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— Now that San Diego city councilman Scott Peters is wrapping up his single term on the California Coastal Commission, a behind-the-scenes struggle has erupted over who will replace him. Sources say La Jollan Peters, whom environmentalists have hit hard for his vote to keep the buoys around the beach at his beloved La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, was involuntarily retired from the commission by assembly speaker Fabian Núñez, a Los Angeles Democrat. Under state law, the Peters chair, appointed by the speaker, must be occupied by either a member of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors or a city councilmember from somewhere in the county.

Some of the names being bandied about include Encinitas city councilmember Maggie Houlihan and Oceanside city councilmember Esther Sanchez, a Brown University alum and lawyer who works for the county Public Defender's Office. Sanchez battled San Diego hotel mogul Douglas Manchester over building a posh resort on the beach in Oceanside, and last year Houlihan was the target of a heckling clown, reportedly hired by a disgruntled real estate agent, who followed her around to various campaign events. Neither candidate is said to be palatable to San Diego's predominantly Republican real estate and development interests, including Manchester, which have enjoyed a relatively free hand under Peters, a nominal Democrat with close ties to such GOP kingpins as Mission Valley's Terry Brown.

Adding to the intrigue of the Peters succession are the roles that assemblymembers Juan Vargas and Lori Saldaña are expected to play in lobbying for their as-yet-undisclosed favorites. Termed-out Vargas, a declared congressional candidate who may instead run to succeed resigned mayor Dick Murphy, is one of the assembly's top political fund-raisers. Vargas is expected to push hard for a pro-business coastal commission candidate, preferably a member of the San Diego City Council who will help him collect plenty of campaign cash. Saldaña, a Sierra Club member who won her Democratic-primary battle against two pro-development Democrats backed by some of the state's biggest and most powerful corporations, is counted on by environmentalists to come through with an appointment more in sympathy with the Green lobby. Also expected to weigh in is state senator Denise Ducheny, another Hispanic legislator, whose husband Al waged a long and ultimately successful battle against the Port of San Diego to build a small bayfront park in Barrio Logan.

Faithful defenders First-quarter disclosures for those "legal defense funds" at San Diego's city hall are in. Dick Murphy, with six accounts, and Donna Frye, with two, are using theirs to pay for their battle over the mayorship; Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zucchet are funding their lawyers in the Cheetahs case. Inzunza raised a total of $19,375 in $250 increments from a tightly-knit group of faithful donors, including his old buddy, ex-city staffer and failed school-board candidate Ben Hueso, along with seven Hueso family members. Zucchet, who raised $29,585, got the maximum from lobbyists Paul Robinson and partner David Watson, developers Sol and Robert Price, and SDSU's Jane Gawronski, active in Point Loma planning issues. Lawyer Watson also maxed out to Frye. Murphy, who later forfeited his job, led the pack with a whopping $204,155 in five committees. (Murphy's sixth committee, set up April 29 to pay for legal expenses arising from a forthcoming ethics commission audit of his 2004 campaign spending, will report next quarter.) Black Mountain Ranch developer Fred Maas, said to be a close friend of ex-mayoral aide John Kern, kicked in the maximum $1250, as did Pauline Foster, wealthy mother-in-law of outgoing schools chief Alan Bersin and chairman of La Jolla's Museum of Contemporary Art, whose new downtown depot gallery Murphy backed. But the biggest Murphy donors were all tied to developer Corky McMillin, who has deals cooking downtown, Scripps Ranch, Otay Mesa, and, of course, the controversial development on the site of the old Naval Training Center, now called "Liberty Station." According to Murphy's filing, at least 23 McMillin family members and/or employees gave $12,900 to the mayor's legal cause, much of it on February 17. On March 15, council minutes show, Murphy voted to advance plans for a 350-room McMillin hotel on the NTC grounds.

Stem cell Olympics The New York Times reported last week that top San Diego advocates for headquartering the state's new stem cell research effort on Torrey Pines Mesa stand accused of cheating. "Some San Franciscans have questioned whether it was coincidental that the two members of the site-selection committee from San Diego awarded significantly lower marks to San Francisco than to San Diego when asked to give their 'general overall impression' of the cities," the paper said. "On a scale of 1 to 30, John C. Reed, the president of the Burnham Institute, gave San Francisco only 9 points, and Richard A. Murphy, president of the Salk Institute, gave it 10, according to unofficial tallies kept by the cities. Dr. Reed and Dr. Murphy, whose institutes are in San Diego, gave that city 27 points and 26 points, respectively, according to the unofficial tallies." Dr. Murphy denied the charge, saying that the site-selection committee had been "extremely professional and objective."

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