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For Norma Damashek, co-president of the League of Women Voters, the lack of opposition to making the city of San Diego’s strong mayor system of government permanent comes down to special interests and intimidation.

“A lot of power is nice and absolute power is better,” Damashek said. “I think that’s all that’s involved.”

But Damashek’s harsh words are all that her and other strong mayor opponents have in their effort to get San Diegans to vote against strong mayor. There’s no campaign committee to combat the ballot measure supported by Mayor Jerry Sanders and a well-funded organization that had $89,175.85 in the bank as of March. New financial disclosures are due tomorrow.

I turned first to Damashek and City Hall watchdog Mel Shapiro to answer the question I posed this morning: Why is there no anti-strong mayor campaign even though a strong mayor trial period mustered just enough votes to pass in 2004?

Damashek’s League of Women Voters also opposed strong mayor in 2004 and has been the most vocal challenger this time. Shapiro spent more than $20,000 to try to defeat strong mayor back then.

On her website she’s attacked development interests backing the proposition, and said they were sewing up their control over City Hall. City Council members or labor unions either were complicit or backing down in fear of retaliation from the Mayor’s Office.

“If they opposed this, if they came out and put their money into this, the next time they have negotiations they’re going to get screwed,” Damashek said. “Council members, if they oppose this, they’re not going to get projects in their communities that they want. They all got the word.”

I asked Damashek why her organization didn’t start a campaign committee against the measure. She said the rules were too onerous and her organization is too small to fund one. She also bemoaned a lack of left-leaning interest groups in the city that could pay for a race.

Shapiro, a retired accountant, remained opposed to strong mayor, saying the mayor was less accountable than a city manager, who could be hired and fired at will. Shapiro would have donated to an anti-strong mayor campaign had there been one. But like Damashek he said he shouldn’t be expected to fund it.

“I was willing to put up a couple thousand, but other people aren’t,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro agreed the spate of money from development interests were related to the influence they could have over the mayor. Under a strong mayor, Shapiro said, you only have to lobby him instead of five City Council members.

But Shapiro dismissed Damashek’s ideas that it was difficult to start a campaign committee and that council members and unions were intimidated.

If intimidation was an issue, Shapiro asked, why would the city’s police union sign the ballot statement against strong mayor? But he didn’t understand why the police union wasn’t spending to defeat it.

“It’s sort of not putting your money where your mouth is,” he said.

Had he spent money to defeat the proposition, Shapiro wasn’t sure if it would have made a difference.

“If I spent $5,000 on this campaign, what the hell would it mean?” he said. “That would just encourage them to spend another $200,000 on their side.”

— LIAM DILLON

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