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Friday, Nov. 7, 2008 | Democratic Party and labor leaders are crediting their down-to-the-wire victories in two hard-fought San Diego City Council races to better ground games, stronger connections with voters and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama’s coattails.

Republicans, meanwhile, say it was all about the “Obama tsunami” that washed over America’s political landscape Tuesday.

Regardless, Democrats awoke Wednesday morning to a 6-2 majority on City Council, a scenario that seemed unlikely after Republican wins in the June primary, and Republicans to a realization that their so-called reform coalition was not to be.

District 1 voters chose Sherri Lightner, a somewhat accidental politician who has spent years volunteering in grassroots La Jolla, over Phil Thalheimer, a wealthy conservative known for fighting at the frontlines of San Diego’s culture wars. In District 7, Marti Emerald, a well-known former television reporter, eeked out a 702-vote win (as of the latest tally) over April Boling, an accountant and longtime member in good standing of San Diego’s Republican establishment.

While Boling conceded the race on Wednesday, others in the Republican Party say she still has a chance given that there are still 15,000 absentee and provisional ballots yet to be counted in District 7.

Joining the Democrat majority will be District 3’s Todd Gloria, the only Democrat who enjoyed clear front-runner status (and the endorsement of Mayor Jerry Sanders) throughout the primary and general election campaigns. The lifelong City Heights resident cruised to a nine-point win over fellow Democrat Stephen Whitburn, who ran as a Donna Frye-like establishment outsider.

The contests in Districts 1 and 7 were battlegrounds among labor unions and the Sanders administration, as well as its business-friendly allies. Had Boling and Thalheimer won, they, along with Councilman-elect Carl DeMaio, were expected to take a hard line against the city’s labor unions, and push to implement Sanders’ plans to privatize some city services.

The Republicans fared well in the June primary. But the Democrats carried the day in the general election by focusing on neighborhood issues that seemed to resonate better with voters than the overarching themes of fiscal reform pushed by the Republicans.

Also, the Democrats — especially Emerald — benefited from the surge in Democratic interest generated largely by President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign. In the waning days of the race, the unions and the Democratic Party waged an effective campaign to get new voters to the polls and connect Obama to Emerald and Marty Block, a Democrat running for the 78th District State Assembly seat.

Emerald’s win was the biggest surprise and a vindication for not only Emerald, but for local Democratic Chairman Jess Durfee and San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council Secretary/Treasurer Lorena Gonzalez. The Democratic Party has been criticized for its showings lately, especially after the June primary, and all three took heat after Emerald’s lackluster showing against Boling in the primary.

In the run-up to the June election, Emerald traded on her two decades as Channel 10’s Troubleshooter, saying she was going to “follow the money” at City Hall. But after losing to Boling in the primary, she retooled by sacking campaign consultant Larry Remer and replacing him with Sacramento-based Richard Ross. She de-emphasized her Troubleshooter image, and adopted the fix-the-economy and green-energy themes that Obama and other Democrats were using at the national level.

“[Ross] reminded me of something that maybe I lost sight of in the primary,” Emerald said. “He said ‘people are sick of hearing about problems, give us solutions.’ It was really a big heads-up for me, and that was the biggest shift.”

Boling never veered from a fiscal-reform campaign that emphasized her credentials as an accountant. She refused to speculate on how or when she lost the 1.5-point advantage she had in the primary. But she did acknowledge that a poll done on behalf of her campaign several weeks before the election gave her a comfortable lead.

“The polling indicated that we were in good shape,” Boling said. “I never saw the polling data — I specifically did not ask what the numbers were — but the overall impression was good.”

Labor Council Political Director Evan McLaughlin said Emerald’s solutions-based theme worked well against the Republicans’ constant drumbeat of pension reform and privatizing City Hall.

“City government means more than pensions and the Carl DeMaio mantra of privatization,” McLaughlin said. “It means good jobs created in the community, good services and good infrastructure. The candidates did a great job of talking about that.”

Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric did not dispute that the reform agenda may not have resonated strongly outside of the Republican base, but said the high voter turnout generated by Obama turned the tide for Emerald and the other Democrats.

“We got our people out to vote,” said Krvaric, who is not ready to concede the Boling-Emerald race until the more than 15,000 outstanding absentee and provisional ballots are counted. “But we just got overwhelmed by a lot of new people, people who were less informed with a liberal bent.”

It is often thought that a presidential candidate’s coattails are not long enough to carry a candidate in a non-partisan local race. However there is widespread agreement among Democrats that there was, at least to some degree, an Obama effect.

On the final weekend volunteers distributed thousands of door hangers that tied Obama to Emerald and Block. And students on the San Diego State University campus were given cards to remind them that Emerald is a Democrat, as the party designation doesn’t appear on the ballot in city races.

“The program was executed very smoothly,” Durfee said. “The most important thing for the local candidates was to let the Obama voters know that they were the Democrats in the race.”

The dynamic in District 1 was different. Lightner had finished in the top spot in the primary by locking up her La Jolla base, while Thalheimer and the more moderate Republican Marshall Merrifield carried their bases of Carmel Valley and Rancho Peñasquitos. With Merrifield out, the general election was seen as a fight for the so-called coastal Republicans and independents in Carmel Valley.

Lightner won by roughly 2,300 votes. And she did it even though she was outspent by Thalheimer, who also lost a bid for the seat against Scott Peters in 2004. Thalheimer spent close to $1.5 million of his own money on the two campaigns.

In the end, voters in the district — which are evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and political independents — were more comfortable with Lightner, who champions environmental causes and has worked for decades as a volunteer in La Jolla and its environs.

After casting himself as the more reliably conservative than Merrifield in the primary, Thalheimer tried appear more moderate in the general election. But his stances on immigration and gay marriage are decidedly right of center, and those issues along with his active roles in the Mt. Soledad Cross and Jessica’s Law (a law designed to punish sex offenders) issues have cast him as somewhat of a culture warrior.

Jennifer Jacobs, a Republican campaign consultant who ran both Boling’s and Thalheimer’s campaign, said Thalheimer suffered a similar fate to Republicans across the country, namely a pendulum that swung against them.

“San Diego is different than most of the rest of country in that we have a high percentage of decline-to-state,” Jacobs said. “I believe we are a center-right county — but voters can move, and this time they moved with the national trend.”

Thalheimer said the fiscal reform issues on which he centered his campaign still resonate with voters, but he could not overcome the “Obama tsunami.”

Jennifer Tierney, Lightner’s campaign consultant, said attributing the entire outcome of the race is too Obama is “simplistic.”

“I think it was Thalheimer’s overwhelming negative campaign,” Tierney said, referring to a slew of mailers that characterized Lightner as an opponent to Sanders’ reform program. “They believed through polling that those were the messages that still worked. So they used them.”

For her part, Lightner said she won because she had a superior volunteer network and street-level connection with voters.

“It was walking and talking and getting to understand the community before going to work for the community,” Lightner said. “I was a known quantity and I have a proven track record.”

Please contact David Washburn directly at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org 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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