Since Labor Day, Ron Roberts and Stephen Whitburn have ramped up their campaigns to represent the county’s urban core on the Board of Supervisors. They’ve jumped from neighborhood meetings in Encanto to advocacy groups in Hillcrest to board meetings downtown.
But as Election Day draws closer, both campaigns will be looking to a northern San Diego neighborhood where front lawns are strewn with plastic toys, surrounded by neat fencing, and covered in brittle, brown grass. It’s Clairemont Mesa, a 13.3-square mile microcosm of the district’s northern neighborhoods and a decisive battleground for independent, reliable voters.
For Roberts, the Republican incumbent, winning the neighborhood’s independents will be crucial if Democrats show up in droves for Whitburn. Republicans are outnumbered two to one in the district. For Whitburn, the Democratic challenger, Clairemont Mesa offers walkable neighborhoods where he can increase his name recognition and take votes from Roberts’ stronghold.
In the June primary, Roberts got his best results from northern neighborhoods such as Clairemont Mesa, which have the district’s largest concentrations of registered Republicans. San Diego’s central and southeastern neighborhoods have higher concentrations of registered Democrats, but in past elections, those voters haven’t flocked to the polls.
In Clairemont Mesa, voter registration is nearly split among Democrats, Republicans and independents. And during the primary, higher turnout meant they played a larger role in its outcome. One in five voters came from there.
“To me, it’s a straight numbers issue,” said Jennifer Tierney, a Whitburn campaign strategist. “It’s where people vote and you can concentrate your efforts. You can go to Clairemont Mesa and talk to voters in a short time without a lot of walking around.”
By comparison, voters in central neighborhoods like Hillcrest and City Heights tend to be more transient and difficult to canvass because they live in apartments or gated condos. Similarly, voters in southeastern neighborhoods are dispersed across hilly territory.
On Sunday, Whitburn was again knocking on the doors of registered voters in Clairemont Mesa, an area delineated by State Route 52, Interstate 805 and Interstate 5. It’s mostly populated by middle-class families living in single-story ranch homes.
Whitburn held a stack of door hangers and a list of registered voters as he walked to each home. He rang doorbells and started each pitch the same way.
“All five (supervisors) have been there for 16 years and I think we need some new blood,” he said. “They’re all Republicans. I’m a Democrat.”
In a few cases, that was enough to win over voters. When Whitburn walked up to a house that already had a lawn sign for Howard Wayne, a Democrat running for City Council, the conversation moved quickly.
One young woman who listened to Whitburn’s pitch said she’d have to think about the decision. He shook her hand and left wishing he’d pushed her further.
“If I were to do that one again, I would have talked about the issues more,” Whitburn said after walking away. “She was almost there, and then undecided.”
Farther down the block, Whitburn emphasized the issues outlined on the door hangers he handed out. He blasted the county for not applying for federal stimulus money and the supervisors for a controversial grants program that gives them each $1 million to spend on nonprofits of their choosing.
One registered voter described himself as an independent and Roberts supporter. After Whitburn talked about the grants program, the man started to waver. “This has been going on for far too long,” he said, and agreed to consider voting for Whitburn.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Whitburn said on his way to the next house. “I moved him from a Ron supporter to an undecided.”
Whitburn has his work cut out in Clairemont Mesa. He visited more than 15 voters Sunday afternoon, and not a single one knew his name. In the primary, 56 percent of Clairemont Mesa voters sided with Roberts versus Whitburn’s 20 percent. By winning a large margin of northern neighborhoods, Roberts nearly defeated four Democratic challengers who pulled a greater margin of votes from central and southeastern neighborhoods.
Roberts said he did well in northern neighborhoods because their middle-class voters agree with his view of fiscal restraint.
“These are largely swing voters and they’re concerned about out-of-control spending in government,” he said. “They’re not looking for government to do anything for them, but to be effective.”
Roberts said Whitburn’s solution for every problem would be spending more money. Whitburn has called the county’s funding for fire protection inadequate, for example, but he has not proposed how the county should raise more funding or what it should do with the money. Whitburn has said he would announce a plan this month.
Clairemont Mesa residents are expected to be a focal point of campaigns this fall because they’ll be weighing in on three of the county’s most contested races.
If Whitburn unseats Roberts, Republicans would lose full control of the county board. If Republican Lorie Zapf defeats Howard Wayne, Democrats face more pressure in the next election to retain a veto-proof majority on the City Council. And Clairemont Mesa residents will vote on Proposition D, the sales tax increase, like the rest of San Diego.
Combined, these three campaigns make Clairemont Mesa and nearby neighborhoods a prime target. “If these two high profile districts overlap, it makes sense to spend your money there,” said Vince Vasquez, an analyst for the National University System Institute for Policy Research, a local think tank.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described how a win by Lorie Zapf would shift the City Council’s political makeup. If Zapf wins, Democrats will still have a veto-proof majority next year. We regret the error.