It’s Been 25 Years Since a Council Incumbent Lost

By Andrew Keatts  | April 18, 2016

Original Article

We’ve decided to include all our efforts to understand the 2016 election under the banner of San Diego Decides. As part of that, I’ll be writing a biweekly look at what’s happening in the races facing San Diego voters in 2016. It’ll include new reporting, follow-ups on bigger stories, and a round-up of other coverage of local races. To get the complete picture of the local election landscape, make sure you also check out the San Diego Decides podcast, hosted by Sara Libby and Ry Rivard. — Andrew Keatts

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Prince was on top of the charts, Bob Filner was on the City Council and I was in first grade wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt that was all the rage in suburban Maryland.

It was 1991, and it was the last time an incumbent lost an election on the San Diego City Council.

Democrat Valerie Stallings knocked off Republican Bruce Henderson when he was running for his second term representing District 6, the central district that includes Clairemont and Kearny Mesa and is now represented by Republican Chris Cate.

Stallings later resigned after pleading guilty to failing to disclose gifts from then-Padres owner John Moores.

In the 25 years since Stallings’ victory, there’s been one path to the Council: an open seat.

It’s a daunting streak facing this year’s crop of Council candidates running against incumbents.

That includes those running to represent District 7, which covers a swath of the city north of I-8 including Linda Vista, Mission Valley, Serra Mesa and San Carlos. It’s where incumbent Republican Scott Sherman is running against Democratic challengers Justin Decesare and Jose Caballero.

Decesare won the Democratic Party endorsement, giving his bid a financial boost. Caballero, meanwhile, is running as the progressive, grassroots alternative. He boasts that he was the first local candidate to endorse Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid.

Likewise, it would take a reverse of recent history to unseat Republican Mark Kersey in District 5, which covers the city’s northeast suburban communities like Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Penasquitos.

The Democratic Party endorsed Frank Tsimboukakis, who unsuccessfully ran against Joel Anderson for state Senate two years ago. Keith Mikas, a political neophyte, is also running.

That Damn Internet

Websites can be so tricky.

Bruce Lightner, husband to Council President Sherri Lightner, announced his candidacy to succeed his wife representing District 1 just before the deadline, and one of his opponents quickly noticed something was amiss.

Republican Ray Ellis saw quite a few similarities between his campaign website and Lightner’s. Ellis’ campaign circulated a response from the consultant who built the site, arguing Lightner had stolen the website’s source code and changed out certain features to make it his own.

Turns out, Lightner fixed the issue by doing the same thing with his wife’s 2012 re-election website.

He tried to get rid of certain pages that didn’t translate to his candidacy – like a list of endorsements Sherri Lightner received – but it didn’t quite work. It wasn’t available through the web page itself, but a Google search for Bruce Lightner’s candidacy turned up a page of endorsements from a veritable who’s who of local Democrats. Click on it, and you get the distinct impression that those folks have all endorsed Bruce Lightner.

“That was a placeholder, obviously,” Bruce Lightner said. “If you had ever seen Sherri’s website from four years ago, you’ll notice the look and feel is suspiciously like mine. I had an automated tool change each ‘Sherri’ to a ‘Bruce,’ and then we tried to remove the pages that didn’t make sense,” he said.

OK, so Bruce hasn’t been endorsed by former Rep. Lynn Schenk or the four other Democratic City Council members from 2012. Does he have any endorsements?

“The only person who has endorsed me is the current council president, my wife, Sherri Lightner,” Bruce Lightner said.

On at least one web browser, his website still has an image of Sherri Lightner’s face on the tab.

Tapping the Anti-Development Vote

Even if they lose, they might have found a way to win.

Bruce Lightner and fellow long-shot mayoral candidate Ed Harris are basing their campaigns on not-in-my-backyard sentiments.

They both launched campaigns late in the cycle against well-funded, party-backed opponents. But their campaigns may test the efficacy of a message built on neighborhood dissatisfaction with development and short-term vacation rentals.

“I suspect you’ll be surprised by how much support I get,” Bruce Lightner said.

Bruce Lightner, a Republican, and Harris, a Democrat, were drawn into their respective races by communities concerned with the traffic, parking, noise and general quality-of-life complaints brought on by new development and the ease of short-term vacation rentals afforded by services like Airbnb.

Bruce Lightner says he had to get into the race after Joe LaCava dropped out. LaCava was a community-minded person who would look out for the district just like his wife does, Bruce Lightner said. But neither Ellis nor Democrat Barbary Bry can be trusted to do that, he said.

Bruce Lightner has a lengthy history with Ellis – he called him an “unprincipled charlatan” after his wife defeated Ellis in 2012. He says Bry isn’t much better.

“If you look at Bry, her interest in the community and this and that and the other thing, are all manufactured,” he said. “They’re both caricatures of what a candidate should be.”

He said Bry’s comments on One Paseo, a large development project proposed in Carmel Valley, and short-term vacation rentals are superficially community-minded, but ultimately insincere.

“I fear for my community,” Lightner said. “You look at the money behind Bry and (Ellis), it’s a classic Republican versus Democrat, and that isn’t what Sherri is about, and that’s what made her successful.”

He sees himself continuing the legacy of his wife and former Councilwoman Donna Frye, who had a reputation for casting the Council’s lone dissenting vote when she was in office.

Harris, likewise, says he was pulled into the race by the same nascent movements.

“Some of the people who had a lot of influence on me getting in are Save Our Neighborhoods,” Harris said in an interview. “Save Our Neighborhoods are very concerned with (vacation rentals), very concerned with things like height limits.”

He said groups concerned with the way the city increases housing density in neighborhoods, and groups from Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and La Jolla concerned with coastal preservation, were also influential.

And, he cited Raise the Balloon, a community group that opposed the city’s plans to increase development surrounding two planned trolley stops in Linda Vista and Bay Park. Harris organized a protest against the city’s plans when he was an interim councilman. The city later backed down.

“It’s just classic: all these projects, they do a traffic study,” Harris said. “Are any of those studies working? I see traffic getting worse and worse.”

Development wariness is nothing new to San Diego or California. A citizens’ initiative created the city’s coastal height limit in 1972. Similar concerns birthed the California Environmental Quality Act in 1970 and the California Coastal Commission, made permanent by 1976’s California Coastal Act.

As City Hall now pushes to increase the number of homes and businesses developed in already-established neighborhoods, Bruce Lightner and Harris are testing the potency of a constituency saying “no thanks.”

MEA Endorsements in a Post-Prop. B World

Four years ago, city employees were front and center in the June election.

Voters were facing Proposition B, which would give all new city employees, except cops, a 401k instead of a pension, while freezing salaries for five years. Then-City Councilman Carl DeMaio ran for mayor as Prop. B’s chief proponent.

DeMaio lost in November, but Prop. B won in June. It’s still not a settled issue.

The Municipal Employees Association, the city’s white-collar employees’ union, opposed the measure, and challenged it to the state’s Public Employees Retirement Board. Late last year, the board sided with MEA, and the city a month later appealed that ruling.

As the legal challenge proceeds, MEA seems to have buried the hatchet with some elected officials who backed the measure.

MEA has endorsed the re-election bids of both Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Councilman Mark Kersey, both Prop. B supporters and Republicans.

The union also endorsed Bry over Ellis. Both supported the pension reform measure.

Councilman Scott Sherman, a Republican, was an ardent Prop B. supporter, though, and the MEA is supporting his opponent, Decesare.

In District 3, the union endorsed Democrat Chris Ward. In District 9, it’s backing Democrat Ricardo Flores, chief of staff to Councilwoman Marti Emerald. It’s also backing Rep. Scott Peters’ re-election bid and Assemblywoman Toni Atkins’ bid for state Senate.

In Other News

 It’s tough to find distinctions in the District 3 race between Democrats Anthony Bernal and Chris Ward, both of whom have worked for elected Democrats for years, KPBS reports.

That’s why the party has taken to alleging stealth differences, based on who is funding their campaigns, as we reported a month ago. Bernal – who has received contributions from conservative groups like the building and restaurant industries – defended himself against those charges in an op-ed.

Our reporter Lisa Halverstadt also recently reported that neither of them thinks it’s a great idea to build a joint convention center-stadium next door to Petco Park.

 The San Diego Ethics Commission last week handed down its largest-ever fine based on campaign violations first reported by former Voice of San Diego reporter Liam Dillon.

The fines were for misrepresenting the true source of donations, an attempt to get around the city’s campaign contribution limits, during the 2012 mayoral race. Dillon uncovered them last year in an investigation into the city’s towing industry.

The Ethics Commission fined Advantage Towing on 32 counts at $4,000 each, for a total of $128,000.

 East County Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican, repaid $12,000 to his campaign after some personal expenditures on his campaign credit card – which he says were inadvertent – landed him in national news. (San Diego Union-Tribune, The Daily Beast)

 The three mayoral candidates – Faulconer, Harris and independent contender Lori Saldaña – have two more televised debates coming this cycle. One on May 24 will air on KUSI and is co-sponsored by the San Diego Union-Tribune, and one a week before the election on June 3 will air on NBC and is co-sponsored by Voice of San Diego. (San Diego Union-Tribune)

This article relates to: Must ReadsPoliticsElection

Written by Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org     or 619.325.0529.