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Earlier this month, local San Diego County Democrats found themselves without a candidate in the race for the county’s urban core.
They held an open casting call for the right to face longtime incumbent county supervisor Ron Roberts in the Democratic-dominated district.
The result ended up looking a lot like a Benetton commercial.
In the week before last Friday’s filing deadline, four Democrats from diverse backgrounds rushed into the race.
Roberts’ opponents: Stephen Whitburn, a former City Council candidate active in the gay community; Shelia Jackson, a black school board member; Juan del Río, a Latino housing activist; and Margaret Moody, a retired teacher.
“They apparently were unable to recruit an Asian candidate,” deadpanned Republican political strategist Tom Shepard, who is representing Roberts.
The Democratic candidates now opposing Roberts face major disadvantages. They are starting from scratch without high name recognition, money in the bank or campaign staffs. The fight right now is to get through the June primary without Roberts winning outright.
At this point the Democrats are betting their candidates’ backgrounds reach wide enough to overcome the late start.
“We have candidates from different backgrounds and different experiences,” said Jess Durfee, head of the local Democratic Party. “They will all be getting out there to secure their chunk of the vote. I hope at the end of the day they collectively get enough votes to keep Mr. Roberts below the 50 percent mark and then we have a very interesting fall campaign to look forward to.”
Strategists said November is better for Democrats for two reasons. It gives Roberts’ lone challenger more time to raise money and get name recognition. Also, general election turnouts tend to be younger, more casual and more Democratic-leaning than in primaries.
Durfee, del Río and Moody said getting all four candidates in the race wasn’t coordinated. Whitburn declined to say. Jackson couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
Regardless, everyone admitted this situation was the Democrats’ Plan B.
Two higher-profile candidates turned down the starring role as Roberts’ opponent. Democratic state Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, whom the party endorsed in the fall, bailed out last month, citing personal reasons. City Councilwoman Donna Frye was Roberts’ biggest potential challenger, but decided not to run earlier this month, citing a desire to focus on the city.
That the iconoclastic Frye waited until March to make up her mind didn’t make things easy. The party had hoped its early endorsement of Saldaña would have sent a signal.
“Part of the reason we did an early endorsement was we thought this was an important race,” Durfee said. “To be perfectly honest, I was also trying to force Donna’s hand. But of course nobody does that. However, in retrospect wouldn’t it have been nice to know at that point that she wasn’t going to be running? It would have put us in a very different position than we’re in today.”
The fall back was diversity. The strategy assumes that the four Democrats can attract enough different groups of voters. Republican political strategist John Kern wondered if the individual backgrounds of the candidates would be enough to pick off various interests. Besides, Roberts has run strong in the district before, he said.
“The problem with that is if you look at their individual backgrounds, they’re all a small portion of the electorate,” said Kern, who as former Mayor Dick Murphy’s adviser ran mayoral campaigns against Roberts.
The candidates each attacked Roberts from different angles.
Del Río, the husband of former U.S. Congressional candidate Jeeni Criscenzo, is focusing on housing policy. He believes Roberts hadn’t done enough for affordable housing, though he couldn’t point to a specific decision.
Moody, who has served on the boards of Planned Parenthood and environmental organizations, argued against the supervisors’ community grant program that has attracted significant criticism.
Whitburn said his primary goal is to add a “progressive voice” to the board, which has had five Republicans as its members since President Bill Clinton’s first administration.
A larger number of candidates do mean that it’s more likely for an election to go to a runoff, Democratic political consultant Jennifer Tierney said. But she warned against reducing the race simply to the Democratic candidates’ demographics. That, she said, was “too simplistic.”
“The vote getters will be the ones who raise money and put together campaigns,” Tierney said. “The ones who don’t raise money and put together campaigns won’t be the vote getters.”
(Tierney did work for Jackson when Jackson had previously decided to run, but Tierney said she did not have a contract or get paid.)
Whitburn spent or loaned his campaign more than $200,000 of his own money in 2008 — more than 10 years of saving, he said. Now he’s tapped out.
“I have no more savings,” Whitburn said.
He plans to hold his first fundraiser March 28, almost a week after the next campaign filing statements are due. Del Río expects to have a couple thousand by next week and Moody said she’s planning to spend about $10,000 on the race.
None of those figures compare to Roberts more than $100,000 on hand with his fundraising continuing.
That puts the pressure, strategists said, on the party and on labor organizations to help fund the race. Neither would tip their hand. Both the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council and the local Democratic Party are interviewing candidates now, but declined to say who or if they planned to endorse.
The Labor Council and the party are already behind a term limits measure that would keep county supervisors to a maximum eight years in office. But that effort would do nothing in this year’s election against Roberts.