Eckert’s Record Is the Main Issue : 6 Make Last Pitch in Crowded 5th District Race

Times Staff Writer

After 30 public forums at which issues from growth to illegal immigration were debated extensively, the six candidates for county supervisor in the 5th District planned a busy weekend of last-ditch campaigning before the voters decide Tuesday whether to send Supervisor Paul Eckert back for his third term on the board.

Shopping centers, neighborhoods, mailboxes and the annual San Marcos chili cook-off will be the battlefields today and Sunday. Until now, campaign has been waged mainly in mobile home park recreation rooms and country club restaurants, where the candidates gathered repeatedly over the last six weeks to kick around the issues of the day.

Eckert remained confident Friday of his chances of holding off one of the stiffest challenges faced by an incumbent supervisor in at least a decade. But his opponents--Escondido attorney Clyde Romney, Oceanside City Councilman John MacDonald, Vista Mayor Mike Flick, La Costa private detective Richard Repasky and Escondido auto parts dealer Edmund Fitzgerald--were equally as sure that they could at least force him into a November runoff election. Carlsbad City Councilman Richard Chick, whose name will remain on the ballot, withdrew from the race Friday.

Eckert needs more than 50% of the vote in Tuesday’s primary to win the election outright.

For the most part, the campaign has been a positive one, with the challengers attacking Eckert’s record on the board but otherwise exchanging few personal barbs. Eckert has stuck to his pledge to run only on his record, so much so that he has hardly acknowledged the presence of his competition.


But Eckert and the challengers disagree sharply on what the incumbent has accomplished since he left his moving and storage business eight years ago and won a seat on the five-member board.

The challengers have accused Eckert of allowing too rapid growth in the North County district, which stretches from Encinitas north along the coast and inland past Borrego to Imperial County. But Eckert has countered that most of that growth has occurred in cities, where he has no jurisdiction.

Eckert, long a vocal advocate of private property rights, has lined up endorsements from two prominent slow-growth supporters in Carlsbad and Escondido and has even endorsed a Carlsbad initiative that would sharply limit growth in that coastal city for the next decade. Many of his campaign advertisements and mailers have portrayed him as a champion of the environment.

Eckert’s opponents have also criticized the Vista resident for failing to provide leadership in county government, and they have attempted to blame him for problems in the county’s Health Services, Personnel and General Services departments. In response, Eckert has contended that he alone is responsible for giving North County a voice on the Board of Supervisors.

“Before I joined the board, there was a lot of talk up here about forming another county,” Eckert said to a high school class Thursday. “You never hear that kind of talk anymore.”

With about $140,000 to spend, more than the six other candidates combined, Eckert waged the most visible of the seven campaigns. He plastered North County transit buses with red, white and blue advertising with the slogan “Meeting People’s Needs.” The campaign Friday sent 60,000 four-color mailers to the households of residents most likely to vote.

Eckert has also made extensive use of radio, beginning with a set of non-political “North County historic notes” early in the campaign and wrapping up with a series of spots attempting to portray him as a slow-growther, a friend of senior citizens and solid family man. One commercial appears aimed at eliminating any vestiges of bad will Eckert earned in 1983 when it was revealed that he went bar-hopping with a woman who was later indicted on charges of running a call-girl operation.

In the ad, Eckert’s wife, Diane, talks about how her husband works long hours but still has time for his family.

“He isn’t perfect, but he’s a wonderful father, a loving husband who is dedicated to this community and his friends,” she says. “He loves sports, long walks, and ice cream.” Then she makes a pitch for his reelection.

Ending the spot, Eckert responds: “Gee, Diane, that’s a nice way to say I love you.”

Eckert hasn’t been the only candidate in the race to play to family values.

Romney campaign flyers emphasize his wife, Deborah, and their six children, and Romney managed to mention his brood at almost every campaign forum along the way. On Memorial Day, Romney packed Deborah and the three eldest children into the family’s station wagon and headed for San Dieguito, where they knocked on doors from noon to 8 p.m.

Romney did not buy any radio or television time and bought advertisements only in the Valley Center community newspaper and the Mobile Homes Courier. Most of his money went into three mailings of about 30,000 pieces each.

But Romney’s campaign from the beginning has been based more on footwork than media. Building from a base of Romney’s contacts made through volunteer work with the Boy Scouts and the Mormon Church, the campaign has enlisted dozens of workers to run phone banks and walk precincts throughout the district.

Romney has collected a spate of endorsements from downtown San Diego figures such as developer Mike Madigan and attorney Terry Knoepp. He has been endorsed by the San Marcos citizens group fighting a trash-fired power plant planned for the community. He also won the support, as did Eckert, of the Building Industry Assn.

Despite the joint endorsement, Romney has repeatedly attacked Eckert’s record on development, contending that the incumbent is attempting to gloss over his longtime support for the development industry and instead paint himself as an advocate of managed growth.

“Paul Eckert has been indulging himself in an orgy of creative mis-recollection,” Romney said in an interview. “He’s gone back and reanalyzed his position on every controversial vote and come up with a self-serving approach which makes him the paragon of every virtue.”

Most campaign observers believe the race will come down to a battle for second place behind Eckert, with Romney and MacDonald the most likely candidates to make it into a November runoff with the incumbent.

MacDonald, the low-key Oceanside councilman, appears to be strongest along the coast, where he has portrayed himself as the candidate of managed growth to the large number of residents upset by the rapid development of the area from Encinitas to Oceanside.

MacDonald has argued for a new growth management plan for the county and said he would look critically at any attempts to amend the new plan. MacDonald has also criticized Eckert for failing to persuade state officials to widen California 78, the clogged east-west link between Escondido and Oceanside.

The endorsement of MacDonald by Chick, who has never catered to the slow-growth crowd, might make MacDonald more palatable to the developers and real estate agents who formed the backbone of Chick’s organization before he bowed out. MacDonald said he also believed Chick’s support would help win over some of the thousands of voters who have yet to make up their minds.

Given MacDonald’s shortage of funds--he had only $1,300 on hand as of May 17--the former Mira Costa Community College president has depended on volunteer support and a lot of hand-shaking at shopping centers and community events. He bought advertisements in four community newspapers and sent out two campaign mailers.

Flick, with even less money to spend, has run a low-key campaign and only this week sent out hand-written postcards to voters in targeted precincts.

“We’ve got some ground to make up and not much time to do it in,” Flick said. “We’ve got an action-packed weekend ahead of us. Frankly, for us to be doing as well as we have without the funds and without even doing any mailings yet says something for our strength.”

The two other candidates have depended almost exclusively on coverage in the media of the campaign’s many public forums.

Despite that sometimes-skimpy coverage, a lack of campaign funds and a tiny organization, Fitzgerald said Friday that he still believes he can win.

“I think I have persuaded enough of the people to agree to the fact they have not been represented,” Fitzgerald said, repeating the theme he set at forums throughout the race. “They are going to have a local man, who has been here, watched the town grow and move and doesn’t like the direction its moved in.”

Repasky said Friday he would be “happy with third place,” but predicted that Eckert will get fewer votes than the 30%-plus showing he has made in recent polls.