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Dem Leader: Party Faces ‘Stealth GOP Takeover’ Bid

Still more mud being flung in the race for city attorney, and county Republicans choose Sam Abed over Kristin Gaspar in the race for county supervisor.

We’ve decided to include all our efforts to understand the 2016 election under the banner of San Diego Decides. As part of that, I’ll be writing a biweekly look at what’s happening in the races facing San Diego voters in 2016. It’ll include new reporting, follow-ups on bigger stories, and a round-up of other coverage of local races. To get the complete picture of the local election landscape, make sure you also check out the San Diego Decides podcast, hosted by Sara Libby and Ry Rivard. — Andrew Keatts

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A handful of San Diego’s Democratic leaders arrived to some startling news at an endorsement meeting this week: Their party is under attack, from the inside.

San Diego DecidesA confidential memo obtained by Voice of San Diego alerted party insiders that Anthony Bernal, a staffer for Councilman Todd Gloria who’s running to replace his boss, was actually a stalking horse for the Republican Party. The party needed to endorse his opponent Chris Ward, chief of staff for state Sen. Marty Block, to stave off the “stealth GOP takeover of San Diego City Council,” according to the memo.

Jess Durfee, the county party’s chair emeritus, looked through the donation histories of Bernal’s donors and found a number of them had been substantial contributors to the Republican National Committee, a handful of Republican presidential campaigns and conservative local groups like the Lincoln Club.

In all, nearly $10,000 of the roughly $100,000 Bernal has raised so far came from people with a history of donating to Republican candidates and causes, according to Durfee’s memo.

Bernal would have the resources to wage a negative campaign against Ward unless progressives stepped up their financial support for him, Durfee wrote. The group unanimously voted to recommended the party endorse Ward next week.

“I can’t and won’t accuse Mr. Bernal of any impropriety in basing his campaign on overwhelming support from Republican donors, but it certainly does not bode well for our traditionally progressive Council District to be represented by a person so indebted to the right wing,” Durfee wrote.

Bernal campaign spokesman Nick Serrano said his candidate’s liberal bona fides were beyond reproach. After all, he’s worked for Gloria, one of the city’s most popular Democrats, for seven years.

“Anthony is a Democrat,” Serrano said. “What’s unfortunate about this race is that the Democratic Party and its establishment members are unwilling to consider Anthony after he’s exhibited Democratic values.”

Durfee’s analysis exaggerated the issue, Serrano said. Yes, Bernal has accepted donations from some Republicans. But that’s because there are a variety of constituents in the district, including Republicans. And those donors want Bernal to win because they know he can pick up where Gloria left off, and Ward can’t, Serrano said.

Serrano has a point: Durfee singled out about 20 donors out of the hundreds who’ve chipped in to Bernal’s run. And he emphasized the money they’ve donated to Republican causes over the years, but didn’t mention how much they’d donated to Bernal himself. Ultimately, the names he mentioned certainly helped Bernal, but also represented less than 10 percent of his total fundraising.

Durfee’s basic point, however – that Bernal is supported by Republicans and is a more conservative candidate than Ward – is substantiated by a comprehensive analysis of Ward and Bernal’s campaign finance records.

The company CROWDPAC looks at the donation history of all of a candidate’s donors to establish the candidate’s political relationships and forecast his or her political ideology. It assumes people donate to candidates who share their views, and uses all the people who donate to a candidate to surmise where that candidate stands relative to other candidates.

“This is exactly what our methodology was intended to do,” said Mason Harrison, political director for CROWDPAC.

Through the first six months of last year, the most recent period for which CROWDPAC had looked at San Diego’s District 3 Council race, Bernal graded out as a center-right candidate. Ward was solidly progressive, positioned further to the left even than Gloria, who was moderately liberal.

“This shows (Bernal) gets money from people who’ve given to Republicans,” Harrison said. “If he truly is a progressive champion, why doesn’t he get their support? He’s obviously, in terms of his political support, with right-of-center, mainstream causes.”

I wondered, though, whether the model didn’t leave open the possibility of confusing correlation and causation. Maybe Bernal really is the model Democrat he says, but his party’s donor class selected his opponent over him. What choice does he have but to solicit center-right support to keep his campaign alive?

Durfee said it’s a distinction without a difference, but it leads to the right conclusion: Bernal should have left the race.

“I’ve been around politics long enough to know you don’t get contributions from people unless they get something in return,” he said. “If he wasn’t talking to them about the direction in which he’d vote, they wouldn’t write a check. If you can’t get funding from those with whom you share values, don’t run.”

Bernal’s campaign said he hasn’t had to shift his values at all to appeal to the Republican voters who are donating to him. He just happens to be more receptive to the concerns of small businesses than Ward, Serrano said, so small business owners are comfortable donating to him despite his liberal priorities.

Durfee’s memo, however, included one more cryptic warning about the danger facing local Democrats: “With Mitt Romney now living in San Diego, the threat for a GOP takeover of local government is possibly at hand, abetted by Mr. Bernal’s debt to the ones who were bringing him to the dance.”

I wasn’t clear what the connection was between Romney’s residency and Bernal’s donations from the right. I asked Durfee to clarify.

“What I’m talking about there is … any tool the Republicans can use to manipulate, they will,” Durfee said. “Having Mitt Romney here, one of the very highest-profile Republicans in the country, is a great organizing tool.”

Pots and Kettles Everywhere

San Diego’s Democratic Party needs to look into its heart, political consultant Tom Shepard said, before it decides who to endorse in the city attorney’s race.

He happens to think doing so would lead the party to endorse his candidate, former Ethics Commission chairman Gil Cabrera.

In the aftermath of Bob Filner’s sexual harassment scandal, the party can’t afford to endorse Cabrera’s primary competitor, Port Commissioner Rafael Castellanos, because he was named in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against his former employer, Shepard said. The case settled without Castellanos personally having to pay anything, though his former firm’s insurance carrier did pay out some money.

In a piece I wrote this week on the jostling for the party endorsement, Castellanos’ consultant, Bill Wachob, said the accusation was rich coming from Shepard, who got Filner elected in the first place.

“It’s a little like the pot calling the kettle black,” Wachob said.

I neglected to include one other salient fact.

Shepard wasn’t always Filner’s consultant. In fact, they didn’t start working together in the mayor’s race until the general election.

The guy who ran Filner’s primary campaign, and who ran his congressional campaigns for years before that?

Bill Wachob.

Wachob acknowledged he had worked for Filner since 1991, but emphasized that there were no allegations against him during that time.

It’s true that Filner wasn’t subject to accusations until he was mayor. But many of those accusations stemmed from incidents that occurred throughout his political career, when Wachob was his chief consultant.

Castellanos will have to tweak one the lines he’s used to argue he deserves the Democratic Party’s endorsement.

He has often boosted his liberal credentials by pointing out that every local Democratic organization that endorsed a candidate in the race had endorsed him. It was true until Wednesday night, when the Asian-American and Pacific Islander Democratic Club endorsed Cabrera.

Castellanos now has 10 club endorsements to Cabrera’s one. The majority of liberal grassroots organizations in town have decided not to endorse any of the four Democrats in the June primary.

Campaign Round-Up

• David Garrick at the San Diego Union Tribune got in touch with Bruce Lightner, husband of Council President Sherri Lightner and now a candidate to succeed her in the City Council’s 1st District.

Political insiders speculated his entry was merely intended to eat into Republican candidate Ray Ellis’ vote total in June, keeping him below the 50 percent threshold that would end the race outright, so Democrat Barbary Bry could make it to the November ballot, where voter turnout would significantly improve her chances. Ellis also ran against Sherri Lightner in 2012. The race got pretty ugly, with Bruce Lightner calling Ellis an “unprincipled charlatan” after his wife won.

But Bruce Lightner tells Garrick he’s in the race to win.

“I’m running because the choices there, especially the other Republican in the race, were very distressing,” he said. “We need to get somebody in there who already knows what he’s doing and can get something done, and that’s certainly not Ray.”

• The County Republican Party endorsed Escondido Mayor Sam Abed in his bid to unseat Dave Roberts as county supervisor in the coastal 3rd District. The well-heeled conservative political group The Lincoln Club has endorsed the other Republican in the race, Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar.

Bernal challenged the Chargers this week to pay for a new downtown stadium without taxpayer dollars. He did not say, though, what he would do if the Chargers failed to meet the challenge. At a live recording of the Voice of San Diego podcast this summer, he said he supported a downtown, multi-use stadium that included taxpayer dollars. The same night, Ward said he wouldn’t support public funding of any stadium bid.

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