Local Elections : S.D. City, County Battle on Growth Turns Bitter : Massive Spending by Builders Tilts Odds Facing Citizens' Initiative on Limits

Times Staff Writer

During the heady days of spring, when voter frustration over rampant growth was fueling Citizens for Limited Growth's petition-gathering campaign, co-Chairman Linda Martin confidently predicted that her organization's toughest task would be qualifying its two slow-growth initiatives for the Nov. 8 ballot.

After that, voters fed up with traffic, vanishing open space and overcrowding would propel propositions D and J to victory, Martin predicted.

"That was probably a little naive," she conceded in an interview last week, as the campaign headed into the home stretch.

With their livelihoods on the line, leaders of San Diego's building industry have raised more money than any San Diego political campaign ever, and they claim to have mobilized a record number of workers for their effort to defeat all four slow-growth measures on the ballot.

At the same time, Citizens for Limited Growth and a group pushing rival propositions B and H have watched their fund raising falter badly. They head into the final week of the campaign seeking financial angels and volunteers to help distribute just a fraction of the information being disseminated by the builders, campaign leaders said.

In a contest that has become noteworthy for personal attacks and allegations of distorted information, as well as huge spending, insiders say the builders are confident their campaign is succeeding against the citizens' growth initiatives and may turn their attention to the government sponsored measures in the last days of the campaign.

"In my memory, I can't think of anything that will match the money that's going to be spent on all four" measures, said political consultant Jim Johnston, who is not involved in any of the campaigns. "We've still got another 10 days of media and the punches haven't landed yet. The real big bucks are going to be spent in the last 10 days."

The slow-growth measures--B and D in the county's unincorporated areas, and H and J in the city of San Diego--would limit home building and enact protections for hillsides, wetlands and canyons. The generally stricter citizens measures, D and J, also call for corresponding limits on commercial and industrial development.

According to financial statements filed Thursday, the builders have already spent $1.3 million, dwarfing the $700,000 they devoted to the unsuccessful attempt to defeat Proposition A, the managed growth initiative, three years ago.

When the $108,000 spent by the coalition and the $180,000 spent by Citizens for Limited Growth are added to that total, the spending already exceeds the $1.35 million spent by Maureen O'Connor and Roger Hedgecock in their 1983 mayoral battle, until now the costliest political race in county history. Spending by other smaller campaign committees and individual builders increases the total somewhat.

While their strength unquestionably lies in their campaign war chest, builders are touting a "grass-roots" campaign effort that includes 3,700 workers, an unknown number of them paid temporaries hired to walk precincts.

To supplement their high-priced direct-mail and radio advertising, the builders' campaign features rallies at private businesses and lectures at construction sites, neighborhood coffees and extensive phone contact, said David Fogarty, a San Francisco-based political consultant for San Diegans for Regional Traffic Solutions, the builders' campaign committee.

"We've got people burning shoe leather, talking on phones every night, having people into their homes," Fogarty said.

But the builders' opponents dismiss the claims contemptuously. "That's not grass-roots, it's Astroturf," snorted Peter Navarro, economic adviser for Citizens for Limited Growth, who said that the builders' effort is based primarily around their ability to conduct frequent polls and spread "lies."

'Tactic Is Fear'

"The strategy is divide and conquer," said Navarro, who believes builders privately supported the council's decision to put a rival slow-growth measure on the ballot to split the slow-growth vote, even though the Building Industry Assn. publicly opposed the measure. "And the tactic is fear."

If both propositions pass but Proposition H receives more votes, its "killer clause" would invalidate Proposition J. Proposition J does not contain the same clause. If J receives the most votes it would invalidate only conflicting sections of Proposition H.

Developers have raised homeowners' fears with a mailer that suggests Propositions D and J would prevent remodeling homes situated on environmentally sensitive lands; renters' fears by erroneously suggesting in another mailer that rents would double under the citizens' initiatives; and workers' fears by distributing the findings of a study that claims that unemployment could double under Proposition J, Navarro said.

That study, conducted by San Diego's Economic Development Corp., was later called a violation of law by San Diego City Atty. John Witt because it was more a political document than an objective review.

"The irony and the despicability of it is that they're absolutely flat out-lies," Navarro said. "How can the electorate make a fair decision if the building industry is spending $2 million to feed them absolute lies?"

Focus of Campaign

To Navarro it is significant that the builders have yet to spend any money to undercut the city and county-backed growth measures; this shows the builders have no fear of those measures, he said. With the exception of material being distributed to people within the construction industry and allied businesses, all of the developers' public advertising has been aimed at propositions D and J.

Builders have repeatedly claimed that they must crush the citizens' propositions, which are the more drastic growth limitations, before taking on the city-backed measures.

"First things first," said Mike Madigan, a Pardee Construction Co. executive and spokesman for the builders' campaign committee. "Certainly the most onerous of the initiatives on the ballot are D and J."

Campaign insiders are privately predicting that builders, convinced that they have succeeded in reducing support for D and J, will in the final days of the campaign turn their financial might against government-backed measures B and H. City Councilman Ron Roberts, a leader of the pro-H forces, said Thursday that he has received calls from two people being pressured to contribute to that new effort.

Strapped for Funds?

Though it has carefully nurtured its underdog role, Citizens for Limited Growth appears genuinely strapped for resources. The organization spent nearly $150,000--$68,000 loaned by co-Chairman Tom Mullaney--to hire paid signature-gatherers to qualify the initiative for the ballot. Since then, it has spent just $27,000 only $19,644 of it in the crucial past few weeks.

The builders have put up 12,000 yard signs, the citizens' group has planted about 1,000. The group has no radio or television ads, and it is hoping to raise enough money to send out one limited direct-mail piece in the campaign's final days. A flyer placed in 130,000 community newspapers and a half-page ad in yesterday's San Diego Union were its major publicity gambits thus far.

The group's eight-year-old copying machine died in the midst of the campaign after turning out 282,000 copies. Unable to repair or replace it, the organization produces its literature at a local copying shop, Martin said.

The group's members are also trying to make heavy use of the media, holding press conferences and phoning reporters with story ideas on an almost daily basis.

"What you see is what you get," Navarro said. "We will not see any surge after (the Oct. 27) reporting date in terms of (financial) contributions."

John Kern, an aide to council member Judy McCarty who is a consultant with the Coalition for a Balanced Environment, which helped draft the council initiative, does not believe the citizens' group's claims of poverty.

"When you say that what you have is this David and Goliath campaign, it totally ignores that the building industry has to overcome at least 15 years of bad publicity, bad reputations," Kern said.

Adds Madigan, of the building industry: "I think we made a serious mistake in not getting involved in the campaign early. I think we waited way too long. We stayed working with the City Council and the Board of Supervisors, and we left the playing field to the Citizens for Limited Growth."

Kern's organization, the Coalition for a Balanced Environment, finds itself with enemies on both sides, attempting to wage a campaign with far less money than it had anticipated.

Key interest groups such as the San Diego Apartment Assn., San Diegans Inc., and the San Diego Board of Realtors, who worked with the coalition to shape the council's measure, bolted the organization to oppose all the slow-growth measures, taking their money with them.

"I think we have been, more than anything else, abandoned. The BIA attacks us and the Citizens for Limited Growth attacks us," said Sara Katz, a political consultant for the coalition.

The coalition, which had hoped to raise $250,000 to $400,000, has gathered just $118,495, according to its campaign disclosure form filed Thursday. It has run radio ads, sent literature and videotapes to 400 companies employing more than 200 people each, and will send 50,000 letters to people who have requested absentee ballots, Katz said. If more money is raised before Election Day, the organization hopes to send out another mailing, she said.

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