Incumbent Pratt, Stevens Target Crime : Politics: Underdog campaigns for neighborhood-based solutions to drugs, gangs in bid to unseat 4th District Councilman Pratt.
Stumping a section of San Diego’s Skyline neighborhood, where the steel security doors on most homes seem almost incongruous on a peaceful evening, the Rev. George Stevens has just one message for the homeowners who listen politely to an unexpected visitor in their midst.
“We don’t own our parks,” Stevens begins, in his rapid-fire style. “The gangs own the parks in Skyline. Even though we have the mobile police substation up there in Skyline, it still hasn’t made much difference. Kids can’t even go up to Skyline park at night. They’re scared.
“Crime, drugs and gangs in our community--that’s the overriding issue,” Stevens says as he marches into the growing dusk. “Our message is crime, gangs and drugs. That’s our message all over.”
Though the 59-year-old Stevens has developed an extensive platform in his bid to unseat 4th District Councilman Wes Pratt, it is crime--and how to combat it--that people want to discuss at their doorsteps. An underdog to the better-financed incumbent, Stevens is linking his chances for an upset victory Sept. 17 to his ability to reach the crime-weary electorate with his plans for neighborhood-based solutions to the drugs and gangs on their streets.
“The issue in the race is not crime. The issue in the race is which of them is most effective in combatting crime,” said political consultant Larry Remer, who ran Stevens’ unsuccessful race against Pratt four years ago, but is not involved in the current contest.
“You need two things to oust an incumbent,” said political consultant John Kern, who is involved in neither of the campaigns. “A reason to vote against the incumbent, and a reason to vote for the other guy,” Kern said. “People are being asked to make the leap of faith that a (new) councilman can do something about this--more than is being done.”
Voters may decide whether they have those reasons when they examine the very clear choice in style and approach to government offered by Stevens, a fiery neighborhood activist, and Pratt, the classic insider politician.
Stevens, a minister and longtime aide to former Rep. Jim Bates, says his rhetoric is considerably toned down from the days when he disrupted community meetings by tossing tables, shouting profanities and waving an ammunition belt. In his radical days, the civil rights activist talked of “hating white people with a black passion.”
In the early 1970’s, however, Stevens found religion and began to preach, muting some of his anger but continuing his work for social change. His work for Bates proves that he can work within the system, Stevens said.
Nevertheless, Stevens’ personality and his role in the community are themselves issues in the race.
“George gets a number of votes for being George, because of his commitment to the community,” Remer said. “George Stevens has been through the wars in that community, and he’s always given of himself completely.”
Kern is not impressed. “To know George is to vote for Wes Pratt,” he said.
While Pratt has marched in his share of protests, he is much more a product of the system and more a part of the city’s Establishment. A 1979 graduate of University of San Diego law school, Pratt served as an aide to Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego) and county Supervisor Leon Williams.
On a City Council notorious for embarrassing public bickering during the past two years, Pratt managed to stay largely above the fray while remaining part of the five-member majority that fell apart when Councilwoman Linda Bernhardt was recalled from office in April.
At the beginning of his term, Pratt was a man of so few words that he occasionally received criticism for not being aggressive enough, he said.
The stylistic differences give voters an easy choice, Remer said. “Do they want somebody who can work in the system or do they want somebody who will challenge the system?” he asked.
Wherever he goes, Stevens touts his seven-point plan for neighborhood councils like the one he helped organize in Emerald Hills. The councils monitor the neighborhood, organize community events and lobby police and officials for better service.
Stevens claims the council produced a 66% drop in Emerald Hills crime between the first quarter of 1990 and the first quarter of 1991. Police statistics show that the drop was actually 23.6% in overall crimes, and 18.9% in the crime rate.
“Kids play in the sandbox at night in our park,” Stevens boasts. “Old people walk the streets at night.
“I just want to see the neighborhoods cleaned up, that’s all,” said William Bowles, a Skyline resident who considers crime and gangs the sole issue of the campaign and will vote for Stevens. “I don’t think the present administration has done a great job of that.”
Pratt, 40, running on a 3 1/2-year record of accomplishments, concedes nothing on the crime issue. He highlights his role in securing three mobile police substations for the city, negotiating a pre-arraignment jail that will hold crime suspects until their court dates and enacting the city’s Neighborhood Pride and Protection Program--a $28.5-million anti-crime plan that emphasizes both enforcement and prevention.
With Pratt’s help, the city organized a special anti-gang detail and has put more foot patrol officers back in the neighborhoods, he said. The city’s police force has been expanded to keep pace with growing population.
Moreover, Pratt said, his work to help develop the 4th District economy and provide jobs and recreation opportunities is keeping youths off the street.
“The City Council has been responsive, but the City Council cannot be blamed for the crime rate,” Pratt said this week as he campaigned in Oak Park. “We have got to deal with the root causes of crime.
“Are you going to hold the City Council responsible for (random violence)? No, you hold the City Council responsible for how (it) addressed the problem.”
Pratt supporters also praise his record of constituent service. Pratt “is a working person’s councilman,” said Sarah Lewis, a real estate agent volunteering in the councilman’s campaign. “I don’t have to be the mayor for him to talk to me. Whatever problem I have, I call in and he helps me out.”
But Verna Quinn, a longtime Encanto neighborhood activist who supported Pratt in 1987, has switched her allegiance to Stevens this year. “I think he has a lot of integrity. He’ll do what he says he’ll do,” Quinn said.
“What I’m hearing from longtime, stable, sensible people in the community,” she added, “is that Wes hasn’t done the job.”
Stevens has criticized Pratt for his establishment connections, asserting that most of Pratt’s financial support comes from outside the district and deriding appearances at Pratt fund-raisers by powerful Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).
Pratt, however, values those connections, saying he can use them to help his constituents. During deliberations over state budget cuts, Pratt said that he was able to speak directly to Brown about how certain revenue reductions would hurt the city.
Like the three other incumbents facing reelection Sept. 17th, incumbent Pratt has a sizable advantage over challenger Stevens in financial resources. With $134,575 raised so far, Pratt has more than four times as much money as Stevens, who had amassed $31,667 as of last week. Both totals include loans the candidates have made to their campaigns.
But, unlike their 1987 contest, in which Pratt crushed Stevens with nearly 75% of the vote, the rematch will be decided solely within the 4th District under the city’s new district-only election system. With just two candidates running, the race will be decided in the Sept. 17 primary.
Among 4th District voters in the 1987 election, Stevens did considerably better, capturing 43% of the vote. He also won the district-only primary that year, beating Pratt and four other candidates.
The district-only format should allow Stevens to capitalize on his 25 years of activism in the district and, to some extent, minimize Pratt’s financial advantage, which has allowed him to run radio ads and send out two district-wide mailers. Two more are planned before the election.
“Mr. Stevens, you see him out (in the community),” said Ronald Hodge, who was approached by Stevens one evening. “He’ll stop and sit, he’ll chat with you and listen to what you have to say.”
Pratt, however, has been working the district for nearly two years as part of a constituent service program and enjoys the benefit of four years of publicity as the incumbent.
Pratt led the bitter fight to establish the city’s housing trust fund and sponsored creation of the city’s new human relations commission. He has created job programs and an anti-graffiti program.
“The issue is not style, it’s substance. It’s effectiveness,” Pratt said. The voters “will say on the 17th that the issue is not style. It’s who can get the job done.”