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Home / Articles / News / News /  Telling them apart
. . . .
Tuesday, Oct 28, 2008

Telling them apart

District 3 City Council candidates fight over land use and fundraising

By Eric Wolff

Before W. Patrick Edwards would talk to CityBeat, he needed to determine whom he was representing: The North Park Main Street Business Improvement District, of which he is president? The North Park Redevelopment Agency Advisory Committee? The District 3 Library Task Force? The North Park Maintenance Assessment District? Or just himself, as a small businessman?

As that list reveals, Edwards is a guy who knows people—at least he knows people in North Park. And a connected guy in North Park is catnip for politicians who need North Park votes, like the candidates for the City Council District 3 seat. So, speaking only for himself, who would be most qualified to replace Toni Atkins? Todd Gloria or Stephen Whitburn?

“I’ve met both Stephen and Todd repeatedly during the campaign,” he said. “To be honest with you, it’s a week to go and I’m still undecided. It’s one of those happy situations where both of them are good for the community.”

Edwards’ struggle appears common in District 3 these days. Its boundaries contain Hillcrest, University Heights, North Park, Normal Heights and South Park and parts of Golden Hill and City Heights and is one of the smallest and most densely populated of San Diego’s eight districts. It’s also the most gay (both candidates are gay), the most liberal (both candidates are Democrats) and possibly the most diverse (Gloria has a mixed heritage, Whitburn grew up in Texas and New York). The two candidates would probably vote so similarly on issues that come before City Council that many in the district are left, like Edwards, searching for some way to tell the two apart.

That’s not to say the two aren’t doing their damnedest to separate themselves.

“I think we need someone with experience to do this job,” Gloria told CityBeat.

Few speaking opportunities go by without Gloria pointing out that he’s a third generation San Diegan. And, as part of his work in the employ of Congressmember Susan Davis, he has been a regular presence at community meetings.

With such deep roots in San Diego, Gloria has been able to draw support both for endorsements (he’s backed by labor and Mayor Jerry Sanders) and for fundraising. But in a district as liberal as D3, having establishment and developer names on campaign-finance forms raises red flags for voters, and Gloria has some high-profile names on his list: Sempra Energy, Black Mountain Ranch, Corky McMillin Companies and the white-shoe law firm Latham & Watkins all take star turns with contributions from multiple employees.

Whitburn has taken that list and gone on the attack, hammering home a message that says, in short, that a vote for Gloria is a vote for developer interests. He argues that Gloria was slow to oppose the residential tower proposed for 301 University Ave. in Hillcrest and to get on board with a height limitation on Uptown buildings, and that he supports a controversial development in Kensington.

“I think that history has shown that politicians who are significantly funded by developers and lobbyists are often influenced by those political contributions,” Whitburn said.

Gloria takes umbrage at the idea. He says he was right there with Whitburn on the Hillcrest building and the height limitation. And on the Kensington issue, he points out that the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group had approved the construction unanimously, putting his views in line with the community. And he swears that no contributors will get extra access to his office.

“If anything, I have a reputation for being extremely accessible—it will not change depending on who contributes to me,” Gloria said.

But companies do have a long history of taking advantage of added pull with elected officials.

“If you have two phone calls, and one person has given contributions and the other hasn’t, guess which phone call you return,’ said ethicist Bob Stern from the Center on Government Studies.

Stern also said it’s acceptable for a company to encourage employees to donate or vote for a specific candidate.

CityBeat called donors on Gloria’s list, but no one would ’fess up to a company endorsement. A Sempra employee said the company had had a forum in which both candidates spoke, and she preferred Gloria. Chris Garrett, a partner at Latham & Watkins, lives in District 2 but contributed to Gloria’s campaign because one of his colleagues was a childhood friend of the candidate.

“She says he’s a really good guy,” he said. “I feel bad for people—they have to raise money; contribution limits are low. If no one contributes then there’s no democracy.”

Connections like that have given Gloria a substantial edge over Whitburn in funding. Since Jan. 1, he’s raised $190,000 and contributed nothing himself. Whitburn has raised $219,000, but he’s loaned or given $89,000 of it. He also received $74,000 from the San Diego Democratic Party. In the most recent filing, Whitburn raised $2,395, and had to contribute $22,000 of his own cash, mostly his own savings and loans against his 401(k).

Whitburn said he “dramatically cut down” his fundraising hours but that he’s also run into a lot of people who are just tapped out.

“Certainly people are stretched thin,” he said.

Gloria highlighted Whitburn’s self-funding in a recent press release, and because both candidates have made political donations an issue in the race, area voters are aware of it. Not that it has really helped them make a decision.

“It does kind of bother me, that money in some way in politics reflects support,” says Edwards, the undecided voter from North Park. “One of the things about [Whitburn] not raising money is that he’s not effectively working in a system that requires you to raise money to get votes. Does that indicate to me that Stephen is an idealist that won’t compromise? On the other side, did Todd sell out?”    

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