Tuesday, April 22, 2008 | This year, the future leadership of the state’s second largest school district rests in large part on an obscure legal question.

The answer to a surprisingly messy question about local election laws could revive the troubled school board campaign of incumbent Luis Acle, pulling his name onto the November ballot. Acle may run a write-in campaign that, according to one law, would only need to earn a small number of votes to get him a spot on the November ballot. Another law would force a write-in candidate to receive much more support to give a candidate a spot on the final ballot. How the conflict between them is resolved could catapult Acle from the faint prospects of a write-in candidate to the relatively plum position of an incumbent listed on the ballot.

Whether Acle will be afforded that chance is up to the San Diego City Attorney. And until City Attorney Mike Aguirre and his staff deliver their verdict, it’s unclear whether Acle’s campaign’s prospects are bright or dim.

Acle’s campaign suffered humiliation in March when the veteran politician couldn’t muster 200 signatures to run for his own seat on the San Diego Unified school board. His name was already blotched by a city Ethics Commission complaint that Acle failed to pay campaign staffers nearly $14,000. The newspaper that twice endorsed him ran a blistering editorial titled “Good riddance.” At the time, Acle himself downplayed the possibility of a write-in campaign, and said such campaigns “rarely succeed.”

His exit seemed to clear the way to election for Richard Barrera, a United Healthcare Workers organizer who has snapped up endorsements from the county Democratic Party and the teachers union. Barrera is already hashing out neighborhood issues in house meetings, behaving more like an elected official than a candidate. He rarely mentions Acle. When news of Acle’s shortfall broke, friends called to congratulate Barrera on his assumed win.

Yet one month later, Acle is soliciting signatures for a write-in campaign, eyeing a potential spot on the November ballot. Community members want a choice, he said. To run as a write-in candidate, Acle must garner 200 valid signatures by May 20.

“I’m not going to shortchange people,” Acle said in March. “My bottom line is, people are saying, ‘We want you to be available.’ I don’t want to deny whatever is required of me.”

Acle’s prospects have been brightened by the possibility of a ballot spot, which hinges on whether a write-in candidate needs to win a minimum number of votes in the June primary to be listed on the November ballot. State rules mandate a minimum, calculated at 1 percent of the votes cast in the last general election when the spot was filled. City rules set no such minimum, and allow the top two vote-getters in the school board primary to proceed to the November race, no matter how many votes they garner.

The murky meeting of city and state law raises the possibility that Acle could win only a handful of votes, finish second to Barrera, and still gain a spot on the November ballot. And as an incumbent in the little-watched school board race, Acle could enjoy an advantage among voters who pack polling stations to vote for president, consultants said. It’s a dramatically rosier scenario than a write-in campaign for the woebegone candidate.

“It’s almost impossible to be competitive as a write-in candidate,” said political consultant Tom Shepard. “The only recent examples of anyone who’s been successful at that are Donna Frye and Ron Packard. Both situations were quite unique and were at the time unprecedented.”

“That’s not really the case with this school board race,” Shepard added.

Frye, a city councilwoman, ran an unusually successful write-in campaign for mayor that nearly earned her the office. Although she had appeared to win the race, a court later determined that many ballots she needed to win were invalid.

Officials at the county registrar are unsure which set of rules applies to the San Diego Unified school board race, which falls under both state and city election laws after consolidating with other county elections, explained Denise Jenkins, an elections analyst with the City Clerk’s Office. Consolidations are meant to reduce election costs by putting races under the same umbrella, in this case the county registrar. Left to decide is the City Attorney’s Office, which will render an opinion before the June primary. Deputy city attorney Sharon Spivak is weighing the question.

“In some situations — and it may or may not apply — when you take a local municipal election and consolidate it with other elections, there could be a choice of law issue,” Spivak explained.

Frye’s 2004 run for mayor highlighted that dilemma, Spivak said. State laws outlining how ballots would be counted applied because the election was consolidated. That excluded ballots on which voters wrote Frye’s name, but didn’t fill in the bubble alongside it. That cost Frye the mayor’s seat.

Frye nearly overcame the hurdle to write-in candidates because she “lucked into the breach” when city finances and the candidacy of then-mayor Dick Murphy suffered simultaneous meltdowns, Shepard said. In contrast, Acle has three strikes against him as a write-in candidate, Democratic consultant Christopher Crotty said: The Ethics Commission charges, the financial resources needed to splash his name across the sizable school district, and the write-in barrier itself.

It adds up to an exceptionally tough campaign for a man who has repeatedly described himself as “not a particularly good candidate.” Even the county Republican Party, which is alarmed by Barrera’s union ties and mobilized a failed eleventh-hour campaign for another candidate, has demurred from endorsing him in light of his ethics boondoggle.

“We want to make sure that if we field a candidate, it’s a candidate that’s above reproach,” said Tony Krvaric, chairman of the county Republican Party.

That candidate was intended to be Charles W. Kim, a Republican attorney who jumped into the race when Acle failed to qualify. Kim had only a few days to gather signatures after news broke of Acle’s shortfall. Despite county Republicans’ efforts to field the required signatures, Kim failed to qualify.

Krvaric was disappointed to see voters deprived of a conservative choice. But after meeting Barrera, Kim was unfazed. He chose not to seek a write-in campaign not because of the signature requirement, but because he liked Barrera’s outlook.

“He’s qualified for the position, and he’s interested in doing a good job,” Kim said. “We had a long talk about our philosophies on education, what we were interested in doing. We weren’t sufficiently different in goals and objectives to justify a campaign. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Barrera now spends 15 to 20 hours a week on school district-related issues, he said. The bulk of his time is consumed by community meetings and one-on-one talks with residents, not “going out and asking people to vote for me” through phone banking or knocking on doors.

Barrera recently visited a Kearny Mesa center that trains electrical workers for green-collar jobs. That center could partner with San Diego Unified schools, he said, providing new opportunities for career technical education. Last week, he joined Logan Heights residents at a community meeting about finding better nearby middle school options in light of the problems plaguing Memorial Academy, an area charter school.

“That’s where I’m trying to spend my time. These issues are time-sensitive,” Barrera said. Asked whether his daily routine more closely resembled that of a school trustee than a candidate, Barrera agreed that it did.

Though the election is nonpartisan, political parties have historically viewed the school board race as a springboard to higher political office. Legislators Susan Davis and Bob Filner began their careers overseeing San Diego Unified schools. Current trustee Mitz Lee mulled a run for City Council, Acle actually ran for a seat on that body, and Shelia Jackson considered seeking a spot on the county Board of Supervisors. Barrera ran a failed campaign for a supervisor seat as well.

The school board and other local races are “where people learn the tools and the processes” and “where they learn campaigning,” Krvaric said. “It is very, very important.”

And for Acle, those election processes could be helpful or dismal, depending on how attorneys interpret the confusing collision of city and state election law.

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

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