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The major story right now in the District 3 campaign is the rather startling amount of personal money that Stephen Whitburn has put into the race.

The latest disclosure online reports that Whitburn has given his campaign $210,000 $195,214 to date.

Unlike others who have given to their campaign, it was not immediately known that Whitburn had this kind of cash he was willing to put into the race. After all, with the other major self-funders in town, you could immediately identify their source of wealth. Former mayoral candidate Steve Francis made millions with the nursing firm he and his wife started. Former mayoral candidate Peter Q. Davis was a prominent local banker. Phil Thalheimer has plowed millions into his attempts over the years to win the City Council seat in La Jolla — he made his money largely from prudent stock investments and his flight school. Council President Scott Peters, also in La Jolla, has a wife who works with her father’s investment firm and has made millions.

But Whitburn’s spending on his campaign is rivaling the millionaire Peters’, which begs the question: Is Whitburn a millionaire?

I asked his spokesman, Sean Wherley, where his candidate got that kind of money.

Wherley checked with Whitburn and called me back. He said Whitburn has merely been saving since he started working 26 years ago.

“He’s been a frugal guy,” Wherley said. “He doesn’t own a house, he rents. He has lived for a long time in cities like Madison, Wisc. that have a low cost of living. Stephen knew that one day, there’d be an important investment that he’d want to make.”

So he didn’t get an inheritance? He didn’t sell a company? He didn’t make a huge amount some way? To have the kind of money wherein you’re willing to spend more than $200,000 on a very difficult City Council campaign, it would seem you would want to have quite a kitty from which you could cull so much.

Wherley said his money was “all his.” And it came “all from his own earnings.”

“For someone who has worked for 26 years and lives on very little, it’s easy to squirrel a lot away,” Wherley said.

Pull up a compound interest calculator and it’s not that hard to imagine that he’s got a point. If Whitburn really has been saving fastidiously for 26 years, he could build up a lot. If he were able to save $10,000 a year for those years, he’d have a kitty as large as $500,000. But Whitburn, as Wherley pointed out, doesn’t have kids or any major liabilities.

But this is distressing to me. Not that Whitburn is spending a lot of money. To each his own. It shows an admirable commitment in a way. What’s worrisome is what this is saying about our political climate.

Whitburn’s team and his supporters have positively excoriated his opponent, Todd Gloria, for taking money from developers and lobbyists interested in City Hall’s decisions.

That’s easy to do when you have $210,000 ready to deploy in support of your bid. But is this telling us that you either have to have hundreds of thousands squirreled away to pay for your election bid or you have to put on a flak jacket and take money from developers and prepare to be hammered for it?

Is that the reality we live in? You have to have hundreds of thousands of dollars ready to deploy to be a respectable candidate? Because respectable candidates can’t take money from the people Whitburn Gloria has?

“It’s critical for Stephen to do this if he’s going to take on the record breaking fundraising of his opponent,” Wherley said.

This is all the more reason why I believe that the limits on campaign donations should be raised dramatically.

Update: I tweaked the figures above after studying the disclosures more closely. I apologize for being off a bit. Here are the specifics from what I can tell. Whitburn has loaned his campaign $98,000. He has, in addition, given his campaign $97,214. What’s the difference? Loans can be paid back. In other words, Whitburn can raise money after the election to pay himself back. This is more likely to happen if he wins, of course, as people are more likely to want to give an elected official money than just some guy.

SCOTT LEWIS

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