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Some get it from big Los Angeles, Orange County, and New York developers. Some get it from professional sports moguls, trash haulers, and union bosses. Still others get it from lawyers, judges, and lobbyists. A lucky few even get it from wealthy spouses or rich uncles in Manhattan, and many make huge personal loans to themselves, brazenly counting on tapping into special interests to pay themselves back later on. But wherever they get it, it's crucial for success in what has become San Diego's biggest high-stakes poker game: the race for campaign cash.

In a city where councilmembers make $54,000 a year and the mayor is paid $71,900, 13 candidates running for four open city council seats in next March's primary election have already collected a total of $534,500. One council candidate boasts of having raised $81,000. The top five mayoral candidates have so far reported raising $851,808, with a single candidate, county supervisor Ron Roberts, having picked up $373,051 from his well-heeled supporters.

The grand total of $1,386,308 collected over the first six months of this year by the mayoral and council candidates smashes all previous records. A $2.5 million political season at San Diego City Hall, unheard of four years ago, is virtually assured. It guarantees that a torrent of cash will pour into the coffers of professional fundraisers, pollsters, and political consultants and handlers who will spend it on an orgy of junk mail, hit pieces, and radio and television spots crafted to sell their candidates to an increasingly blasé local electorate, many of whom are too lazy, alienated, or too out of touch to bother to vote. In 1995, the last time four city council seats were on the ballot, barely 20 percent of city voters made it to the polls.

But if San Diegans don't care who controls the city council, special interests do, and they are willing to pay big money to make sure they get who they want. The city council and the mayor control a budget of $2.2 billion and have lavished tax dollars on everything from baseball and football stadiums to convention centers to experimental programs to turn sewage into drinking water. The council also controls land use in the city and can award a lucrative shopping-mall concession or housing development to a generously contributing friend -- and just as easily deny them to a foe.

Unwatched and unquestioned by local media (since its merger of the Union with the Tribune and the demise of the San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times, the Union-Tribune has stopped reporting on most of what happens at City Hall, and television stations do little of their own governmental reporting), the mayor and council also dole out millions of dollars in federal funds, state grants, and local taxes to favorite charities and business associations -- such as the Convention and Visitors Bureau -- in the name of civic progress. It is no coincidence that many of the donors to city council campaigns are the recipients of these millions.

District elections -- the method by which city council candidates are elected by the voters in their districts rather than citywide, as was the practice before 1989 -- were supposed to reduce the influence of big money and make it easier for grassroots campaigns to take root. It didn't work out that way. Instead of boasting of their legions of volunteer precinct walkers and loyal envelope stuffers, this year's council candidates are bragging about their bankrolls.

It is a recipe for San Diego's own special brand of institutionalized corruption, and contributors across the country have taken notice, evidenced by the latest campaign-disclosure filings submitted to the city clerk by the candidates earlier this month. More troubling still is the city's history of money-laundering scandals in which wealthy contributors arrange for their employees, associates, and even children to make $250 contributions that are secretly and illegally reimbursed.

A chief example of San Diego's new money political culture is the Fifth District city council campaign of Karen McElliott, former planning commissioner and current chairwoman of the Qualcomm Stadium advisory board. Though her fundraising total of $61,000 was not a record among this year's candidates, the number of donors with special-interest agendas at city hall sets a new high.

Among those giving the legal maximum of $250: Larry Lucchino, co-owner of the Padres; Rebecca Moores, wife of Padres co-owner John Moores; Chargers owner Alex Spanos, his son Dean Spanos, and other Spanos family members, all of whom list their address as Stockton, California. They include Helen Spanos, Faye Spanos, Dea Spanos Berberian, and Michael Spanos. Lucchino and Moores are right in the middle of a nasty battle to build a taxpayer-subsidized stadium downtown. And it is no secret that Alex Spanos harbors hopes to build a new football stadium for his team at taxpayer expense and seeks continued public funding for a major overhaul of the existing Qualcomm Stadium to better accommodate the Super Bowl. Just how badly they want more public money can be gauged by how many contributions they make to city council candidates.

The Spanos family was also busy in the First District city council race, where nurse Linda E. Davis, who reported raising a total of $33,630, collected maximum contributions from Dea Spanos Berberian and her husband Ron, who works for Stockton's Bank of Agriculture and Commerce; Larry Ruhl, also of Stockton, who is executive vice president of A.G. Spanos Co.; Alex Spanos; Dean Spanos; Faye Spanos; Michael Spanos; Susan Spanos; and Helen Spanos.

Rather than pick just one candidate for mayor so early in the race, the Spanos clan have spread their wealth among several mayoral candidates, all of whom also happen to be incumbent city council members who have loyally backed the Chargers' controversial ticket guarantee and stadium deal. Second District councilman Byron Wear's mayoral campaign got $250 from Dean Spanos. Dean and his wife Susan also gave the mayoral campaign of Fourth District councilman George Stevens $500.

The family favorite for mayor, however, seems to be Councilwoman Barbara Warden. Like Wear and Stevens, Warden has been an avid supporter of the Chargers' stadium deal. Dea Spanos Berberian gave $250 to Warden's campaign for mayor, as did her husband Ron Berberian. Raymond Hanes, listed as an executive vice president of the Spanos Co. in Las Vegas, gave Warden $250, as did Jeremiah T. Murphy, Jr., of Stockton, listed as a "corporate officer" of the Spanos Corporation, and Stockon's Barry Ruhl, another Spanos employee, along with wife Alexis Ruhl. Other Spanos family members giving to Warden included maximum contributions from Michael and Helen Spanos of Stockton. The Padres' Larry Lucchino gave Warden $250.

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