Tuesday, May 6, 2008 | From its outset, the story line in the race for San Diego City Council’s District 7 seat was among the political season’s most compelling, and clear cut: The well-schooled, conservative policy wonk up against the charismatic and more liberal-minded Troubleshooter.

Republican April Boling and her decades of experience with finances and service on key city boards and commissions versus Democrat Marti Emerald, Channel 10’s hard-charging consumer advocate.

Until early April, these resume differences and the candidates’ opposite stances on hot-button issues like the living wage ordinance and firefighter pay made the choice seemingly easy for voters in the politically-diverse district, which includes Tierrasanta, San Carlos, Del Cerro, Allied Gardens and College Area.

But then Emerald said some things to a group of college students, and on the Roger Hedgecock show, which forced her into that most dreaded of political maneuvers: The flip-flop.

The issues and experience likely will still end up deciding the race to replace a termed-out Jim Madaffer. But it has taken on a different hue in the weeks since Emerald, in a forum held by the University of San Diego College Democrats, indicated that she would consider supporting a trash collection fee, and left open the possibility of accepting part-time consulting work while serving on City Council.

A few days after the USD forum, she told conservative talk show host Roger Hedgecock that supplementing the $75,000 annual councilmember salary with consulting work was a “possibility down the line.” She also acknowledged that in September she was paid $28,000 in consulting fees by William Lerach’s former law firm just weeks after the infamous litigator was sentenced to prison for paying kickbacks to plaintiffs in his class action lawsuits.

Since that interview, Emerald has found herself in the position she put so many of her targets in during her two decades as the Troubleshooter — namely on the defensive. As far as the trash collection fee, she insists that she has never advocated raising taxes. And she now says moonlighting is not an option.

“I opened my mouth before I thought through an issue,” Emerald said this week. “It was a big lesson to me.”

The gaffe was a gift to Boling who is fighting what some say is an uphill battle against Emerald’s considerable name recognition and her image as a crusading reformer.

And she has capitalized, but not necessarily with a Karl Rovian relish. Following the Hedgecock interview, Boling’s campaign continues to send e-mails saying Emerald would be a “part-time councilwoman.” But the issue never came up during a two-hour candidates’ forum last week in Tierrasanta.

“I was responding to the questions being asked,” Boling said in her explanation as to why she didn’t raise the issue at the forum. “The 150 people there deserved clear answers from the candidates.”

Whether Emerald’s inconsistencies will have a material effect on the election is a matter of debate among politics watchers

“In the beginning, I thought [the election] would be a runaway for Marti,” said Scott Hasson, president of the Tierrasanta Community Council. “But it feels like she has lost some steam.”

Others say it will likely not resonate beyond political insiders and Hedgecock listeners, a group that wouldn’t vote for Emerald anyway.

“It only becomes an issue among the chattering class,” said Steve Erie, a University of California, San Diego political science professor.

Yet the race for District 7 has arguably been the most watched of the four council races this year.

Voter registration is split relatively even among Democrats and Republicans, and includes a large percentage of political independents. But the district has elected only Republicans since the advent of district-only elections. Center-left candidates usually fair badly because a large number of the registered Democrats are San Diego State University students who tend not to vote in local elections.

But Emerald may change things. She is drawing heavy support from labor leaders, who see her as their best candidate in decades for the seat.

“It is absolutely one of our priority races,” said Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

Boling and Emerald are running close to each other in fundraising — Boling had raised $143,552 to Emerald’s $133,753 as of mid March. Their endorsements largely follow party lines with Emerald getting the endorsements of the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood along with all of the labor unions. Boling is supported by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and California Women’s Leadership Association.

Each holds positions on the issues that largely reflect their party biases, but Boling’s stances are more unequivocal than Emerald’s.

Boling is in favor of outsourcing city jobs, and getting rid of the DROP program, which allows city workers to bank pension benefits while still working for the city. She is against the living wage law, giving raises to firefighters and recycling wastewater into drinking water. She supports Jan Goldsmith for city attorney.

Emerald is in favor of the living wage law, raising firefighter pay and recycling wastewater for drinking water. She seems against outsourcing city jobs, but won’t rule it out. She claims to need more information on the DROP program and says she doesn’t yet know who she will support for city attorney.

As it is in every city race this year, San Diego’s budget crisis is the most talked about topic in District 7. Emerald says she will use her well-honed journalistic skills to “follow the money,” and Boling says she will draw upon her deep knowledge of city finances to make necessary, yet politically unpopular decisions.

This is the 53-year-old Emerald’s first run for political office. Up until now she has spent her entire career in broadcast journalism. She started as a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer for Associated Press radio in the late 1970s, and also worked in radio in Los Angeles and Portland.

In 1985, she landed at Channel 10, where she gained local fame as the on-air Troubleshooter, ferreting out consumer rip-offs of all stripes. She says her three decades of covering government make up for her lack of experience serving in government.

“I’ve been involved in the process of influencing public policy for a very long time,” said Emerald who has lived in Tierrasanta for 19 years and claims to have not decided to run until September when her contract was up at Channel 10.

“I see how it works and understand how to put an issue on the front burner and make change happen for consumers.”

The 57-year-old Boling is among the most versed people in San Diego when it comes to city finances. She started her accounting career as a budget analyst for the Navy, and opened her own firm in 1989.

Boling has an extensive record of service on key city boards and committees. She has been chairwoman of the San Diego Convention Center Corp. and the San Diego Taxpayers Association, and served on the city’s pension reform committee and the San Diego Citizens’ Budget Committee.

A San Diego native and 32-year resident of San Carlos, Boling lost a campaign for the District 7 seat to Judy McCarty in 1993. She said that at the time she swore she would never run again, but decided at the end of 2006 to give it another shot.

“I decided to run this time because of my cumulative frustration with the way the city is being run,” Boling said. “You sit on all of these committees and make all these recommendations, and the council won’t act on those that are politically difficult.”

Also running in District 7 are Republicans Bill Daniel and David Tos. Both Daniel, a middle school teacher, and Tos, a San Diego Police officer, are underfunded and new to the district. And both describe themselves as long shots.

“Obviously I’m fighting the big guys,” said the 45-year-old Tos, an 18-year veteran of the SDPD, who serves as a community relations officer. “I’m trying to do it at a grass roots level.”

Daniel, a 56-year-old San Diego native and public school teacher for 23 years, describes himself as a “Johnny come lately” to politics. He used his closing statements at the Tierrasanta forum to speak out against illegal immigration.

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