San Diego Convention Center / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Signature-gatherers are trying to get a measure on the November ballot that would raise hotel-room taxes, fund an expansion of the Convention Center, homeless services and infrastructure needs.

The news: This week, we got our first real look at how fundraising for the measure is going — and who’s getting the money.

The campaign raised $218,000 in the first quarter of 2018. Add that to nearly $300,000 last year, and some new contributions over the last month, and the campaign has gathered more than $700,000.

But the campaign was only $24,000 in the black before about $180,000 in new donations in the last few weeks from labor unions and the owners of the Marriott and Manchester Grand Hyatt hotels on the bayfront.

Where’s the money going? A lot of it is going to strategic communications firms.

Four firms — Southwest Strategies, Manolatos Nelson Murphy, Manter Communications and Rebelle Communications — billed the campaign a total of $151,000 for communications work between January and the end of March this year. Last year, Manolatos Nelson Murphy got $10,000 and Manter got $25,000.

Chris Wahl, Southwest Strategies / Photo by Sam Hodgson

The signature gatherers have billed $174,000.

If strategic communications keeps pace as an expenditure with signature-gathering, this could be one expensive initiative.

For comparison, the Friends of SDSU spent about $1.2 million just on signature-gathering to qualify the SDSU West initiative for the November ballot. Southwest Strategies is also working on that initiative.

“We have assembled an outstanding, bi-partisan team that will help us achieve the high voter threshold of a two-thirds ballot measure. We continue to get great feedback and enthusiastic support from voters — who are excited about the prospect of visitors paying for investments in San Diego streets, helping the homeless and creating jobs,” said Laura Fink, the spokeswoman for the campaign, in a statement. (She’s head of the Rebelle Communications firm.)

The “Yes! For a Better San Diego” campaign wants to be on the same ballot as SDSU and SoccerCity.

The communications pros seem to have settled on one assumption: The Convention Center may not be the most compelling part of the measure.

Here’s an ad running on Facebook.

Screenshot courtesy of Mike McConnell

But the Convention Center is where the bulk of the tax increase will go. Check out our pie chart on how the city would spend the money if the measure passed.

One thing: If the campaign is going for a two-thirds vote, it could have saved everyone a lot of money — like millions — and just gone through the City Council to get on the ballot. The mayor and others chose this route because it may not get two-thirds of the vote and boosters want to be able to fight in court to prove that 50 percent (plus one) of the vote is enough. Essentially, it’s a $1 million+ bet on this ruling.

DA Candidates Didn’t Always Despise Each Other

Geneviéve Jones-Wright, left, and Summer Stephan. / Photos by Vito Di Stefano and Jamie Scott Lytle

In a debate in the district attorney race last week (you can listen to it), Scott asked interim District Attorney Summer Stephan and Deputy Public Defender Geneviéve Jones-Wright what they admired about each other.

Stephan: “I believe that Ms. Jones-Wright really cares about the criminal defendants she represents. I believe that the Constitution requires a balance between prosecutors that are passionate about protecting the community, protecting victims, preventing crime, prosecuting perpetrators and a balance between that, and people who have a passion to defend the criminally accused. That’s what our Constitution is about. I believe she does that job well. I believe that’s her passion, and I want her to continue in her passion.”

Stephan also said that she would not serve as a deputy district attorney if Jones-Wright wins.

Jones-Wright: “I believe that Ms. Stephan has an uncanny knack of knowing a good message that will resonate. And I believe that she absolutely knows what to say as a politician to remain in the job that she would like to keep.”

Things were not always so tense.

During a recording of NBC 7 San Diego’s “Politically Speaking” on Friday, Stephan revealed she received in August 2016 a handwritten note from Jones-Wright commending her “grace under fire” during two recent community events — one on racial profiling and another on restorative justice.

“I get the impression every time I see you, that you believe the words you speak about alternate means of addressing the issues we now face as a society,” Jones-Wright wrote. “Please be encouraged. Please continue to lend your ear to voices that are desperate to be heard.”

Jones-Wright provided more context to us: The event Stephan attended was in response to controversial comments City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole made about racial profiling. Bonnie Dumanis, then district attorney, did not attend. Stephan did.

“It was a tough environment,” Jones-Wright told us. “I wanted to encourage her to keep showing up and listening even when she’d be under fire. I am a champion of and for women. I am a woman’s woman who likes to encourage my fellow women leaders to keep going.”

What the exchange shows: Rhetoric has ratcheted up in this race, with the liberal Real Justice PAC saying Stephan was “as much a reformer as Jeff Sessions.” As of 18 months ago, that’s not something with which Jones-Wright seems to have agreed.

It offers a window into Jones-Wright, too. Stephan has criticized her opponent for not ascending to leadership in the public defender’s office. But the note shows that she had leaned into a different leadership role, building a bridge to an unlikely ally on the community’s behalf.

Jones-Wright Pledges Never to Seek the Death Penalty

Jones-Wright and Stephan at a debate April 29 at Temple Emanu-El. / Photo by Scott Lewis

In our podcast interview with Jones-Wright, she expressed some different views on the death penalty. She accepted that there would be times she may need to pursue it. She said she would gather advisers.

“You have to come to the table and you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this an offense that’s even worthy enough for us to talk about imposing the death penalty?’” she said.

But she also said she was personally very opposed to the death penalty and would not be willing to impose it until the system is “foolproof.”

She seems to have removed any ambiguity in a statement to the ACLU “Vote4DA” survey.

There, she pledged never to seek the death penalty.

There is one person facing a death penalty prosecution in San Diego: The man accused of killing SDPD Officer Jonathan De Guzman, Jesse Michael Gomez.

As Predicted, George Soros Is Here

A screen capture from the new website from Summer Stephan’s district attorney campaign.

Nearly a year ago, Republican political consultant and Stephan campaign manager Jason Roe wrote a memo arguing the billionaire George Soros would get involved in the district attorney’s race.

Soros has spent more than $15 million in recent years electing reform-minded district attorneys.

In an October email, Roe added that Soros “will come in 6 weeks out and it will be very difficult getting people to understand what is happening.”

Well, we’re five weeks out, and Soros has in fact come in.

He donated $275,000 to the California Justice & Public Safety PAC this year. That PAC has already spent on behalf of two other DA candidates in the state, Diana Becton in Contra Costa County and Noah Phillips in Sacramento.

The PAC this week bought $39,660 in ads for Jones-Wright on KUSI, and has also purchased time on CBS 8 and Fox 5, though specific dollar amounts have not yet been posted. Reports on the purchases from industry buyers, obtained by Voice of San Diego, peg the purchases at $95,000 on local stations and another $31,000 on CNN and MSNBC.

Roe said he expects the final commitment to surpass $1 million, based on spending from previous races.

“Given the relatively low budgets of DA races, Soros’s wealth has allowed him to dwarf candidate spending and overwhelm voters with dishonest advertising campaigns, trumping local preferences with his well-funded candidates,” Roe wrote in a November memo.

But Republicans’ current reaction to Soros’ entry isn’t limited to his financial wealth overwhelming local preferences.

Stephan’s campaign Wednesday launched the website, which describes Soros as an anti-law enforcement billionaire who supports fringe left-wing causes, and Jones-Wright as an anti-law enforcement candidate. It calls Soros a “Hungarian” billionaire and features photos of so-called “antifa” protesters in Seattle burning an American flag.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego receives general operating grants from the Open Society Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Soros. Our supporters are listed here.

Unions Emptying the Vault in County Supervisor Contest

Lori Saldaña / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Organized labor is sharply divided in the 4th District county supervisor race, and now the two factions that have emerged are spending big on their preferred candidates.

The local United Food and Commercial Workers union came in this week with a $150,000 donation to a PAC supporting former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, giving that PAC $200,000 for the final five weeks of the race.

Meanwhile, a PAC opposing Saldaña and supporting former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher got $70,000 through the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

Mail ballots drop next week, so the late contributions will need to turn into mailers, digital advertisements, TV spots or a paid canvassing operation quickly to start turning out votes.

But it’s now clear that there’s enough money for the outside PACs to run extensive negative ads about both candidates for the rest of the race.

For Saldaña, the PAC is virtually a substitute for a campaign. At the end of the last filing deadline, she had just $725 left to spend. Fletcher had $256,896 in the bank.

On Twitter, Democratic political consultant Eva Posner (who’s running Jones-Wright’s campaign), said the PAC money is a waste. “>$200K in a crowded primary on a race that is all but guaranteed to go to Nov for a seat that is 1 vote out of 5 when you have 3 countywide races that end in June for positions that have unilateral power & no oversight. This is why we can’t have nice things. Like progress,” she wrote.

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I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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