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Monday, June 16, 2008 | When the sun rose on June 8, 1988, it seemed, perhaps, the dawn of a new era in San Diego politics.
The night before, Democrat Maureen O’Connor had won a second mayoral term in a landslide, giving rise to talk that the Republican stranglehold on the city’s political power structure had loosened.
“For a woman Democrat in a conservative city like San Diego, it is an excellent result,” O’Connor told the San Diego Union.
As it turned out, O’Connor’s win was an anomaly.
The 1992 mayoral election was close, with Democrat Peter Navarro besting Republican Susan Golding in the primary, but losing by four points in the runoff. But after that, the rout was on.
Golding won reelection in 1996 with 78 percent of the vote in the primary. With the exception of Donna Frye in the 2005 special election, a Democrat hasn’t made a runoff election since Navarro.
The GOP mayoral victories came despite San Diego trending — as a city and a county — steadily more Democratic over the past decade. Democrats now have a 53,000-voter edge over Republicans in the city, up from a 19,000 edge in 2000, according to the San Diego County Registrar of Voters.
In the county, the GOP has seen its advantage over Democrats shrink from 75,000 to 27,000 in the past eight years.
But the party hasn’t been able to fully capitalize on the region’s shift.
Beyond the mayoral losses, Democrats’ long hold on San Diego City Council is now tenuous. And the San Diego County Board of Supervisors remains entirely Republican despite significant Democratic voter registration advantages in two supervisorial districts.
This year was more of the same. Democratic Party-endorsed Floyd Morrow could only muster 6.3 percent of the vote in last week’s primary, which Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders won with 54 percent of the vote.
As far as City Council, well-funded Republicans April Boling and Phil Thalheimer made it to the runoff in Districts 7 and 1, respectively, and look to be competitive in November. And Republican Carl DeMaio trounced Democrat George George to win outright in District 5. If Boling and Thalheimer prevail, the council will be even at a 4-4 party split.
Democratic insiders have been shaking their heads over the party’s poor showing last week. Some blame the party leadership for bad strategy and not developing a strong “farm system” of young, dynamic candidates. Others are openly wondering why established Dems like Dede Alpert and Juan Vargas chose not to run.
They say the local party’s futility is particularly glaring given the Democrats’ recent success on the national level. Howard Dean and Rahm Emanuel engineered a successful takeover of Congress in 2006. And since, the Democrats have been winning one special congressional election after another — even in the South.
“Republicans are losing in Mississippi, but winning in San Diego,” said an incredulous April Goldstein, a local Democratic strategist.
Many of the same people who chastise the Democratic leadership also credit local Republican leaders, as well as factors beyond the party’s control, for its struggles.
Thanks largely to financial support from the downtown business establishment, Republicans, they say, have a far stronger party infrastructure in terms of get-out-the-vote efforts and candidate recruitment. The GOP has also taken better advantage of changes in campaign finance law and is far more effective than Dems at targeting absentee voters.
Jess Durfee, the chairman of the local Democratic Party, said the party approached several local politicians, who he called “proven vote-getters,” about taking on Sanders.
“As we talked to potential candidates they looked at that scenario,” Durfee said. “They didn’t see it as a potential winning scenario.”
He characterized the criticism of the party as unfair and ill-informed, saying critics are failing to take into account San Diego’s Republican-dominated history. “They are making generalizations based on the mayor’s race and assuming the politics of San Diego change overnight,” Durfee said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Nonetheless, politicos from both ends of the spectrum agree that Democrats could do better. Some say the party has been weak in San Diego since day one, and that is just the way it is. Others are more hopeful, but still cringe at the party’s recent decision making.
Questions on Strategy
In the just-finished primary, the Democratic Party spent $35,000 on direct mail and other support of Stephen Whitburn. His chief competition for the District 3 seat came from two other Democrats — Todd Gloria and John Hartley. Gloria and Whitburn made the runoff.
“Why would you spend a penny on that race?” asked Andy Berg, the director of government relations for the National Electrical Contractors Association and a Democrat. “Gloria and Whitburn would likely vote the same (on council) 100 out of 100 times.”
Meanwhile, Berg noted, Democrats are in dogfights against well-funded Republicans in Districts 1 and 7. The party spent nearly $70,000 in the primary to support Marti Emerald and oppose Boling in District 7. The GOP spent more than $200,000 in that race.
In District 1, the funding disparity is starker. The Democratic Party spent just more than $5,000 supporting Sherri Lightner in a race against Thalheimer and Marshall Merrifield, Republicans who combined raised more than $700,000, most of it coming out of their own pockets.
In the mayoral race, the GOP spent $230,000 on Sanders while the Democrats spent $1,869 on Morrow.
“I don’t think [the party] has had strong leadership for a long time,” said Steve Erie, a professor of political science at University of California, San Diego.
Durfee refused to talk about the party’s strategic decisions. But he said Erie and other critics have not been paying attention to the party’s progress in recent years.
Since taking over as chairman four years ago, Durfee said he has increased the organization’s budget from $60,000 to $300,000. Also, he said, and the party has gone from having no field operations at all, to more than 700 trained precinct leaders in the county.
“This has always been a Republican stronghold county,” Durfee said. “But they are losing their grip. Soon that will translate to Republicans losing elections time and time again.”
Hello, Hello … Is Anybody Out There?
Long-time San Diego political consultant John Kern said too much is made of the role of parties in a non-partisan local election. The beginning and end, he says, of an election is the candidate.
“If you have shitty candidates you are going to have a shitty effort,” said Kern, a Republican consultant and chief of staff for former Mayor Dick Murphy. “Who did the Dems put up this year? Floyd fucking Morrow.”
Duane Dichiara, another Republican consultant, agrees with Kern, to a point. He said the local GOP was in disarray throughout the 1990s. But, he said, it was fortunate to have strong candidates in Susan Golding and Murphy.
“We didn’t have a strong party,” he said. “We had strong elected officials.”
Dichiara and others also claim that San Diego is still a center-right town where Democrats will often vote for moderate Republicans.
However, there are observers on the other side of this chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Strong candidates, they say, are unlikely to run without strong party support. And there is a general feeling that the Democratic Party won’t be there for its candidates.
Democrat Lorena Gonzalez’s District 2 run in 2006 comes to Berg’s mind. Gonzalez, he said, should have prevailed in the Democratic-leaning district. But she lost by 724 votes to Republican Kevin Faulconer.
“Here we have a Stanford-educated woman with brilliant ideas and Democratic ideals — she epitomized what the party is about,” Berg said. “And [the party] couldn’t muster the support to win a City Council race.”
Gonzalez, who is now the secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, said she felt, to a degree, like she was on her own during the race.
“Speaking as a candidate, we don’t have the same infrastructure that the GOP has,” said Gonzalez, who estimates she was outspent 7-to-1 in the race. “And there have been no real attempts to create an infrastructure and professionalize the party.”
Mark Fabiani, the Chargers special counsel and a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns, said the party is a victim of San Diego’s lackadaisical political culture. He contrasts San Diego to Los Angeles politics where people are groomed years and years in advance for City Council seats.
“You don’t have that here,” Fabiani said. “The culture is so blasé that once people are elected, they are pretty much in there until their term limits are up.”
When talk turns to who should have been in this year’s mayoral race, Dede Alpert’s name often comes up. Conventional wisdom had the former state senator and assemblywoman from San Diego making the runoff, and pushing Sanders in November.
Alpert said this week that she was asked to run, but declined. At 62, she said she no longer feels the “fire in the belly” for political office. She agrees with Durfee that the party has come a long way in recent years, but said it needs to do a better job filling the pipeline with candidates.
“We really need to have that farm team,” Alpert said, borrowing a baseball term. “Sometimes we just sort of forget that you can’t do it one cycle and not keep on with it. It is the party’s responsibility.”
Dominated by Labor and Out-Hustled by the GOP
There is a widely held belief throughout San Diego politics that organized labor has become the de-facto Democratic Party in town, especially at election time. And some argue that labor’s dominance has made it hard for the party to gain traction with San Diego’s large block of center-left voters.
Labor leaders bristle at such a suggestion, saying if they are a substitute for the party, they are a poor one.
Unions generally support Democrats. But those in San Diego — especially public safety unions — frequently endorse Republicans. And political campaigns are only part of what unions do. Gonzalez of the Labor Council says the organization spends about 25 percent of its time on elections, and the rest of the time working on workplace issues.
Another piece of conventional wisdom holds that the local GOP does a better job targeting absentee voters, and has taken better advantage of changes to the state campaign finance laws that allow parties to spend large sums of money to support or oppose specific candidates.
Under Proposition 34, passed in 2000, new limits were placed on individual campaign contributions, but parties could spend much larger sums on “member communications,” which are mailers and other materials sent to members of the party. The local GOP outspent the Democrats nearly 8-to-1 in member communications during this year’s primary.
Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric said the party was “ineffective” as recently as 2000, but improved dramatically after Ron Nehring took over as chairman in 2001.
Krvaric said the party’s central committee meetings used to be focused on whom to throw out of the party next, and “lamenting that we didn’t have any impact.”
Nehring, he said, turned the local party into an organization “focused on campaigns not ideology.” And he says the Democrats have the same “potential.”
Durfee argues that the local GOP has been lucky rather than good in recent years — having Murphy, who at one time was a popular judge, and Jerry Sanders, a popular former police chief — fall in its lap.
But, he says, the Republicans’ luck is running out. An emerging Democratic majority, both in San Diego and across the country, will see to that, he said.
“I think they are living off a strong history,” Durfee said. “But going into the future they are in trouble.”
Correction: The number of votes separating Lorena Gonzalez and Kevin Faulconer in the 2006 special election for the District 2 San Diego City Council Election was incorrectly reported in the original version of this story. Gonzalez lost to Faulconer by 724 votes. We regret the error.