Saturday, May 31, 2008 | The San Diego County Republican Party is significantly outspending its rivals as this year’s primary election enters its final, frenzied weekend.

The local GOP has poured more than $720,000 into the mayoral, city attorney and City Council races, while the San Diego Democratic Party and organized labor have spent $478,000 in those races, according to campaign expenditure filings kept by the San Diego City Clerk and the California Secretary of State.

Money has also rolled in from GOP allies, including the San Diego County Lincoln Club, Atlas Hotels, owners of the Town & Country hotel in Mission Valley, and the San Diego Association of Realtors. However, some traditional big donors — most notably developers — are staying on the sidelines during this election, the reports show.

All told, outside spending on campaigns is at $1.3 million and climbing. It comes in the form of independent expenditures and so-called “member communications,” missives sent only to members of a certain organization. These avenues allow parties, groups and individuals to collect money far beyond the city’s individual contribution limits and pour them into campaigns for or against local candidates or initiatives, as long as certain rules are followed.

Much of the largesse is being directed toward District 7, where Democrat Marti Emerald and Republican April Boling are vying for the council seat being vacated by a termed-out Jim Madaffer. It is a seat viewed as crucial to the balance of a City Council that will include four new faces come December.

The city’s reconstituted legislative body will grapple over wages and pensions for city employees and the outsourcing of city services — battles that for a long time to come will determine where, and specifically in whose pockets, city taxpayer dollars end up.

Boling is strongly in favor of outsourcing some city services to private companies, against the living wage ordinance and wants to eliminate the DROP program, which allows city workers to bank pension benefits while still working. Emerald supports the living wage law, pay raises for firefighters and is less receptive to outsourcing and eliminating DROP than Boling.

Republicans and the other business groups have spent more than $240,000 on mailers and phone banks, among other things, in support of Boling. Organized labor and Democrats have countered with at least $166,000 in spending on people and materials supporting Emerald and opposing Boling.

Operatives from both sides are reluctant to discuss their strategies, especially now that they are measuring the time before Election Day in hours. But there is no secret as to where the focus lies.

“It is absolutely one of our priority races,” Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, has said of District 7.

Local GOP chairman Tony Krvaric echoes Gonzalez, adding that the stakes of this election year have generated significant interest among members. “It all started with fundraising,” Krvaric said. “This is one of our most successful, if not the most successful fundraising cycles in recent memory.”

Beyond Boling, the Republican Party is spending heavily to support Jan Goldsmith in the city attorney’s race and Mayor Jerry Sanders’ reelection effort. To date, the party has spent more than $246,000 and $230,000 on Goldsmith and Sanders respectively.

To a lesser extent, the GOP is spending to support Carl DeMaio in his race against George George for the District 5 seat currently held by a termed-out Brian Maienschein who is also running for city attorney. The party’s outlay in this race — more than $47,000 — is primarily in response to labor’s ongoing efforts against DeMaio.

The Labor Council has spent $47,323 on and on other materials in opposition to the Republican. The AFL/CIO, firefighters and police unions have spent close to $60,000 to support George. DeMaio has been the most outspoken City Council candidate in favor of outsourcing government services.

Individuals and organizations can spend far more during a campaign through independent expenditures than they can through individual campaign contributions, which are limited to $270 in district-only elections and $320 in citywide races. Only individuals, not organizations or companies, can give to candidates in races citywide.

The money that comes from the parties, unions and other organizations can be spent in coordination with the campaigns if it is spent only on what are known as “member communications,” mailers and phone calls, for example, to the members of that specific organization. The funds can be a big boost for a campaign.

Historically, the local GOP, with its large stable of corporate donors, has dominated in fundraising and spending for member communications. This year the Republican advantage seems especially big, with the reports showing the GOP spending at a nearly 10-to-one clip over the local Democratic Party.

Local Democratic Party Chairman Jess Durfee said fundraising has been especially tough this year. He said general economic woes and the “money drain” of the Democratic presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have made things difficult.

“When we come to peoples’ doors they are cringing at the thought of writing another check,” Durfee said. “It’s hard to ask people even for a $270 check for a candidate when they are paying $4.25 a gallon [for gas].”

Labor leaders are quick to highlight this funding disparity as an example of corporate special interests dominating city politics. “I think working people always feel like they are fighting an uphill battle,” said Evan McLaughlin, the labor council’s political director.

Republicans counter by saying their spending is limited to communications with their own party members, while the Labor Council is free to use hundreds of thousands of dollars in membership dues to reach all city residents with mailers and other campaign materials.

“I still can’t communicate to non-Republicans,” Krvaric said. “[Unions] can reach anyone. That is a big difference — I can only reach 35-or-so-percent of the public.”

In previous years wealthy individuals and other business organizations — particularly developers — have logged significant independent expenditures. This year has been different, with the real estate bust playing a significant role.

“I’m afraid we are more spectators than participants in this election cycle,” said Matt Adams, head of government affairs for the Building Industry Association. “Our industry is really in a depression right now.”

Doug Manchester, one of San Diego’s largest developers, and traditionally one of its most prolific political givers, said this week that he is holding back this year more out of choice than economic necessity.

“Every political campaign I’ve supported seems to have come back and not be favorable to our family,” Manchester said. “So I said ‘to heck with it.’”

The unusually high number of independently wealthy candidates is also playing a role, say insiders.

“It’s a weird year,” said John Kern, a political consultant and former chief of staff to Mayor Dick Murphy. “You have (Steve) Francis spending more than anyone has ever spent in a mayor’s race, plus a lot of other self funders.”

Francis has spent more than $4 million of his own money in his bid against Sanders. And DeMaio; Phil Thalheimer and Marshall Merrifield in District 1 and Stephen Whitburn in District 3 are also spending significant amounts of their own money.

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