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Political strategist Tom Shepard joining Bob Filner makes sense only when you know the history.
When Bob Filner and Carl DeMaio advanced out of June’s mayoral primary, the Tom Shepards of the world lost.
Shepard represents the kind of Republican moderate that San Diegans like to elect mayor. That’s perhaps in part because Shepard helped them get elected. Three out of the last five San Diego mayors, Roger Hedgecock, Susan Golding and current leader Jerry Sanders, have had Shepard as their primary campaign consultant. Profiles in recent years have deemed Shepard, the “Kingmaker” and the “Mayor Maker.”
But for this election, Shepard backed Republican-turned-independent Nathan Fletcher. The assemblyman fit the same mold as candidates past, but finished a distant third in the primary.
So it came as a surprise when Filner, a liberal Democratic congressman, announced late Wednesday that he had hired Shepard as his consultant against DeMaio, a partisan Republican city councilman.
It’s hard to imagine the hiring of any other political consultant would generate as much buzz as Shepard. The rumors over the past week that Shepard was planning to work for Filner caused serious chatter among whatever chattering class exists in San Diego.
Part of the reason is that Shepard has the reputation as a winner. Aside from the mayoral elections, Shepard guided successful ballot measures on the Convention Center and Petco Park. More recently, however, Shepard lost the high-profile Proposition D sales tax campaign two years ago and Fletcher’s mayoral bid.
We answer three questions on what this move says about the race.
1. How Much Does Shepard Matter?
Linking with Shepard gives Filner two things he hasn’t had to this point: Someone on his campaign team who has a history of successful San Diego municipal elections and a personal connection to the downtown establishment that’s long been the epicenter of the city’s powerbrokers.
Partisanship aside, Filner’s a different kind of candidate than the ones Shepard’s used to working with. Larry Remer, a Democratic political consultant who has known Filner and Shepard for decades, said Filner’s always been his own strategist and he didn’t expect that to change.
“He could hire James Carville and Karl Rove and he’s still going to do what he’s going to do,” Remer said.
For that reason, Remer didn’t expect Shepard’s hiring to affect the race.
“It has no impact,” Remer said. “Zero. None.”
Still, it’s impossible not to notice a distinct change in Filner’s campaign over the past two weeks. First, he came out and publicly emphasized something he had said quietly during the primary: that if elected he planned to implement the high-profile Proposition B pension initiative despite opposing it at the ballot box.
Then came a bizarre incident where Filner reaffirmed his support for his own pension fix before his campaign disavowed it hours later.
In both cases, Filner seemed to embrace policy stances that weren’t natural for him, but crafted by someone else to present a broader message of consensus — or, at least, a message not of defiance to a popular measure.
Shepard said he didn’t start officially working for Filner until Aug. 1 and added he had nothing to do with Filner’s abandonment of his pension plan.
“You’re flattering me,” Shepard said.
2. Wait, Isn’t Shepard a Republican?
Yes. That fact prompted local GOP Chairman Tony Krvaric to cast Shepard out of the family soon after the news broke. In a statement posted to SDRostra, Krvaric said the party would never hire Shepard again. And Krvaric likened Shepard to Judas.
“I hope Tom enjoys his 30 pieces of silver,” Krvaric wrote.
Asked if Krvaric comparing him to the biblical betrayer of Christ bothered him, Shepard replied: “I learned in elementary school that getting in fights with children was generally not a productive way to spend one’s time. So I, ever since then, have tried to avoid that.”
Still, Shepard already lost a Republican assembly candidate following the news, and he didn’t sound rock solid on Republican County Supervisorial challenger Steve Danon.
“As of right now he’s still with us,” Shepard said.
While Shepard’s most recent work has been on behalf of Republicans — he has represented all five Republican county supervisors — working for Democrats isn’t unprecedented for him. He was elected mayor of Del Mar as a Democrat in the early 1970s. In the late 1980s, Shepard helped an upstart Democratic politician named John Hartley defeat an incumbent Republican Gloria McColl on the City Council. As it turns out, McColl is the only person ever to haven beaten Filner in an election.
If you add that history to his personal distaste for DeMaio, which only heightened during fights with Fletcher in the primary, Shepard and Filner together shouldn’t be stunning.
3. What’s The Party Got to Do With It?
Shepard has long held the belief that partisanship is overrated in local politics. He said he spent weeks talking to Filner about what he does think matters before he decided to join his campaign.
Shepard said he was convinced that Filner could act like the leader of an institution, which he believes wins elections, rather than a bomb-throwing legislator. For the majority of his political career, Filner has taken an activist and at times abrasive approach to governing. But he’s promised that would change if he’s elected.
“Honestly, I was skeptical when I started this process because I had heard all the same stories that you printed and others have relayed about Bob,” Shepard said. “I had my doubts. We’ve had some very, very deep heart-to-heart conversations about many issues, but that one in particular, about what the difference is between the office he’s running for and the one he holds right now. I think his thinking was heading along those lines as well.”
Still, given the clear and strong ideological differences between the two candidates and the more active involvement of local parties particularly on the Republican side, it’s hard to imagine that this race won’t be more partisan-tinged than in the past.
A 2008 profile of Shepard in CityBeat argued that Shepard’s aversion to partisanship stems in part because he hasn’t had as much success in those kinds of campaigns.
Shepard never did well in party-oriented campaigns. Some, like (former mayoral candidate Peter) Navarro and (former City Councilman Bruce) Henderson, think it’s because he simply isn’t a good enough consultant to win those races. Shepard believes his own politically moderate stances make him a perfect fit for the nonpartisan city and county races.
“I figure, when you have a partisan campaign, you have 10, 15 percent of the undecideds to work with,” Shepard said. “But in a nonpartisan campaign, you have everybody.”
Shepard refused to be pinned down on his own personal politics, but he clearly seems to dislike the far left and the far right of the political spectrum, the people who form the base of any partisan electorate. The pro-business, right-leaning moderates seem to match his own view of politics.
Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663.
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