gloria says they needn’t worry.
“My service on the Housing Commission shows that I hold bad developers accountable,” Gloria said. “And my answers don’t change depending on the audience.”
Whitburn acknowledges there may be concerns in regards to his loan.
Election laws will allow him 180 days to collect campaign contributions after the election to pay back his loan. That would set up the scenario were Whitburn, if elected, could continue soliciting campaign contributions while seated on the City Council and have the money go directly into his own pocket.
However, Whitburn said he has not given any thought as to what he will do.
“I don’t want to preclude myself from raising money from people who support me,” Whitburn said. “On the other hand, I am very sensitive to the perception that I might have a fundraiser that would invite people to buy favor with the incoming councilman — I’m sure there is a responsible way to address that.”
Campaign cash, mainly in the form of direct mail, will likely play a role down the stretch. But in District 3, the most compact district in the city, money is often best spent on shoe leather.
“People expect candidates to walk the district, they expect to meet the candidates,” said Jess Durfee, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party. “If they don’t get a door hanger, they are wondering what’s wrong.”
In the end, Hartley could play the role of spoiler, preventing either Gloria or Whitburn from breaking the 50 percent barrier that a candidate needs to win outright in the June 3 primary. If no candidate grabs 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters move on to face each other in the November general election.
“Hartley is damaged to the point that he can’t make the runoff — but not so damaged that he can’t keep one of the other two from winning outright,” said Scott Maloni, a local lobbyist.
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