Late last week, Councilwoman Lorie Zapf’s re-election campaign announced a press conference that pledged to set the record straight after voters in her coastal district had been inundated by mail attacking her for past comments she made about gay people, and her celebration of President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
A few hours later, they sent out a correction. The press conference, it turned out, would not set the record straight. There was no mention of a record that needed to be straightened at all. The press conference would just be a straightforward rally for her candidacy, with appearances by former police chief Shelley Zimmerman, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Councilman Mark Kersey.
But the campaign’s impulse to respond to those attacks reflects the state of panic on the right, as the possibility that Zapf could become the first City Council incumbent to lose since “House Party 2” was still in theaters  gets more real.
A win by Jen Campbell, a retired physician and first-time candidate, would give Democrats a City Council supermajority that could override any mayoral veto.
“The bottom line is, big labor bosses – not the police, fire, lifeguards, but outside labor groups – are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a sixth seat on the City Council,” Zapf said after her Saturday press conference. “They want to override the mayor, they want to run the city from the Council.”
It’s now clear in the final stretch of the campaign that labor and the Democratic Party smell opportunity.
“Zapf is not in tune with the changing blue tide that’s coming to San Diego,” said Tom Lemmon, business manager for the San Diego Building & Construction Trades Council, a coalition of unions that is a major backer of an independent committee supporting Campbell.
Incumbents virtually always win in Council races, but Zapf’s re-election bid is close in part because she’s running in District 2, where there are nearly 10,000 more Democrats than Republicans.
“There’s no such thing as an easy Council race in District 2,” said Faulconer, who used to represent the district’s coastal neighborhoods like Point Loma, Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach. “Ever since I’ve been running in this district, it’s always a fight.”
Campbell thinks that local engagement has hurt Zapf.
“In eight years, she’s accomplished almost nothing,” Campbell said. “She doesn’t return constituent emails and calls, and she doesn’t respond to their needs. She has a record to run on, and it’s a lousy one.”
This fight, though, is taking a different shape than typical District 2 races.
Hyper-local political issues have loomed large there in recent years. Perhaps Faulconer’s signature issue on the Council was deciding to support a beach booze ban after a melee in Pacific Beach in 2007. Zapf’s 2014 re-election bid turned on a proposal to let developers build apartments taller than 30 feet in Bay Park. Her term since has been dominated by short-term vacation rentals.
But the race now has been subsumed by the national political climate – especially Trump.
Labor groups are filling voters’ mailboxes with ads about Zapf celebrating Trump’s inauguration with other Republicans in Rancho Santa Fe. Another alerts voters to anti-gay comments Zapf made in 2006, in which she said she wants to keep gay people out of public office and that she believes homosexuality is a sin. She later apologized .
Oddly enough, the Republicans and business groups supporting Zapf are trying to tell voters how unlike them she is.
One piece touts her support for bans of Styrofoam and plastic drinking straws. The same piece praises her opposition to Trump’s proposal to increase oil drilling off San Diego’s coast.
“Lorie Zapf is a mixed bag for the business community,” said Brian Pepin, president of the conservative Lincoln Club of San Diego County, which is part of two independent committees supporting her. “She has broken ranks with typical Republican positions on the environment, development and others. It’s unfortunate to watch national politics weigh in on a local race.”
Yet the stalwarts of local Republican politics are spending an awful lot of money on someone they insist is practically a Democrat.
If they spend everything on hand as of Wednesday morning, Zapf’s campaign and two independent groups supporting her – one by the Lincoln Club, the other by the Lincoln Club and Chamber of Commerce – will have spent more than $1.6 million on the District 2 race.
Campbell’s campaign and an independent committee sponsored by local construction unions that supports her, meanwhile, could spend nearly $737,000 if they empty their coffers by Election Day.
All told, political interests could pour $2.4 million into influencing District 2 voters – or about $60 per voter, based on the roughly 40,000 people who turned out in the last mid-term election in the district. If you’d prefer to look at the spending in terms of the roughly 80,000 registered voters, it’s a relative bargain at $30 per person. About 70 percent of that spending is to protect Zapf.
If she loses, though, Zapf says the Council will be fully under the sway of the labor groups backing Campbell.
“Tom Lemmon brazenly walks around, holding up his hand and says, ‘I have five votes for whatever I want,’ and he desperately wants that sixth vote,” she said. “That’s just the bottom line of what’s happening.”
That comment gave Lemmon a laugh. He said he’s never done such a thing – although he thinks it sounds pretty cool.
“Clearly, the Chamber and Lincoln Club folks are heavily invested in District 2,” he said. “For the longest time, it’s been those dollars and cents controlling the district.”
He said labor has no big plans for new policies it could pursue if Campbell gives them a sixth vote.
He did, however, say that he believes developers who receive special approvals from the city to build additional units or get waivers from specific development standards should be forced to pay prevailing wages to their construction workers.
“I can think of a million things we can do better in the city of San Diego,” he said.
Zapf wouldn’t discuss the mailers’ allegations that she’s a Trump supporter or her past comments on gay people, except to say that she “isn’t getting into their nasty campaign.”
But she thinks they’re focusing on those issues because Campbell doesn’t have much to say about the pressing local topics.
“Jen Campbell is completely unfamiliar with local issues,” she said. “She can’t answer any questions, she just states common sense, and says what the problem is.”
“Well, if she had any grasp of common sense and done her job well, she wouldn’t be in as much trouble as she is,” Campbell said.
On many local issues, it’s hard to find much space between them . Both support a new community plan in Midway that makes way for many new homes there; Zapf says she made sure the plan did more for local traffic, but Campbell says she should have done more earlier. They both oppose increasing building heights along the new $2.1 billion trolley line along Morena Boulevard. They both support the restrictive short-term vacation rental regulations the city passed this year before throwing them out this month facing a referendum threat (Zapf voted against rescinding).
“If she cared about local issues, surely I would have seen her at something over the last several years,” Zapf said.
But Campbell rejects the premise that the race has been nationalized. Supporting Trump and saying derogatory things about gays, she said, are relevant to local voters, and speak to the character of a public official. She emphasized past Zapf votes against legalizing marijuana, which the district supported overwhelmingly, and the district’s lopsided vote for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.
“She’s just totally out of touch with our district and most of what she believes in follows Trump’s line,” she said.