In 2005, former San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy resigned under threat of a recall.

“I now believe to be effective the city will need a mayor who was elected by a majority of the people,” Murphy said at the time.

Before the city’s pension woes buried him, Murphy had just won a narrow, disputed re-election with 34.7 percent of the vote in a three-way runoff over write-in candidate Donna Frye. But Murphy’s plea for a mayor that the majority of San Diegans wanted also fit his decision to leave office on his own rather than have voters throw him out in a recall.

San Diego and beleaguered Democratic Mayor Bob Filner could now face the same situation. If Filner, who’s accused of sexually harassing numerous women, leaves, how he goes matters a lot to determine who replaces him. And that could help explain some of the enthusiasm on the right and lack thereof on the left for the nascent Filner recall effort.

A resignation means the city will have a primary and likely a runoff special election, meaning someone will have to win a majority vote to become mayor. The mix of potential candidates on the left and right – Democrats Nathan Fletcher, Todd Gloria and Christine Kehoe and Republican Kevin Faulconer to name four – would most likely yield a Democrat vs. Republican runoff.

A recall means one election, meaning Filner’s replacement could win with the kind of vote share – or less – than Murphy got. For any candidate, it’s winner-take-all.

If you don’t think that distinction matters, look at what happened in 2005 after Murphy resigned. Frye finished first in the primary, but lost to Jerry Sanders in the runoff. Things would have been different had voters recalled Murphy, instead, said GOP pollster John Nienstedt.

“Donna Frye would have been mayor,” Nienstedt said.

The current recall-Filner effort received a boost this week when four campaign pros signed on to help it qualify for the ballot. Local GOP Chairman Tony Krvaric, who’s best known for insulting Democrats and laborites on Twitter, is all for it.

This #Filner recall effort can be a positive San Diego “civic moment” IF everyone sets aside their differences and works together. Who’s in?

— Tony Krvaric (@TonyKrvaric) August 2, 2013

Krvaric said he’d love to have a unified message with the local Democratic Party and labor leaders to get the recall qualified.

“Call me a softie,” Krvaric said.

The local GOP won’t be financing the recall, Krvaric said, but will be volunteering to help it make the ballot.

“I don’t think any Republican who wants a petition will go without one,” he said.

Meantime, labor unions and the local Democratic Party are against a recall.

Labor remains the city’s most prominent interest group still backing Filner – “It’s an awkward situation, but we have a lot invested in him,” a labor leader recently told U-T San Diego. And while the local Democratic Party has asked for Filner’s resignation, it doesn’t support a recall. (Party head Francine Busby couldn’t be reached for comment.)

Democratic Assembly members Lorena Gonzalez and John Pérez share the party’s No-On-Filner, No-On-Recall message. Gonzalez, the first Democratic elected official to say Filner should go, has said she’s concerned about a small minority electing the next mayor in a recall. Pérez, the Assembly speaker, called on Filner to resign this week, but also said a recall would prolong Filner’s time in office.

No matter how Filner might leave, Democrats should feel nervous about retaining the mayor’s office, even if you put aside the damage Filner might be doing to the party. Filner was elected in November amid Democratic President Barack Obama’s victory and other big progressive wins fueled by young and minority voters. A special election without a big-ticket Democrat on the ballot won’t draw nearly the same turnout.

“Some kid from San Diego State who has never voted before is not coming down to vote in a special mayoral election before they go back to St. Louis next year,” said local GOP consultant Jennifer Jacobs.

But a recall could bring local Democrats’ bogeyman back to the stage. Former Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio finished first in the mayoral primary after earning the support of hard-core Republicans before losing to Filner in November.

Jacobs, a longtime DeMaio associate, said DeMaio’s focused on running for Congress. But in a recall where he would only need a plurality of voters to win the mayor’s office, Jacobs said he’d be formidable.

“I don’t think there’s a single person in this town who could beat Carl,” she said.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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