Like a college kid cramming for his final exams, Clyde Romney has been studying North County.
Romney knows how many times the San Diego County Board of Supervisors has approved big housing projects in Encinitas. He can tell you the number of inmates held in the County Jail at Vista. And he knows how many gallons of water the region imports, and how much sewage it produces, every day.
Romney, an Escondido lawyer who wants to be a county supervisor, knows North County. Romney's challenge now is to persuade North County's voters that they know him.
Although Romney has lived in San Diego County for most of the last 15 years, he is a relative newcomer compared to his opponent. Oceanside City Councilman John MacDonald is a former MiraCosta College president and political elder statesman who moved to Oceanside to stay in 1949.
Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Romney, 43, practiced law in San Diego for a decade before entering public life in 1981 with his election to the Solana Beach school board, a post he quit a year later to serve as chief aide in Washington to Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside). In December, Romney left Packard's staff and moved to Escondido to run for supervisor.
Romney, a burly man with a receding hairline and a disarming smile, is described by those who know him well as a man of integrity, high morals, compassion and honesty. With the speaking skills of a trained debater and a willingness to listen, Romney has a talent for mediating disputes so that all sides believe they have been treated fairly, his friends say.
"He is an incredibly quick study," said Steve Andersen, Romney's former law partner. "He can master a situation in a very short time and understand its complexities. He can deal with people in such a way as to make them feel like he understands them and is willing to cooperate, but at the same time, be able to take a tough stand when he has to."
Jerry Crickmore, a Carlsbad lawyer who once worked for Romney, described him as "a take-charge guy, a natural leader."
"I'm impressed with his ability to see through all the things that don't matter and get to the point," Crickmore said.
With little experience in local government, Romney must rely on his words, not his record, to convey his positions on the issues. His command of the facts, his adroit use of the language, his sense of humor, and a Reagan-like knack of using personal experiences to illustrate complex points all helped him vault from a virtual unknown 10 months ago into the Nov. 4 runoff against MacDonald.
Like any good politician--but unlike MacDonald--Romney often speaks in a way that gives people on both sides of a controversy the impression that he is sympathetic to their point of view.
At one recent forum, for example, a senior citizen asked angrily why the county needed to build more jails. The man suggested that the county simply pack the criminals and suspects into whatever space there is, no matter how horrid the conditions.
In response, Romney launched into a brief lecture on constitutional rights, sounding at first as if he sympathized with the jail inmates.
"We do have as Americans something called the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees anybody, including criminals, the right not to have cruel and unusual punishment," Romney said. He explained that not everyone in jail is a hardened criminal, and he told a story about a friend who was jailed briefly after he forgot to pay a traffic ticket. He said it was "not a pretty sight, standing against a wall all night long, never closing your eyes, not knowing what's going to happen to you."
Then Romney abruptly switched gears. He told the audience that the problem with overcrowding was not so much the conditions in the jails but a lawsuit brought by a group of "very liberal lawyers" challenging those conditions. A judge put a cap on the number of inmates that could be kept in the County Jail downtown, and the county responded by sending the overflow to the suburban jails in El Cajon, Chula Vista and Vista. Now those jails are overcrowded.
"What the sheriff knows, and what the Board of Supervisors knows, is that if they let the overcrowding persist, it's only a matter of time before the 'bleeding hearts' will bring another lawsuit," Romney said, coming full circle.
Romney almost always leavens his speeches with anecdotes and a dash of humor.
Whenever Romney arrives late at a campaign forum, he bemoans the awful traffic on North County roads, a comment that never fails to draw a roomful of sympathetic nods. And in discussing the problem of illegal immigration, an emotional issue in North County these days, Romney always mentions that his family's Escondido home has been burglarized twice in the last year--presumably by illegal aliens.
Talking about the problems caused by rapid growth, Romney concedes that he and his wife are in part to blame--because they have had six children. Discussing water conservation, Romney notes that the average glass of water at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base is recycled five times. "The sixth time, they call it coffee," he quips.
It is Romney's smooth style that many of his supporters cite as his strongest trait. His powers of persuasion have helped him win the endorsements of numerous law enforcement, public employee and community groups. Oddly, though, that same smoothness has helped Romney attract his share of enemies in a short political career.
Cree Kofford, a Pasadena attorney and longtime friend of Romney's family, said some people "simply can't believe he's as honest and straightforward as he is. Clyde is a unique animal in today's world."
One of those who doesn't believe is Richard Repasky, a private detective who was one of the candidates who lost to MacDonald and Romney in the June primary. Repasky calls Romney a "snake-oil salesman" who will "say anything to anybody at any time to get a vote." He finds Romney's primary election endorsement by the county's building association in conflict with his posture as a candidate for managed growth. And he believes that Romney, who has won the endorsement of several prominent San Diego businessmen, would be reluctant to stand up to those interests on behalf of North County.
"He's a nice guy; he's got a beautiful family," Repasky said. "But you can be a nice guy and have a beautiful family and still be a political snake-in-the-grass."
John Mamaux, a former Carlsbad city manager and school board member, has called Romney a "carpetbagger" and political opportunist because he moved into the 5th District shortly before running for office, though he had lived in or just outside the district for 15 years. Mamaux also likes to point out that Romney was a lifelong Democrat until he went to work for Packard in 1983 and changed his registration to Republican, the dominant party in North County.
Although Romney was Packard's chief of staff for three years and Packard has warmly endorsed his former aide, Romney's behind-the-scenes demeanor has apparently alienated several members of Packard's inner circle who are backing MacDonald.
Among the most notable defectors are former Packard campaign chairman Glenn McComas, finance chairman Jim Gaiser and office manager Betty Buckner, none of whom were eager to discuss with The Times their differences with Romney. Others close to the Packard organization say Romney bullied many Packard backers when he took over as chief of staff after Packard's euphoric write-in victory, in which Romney had played only a bit part. He can be pushy and domineering, several Packard partisans said.
"The first thing I saw of him, he was taking over a meeting when in fact he was a stranger," said one top Packard supporter.
Gaiser declined to comment on his support of MacDonald except to say that "Romney is not a Packard." Buckner said that Romney "needs to work on his people skills."
Other MacDonald supporters long active in North County politics say simply that they don't have a clear enough picture of Romney, as a politician or a person, to support him. Even though Romney has held positions of leadership with the Boy Scouts and his church for many years, neither activity has gained him much exposure to the public at large. People wonder if he's as committed to North County as he is to his political career.
"My impression is that he is running for office to be elected on the coattails of Ron Packard's following," said Al Diederich, manager of the Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce. "I have a high regard for Congressman Packard. I don't know that Mr. Romney has paid his dues to the community. I think you ought to have a little record of some time of community service that more than scratches the surface."
Lance Vollmer, a Vista school board member and former Eckert aide, said Romney is not as familiar or trusted as MacDonald, who first moved to the area in 1939.
"It's like the difference between a tweed jacket and sharkskin suit," Vollmer said. "A tweed jacket is sometimes just more comfortable."
Romney acknowledges that there is a segment of North County that clings to the region's folksy reputation. But that segment and its beliefs are on the wane, he says. Romney bristles at the suggestion that his smooth and articulate speech might harm his chances against the slow-talking MacDonald.
"I think North County has been selling itself short for a long time," Romney said. "Why do we have to have an image of North County elected officials who can't speak clearly and forcefully to a group?
"The image of North County as being a bunch of country hicks is in retreat."
That image is being replaced, Romney asserts, by the infusion into politics and community affairs of young professionals who have moved to the San Diego area and are raising their families here.
"John MacDonald resembles North County's elected officials," Romney said. "He is very much a product of the Establishment in the coastal communities. Clyde Romney, on the other hand, is considerably younger and more representative of the types of families that have been moving into North County for the last decade or more."
Romney is betting that those families share his view of the role of government in society, as an arbitrator with limited power that tends to stay out of people's lives but still helps those who are needy through no fault of their own. Romney is conservative on many issues; he opposes abortion and finds homosexuality abhorrent. Yet he strongly supports the county's role as provider of health and social services to the poor--a view shaped largely by his childhood.
Born in Altadena in 1943 and raised in Monrovia, near Pasadena, Romney was the son of a salesman and an educator. His mother, Almera, widowed when Clyde was 8 years old, was principal of a segregated elementary school. Mrs. Romney, who advocated integration and civil rights before such views were in fashion (she formed the first human relations council in Monrovia in the 1950s) took her son to school with her each day when he was in kindergarten and first grade.
That experience, as the only white child in a school of blacks and Latinos, helped shape young Romney's attitudes. Those who know him say that, despite recent criticism over his handling of the illegal alien issue, Romney retains a compassion for minorities and the underprivileged that was instilled in him as a boy.
Asked to describe Romney as a youth, attorney Kofford recalled that, in Romney's church group, one boy was frequently bullied by all the others.
"Clyde was constantly refusing to do that, and he would tell everyone else to give the kid a fair shot," Kofford said. "That was typical."
In high school, Romney was straight, even by the standards of the 1950s. He was "student judge" and president of the scholarship society, a leader among his classmates and his friends at the local Mormon church.
"He was always on the straight and narrow," said Leonard Morris, a former vice principal of Romney's high school and another longtime family friend. "He wasn't a square; he wasn't a nerd. He was just always doing the things he needed to do. . . . He wasn't a kid who went off the deep end and then came back. He never went off the deep end."
A dedicated student, Romney maintained an A average and won scholarships to help pay his way to Stanford University, where he majored in history and was in the Army ROTC program. After a two-year mission for the Mormon Church throughout the western United States, Romney entered law school at the University of Utah in 1967.
While there, he met and married Deborah Dedekind, and after Romney earned his law degree, the couple moved briefly to El Paso, where Romney began three months' active duty at an Army air defense artillery school. Upon completing the school, Romney went on reserve status with the Army and moved to San Diego County, where he worked for the law firm of Gray Cary Ames and Frye until 1974. After a brief association with Kofford's firm, Romney established his own civil law practice with Andersen, his childhood friend.
In 1981, Romney was elected to the only public office he has held, a seat on the Solana Beach Elementary School District board, where he negotiated for the district with the builders of two massive housing developments in northern San Diego. Romney quit that job after a little more than a year to join Packard's Washington staff.
With Packard concentrating on issues affecting the district, Romney was able to build knowledge and contacts in the region. He played a key role as Packard's office unsuccessfully backed the construction of two dams on the Santa Margarita River, supported a pilot project to provide federal funds for the widening of California 78, and won funds for senior citizen housing in Oceanside.
Perhaps Romney's most notable accomplishment for Packard was the resolution of a years-long dispute between North County Indians and the Vista and Escondido water districts over access to local water sources. The agreement was reached with Romney's mediation after a 17-year stalemate, and Romney has now been hired by the Vista water district to lobby for legislation in Congress that would ratify the deal.
"That required a lot of maneuvering and managing," Packard said of Romney's role in the settlement. "His skills as a lawyer are helpful in mediating and negotiating."
David Gerrie, a former aide to Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) who clashed with Packard's office on many issues, said he found Romney professional and friendly, even in times of conflict.
"You've got to be able to fight like cats and dogs and then turn around and smile at one another and leave the room together," Gerrie said. "He was able to do that."