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Todd Gloria agreed with the familiar gaggle of downtown interests that gathered in San Diego’s City Council chambers Monday night.
Yes, the councilman said, San Diego should build a new $294 million Civic Center. Yes, he said, City Council could make the decision itself without getting voter approval. But political reality said otherwise. The votes weren’t there.
“I see some faces out there that are pretty good at running campaigns,” Gloria said to the crowd. “But I hope you work cheap because I don’t know who’s going to pay for you.”
Gloria’s audience now finds itself right where it didn’t want to be. The new City Hall proposal is going to the voters, just like many didn’t want it to. But now, if they want to see the deal they say will save the city significant cash become a reality, they’re going to have to fund at least a six-figure campaign for it.
That’s money the establishment would rather not have to spend. For months, downtown movers and shakers have publicly and privately fought against a public vote. Arguments ranged from fear voters wouldn’t seek out the financial analysis in favor of the project to concern the current City Hall was such a safety hazard a new building couldn’t risk failure.
But Mayor Jerry Sanders threw his weight behind a public vote early on and four City Council members assured the project would reach the ballot by pledging their support in February for an election. The city’s decision to cut the project nearly in half last month didn’t change any minds.
“We need a new City Hall,” said real estate mogul Malin Burnham, who ruffled feathers in October when he argued that 99 percent of voters wouldn’t understand the argument for the new building. “However, the City Council makes it more burdensome on people like me, quite frankly.”
By November, supporters of the Civic Center must convince the public that spending nearly $300 million on a shiny building during an economic downturn makes sense. And that’s not just any building, but one that will house city bureaucrats whose retirement benefits often are the focus of local political vitriol.
Convincing voters will take money, and lots of it. Scott Maloni, chairman of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, estimated a successful campaign would have to cost between $300,000 and $1 million, depending if there’s organized opposition to the project.
Maloni said his organization would help galvanize a campaign, one he didn’t think was necessary. Earlier this month, the partnership lobbied city politicians that an election was unnecessary. But getting the six council votes needed to approve the project without a vote quickly proved impossible, he said.
“The path of least resistance was just to go on the ballot,” Maloni said.
The next step, he said, was organizing a coalition of primarily business and development interests to support the measure. Those interests have cited city cost savings and new jobs as reasons to move forward.
Local political consultant Tom Shepard, who has advised those in favor of the project, said that downtown interests likely would pay for the campaign even if they were against it appearing on the ballot.
“The kind of people who argued most vociferously against putting it on the ballot, and I’m not going to name names because I don’t want to embarrass anybody, are not the kind of the people who aren’t going to give money because it’s on the ballot,” Shepard said. “They’re committed to doing it because it’s the right thing.”
The wild card is the Civic Center’s potential opposition. Two ballot measures passed overwhelmingly in June’s primary election, strong mayor in the city and term limits in San Diego County, with no funded opponents.
City Councilman Carl DeMaio, the project’s most vocal and visible opponent, attracts frequent media attention and already has a political action committee. He isn’t above pulling the campaign card.
When it became clear Monday night that his colleagues weren’t agreeing with his position on the ballot statement that would go before city voters, DeMaio said he might have to go straight to the public.
“In light of the fact that we apparently are not going to provide an unbiased ballot statement it will be all the more important for folks that oppose this project to galvanize, organize and communicate with San Diego voters so that we can educate them,” DeMaio said.
But Maloni said DeMaio had assured him that he would not organize a campaign against the Civic Center — though the councilman said he would speak about his opposition when asked. DeMaio’s political spokeswoman confirmed that the councilman wouldn’t be organizing a campaign, saying he had “other priorities.”
Combating those messages, if they come from an organized campaign, will cost Civic Center supporters more money. Maloni said he hoped organized labor would help out, but a San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council spokesman said his organization hadn’t yet made its endorsements for November’s election.
That leaves the downtown establishment, reluctant or not.
“I’ll be there,” Burnham said. “It’s a waste of time and money, but somebody has to do it.”