Saturday, Oct. 31, 2008 | After decades as afterthoughts in the minds of San Diego County’s political powerbrokers, Chula Vista City Council races in recent years — and especially this year — have become campaign cash magnets.

During the past couple of weeks, the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council has spent a total of $31,449 supporting Democratic council candidates Pamela Bensoussan and incumbent Councilman Steve Castaneda, according to campaign finance disclosure statements. The San Diego Democratic Party, meanwhile, has spent more than $10,000 supporting Bensoussan in October, the statements show.

The late spending by organized labor and Democrats is an effort to keep pace with outlays in Chula Vista throughout the campaign season by the Republican Party and the Lincoln Club of San Diego County. The GOP this year has spent $43,072 on behalf of Republicans Scott Vinson and Russ Hall, while the Lincoln Club has plunked down $47,543.

The money 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.

This cash-infusion, which is a significant step up from previous years, represents an attempt by both labor and business to influence the direction of San Diego County’s second largest city as it struggles through one of the most tumultuous periods in its history.

Long considered the economic and political center of the South Bay, Chula Vista’s coffers ballooned during the past decade as explosive growth in its eastern suburbs came to symbolize the real estate boom.

The city has gained even greater prominence countywide since 2006 when Tennessee-based Gaylord Entertainment unveiled a proposal to build a massive hotel and convention center on the city’s bay front. More recently, Chula Vista has ascended to front-runner status as a possible site for a new Chargers stadium.

It has also become the epicenter of the real estate meltdown, with several zip codes that rank among the highest in foreclosure rates in the county. Tumbling with the city’s real estate values have been its sales tax revenues. As a result, the city will have to cut $6.3 million out of this year’s $143-million budget, and as much as $19 million out of its fiscal 2010 budget.

A year ago, former City Manager David Garcia said the city was facing insolvency due in large part to its profligate spending during the housing boom. Garcia, who was ousted earlier this year, was the second city manager to lose his job within two years.

The GOP and its backers want a business-friendly atmosphere for Gaylord and other bay-front developers. The Democrats and organized labor want the jobs created by new development to be union jobs.

“You cannot understate the importance of the city of Chula Vista and its prosperity to the overall health of the county,” said T.J. Zane, the executive director of the Lincoln Club.

Evan McLaughlin, the Labor Council’s political director said the prosperity Zane is speaking of is one sided, adding that business interests can no longer be allowed to rule the roost in Chula Vista.

“Under the old way of doing things, the bay front would be done with no one looking out for the quality of the jobs — only the interests of the developer,” McLaughlin said. “Environmentalists have become very active in Chula Vista, as well as the labor community.”

Perhaps partly because of all this campaign money and pressure, Chula Vista City Hall has become a snake pit in recent years. Meetings of the five-member City Council, which is made up of two Democratic and two Republican councilmen, and Republican Mayor Cheryl Cox — often devolve into open and angry warfare over the city’s direction.

Zane said the Lincoln Club first began to step up its spending in Chula Vista during Cox’s successful 2006 mayoral run against incumbent Steve Padilla.

Long-time Chula Vista community activists and political watchers Peter and Susan Watry said they’ve felt they city’s political climate change for the worse since that election. And they say they are appalled by the spending this year.

“We couldn’t believe how much money the Lincoln Club was pouring in last spring,” Peter Watry said. “Now the labor people are responding.”

Susan Watry, who supported Cox in 2006, but now calls the mayor “divisive,” said Tuesday’s election is a battle for the “very soul of Chula Vista.”

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