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Fumble Takes 7 Hopefuls Out of Race : Failure to Get 200 Valid Signatures Ends Their Tries for City Council

Times Staff Writer

Stung by defeat months before they anticipated facing the voters, several of the seven San Diego City Council candidates who were disqualified from the September primary for failing to secure enough valid signatures on their nominating petitions indicated Tuesday that they intend to wage write-in candidacies.

But even as some of the would-be candidates struggled to salvage their campaigns through the admittedly long shot write-in option, others spent most of Tuesday adjusting to the harsh reality of suddenly finding themselves out of a race they never were officially in because of a relatively simple--though politically unforgivable--procedural gaffe.

“I’m pretty crushed and still in shock,” 6th District contender Jesse Macias said Tuesday, echoing comments made by some of the other disqualified candidates. “I sure wasn’t ready for the campaign to end this way. I’m in a bit of a daze.”

Routine Task

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The stunning development over the petition signatures--a normally routine, rather perfunctory task viewed by most candidates as more of a nuisance than a barrier--could produce dramatic changes in several council races in which major candidates have suddenly been eliminated. The disqualifications also reduced what would have been a record 33-candidate field in this fall’s four council races by more than 20%.

The greatest impact may be evident in the 4th District, where front-runner Wes Pratt and two other well-known candidates fell short of the 200 signatures of registered voters needed to get their names on the Sept. 15 ballot. In addition to Pratt, now on leave from his position as administrative assistant to county Supervisor Leon Williams, popular 4th District businessman Richard (Tip) Calvin and Gloria Tyler-Mallery, a publicist and radio broadcaster, also failed to qualify for the ballot.

Macias’ apparent departure from the 8th District race also substantially alters the complexion of that race, because his relatively high name-recognition--stemming from his former career as a television news reporter--made him a major figure in that contest.

Three other candidates were disqualified from the 6th District race--investment broker Keith Behner, consultant Robert McCullough and school teacher Mark Potocki.

As of late Tuesday, Tyler-Mallery and McCullough had already taken out write-in petitions from the city clerk’s office, while Pratt, Calvin and several others were seriously weighing that option. Ironically, to qualify as write-in candidates, they must again circulate signature petitions by Sept. 1.

‘Big Mountain’

“We’ve given ourselves a big mountain to climb, but the mood in the campaign is, ‘Let’s get on with it!’ ” said Reggie Boyd, Pratt’s campaign manager. “Running and winning as a write-in is very tough, but it is possible.”

Saying that “we’ve made this a lot harder than it had to be,” Pratt--who had been endorsed by outgoing 4th District Councilman William Jones--said that he still had “some slim hope” that a detailed re-examination of the disqualified signatures on his petitions could result in enough of them being validated for him to qualify for the ballot. Some of Pratt’s six glum colleagues initially shared the same hope Tuesday, but after reviewing their petitions, concluded that there was little chance of reversing the earlier disqualification decision.

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The prime beneficiaries of the shake up in the 4th District race appear to be the Rev. George Stevens and Marla Marshall, who were instantly transformed from being simply two of a handful of strong contenders into the odds-on favorites to qualify for the citywide runoff. Both Stevens, a Democrat, and Marshall, a Republican, have financial backing and community support clearly superior to that of the three other candidates in the 4th District race--community activist De De McClure, postal worker Robert Maestas and Warren Nielsen, a property manager and frequent unsuccessful candidate.

In the 8th District, Macias’ disqualification could benefit other Latino candidates in the race, including lawyer Michael Aguirre, one of the race’s leading contenders, as well as businessmen Danny Martinez and Bob Castaneda. In Aguirre’s own poll last month, Macias’ popularity in the district’s Latino and other minority communities gave him a higher support rating than any other candidate, Aguirre said.

“Macias really put a dent in my support, so with him out of it, it could have a dramatic effect,” Aguirre said. “This really changes things around.”

6th District

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The impact of the three 6th District candidates’ disqualification is more difficult to gauge, because all were viewed as long shots in a race with at least four other much stronger contenders. The votes that they otherwise might have siphoned off, political consultants suggested Tuesday, now might simply splinter harmlessly among the remaining candidates, with Democrat Bob Glaser appearing to be perhaps best positioned to attract Behner’s support because of their similarity on the politically potent growth-management issue.

Meanwhile, the seven erstwhile council candidates reacted to their disqualification with a mixture of shock, acute disappointment, complaints about being ousted by what some saw as a mere technicality and a fair amount of self-flagelation over having given too little care to the mundane but critical signature-gathering process.

“This may not be the stupidest mistake I ever made, but it’s right up there,” said Behner, whose petitions were 11 valid signatures short of the 200-name requirement.

“It’s a very disheartening, maddening, embarrassing situation to be in, but ultimately the fault is mine. I didn’t pay enough attention to a detail that seemed minor but turned out to be very important. I’m glad I don’t have a whip in the house or I’d be using it on myself.”

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Although he couched his feelings in milder terms, Calvin reacted similarly when he learned that only 181 of the 255 signatures that he collected were valid.

“I’m surviving, but just barely,” Calvin said. “I made the mistake of not checking the signatures. I didn’t follow up the way I should have. What can you say? You have to follow the rules. It’s disappointing, but that’s the way it goes.”

Under city election laws, council candidates were required to obtain signatures from at least 200 registered voters within their districts by last Friday in order to qualify for the September primary. The top two vote-getters in each district primary will then face each other in the November citywide general election.

There is no limit on the number of signatures that can be turned in, and officials in the city clerk’s office encourage candidates to collect enough signatures to compensate for ones that, for a variety of reasons, commonly are ruled invalid.

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Safety Margin

To provide themselves with an adequate safety margin, many of the 26 candidates who qualified for the ballot submitted more than twice the required 200 signatures. However, among the seven disqualified candidates, only Macias--who gathered 385 signatures, 205 of which were invalid--treated the task with the same degree of caution.

McCullough, a distant also-ran in last year’s mayoral race, collected 307 signatures, but only 176 were valid. The number of signatures secured by the five others ranged from 213 to 261, thus leaving relatively little margin for error in the error-prone signature collection process.

Moreover, although they had one month to collect the signatures, most of the disqualified candidates turned in their petitions just before Friday’s deadline, giving them no time to seek additional signatures if their total was found insufficient. They also failed to take advantage of an additional precaution available to candidates: checking signatures’ validity by examining records at the San Diego County voter registrar’s office before turning the petitions in to the city clerk.

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Beginning last weekend, the registrar’s office checked each of the names on the petitions for accuracy. The most common reasons for signatures being declared invalid, a registrar’s spokeswoman explained, were that they were illegible or came from persons who either were not registered to vote or registered at an address other than that listed on the petitions.

While accepting responsibility for his failure, Macias complained about being ousted from the 8th District race, not by voters, but rather because of what he termed an “arbitrary procedural rule.”

‘Just a Technicality’

“This thing is really just a technicality,” Macias said. “I gathered 385 signatures in good faith and never dreamed that more than half would be no good. We tried to screen people by asking them if they were registered. But in my case, a lot of people recognize me from TV and are eager to come up and talk, and think they’re being helpful by signing something. I feel like I’m being penalized for just trying to do what we were supposed to do.”

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But a different perspective was offered by political consultant Jim Johnston, whose firm formerly handled Pratt’s campaign. The failure to comply with a relatively simple legal requirement such as that concerning the signatures, Johnston said, perhaps raises questions in some voters’ minds about a candidate’s overall abilities.

“When you come up short on something this elementary, people are going to look at you a little strange and wonder,” Johnston said. “Nature has forest fires to clean out the environment every once in a while. Maybe this is the political system’s way of whittling down the number of candidates.”


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