- Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith
The campaign to recall San Diego Mayor Bob Filner kicked off last Sunday with volunteers gathering signatures in the Gaslamp Quarter at the stroke of midnight, mobbing the finish line of America’s Finest City Half- Marathon in Balboa Park and then holding a rally at Civic Center Plaza.
While many involved with the campaign got in San Diego’s face, others kept a lower profile. At a workshop for volunteers at the Town & County Hotel in Mission Valley, John Hoy, the campaign’s top political strategist, was playing the long game.
“Typically in this type of campaign, you spend a significant amount of time trying to develop a message,” he said. “In this particular campaign that’s pretty easy. The real challenge is logistical, legal and procedural.”
You may have never heard of Hoy, but among political insiders, he’s known as one of San Diego’s most effective Republican strategists.
In the 1990s, Hoy was the leader of the National Senatorial Republican Committee and worked with figures such as former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. More recently, he was a partner in Schuman, Hoy and Associates, running the campaigns of San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and San Diego City Councilmember Lorie Zapf.
Last year, he helped pass Prop. B, a pension-reform ballot measure, as well as Prop. A, which bans the city from requiring project labor agreements on municipal construction projects.
“He’s very good,” said local Democratic strategists Chris Crotty. “There’s only a few conservative contractors in town that are really effective, and he’s one of them. He’s seasoned, and he’s devious as hell, which can be a good thing in a political campaign.”
Allegations of sexual harassment against the mayor first surfaced more than a month ago with progressive leaders Donna Frye, Marco Gonzalez and Cory Briggs calling for Filner to resign. Since then, more than a dozen women have come forward with stories of unwanted sexual advances by the mayor. Former Filner staffer Irene McCormack Jackson in late July filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit against the mayor and the city. The ensuing effort to boot Filner appears to transcend party lines, with more than 1,100 volunteers signed up to support the cause, according to organizers.
“We’re not playing the political game of what’s better for the Democrats or what’s better for the Republicans,” said Ben Katz, a volunteer with the campaign who worked for Filner briefly in the 1990s. “It’s not a game at all. It’s Bob Filner’s got to go.”
While Democrats were first to call on the mayor to step down, it’s conservatives who now seem intent on spearheading the recall effort.
Hoy said that Michael Pallamary—who filed the required paperwork to launch the recall—invited him to lunch about a month ago looking for advice.
“I walk in and discovered that it wasn’t something that was anticipated. It was something that was happening,” Hoy said. “The clock was running.”
In short order, Hoy was hired as the brains of the operation, and, a week later, April Boling, who’s worked as campaign treasurer for numerous local Republican candidates, joined on to balance the books. Then, longtime Republican fundraiser Jean Freelove started raising money. U-T San Diego quoted John Cox, a former president of the Republican Party in Chicago who now lives in San Diego County, as saying he’s donated at least $10,000 to the campaign, which has roughly received $100,000 in contributions, according to organizers.
That’s caused some donkeys to kick.
“I think that the recall is in its nascent stages, and there should be an effort to talk to these Republican folks and say, ‘If it’s really a bipartisan effort, you need some Democrats in the leadership of the recall effort,’” Crotty said.
Democratic political consultant Steve Rivera said the recall could give conservatives a “soapbox” to indirectly promote Republican candidates. “What I find interesting is they’re reaching out to some Democrats to give this a veneer of bipartisanship,” he said. “They’re not stupid; they know this is a Democratic city.”
If the mayor resigns, the resulting process would require the winner to secure a majority of votes and would likely include a primary and a general election. That could benefit liberals, given that voters in the city of San Diego are roughly 40 percent Democrat, 28 percent independent and 27 percent Republican, according to the county Registrar of Voters.
However, if Filner is recalled, the top vote-getter in a simultaneous election would win the job outright. That means a candidate could become mayor with only a small percentage of votes.
Hoy dismissed concerns that the forces behind the recall have a conservative agenda, calling the idea “cynical” and “ignorant.”
“This is a narrowly focused effort,” he said. “Frankly, as a practical matter, there’s no way to translate this into anything that helps anybody politically. The message of the campaign is really about Bob Filner and his behavior, and once it reaches an end point, it effectively dissolves.”
While skeptical of Hoy’s motivations, Crotty said he thinks the conservative consultant maybe one of the few people in San Diego who can pull off the recall.
“He’s solid; he stays on message,” Crotty said. “I always tell people: One of the things that political consultants forget is that campaigns are won and lost by attention to detail, and this guy pays attention to detail.”
For the recall to make it to the ballot, 15 percent of registered San Diego voters, or 101,597 people, will need to sign the petition by Sept. 26. City officials are reviewing the rules, which could extend that timeframe from 39 up to 99 days, depending on circumstances.
That’s one of the toughest laws in the state. Los Angeles also requires 15 percent of voters to sign petitions but gives canvassers 120 days. Almost all other large cities follow a state guideline of 10 percent of registered voters in 160 days, including San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno and Anaheim, according to Voice of San Diego.
And then there are legal questions. City officials are fast working on changing a provision in the city’s municipal code thought to be unconstitutional under state law, which requires someone to vote in the recall in order to vote on a replacement candidate.
To work with the city attorney, the recall effort has retained one of the most prestigious political law firms in the county, Bell McAndrews & Hiltachk LLP, Hoy said.
“The last time the city’s election code was revised was so long ago that it has missed a variety of changes in state and federal law and many, many courts cases,” he said. “The city’s election code is a mass of contradictions.”
How a recall effort dovetails with election politics remains to be seen. But for now, some folks are willing to overlook partisan differences for a common cause—and Hoy’s expertise.
“How can you stand on the sidelines?” Katz asked. “The mayor’s a predator. We can’t do this just with Democrats or just with Republicans or just with independents. It’s going to take us all.”