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Local elections are always fertile ground for testy exchanges between candidates. But like any good joke, you sometimes need a little background to understand the punch line.

Here, we break down the context for seven recent attack lines from the District 1 City Council race.

1. ‘Evan needs glasses.’

Photo by Sam Hodgson
San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council Political Director Evan McLaughlin

Organized labor groups typically back Democrats for City Council seats. District 1 incumbent Councilwoman Sherri Lightner has received endorsements from the city’s firefighters, police officers and lifeguards unions.

But the region’s umbrella labor organization — the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council — hasn’t thrown its weight behind Lightner. The group’s leaders argue that Lightner’s positions are too similar to those of her Republican challenger, Ray Ellis.

“I don’t perceive a significant difference between the two,” Evan McLaughlin, the organization’s political director, wrote on Twitter last week.

Our Scott Lewis asked Lightner about that comment at a recent candidates’ debate hosted by Voice of San Diego. Lightner responded, “Evan needs glasses.” She also tried to parlay the criticism to her advantage.

“I have taken hits from I think every side that exists and I think it’s because I am independent, I am rational,” Lightner said.

2. Lightner’s Convention Center Vote

Photo by Sam Hodgson
The San Diego Convention Center

Job creation has been a dominant issue in the race. Ellis often highlights Lightner’s vote last year against the plan to finance the proposed Convention Center expansion, calling the move a “job killer.”

“If her colleagues on the City Council had followed her on that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Ellis said at the debate last week. “It’d be a done deal.”

Lightner has since voted to advance the plan, and denied ever voting against the Convention Center expansion — though she did. She has cited different reasons for her December vote. At the time, Lightner said she opposed the financing plan because it would apply taxes to hotels in her district, miles from the Convention Center.

Following Ellis’ comments last week, however, Lightner said she had voted no because her constituents wanted more time to sort through the plan. “After consulting with them,” Lightner said, “I was good to vote for it.”

3. When Ellis Didn’t Vote

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Ray Ellis

Last week, Lightner accused Ellis of being disengaged with civic affairs. She told NBC 7 San Diego that he hadn’t voted in 10 of 16 elections between 1995 and 2006.

“I think that’s very important for an engaged community like Council District 1 to know,” Lightner told NBC 7 San Diego.

NBC confirmed the charge with election records and found Lightner has had a perfect voting record since 1992. Ellis called the story a distraction. His campaign sent me this statement:

Ray has been a perfect voter over the last 8 elections, and the fact that Sherri Lightner has to go back almost two decades through dozens of elections to manipulate these numbers shows how desperate she is to distract voters from her half-million dollar taxpayer-funded pension and her abysmal record on the City Council.

4. Lightner Jabs Herself

Photo by Sam Hodgson
City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner

Ellis appears more comfortable with public speaking and debating than Lightner. She has apologized for her nervousness at debates and told audiences how she had been coached to answer questions. She is supposed to stay out of the weeds, she said at a Sept. 19 debate.

And at the VOSD debate last week, Lightner said, “I’ve been told by my staff not to joke because some people don’t get my jokes.”

That actually earned the evening’s biggest laughs.

5. Todd Gloria’s Surprise Cameo

Councilman Todd Gloria has been one of Lightner’s loudest champions on Twitter and was surprised to see himself in campaign materials distributed by Ellis’ campaign last week.

“No real supporters would take a photo with him?” Gloria wrote on Twitter. Then, Gloria posted the picture below on Twitter of him and Lightner laughing. His caption: “@SherriLightner and I react after seeing @RayEllis_SD’s mailer implying that I support him for #cd1.”

Later in the day, Ellis’ campaign spokesman Matt Donnellan suggested another caption for the picture. He wrote on Twitter: “@SherriLightner to @ToddGloria And then I told the voters I support Comprehensive Pension Reform.”

Ellis argues he is a stronger advocate for cutting pension costs than Lightner.

6. The Pension System’s Investments

Ellis, a former president of the city’s pension board, has come under attack for the performance of the pension system’s investments. When the investments perform poorly, the city ends up paying more, leaving less money for public services.

Lightner says voters should hold Ellis responsible for a recent dip in investment returns. The pension system assumes it will return 7.5 percent on investments. Last year, it earned about 0.3 percent.

Ellis calls the argument misleading. He says San Diego’s investments have performed better than other comparable systems and earnings were substantially better in other years during his tenure.

“You failed to note that the year before we had almost 25 percent returns,” Ellis told Lightner after she brought up the issue at a debate last week. (The exact figure was 24.2 percent.)

Mark Hovey, the pension system’s CEO, said it’s difficult to peg who exactly is responsible for investment returns each year because many people are involved in managing them.

When Lightner was asked at the debate last week whether she would’ve made any investment decisions by the pension system differently, she said no.

7. ‘Nobody asked me.’

Lightner and Ellis share similar positions on how to cut the city’s pension costs. Both supported Proposition B, a high-profile initiative that voters approved in June.

Ellis, however, claims to be pension reform’s more enthusiastic advocate and often cites how Lightner’s endorsement of Prop. B first came to light.

Lightner didn’t publicly endorse the proposition until a U-T San Diego reporter asked her in April — months after the measure had already qualified for the ballot. Lightner told the reporter no one had previously asked for her position.

Ellis pounced.

“She could’ve put it on the ballot,” Ellis said at a Sept. 19 debate. “When asked by the Union-Tribune did you think about that, she said, ‘Well, nobody asked me to.’ That is not the type of proactive, engaged leadership we need on a big issue here.”

In response, Lightner has said she is the only candidate to actually implement pension reform. She says the city will save $1 billion in the future because of changes to employee pay and retiree health care made during her tenure on the council.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about the District 1 City Council election, local government and creates infographics. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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