Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009 | The numbers should tell the story.

Democrats have outnumbered Republicans by more than 15 percent since at least the mid-1990s in the county’s Fourth District. The margin now has grown to a nearly two-to-one Democratic advantage.

But there’s Ron Roberts, a moderate Republican, winning four straight races for county supervisor in the district, one that appears stacked against him.

Roberts hasn’t just won the county’s urban core. He’s dominated. Roberts was unopposed in two of his three re-election bids and scored a 30-point victory in the other.

Roberts’ staying power is familiar to his four colleagues on the county board. Like Roberts, they’ve had their way with all contenders for their seats since 1995, the year Greg Cox became the last of the current supervisors to join the board, and for context, the year before San Diego hosted the Republican National Convention.

Only one time has Roberts, Cox or the other three supervisors — Bill Horn, Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater-Price — faced a general election runoff since their ascension to the board. Instead, they’ve trounced their opponents in the primary. There have been three times as many unopposed supervisor elections (six) as races decided by fewer than 20 percentage points (two).

Those days could be over.

Already next year’s reelection campaigns Roberts and Horn have attracted brand-name opponents with others looming on the horizon. Potentially on the ballot will be an organized labor-backed referendum that would subject the five supervisors, who are all Republican, to term limits — a restriction already in place for California’s governor and Legislature and the San Diego City Council.

“This is going to be the most serious challenge to the ‘Gang of Five’ since they’ve been elected,” said Steve Erie, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Power to the Incumbents

Supervisors have enjoyed structural advantages once they fought their way into office: Money, large districts and a lack of understanding about the county’s duties.

Supervisors can roll over leftover campaign funds from each election, giving their war chests a head start that grows with every race. A large district — more than three times the size of a San Diego council district — makes it difficult for challengers to knock on prospective voters’ doors.

For county residents that live in a city, their local government handles meat and potatoes government work like trash services leaving fewer direct links between a supervisor and his constituents. In Roberts’ district, for example, some of his most visible decisions relate to where he’s spent an annual allotment of discretionary funds.

Then there’s the fact supervisors are in office in the first place.

“There’s a basic rule of politics,” said political observer Scott Barnett. “Every incumbent will be re-elected unless you give the public a damn good reason to vote against them.”

Supervisors and their backers say supervisors haven’t given the public that reason. The five supervisors oversaw a county turnaround from near bankruptcy at the beginning of their terms to a fiscal position with a strong bond rating that’s trumpeted as a success.

Tom Shepard, a Republican political consultant who advises all five of the supervisors, called the county, “a highly respected, well-run organization.”

“More than anything else, that’s what’s contributed to the lack of turnover,” Shepard said.

That record and the nature of county races, which don’t list party affiliation on the ballot, have contributed to Roberts’ staying power, despite the demographics of his district, he said.

“You don’t get elected and re-elected and re-elected without serving the constituents, no matter the party,” Roberts said.

The Looming Fights

But the allure of those demographics combined with state and national issues are emboldening potential opposition.

Since the five supervisors joined the board the county has grown by 350,000 people, and Democrats are now a plurality of registered voters countywide.

Two Democrats, San Diego school board President Shelia Jackson and state Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, already have announced in Roberts’ district. City Councilwoman Donna Frye is considering a run.

The other supervisor running next year, Horn, could be considered vulnerable for different reasons. Horn is outspoken on issues such as illegal immigration, having called the U.S.-Mexico border “a war zone,” and has stared down controversy over allegations of financial and romantic improprieties involving his chief of staff and living conditions of workers on his ranch.

Barnett called Horn, “a Bill in a China shop.”

Shepard said Horn’s bluntness has “gotten him into trouble” at times, but also garnered support from those who appreciate frank language from politicians.

Horn’s spokesman, John Culea, said the supervisor continues to pass an elected official’s ultimate test: the ballot box.

“I think that’s a pretty good indication of what the voters think,” Culea said.

Of all the supervisors, Horn has had the closest elections, besting former Republican Assemblyman Bruce Thompson by just more than 5 percent in a bitter race three years ago and needing a general election runoff to defeat an opponent in 1998.

This time, Vista Councilman Steve Gronke and Oceanside contractor Fabio Marchi have declared and Oceanside Mayor Jim Wood said he is considering a run. Wood is a Republican, but Gronke reportedly is changing his party affiliation from Republican to decline to state to broaden his appeal.

Horn’s race could turn on how much local developers, hurting from the down housing market, are willing to pony up for his re-election, Erie said. National economic trends could attack what has been a consistent argument in favor of supervisors’ re-election: the county’s fiscal status, he added.

By next summer, county services should feel the effects of state budget cuts. In February, the county blamed the state for layoffs and already flat revenue property and sales tax revenue streams look to be the same or worse next year.

“The rosy picture now may not be the rosy picture next summer,” Erie said.

Labor: The Wildcard

The wildcard in the supervisor races could be organized labor’s influence on the campaigns. Recent successes in city elections mean labor could be willing to show its strength at the county level.

The question, Erie said, is, “What kind of deep pockets do they have and how seriously do they want to change county government?”

Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer and CEO of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, called the two county races “priorities.”

“You’ll see more activity from us than in the past,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez criticized county supervisors’ approach particularly in social service spending and what she said were misplaced priorities. Supervisors, she said, should be more concerned with layoffs of county employees than its annual discretionary funds.

“It’s a little easier to be more financially solvent when you’re not performing the services you’re supposed to be,” she said.

Labor has received the go-ahead to collect signatures for a ballot referendum that would limit supervisors to two four-year terms in office. Unlike state and city offices, supervisors have no restrictions on their length of service. No one has defeated an incumbent supervisor since 1986.

The party line from supervisors and their supporters is that term limits have been disastrous for the state Legislature and the best term limit — an election every four years — already exists.

Term limits, although likely popular with voters, could present challenges for labor. Funding supervisor races and a ballot initiative is a two-front war, and some say labor’s money could be spent better competing in supervisor elections. That’s true particularly if the target is current county heads. Even if term-limits pass, the five supervisors would be grandfathered in and could stay in office another eight years.

“It’s like taking their parking space away,” Barnett said. “Actually that would have more impact on them than term limits.”

Barnett added that should a Democrat or someone labor-friendly win next year’s election, term limits could blunt a new supervisor’s long-range impact.

Gonzalez said that labor is expecting other groups to help finance the term limit referendum and a Democratic supervisor could present similar problems with entrenched power on the board.

A new face on the board of supervisors could mean little in how the county does its business. A 4-1 vote produces the same result as one that’s 5-0.

The greatest impact of an incumbent’s defeat, consultants and experts said, could come politically. It would mean that an outsider could win a county race.

“It will have a huge psychological change,” Barnett said.

“This is as serious as it’s been, and partly it’s because the plate tectonics of San Diego are changing,” Erie said.

Already there appears to be a different mindset in county politics. In 2012, there are rumblings of challengers to face Cox, whose district has a Democratic registration advantage. GOP insider Steve Danon has declared his intention to run in Slater-Price’s district.

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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