Friday, Sept. 19, 2008 | Nearly a year of campaigning for the San Diego City Council’s District 3 seat has revealed two candidates who would bring distinctly different approaches to office, in both form and substance.

Democrats Todd Gloria and Stephen Whitburn each view themselves as protectors of the communities of central San Diego, which include City Heights, North Park, Normal Heights, Hillcrest and Kensington.

But they see the threats to their community through dissimilar lenses. Gloria sees an inattentive bureaucracy that has allowed center-city neighborhoods to fall into disrepair. Whitburn sees a City Hall that is beholden to developers, not residents.

Nor do they share the same views on how to bring about change. Gloria fancies himself a coalition builder, Whitburn takes more of a rebel’s tact. Voters in the June 3 primary favored the coalition builder — Gloria garnered 40.5 percent of the vote to Whitburn’s 28.5 percent.

The campaigns are quick to lob criticism at each other for the routes they have chosen. Whitburn has consistently hit Gloria for his campaign contributions from developers, while Gloria calls out Whitburn as a grandstander.

Gloria, a 30-year-old City Heights native, said he has witnessed his old neighborhood and those that surround it be consistently pushed to the back of the line — behind the newer, more sprawling communities in the north and the east — when the city bureaucracy prioritizes such pressing needs as infrastructure improvements and police protection.

“In District 3, the problem goes beyond just fixing a pothole — it’s reengineering the street,” Gloria said. “Not just fixing cracks in the sidewalk — replacing the whole sidewalk.”

Gloria is most passionate about public safety issues. He frequently cites statistics that show crime going down overall in San Diego, but going up in District 3. He rails — in an understated way — against the city’s decisions to reduce the number of community relations officers, and close down police storefronts.

“It is not an accident that the decision to eliminate [community relations officers] and close storefronts has led to increased crime,” he said.

But you won’t find Gloria leading a protest in front of a closed store front, or picketing the streets department. He has spent his entire career inside the system; working for the San Diego County Health and Human Services agency, and currently as a community representative for U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego.

When talking about how he would approach his hot-button issues if elected, Gloria talks about how he will work with other council members and “bring groups together around a common goal. He borrows a line from Hillary Clinton, calling himself a “workhorse, not a show horse.”

The 44-year-old Whitburn, on the other hand, has campaigned like a maverick in the mold of Councilwoman Donna Frye, his most high-profile supporter. The job of the District 3 councilman, as Whitburn sees it, is to bust up the “good ol’ boys network” that favors the interests of developers over those of neighborhoods.

“Development issues are among the most egregious examples of government not being as responsive to citizens as it should be,” Whitburn said.

And the former radio reporter has shown a penchant for taking his message to the streets — staging press conferences and protests over some of the city’s more controversial development projects.

Earlier this month Whitburn played a high-profile role in the protest of a new development proposal for 301 University in Hillcrest. The 12-story condo project was approved by City Council in 2006, but blocked after a Hillcrest residents group filed a lawsuit that said the project’s height, among other things, adversely impacted the neighborhood. The developer has since resubmitted a development plan that calls for buildings higher than the original proposal.

And Tuesday he called for the dissolution of the city’s redevelopment agencies in a news conference at the corner of 7th and Market, the epicenter of the conflict of interest scandal surrounding former Centre City Development Corp. President Nancy Graham.

Whitburn says such actions are a necessity when fighting the city’s entrenched interests: “There seems to be an unfortunate presumption in San Diego that development can move forward unless neighborhood residents make enough of a ruckus.”

The differences in style that set Gloria and Whitburn apart belie a general sense among watchers of local politics that the winner in District 3 will not change City Council’s big picture. Either way the seat will be occupied by a young, progressive, Democrat. Give Gloria and Whitburn 10 issues, the consensus says, and they would probably cast the same vote on nine of them.

“I’m sure that if I looked hard I could find some ideological differences, but there won’t be many,” said John Kern, former chief of staff for Mayor Dick Murphy who is now a political consultant.

Ideologically, the races that will determine the new balance of power on City Council are in Districts 1 and 7, where traditional Republicans Phil Thalheimer and April Boling are squaring off against traditional Democrats Sherri Lightner and Marti Emerald.

But temperament and style matter too. Consider Frye, whom Whitburn cites as his mentor on council. She has on more than one occasion rubbed her fellow Democrats the wrong way. And she has already formed an alliance with Republican Councilman-elect Carl DeMaio, an alliance that could include Whitburn come December.

And Gloria’s belief in making change happen within the system could lead him to common ground with Boling who is also campaigning on the theme of reform from within.

Clarification: When writing this story, we were unaware that political consultant John Kern, who is quoted as an observer, had given a contribution to Todd Gloria. Read this Election Central post for more.

Please contact David Washburn directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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