County Builders’ Secret Political Endorsements Pay Dividends
Taking a page from the political playbook of the environmental movement, San Diego County’s building industry has devised a new strategy for helping industry-backed candidates win local elections, industry officials say.
The Building Industry Assn., bruised by three dramatic defeats within the past year, has decided it will no longer simply endorse candidates or causes and then pour cash contributions into their campaign coffers.
Instead, in the campaigns that ended with last week’s elections, the association, through its paid political consultant, was quietly involved at an unprecedented level in the day-to-day activities of races for city council, school board and water board seats countywide.
A primary goal of the strategy was to persuade rank and file members of the building trades to involve themselves in grass-roots campaigns for candidates who would be sympathetic to the industry.
The industry’s involvement was purposely kept secret for fear that exposure would threaten the gains the strategy hoped to accomplish.
“As an industry, we’ve learned a lesson I learned a long time ago,” said developer Bill Snow, a member of the BIA’s political policy committee. “You don’t throw money at things and then go away. It doesn’t work that way. This time we got involved. We got involved on a personal level, and we tried to help the candidates rather than just throwing money at them and endorsing them.”
The results, though far from a clean sweep for builder-backed candidates, were better than might have been expected in an era when anti-development sentiment is running high in many communities throughout the county.
Even in North County, where open backing by the building industry can be political suicide, the BIA helped several candidates win election, tossing a handful of slow-growth incumbents out of office. In most cases, the public voted for the BIA’s choices without knowing that the development industry had backed the candidates.
County Supervisor-elect John MacDonald was endorsed by the BIA, but he says he rebuffed the industry’s overtures and did not know of its support until after his election.
In Vista, the mayor’s office and two council seats were won by candidates supported by the development industry. In San Marcos, the mayor’s office and a council seat went to builder-backed candidates. In Poway, two candidates endorsed by the BIA were elected to the City Council while two of the city’s founding council members--both slow growth backers--lost their battles for reelection.
In Oceanside and Carlsbad, two of four council members elected were backed by the development industry, and in Carlsbad, where two competing growth control measures were on the ballot, the one most acceptable to the industry won more votes.
Countywide, 15 of 27 candidates endorsed by the Building Industry Assn. were elected to city councils. In contested water board races, seven of nine builder-backed candidates were elected. In school board races, 33 of the 53 candidates backed by the builders won office, the most prominent being Sheriff’s Capt. Jim Roache, who defeated homemaker Sue Braun by 903 votes to win a seat on the San Diego city school board. In that race, the BIA mailed campaign literature for Roache to 2,500 workers connected to the industry and phoned each person twice to urge them to vote for him.
“I think we did fairly well,” said developer Terry Sheldon, chairman of the BIA’s political policy committee. “I think we had a real good slate of people.”
Snow and Sheldon said the industry learned an expensive lesson during the past year, when one ballot measure and two candidates backed heavily by developers’ dollars were defeated by lesser-funded campaigns:
- The 5th District Supervisorial primary in North County. Incumbent Paul Eckert, backed by the building industry, spent $173,778 in the primary, while Clyde Romney spent $96,589 and MacDonald spent $31,131. Yet MacDonald won the primary with 29.5% of the vote, and Romney finished second with 26.3%. Eckert was eliminated from the general election when he finished third in the primary with 24.2%.
- The race for mayor of San Diego. City Councilman and development industry favorite Bill Cleator outspent Maureen O’Connor by more than 2-to-1. Cleator spent $607,414 to O’Connor’s $268.886. O’Connor won by a margin of 55.3% to 44.7%.
- Proposition A, the city’s growth management initiative on the November 1985 ballot. Proposition A won by a 56% to 44% margin despite its backers being outspent by more than 10-to-1. Supporters of Proposition A spent $59,417 on their campaign. Opponents spent $672,175.
“Proposition A really got away from us,” Snow said. “We sat back and did a lot of reflecting after that.”
The product of that reflection was a new political outlook based more on strategy than money. Although the BIA spent more than $60,000 on races this fall, the group took steps to ensure that its money was spent with more direction than ever before.
After the June elections, the BIA decided it would no longer make its endorsements known to the general public, since candidates who got the builders’ nod in the past were often tagged as “pro-growthers” and defeated. Instead, the head of the BIA’s “Presidents’ Council” sent a letter to the council’s members a week before the election revealing the endorsements and asking company presidents to pass the word to employees with a note in their Nov. 1 paychecks.
“Rarely has our industry been faced with as many local elections as it is this November,” a note accompanying the endorsement list said. “The sentiment to slow down or stop growth has never been stronger than it is today. Your job is at stake!”
But the major change for the industry was its decision to make the services of a political consultant, Jean Andrews, available to those candidates endorsed by the BIA.
Andrews prepared a packet of guidelines for candidates giving them tips on everything from the legal requirements of setting up a campaign to how to target precincts, raise funds and get out the vote. Andrews also met with many of the candidates and kept in touch with them throughout the fall.
The association also funded telephone banks that made thousands of calls on behalf of candidates the industry had endorsed. Men and women whose livelihoods depend on the building industry were asked to work for and vote for candidates thought to be open-minded about development issues.
“The BIA is waking up politically,” Andrews said. “They’re getting into the political process very, very early rather than waiting as they did until after someone was a candidate, after their campaign was in motion, or after they were elected. Then the builders would go to the elected official and say, ‘Here I am and this is what I want to do here.’ They’re realizing that unless they take an active interest very early on a lot of times they can’t work with the elected officials.”
Several environmental activists interviewed by The Times said the building industry’s new strategy would make it tougher for slow-growth advocates to win elections.
“It will be a much more difficult fight against any pro-growth candidate that is effectively combining both media and grass-roots organizations,” said Bob Glaser of the La Jolla Group, the consulting firm that ran the successful Proposition A campaign.
“I’m not surprised,” Mark Zerbe, director of programs for Citizens for Political Reform, said when told of the BIA’s new strategy. “I was wondering why it didn’t happen sooner.”
Lynn Benn, land-use chairwoman for the Sierra Club, said she would welcome the change if it means the industry is going to be more responsive to concerns in the community.
“If they’re going to try to work with communities to solve some of the problems and assure adequate levels of services and address people’s concerns about vanishing open space, then this isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Benn said.
But candidates who lost to builder-backed opponents said they objected to the new tactics, particularly the practice of keeping endorsements secret.
“I feel no matter how they’re doing it, it’s a special interest buying the election, particularly when their intent is concealed from the public,” said Mary Shepardson, a member of Poway’s council since the city was formed in 1980. Shepardson and fellow incumbent Linda Oravec were defeated Tuesday by two candidates supported by the BIA.
“The covert attempt of people outside the community to influence the election, whether it’s the building industry or anyone else, is repugnant,” Shepardson said.
Vista Councilman Lloyd von Haden, who lost a bid for mayor in a battle against BIA-endorsed Gloria McClellan, said he fears the new slate of council members will open the door to widespread development.
“It certainly pays off to get their candidates on the council, because they (builders) get their projects OKd,” he said. “They see to it that any restriction is minor or removed entirely.”
But Don Higginson, a Poway councilman-elect who was backed by the BIA, disagreed. He said he is “100% behind” that city’s general plan and he said he objected to the idea that the the building industry’s participation in campaigns is sinister.
“I’m sure a lot of people in Poway are indirectly involved in the type of professions that the BIA espouses,” Higginson said. “They’re not terrible people. I think we have a political system where every citizen has a right to freedom of speech, freedom of expression.”
Mark Loscher, who was elected to the San Marcos Council with limited help from the builders, said he welcomed the BIA’s entry into the political process.
“My hope would be, and maybe it’s idealistic, that the people will perceive that as one more outlet for information,” Loscher said. “They’ll know it’s slanted, obviously, but they are professional people and they have input. You take that information and put it into the whole puzzle and when you put the puzzle together you know what you’re looking at.”
Sheldon said the BIA is only looking for a fair hearing.
“I think that we tried to get people elected who would be fair and open-minded, not to blindly approve any project that comes up but to be pragmatic and deal with problems . . . rationally,” he said.
Glaser said candidates elected with building industry support will be closely watched by constituents and the media and may find it difficult to win reelection if they toe the developers’ line too closely.
“If they start voting the other way, these communities are very close to their council and they’ll have a hard time getting reelected if the citizens feel they’ve been misled on their position on growth,” he said. “They could take a whole bunch of seats the first time around, then when the community wises up to the fact that they can’t be trusted . . . the second time around they’ll find it 10 times more difficult to do it again.”