By E.A. Barrera
In keeping with the national trend to start the 2008 political season very early, candidates for San Diego City Councilwoman Toni Atkin’s seat have started their campaigns and have already participated in one debate. Atkins, who has represented the 3rd City Council District since 2000 is prevented from seeking another term due to term limits.
The candidates running to replace her include former 3rd District City Councilman John Hartley, congressional representative Todd Gloria, San Diego Red Cross spokesman Stephen Whitburn, local community activist and Green Party member Rocky Neptune, self-described “Independent-Republican” Robert E. Lee, and Republican James Hartline.
Whitburn, who served as the President of the San Diego Democratic Club (SDDC) for two years, received the early endorsement of both San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye, and the SDDC after the club held a candidates forum on June 28. With an overflowing crowd of close to 200 people, Whitburn earned more than 69 percent of the club’s vote to be their candidate for the council seat. Gloria earned 26 percent of the vote, while Hartley earned just 2 percent. Neptune was the only other candidate at the forum and received no votes, since he was not eligible for the club’s endorsement. The SDDC will only endorse registered Democrats.
Speculation was the Whitburn campaign orchestrated the early endorsement. Frye spoke to the group, announcing her support for Whitburn as well as telling the club it was necessary to endorse early so as to combat “a Republican machine” already organizing to try and win the seat.
“The GOP has already endorsed (Mayor Jerry) Sanders and they are gearing up to take control of this council,” said Frye. “We need to make our choices and begin organizing if we want to protect the working people of San Diego from those who would give this city to the corporate special interests,” said Frye.
Supporters of the Gloria campaign sought to delay an endorsement by the SDDC until early next year, after the filing deadline for candidates has passed. They were joined by a June 28 editorial in the San Diego Gay and Lesbian Times - whose publisher, Michael Portantino, is also rumored to be considering a run for the seat.
“We feel that the club’s motion to endorse is too soon. Granted, as with any campaign, politicking began well before opening day, but, technically, candidates are not even able to file papers until February 2008 plenty of time for additional candidates to enter the field.
The 3rd District takes in much of central San Diego City, representing all of Balboa Park, Hillcrest, North Park, South Park, and City Heights, with large portions of Golden Hill, Mission Hills, Normal Heights and Kensington. Since voters passed District-only elections in 1988, the 3rd District has had three Democrats represent the area on the City Council. It is also considered to have the largest concentration of Gay voters anywhere in the city, but with a heavy population of Latinos, Seniors, and affluent young couples and renters who have moved into the area in recent years.
Developments in and around the North Park Theater along University Avenue, and the rise of several condominium developments in Hillcrest, have made it one of San Diego’s more densely populated areas. Last Summer, a string of muggings and burglaries in the Hillcrest and North Park neighborhoods put residents on edge concerning crime.
John Hartley was the 3rd District’s first representative on the council after the district-only format was instituted. Hartley led the effort to change the city’s voting to district-only from the previous city-wide system. Once that had succeeded, he promptly ran for the office, defeating long-time Republican councilwoman Gloria McColl in 1989. He served one term on the council, opting to retire in 1993. His council representative Christine Kehoe was elected to replace him, becoming the city’s first openly gay elected official. When Kehoe was elected to the State Senate, her assistant Toni Atkins was elected to replace her.
During the June 28 debate, Hartley reminded the audience of his work in the district, saying his life’s passion had been for social justice and community representation.
“Our neighborhoods are suffering under the attack of the corporate special interests who want to control this city,” said Hartley. “We have lost neighborhood police officers. We have lost city services. We need to tackle the problems of this city’s infrastructure and I would say tackle the infrastructure first before any new development projects are allowed to go forward.”
Neptune, who is director of the San Diego Renter’s Union, called on the city to develop more affordable housing. But the real fight of the night was between Whitburn and Gloria, who are both gay and have both been active within the SDDC. In light of the election of two consecutive gay politicians to the seat, local political speculation is the seat will remain filled by a gay individual.
“I have been preparing for this day for a long time,” said Gloria in both remarks to the SDDC and in press releases announcing his candidacy. I have known I want to serve the citizens of District 3 for many years now, and I am prepared and ready to work hard on the campaign to make that goal a reality. The city needs new energy. If I am elected I will be spending more time in the district than I will at City Hall.
Gloria has served as District Director and community representative for Congresswoman Susan Davis since 2001. Previous to that, he worked for six years in the County of San Diego’s Health and Human Services Agency. He is currently a member of the San Diego City Council’s Housing Commission and is a resident panelist on the Mid City Prostitution Impact Panel. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center and recently completed a term as its chairman.
During the meeting, Gloria told the audience he is a native San Diegan of Latino heritage. In campaign documents, Gloria lists an ethnic heritage of American Indian, Filipino, Latino, and Dutch ancestry. But when asked if he spoke Spanish, he described his abilities as only “passable.”
Whitburn, a former journalist with Metro Networks, offered a brief answer in fluent Spanish, before telling the audience he had come to San Diego 9-years earlier and felt the most pressing issues facing the next council would include ethics, housing and local infrastructure. In both his remarks and campaign literature, Whitburn said he would be a voice for workers and organized labor on the council.
“I know form personal experience the difference unions can make in improving the lives of workers. I oppose ‘big box’ supercenters in our city, bringing low-paying, low-benefit jobs that drive out our small businesses,” said Whitburn. “I also oppose the contracting out of city workers’ jobs. We too often end up with city services that are profit-driven, of inferior quality, and that cut costs by cutting wages and benefits. I spoke publicly about the correlation of the crime spike in North Park with the reduction in officers on the street due to the departure of our police for better paying jobs elsewhere.”
Whitburn has served as a public education liaison to the Latino community while at the Red Cross. He is currently a member of the North Park Planning Committee and has made the issue of apartments being converted to condominiums a key point of his effort. He told the SDDC audience on June 28 this came from personal experience with the issue.
“I am a renter. My first apartment in San Diego was converted to a condominium. The next apartment I lived in was also converted. Then, and you’d think I’d learn, I moved into an apartment complex in Hillcrest. I was just recently informed that it too will be converted into condominiums,” said Whitburn to laughter from the crowd. “I have testified before the city council against the continued conversion of affordable housing into condominiums and as a councilman, I will be an advocate for the rights of renters and those needing affordable housing.”