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A Mostly Republican History

What chance is there in San Diego for an honest young lawyer who is a Democrat?

— J. Robert O'Connor, U.S. attorney for California (1900)

"A choice, not an echo" was Barry Goldwater's slogan in his campaign for president in 1964. Goldwater lost the election to Lyndon Johnson by a landslide, in part because the conservative Republican dared promote himself in such unequivocal terms. For as long as San Diego has been holding elections, candidates have seemed, with their gloves-off campaigns, to offer a choice, but typically they present no more than an echo. Case in point, during much of 2004, is the mayor's race.

Supervisor Ron Roberts and Mayor Dick Murphy, combatants in 2000, still seem interchangeable: Republican barons of their county and city manors; white males in their 60s; buddies with the developers; supporters of municipal unions; and overseers of massive pension deficits, which in the case of the city amounts to $1.17 billion. Many believe that Roberts wouldn't be any better than Murphy -- a mayor who was saddled with the pension mess by his predecessor, Susan Golding. Murphy voted with all but one member of the council in 2002 to continue the underfunding.

The case stood until Donna Frye, the councilwoman who voted against pension underfunding, declared herself a write-in candidate for mayor on the last day of September. Whether or not Frye wins next Tuesday, her candidacy has been the biggest hurrah in local politics in years. A Democrat seriously challenging the Republican dynasty in San Diego is as rare as August rain. Almost unheard of in the lore of local elections was Frye's disclosure: she was running because everyday people had urged her to run so that they had, in her words, "somebody to vote for." In the wake of the pension debacle, she was listening: "It's hard to explain sometimes," she told the Union-Tribune, "when the public becomes very, very frustrated. Sort of like a big wave riding over the ocean just keeps building and building and building momentum."

Frye's candidacy is a phenomenon, which a look at our political history confirms. Since 1850, when the city was incorporated, nearly all of the men and women who've run for local, state, and federal office have, with a few wild exceptions, been cut from the same conservative cloth. But these are not just any old conservatives; they are the anointed ones. And who has anointed them? The owners of land and capital; builders and developers; wealthy "carpetbaggers" who fight wealthy "pioneers" for local control; political parties; newspaper publishers and editors; and, since the 1980s, special interests like labor unions, environmentalists, religious factions, issue-oriented attack groups, and a new class of hired guns -- partyless campaign consultants who commission and interpret polls and spin the political news.

A.J. Liebling, the New Yorker's preeminent critic, once said that freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one. San Diego media owners are no exception; they, too, are players in the game. Their TV and radio stations as well as newspapers bring us the candidates' messages and in so doing shape that message. How? By placement, frequency, and choice of stories (which means only the anointed get covered). By running campaign ads (whose often controversial content means opponents must respond in kind). By covering the spin-meisters (whose predictions and polls the media find newsworthy). And by endorsements (which in newspapers once were found on both the editorial and the front pages). On occasion, a TV station will endorse a mayoral or congressional candidate. But most stations practice campaign-season "neutrality": they avoid local politics (unless celebrities are involved) and save time to report on controversial ads that "make" news. When candidates go mano a mano in their 30-second TV spots, the stations tally up the profits.

We think that the difference between candidates stems from their different positions. But in local races, the candidates' positions are seldom substantively different, which is one reason most political ads avoid issues. Instead, ads highlight an opponent's putative demon -- a flawed character, a broken pledge, a tainted donation: all of us have at least one Willie Horton in our pasts. The goal is simple: pound away at the flaw until a seed of distrust is planted in the voter's mind. Distrust is the surest way for a candidate to widen the division between himself and his opponent. A clear division, the consultants say, produces a winner. However, such manufactured divisiveness -- attack ads, political rhetoric, media skewing -- rarely serves the interests of the voters, rarely holds a candidate to a promise.

When you study the most contentious and covered campaigns in our history -- from the Workingmen's mayoral victory by William J. Hunsaker in 1887; to the rise and fall of white supremacist Tom Metzger, the Democrats' candidate for Congress in 1980; to the dirtiest campaign of all, the bitch-slapping between Susan Golding and Peter Navarro in 1992 -- you find you're soiled by the same spill. It's the September-October stain of negative campaigning, in which both camps rouse our fears (or defend themselves from an opponent's provocation) until we're convinced that one candidate must be the worst, the one we should vote against. Conditioned by smear, we find it near impossible to see that the candidate we choose may be a cutout of the one we don't. Long ago, Englishman Thomas Hobson, who ran a livery stable, told those who asked for a choice of a horse that yes, the customer always had a choice. He could take the horse nearest the stable door or he could take nothing. For more than a century, Hobson's choice has been at work in our political stable.

D.C. Reed v. William J. Hunsaker (1887)

In 1885, San Diego was a fledgling city of 5000, a funny little movie-set town of clapboard houses and dirt roads. Tall ships dotted the harbor; the railroad had just connected the city with the East. In the next two years, San Diego grew quickly. Tourist and adventurer arrived for the pristine bays and perfect weather but more often came for the real estate boom. By 1887, the population had spiked to 30,000. New investors, pumped up by speculation on Wall Street, watched local land parcels double in value overnight; one parcel increased tenfold within three months. To those who were profiting from the sudden wealth -- land speculators and laborers -- the right mayor needed electing to keep the city growing.

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