Novice Councilwoman Developing Clout : Government: Linda Bernhardt occupies swing position between the two emerging factions on the San Diego City Council.


With the balance of power on the more liberal and pro-environment San Diego City Council still in flux, District 5 Councilwoman Linda Bernhardt is emerging as a representative with an inordinate amount of clout for someone with just two months on the job.

On issues ranging from the city's sewer system to port district appointments, Bernhardt has served as a key swing vote, an independent positioned between competing political factions on the newly realigned council.

"On issues that I'm very much interested in, I think she's crucial," said Councilman Wes Pratt, who with council members Bob Filner, Abbe Wolfsheimer, John Hartley and Bernhardt has won a number of close victories on controversial topics. "She's in a position where she can basically make or break some issues."

Says Bernhardt: "From what we can tell, right now I'm the only person on the council that gets along with everybody.

"I can (attract) a Bruce Henderson-Judy McCarty vote," she said, referring to the council's conservatives, "and also (attract) sort of an Abbe-, Bob-, Hartley-, Wes Pratt-kind of vote."

But, as she carves out that political niche, Bernhardt also is learning the political dangers of that posture and has demonstrated a tendency to change her mind. On her first day in office, she earned O'Connor's enmity when she switched her position on the politically sensitive issue of committee chairmanships.

Furthermore, some members of her core constituency of managed-growth advocates and environmentalists are troubled by her affiliation with Jean Andrews, a longtime fund-raiser for the building industry who was instrumental in the defeat of four growth-control measures in 1988. Bernhardt hired Andrews to help her pay off her $156,000 campaign debt by convening small gatherings at which Bernhardt accepts contributions from, among others, development industry employees.

"For an environmentalist to hire Jean Andrews would be akin to George Bush appointing Noriega as drug czar or Col. Kadafi as national security adviser," said Peter Navarro, chairman of Prevent Los Angelization Now! and a proponent of two slow-growth measures that Andrews helped defeat at the polls.

The decision to hire Andrews is all the more surprising because Bernhardt managed Citizens for Limited Growth's losing campaign for two of the propositions, which would have capped housing construction in the city of San Diego and unincorporated areas.

Bernhardt, who pledges to adhere to a campaign promise not to accept contributions from the principals of development firms, says she hired Andrews because she is good at what she does. She adds that Navarro's statement ignores the fact that Andrews also has raised money for a statewide environmental initiative and for pro-environment Councilman Bob Filner.

"I watched her skill level. It was enormous," Bernhardt said of Andrews. "That's why I hired her."

A 30-year-old land-use consultant who is the second-youngest woman ever elected to the city council, Bernhardt took advantage of the city's first district-only election to upset two-term incumbent Ed Struiksma last November, with the backing of community activists demanding the slowing of construction along the Interstate-15 corridor that dominates the 5th District.

A former Wolfsheimer aide, Bernhardt brought with her the advantage of experience in City Hall, a law degree and her knowledge of the sometimes arcane rules of land-use regulation. At the same time, her anti-development campaign rhetoric had some people worrying that she would be an extremist in a district where many of the city's high-profile growth issues are played out. Bernhardt made a splash during the campaign when she burned a Building Industry Assn. questionnaire on the steps of City Hall.

Refreshingly blunt in public, Bernhardt also is straightforward with her colleagues, they say.

"She is willing to relatively unambiguously state a position," said Councilman Bruce Henderson. "Obviously, the real name of the game is what do you do."

After assembling a talented staff that includes Jay Powell, one of the city's most respected environmentalists, and an experienced political pro in former Lucy Killea aide Chris Crotty, Bernhardt began her tenure on the political hot seat Dec. 4, the day she was sworn in.

Bowing to intense pressure from 23 environmental leaders and some of her colleagues, Bernhardt broke her promise to O'Connor to support Henderson as chairman of the council committee overseeing parks and swung her support to O'Connor's chief council enemy, Filner, sealing his election.

O'Connor was furious. In making nominations to the council committees and city commissions, she had awarded Bernhardt an unusual number of leadership positions, including a spot on the council's policy-making Rules Committee and chairmanship of the Housing Commission, in what some considered a play for Bernhardt's allegiance.

"In politics, the only thing you have going for you is your word," O'Connor said then. "I think, at this point, it's iffy at best as it relates to (Bernhardt's) word."

Though O'Connor is known to have a long memory for such slights, Bernhardt and Paul Downey, the mayor's spokesman, said the two have repaired their relationship.

"I think she understands the vote," Bernhardt said. "She may not like it, but she certainly understands."

Said Downey, "That doesn't mean that there's not still some disappointment (about) the way that all transpired. But we're past that, and we're hoping to work with their office in the future, because Linda's views are very similar to the mayor's on a number of issues, growth being the major one."

Some environmentalists who worked hard for Bernhardt's election victory and are pleased with her performance in office, believe the incident helped Bernhardt establish her political independence.

"Even though we might have made things a little uncomfortable for her because she had to go against the mayor on the first vote, it's turned out" well, said Ron Ottinger, chairman of the Sierra Club political committee. "If she'd gone along with the mayor, I think she would have had to continue going along. . . . She needed to demonstrate that she's got the power."

A week later, Bernhardt was part of the bare five-vote majority that approved the controversial Housing Trust Fund for the poor--a program that fellow Republicans Ron Roberts, Henderson and McCarty have sharply criticized. In January, Bernhardt helped appoint a black and a woman to the Port Commission.

In almost every case, she sided with Democrats Filner, Pratt and Hartley and Republican Wolfsheimer to form a majority that has won out on a number of issues important to progressives and environmentalists, victories that most likely would not have occurred with Struiksma and McColl on the council.

But Bernhardt has refused to supply the fifth vote that would clinch the same coalition's bid to fire Port Commissioner Dan Larsen, who earned the group's enmity when he reneged on a promise to name the city's new Convention Center for Martin Luther King Jr., killing the effort.

"I'm here to say I can get along with the guy," Bernhardt said. "I didn't appoint (Larsen). I didn't know him. I wanted the opportunity to meet him. But, when I left (a private meeting with Larsen) I felt the man had enormous integrity" and "will try very hard to work with the city," Bernhardt said.

She also challenged Roberts and O'Connor to cast the fifth vote to oust Larsen, if they really want him out.

"There has been scuttlebutt on the floor that both Ron and Maureen would like to dump him," she said. "Well, fine. . . . Step right up. There's two buttons, one's yes and one's no. Push one."

Roberts and O'Connor have said they will not vote to oust Larsen.

Bernhardt also abandoned the same coalition Jan. 23 to belatedly support O'Connor's request to postpone the appointments of new Port Commissioners Clifford Graves and Lynn Schenk, a move that could have changed the outcome of the debate by allowing O'Connor to be present for the vote.

Just a day before, Bernhardt had voted against O'Connor's postponement request. But, even with Bernhardt switching sides, the Jan. 23 postponement effort fell a vote short because the mayor herself had already left town.

Despite O'Connor's public declaration that she would abstain from voting on the port appointments, the mayor "gave me the impression that maybe she was going to vote," Bernhardt said. "I was trying to be polite."

Bernhardt rescued a key component of O'Connor's government reform package Jan. 12 when she changed her mind during a council review session and backed O'Connor's proposal for a mayoral veto. Bernhardt had first voted against the measure but later explained that she changed her mind "after I thought about it."

Last week, Bernhardt reversed herself on a key sewer contract within 24 hours. On Monday she voted with Filner, Henderson, Wolfsheimer and Hartley to hold up planning of the $2.8-billion sewage treatment system to press for a strong water conservation program. On Tuesday, she was part of a 7-0 council vote, with Filner and Henderson absent, to reconsider that vote.

Bernhardt explained that she had received assurances that city planners will make water conservation a higher priority.

Perhaps most prominent has been Bernhardt's work to rein in growth in her district and address the citywide lack of roads, parks, schools, fire stations and other public facilities. Last week, she won council approval to reimpose tough environmental protections that will virtually preclude housing construction on the picturesque hills on Miramar Lake's northern shore.

A building industry spokesman said that Bernhardt's actions do not match her rhetoric. "I think we see mixed signals," said Robert Morris, executive vice president of the Building Industry Assn. "We hear her saying to pro-business groups that she really is interested in the economic health of the community and isn't as extreme as she was portrayed during the campaign. At the same time, she's the proposer of a moratorium out at Miramar Lake.

Environmentalists, including Miramar Ranch North activists, are heartened by Bernhardt's sharp contrast to Struiksma, who had the worst record on environmental issues in a Sierra Club ranking last year.

And, if they are uncomfortable about building industry contributions to help erase her campaign debt, they acknowledge that the payments are more a symptom of a San Diego political reality than any misdeed on Bernhardt's part.

"Linda Bernhardt becomes a walking example of all that's wrong with campaign financing in the city of San Diego," Navarro said. "We have not public financing, not citizen financing, but building industry financing of political campaigns.

"Until the campaign financing laws are changed, no matter who you are, you will be forced sooner or later to go to the building industry to beg for money," he said.

Bernhardt, who lent $54,700 of her own money to the campaign, sees no contradiction in opening her doors to builders who heavily bankrolled Struiksma's campaign and affording them access to her staff. To date, she has spoken at eight fund-raising gatherings organized by Andrews.

"You've got to reach out to not only your friends, but your enemies," she said. "Because that's the only way you can make the system work. You have to at least give access to everyone.

"I'm an elected official. I'm not supposed to be vindictive, spiteful and malicious. My job is to represent everyone."

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