San Diego Next week's runoff election in District 6 for the city council seat vacated by Valerie Stallings last January will close a match between first-time candidates Steve Danon -- former chief of staff to Ron Roberts and frequent Republican campaign manager-- and Donna Frye, a Pacific Beach environmentalist and founder of STOP, Surfers Tired of Pollution. Danon has accused Frye of courting "big labor's" endorsement, implying that out-of-town interests are directing her with money and more. For her part, Frye seldom brings up the identity of Danon's well-heeled donors.
By matching zip codes of donors to the six zip codes of District 6 itself, the donor-base total (as of May 19) for the candidates reveals a striking difference. For the 49-year-old Frye, about 67 percent of her contributions come from outside her district, while 33 percent are inside. (The district comprises Clairemont, Bay Park, Mission Valley, and Serra Mesa, as well as about half of Pacific Beach, Linda Vista, and Kearny Mesa.) Frye's donors include small-business owners, retirees, and environmentalists, including the Sierra Club's Eric Bowlby, labor leader Jerry Butkiewicz, and ex-assemblywoman Lucy Killea. Some robust independent spending is represented by labor groups, locally and in Orange County.
Danon, a 35-year-old Republican, has more than twice the individual donors as his opponent. His donors include presidents of companies; developers, contractors, builders; administrative personnel of the developers; staff members in Ron Roberts's office; and registered lobbyists. Ninety-two percent of Danon donors live outside District 6, making Danon's slogan -- Put Our Neighborhoods First! -- at the least ironic.
Danon said recently that his outside-the-district collection plate doesn't trouble him. True, you are elected by the district, he noted, "But there may be individuals I have worked with in the past who want to see good government that would support me, if, say, they live in Tierrasanta, Point Loma, or University City."
Danon's coffers have swelled from those outside the district who are also inside San Diego's major developer groups -- the Building Industry Association, the San Diego County Apartment Association, the Coalition for Fair Employment and Construction. Marcel Becker, chairman of the legislative committee for the local chapter of the Association of Builders and Contractors, said his group is forbidden to donate to Danon (whom they support) because the chapter is registered as a state political action committee. State PACs can't give to municipal races, which are supposedly nonpartisan. But Becker's association has helped finance Danon's campaign with individual donations and a fundraising breakfast.
On the residency gap between Frye's and Danon's donors, Donald Cohen, political director of the Labor Council of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said the discrepancy confirms that "Donna has lived and worked in that district for 40 years. She and her husband Skip are rooted in that community. I walked precincts. People know the Fryes. Steve Danon moved there last year. He's not of that community. Steve's base of support is from the political community, the interests he's been with while he worked for Brian Bilbray and Ron Roberts."
I ran Danon's figure of 8 percent in-district donations by primary candidate Mike Pallamary, who finished third. He chuckled, then called it unfortunate that candidates in local elections must rely on outside funding. For the primary, Pallamary collected $45,000, of which 22 percent came from District 6 contributors. "Sadly, in order to compete, I had to find money outside the district to go against the machine that Danon has."
Danon's money grab from outside the district may reflect his disaffiliation with labor. During the primary, Danon sought the unions' backing. (His boss Roberts won it for his mayoral bid.) Once the nod went to Frye, Danon was quoted in an April 18 Union-Tribune article as saying, "It's one thing [for Frye] to work with the labor unions, and it's another thing to work for the labor unions." According to Michael Zucchet, political director of the San Diego Firefighters, Local 145, this statement "rattled the cages" of some of his members. At first they didn't see a "bad choice" between Frye and Danon. But their enthusiasm vaporized once Danon dressed Frye in the uniform of the lackey.
Next, Danon engaged ex-congressman Brian Bilbray to charge in a mailer that Frye's campaign has been "financed by tens of thousands of dollars of soft money from big labor unions." Danon told me that such benefaction "raises an eyebrow. Is it a problem? I think the voters can draw their own conclusions about the amount of money the labor unions are pumping in."
I asked Zucchet -- an announced candidate for Byron Wear's District 2 seat in 2002 -- whether big-labor bosses are hijacking Frye's campaign. "That's absurd," he said. "This is local unions with local money spending it on local campaigns."
Whatever big labor's influence, one thing is certain: Frye's soft-money total is close to $47,000. The local firefighters contributed $14,103 for signs and direct mail. The Labor Council has kicked in $3339 for radio ads and $4000 on a phone bank. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 30 also did a phone bank worth $5000. The San Diego Police Officers Association paid for signs and a mailer, at $12,432. Finally, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) from Buena Park, near Anaheim in Orange County, spent $8000 on mailers. This union, which raised more than $1 million in three months between February and May of this year, has a habit of bankrolling other union efforts.
According to the Secretary of State's website, the UFCW contributed $4000 to the Committee on Political Education at San Diego's labor council. I asked the labor council's Donald Cohen if this was a payback for their expense on Donna Frye. "No," he said. "But we are allowed to use whatever money we receive for member education as we see fit."
Though more expenditures may arrive in the last two weeks before the election, Danon has seen only one independent expenditure: The San Diego County Apartment Association spent $4510 on signs and mailers. This represents less than one-tenth of what Frye's labor groups have bought.