For months, Deputy City Attorney Mara Elliott trekked across the city to obscure Democratic groups, laying out her resume, explaining her policy positions and asking for their endorsement.

For months, she watched the party endorse her opponents instead. Sometimes endorsements went to Gil Cabrera, former chair of the city’s ethics commission. Mostly they went to Port Commissioner Rafael Castellanos.

She was always there, and always an afterthought.

“It was hard for her,” said Francine Busby, chair of the San Diego Democratic Party. “She said to me, ‘Francine, I have so much support in the community, and so little in the party.’”

In the end, it isn’t the party that decides. Or at least it wasn’t in this race.

Elliott beat three Democratic rivals to advance to a November runoff against Deputy District Attorney Robert Hickey, the Republican candidate.

The winner will become the second highest-ranking elected official in the city.

“It’s been difficult at times, and it was discouraging,” Elliott said. “They had longer, deeper relationships. I needed to build trust.”

Elliott found support – with endorsements from the deputy city attorneys union (she’s a member), construction union and a group that encourages women to run for office, to name a few. But she couldn’t get the same treatment from her party.

That should get easier now.

Castellanos and Cabrera spent months battling over who would win the party’s endorsement; Elliott was an afterthought. Seeing Elliott’s strong results, Busby said the party made the right call by declining to endorse anyone in the primary, forcing them to prove who the stronger candidate was.

Turns out, it was Elliott.

Democratic donors acted just like the inner-circle of the party. Castellanos and Cabrera combined to raise more than $700,000; Elliott raised just $100,000.

Throughout the process, Elliott made the case that the money disadvantage wasn’t as big of a deal as it seemed. She needed less money than the others anyway, Busby said. As the only woman in the race, and with the words “Deputy Chief City Attorney” running right next to her name in a low-information contest, she had advantages that TV ads and mailers couldn’t buy.

She was right. And now she’ll get some money too.

“I’m looking forward to those fundraising phone calls now,” Elliott said. “Before, they were painful. It’s about to be a completely different dynamic. People are giving me another look.”

Now Elliott gets to turn her attention to the general, and to making the same case she’s made for months: that she’s the most qualified candidate on the ballot.

“I’m the only candidate with direct experience in the city,” she said. “I have relationships with these attorneys. I know their strengths. Same with our client, the City Council and mayor. I know our laws, and the history of the decisions. I run the gamut of experience.”

Hickey will get to make his case on the one area of the job in which Elliott doesn’t have experience. He’ll emphasize that he’s the only prosecutor in the race, and the city attorney prosecutes 30,000 misdemeanors a year.

Elliott’s career in municipal law has included time in the city, the county, the Metropolitan Transit System and multiple school districts. But she hasn’t prosecuted misdemeanors – and the city attorney’s office is in the middle of a scandal over problems in its misdemeanor prosecution division.

But Elliott’s always had a clear view of the role of the city attorney.

“Ultimately, the city wants a good lawyer who practices municipal law,” she said.

Elliott’s never been the candidate promising to counter-balance Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s Republican administration, or take on an activist role. Elliott’s been consistent: The city attorney is nonpartisan legal counsel for the mayor and city attorney.

She will, though, have a chance to make history. If elected, she’d be the city’s first female city attorney. It’s a distinction she didn’t let one of her Democratic opponents forget earlier in the race.

In an early May debate, Castellanos made his case for the office. In the past, he said, city attorneys haven’t had basic business experience, and they let the city make bad deals that cost them financially.

“If you want more of the same, compare all of the candidates in this race,” he said. “They all look just like all the other city attorneys we’ve had. If you want something different, vote for me.”

Elliott took exception.

“I am here to ask for a promotion; everyone around me is asking for a new job,” she said. “And I don’t look like anybody that’s ever been in this office before: We’ve never had a woman in this office before.”

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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