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SAN DIEGO CITY COUNCIL PRIMARY 6TH DISTRICT : Stallings, Henderson Both Rely on Timing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In politics, as in much else, timing is everything. For San Diego City Council candidate Valerie Stallings, that maxim could perhaps prove to be as formidable an obstacle as Councilman Bruce Henderson in their 6th District primary.

In her admittedly uphill campaign to defeat Henderson in his bid for a second four-year term in next Tuesday’s primary, Stallings has hewed to an anti-incumbent theme founded on sharp criticism not only of Henderson himself, but of the entire City Council.

Describing the council as “the least-respected government body in the region,” Stallings tells campaign audiences that the past four years at City Hall have been marked by “a steady diet of political grandstanding, petty bickering and back-room deal-making.”

“Bruce Henderson has distinguished himself in all these areas,” adds Stallings, a 51-year-old cancer researcher at the Salk Institute.

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But, if Stallings is hoping to capitalize on the same anti-incumbent sentiment that unseated a handful of local, state and national officeholders from San Diego over the past year, Henderson believes that his opponent’s strategy is, as he puts it, “a little too late and out of sync” with the electorate’s current mood.

From Henderson’s perspective, the anti-incumbent fever among voters--a major factor in the defeat last year of two local state Assembly members and one congressman--peaked last spring with the recall of San Diego City Councilwoman Linda Bernhardt.

“Linda Bernhardt was like the biblical scapegoat, in that the sins of a whole group were placed upon her shoulders,” said Henderson, who actively supported the candidate elected to replace Bernhardt, former corporate lawyer Tom Behr.

“It wasn’t just Linda that voters were angry at, and, when they threw her out, it was clear that a very powerful message--to quit fighting and get down to business--had been sent to the entire council,” Henderson added. “That message has been heard, and the public sees the results. Six or seven months ago, I think any incumbent would have had a very tough time. But now the mood has shifted. It’s all a question of timing.”

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A more recent boost to politicians’ public image, Henderson argues, is attributable to what he calls “the Boris factor.” Indeed, while looking for a link between the failed coup in the Soviet Union and the San Diego City Council election may seem to be an excessive stretch, even by political standards, Henderson suggests that he and the three other council incumbents seeking reelection could indirectly benefit from Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s heroic role in quashing the coup.

“When Yeltsin climbed up on that tank, it reminded people all over the world that there is, at least occasionally, a reason and a need for politicians,” Henderson said. “That gave all of us renewed credibility in the public’s mind.”

Stallings and her supporters, however, find that theory as implausible as they do virtually everything else that has emanated from Henderson in their relatively low-profile campaign in the 6th District, which stretches from Pacific Beach, through Clairemont and Serra Mesa, to Mission Valley.

With City Hall gadfly Don Stillwell, who has qualified to run as a write-in candidate, being the only other challenger in the 6th District contest, the primary is likely to result in the 50%-plus victory for either Henderson or Stallings needed to avoid a November runoff.

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From the outset, Stallings has sought to make Henderson’s record--and the council’s--THE issue in the race. It is a challenge that Henderson, a 48-year-old former lawyer, professes to welcome.

“Any time an incumbent runs, his record should be the issue,” Henderson said. “That’s one of the few things Valerie has been right about. I’m glad that’s the case, because my record is my strength.”

The lengthy list of accomplishments that Henderson routinely ticks off for campaign audiences begins with “the nuts and bolts part of the job,” a category in which he includes getting potholes fixed and stop signs or traffic lights in place rapidly, and the reinstatement of city tree-trimming services in his district.

The “next tier” of his record, Henderson says, is highlighted by his efforts to block plans for a household toxics “dump"--actually, a transfer station where the wastes could be stored until being removed for disposal--in Rose Canyon, to preserve a stand of eucalyptus trees in Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve, to acquire two police helicopters vital for searches in the canyons throughout his district, and to protect Pacific Beach from an influx of condominiums and apartments through a council-approved downzoning plan reducing future density.

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During his council tenure, Henderson also has positioned himself as a populist on a number of major citywide issues, routinely opposing proposed tax increases, fighting what he calls a “costly and unnecessary” multibillion-dollar secondary sewage treatment plan and pressing for greater competition, and, presumably, lower rates for consumers, in the local cable-television industry.

“People may not always agree with me, but I think they like that I’m always willing to stand up and say, ‘Here’s what I think needs to be done.’ ”

Those efforts, however, are always accompanied by a well-orchestrated public-relations blitz--a factor not overlooked by Henderson’s critics.

“Henderson is a much better talker than he is a doer,” said Stallings, a Pacific Beach activist who moved to Bay Park to qualify for the 6th District contest. “He’s all smoke and mirrors, more of an obstructionist than one who gets things done. A lot of people say that he just sits up there flapping his gums because he likes hearing himself talk.”

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Some of Henderson’s colleagues readily second that criticism and have occasionally lost their patience with his long-winded, often meandering remarks on most issues that come before the council.

Indeed, though Henderson often points with pride to his post-college Peace Corps service on the island of Yap in the western Pacific, his fellow council members sometimes half-jokingly say that the locale was particularly appropriate.

“I, too, was in the Peace Corps,” Councilman Bob Filner said, smiling wryly, after one especially lengthy discourse by Henderson. “But I served on the Island of Succinct.”

As he has throughout his entire term, Henderson has sought in the campaign to cast himself as something of a misunderstood environmentalist, a characterization that Stallings and environmentalists alike find particularly galling in light of his largely pro-development record.

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Both the local Sierra Club and the managed-growth group Prevent Los Angelization Now! (PLAN) have rated Henderson as having the worst environmental record on the council.

Yet Henderson, who billed himself in his 1987 campaign as “Your Neighborhood Protection Candidate,” argues that those surveys were slanted and, much to the chagrin of his opponents, persists in calling himself “an environmentalist by any rational definition.”

“For Bruce Henderson to call himself an environmentalist goes beyond deception--it’s ridiculous . . . and an assault on the integrity of the entire environmental movement,” said Barbara Bamberger, the Sierra Club’s conservation coordinator.

Henderson, however, has used the campaign to reiterate his longstanding complaint that the environmental groups’ ratings are flawed. In support of that contention, Henderson notes that his opposition to the $2.6-billion-plus secondary sewage plan was counted as an anti-environmental vote, despite marine biologists’ claims that the program would do little if anything to improve ocean water quality.

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Based on that scientific evidence, Henderson intervened in a federal lawsuit stemming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to force San Diego to proceed with the secondary treatment plan, which could cost up to $10 billion.

Subsequently, U.S. District Judge Rudi Brewster deferred approval of the sewage upgrading plan until 1993, a ruling that could save San Diego billions of dollars and accelerate its water-reclamation program.

“I’ve said all along, if it needs to be done for the environment’s sake, then so be it,” Henderson said. “But that’s not the case. The true environmental position on this issue is, ‘Don’t do it.’ All we’d be doing is tripling or quadrupling sewer rates for something that’s not going to help the ocean.”

Stallings, meanwhile, has waged a campaign long on criticism of Henderson’s record but noticeably short on alternatives of her own.

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Though she faults Henderson and the council for failing to attain an oft-stated goal of increasing the size of the police force to a ratio of two officers per every 1,000 residents, she has proposed no budget cuts or tax increases to raise the millions of dollars needed.

And, although she has suggested that labor unions develop vocational training programs for youths, Stallings has not offered details on the funding or operation of such programs.

Stallings’ vagueness and some of her attacks, Henderson argues, simply underline the fact that “I have a record and she doesn’t even have a position.” For example, Stallings has attacked Henderson for blocking attempts to expand Montgomery Field, a plan strongly opposed by nearby residents, but has not clarified her own position on the controversial issue.

Stallings, who first planned to run against 2nd District Councilman Ron Roberts, also has been labeled a “carpetbagger” by Henderson because of her spring move into the 6th District.

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Stallings, though, contends that Henderson was “always my first target,” adding that the council’s protracted battle over the redrawing of district lines left her own political plans in limbo.

“Besides, it’s not like I dropped in here from the moon, like he tries to make it seem,” Stallings said. “I just moved from one side of the freeway to the other.”

With a campaign budget less than one-sixth the size of Henderson’s--$20,000 contrasted with $130,000--Stallings recognizes that she is likely to remain a largely unknown commodity to many voters on Election Day.

“It’s tough to ask voters to turn their backs on an incumbent when you can’t even raise enough money to let them know that there is an alternative,” her campaign consultant, Tom Shepard, glumly conceded.

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As a result, Stallings must hope that her efforts to persuade supporters to vote by absentee ballots could prove pivotal in a race in which the turnout is expected to be less than 20%.

More importantly, Stallings’ chances of upsetting Henderson hinge on her hope that voters are so disillusioned with the performance of the City Council in general and Henderson in particular that they will be willing to embrace any alternative.

“I really think that people are so unhappy with the status quo that they’re going to be willing to gamble on this person they don’t know much about,” Stallings said. “That’s not so much blind faith in the unknown as it is disgust with what is known.”


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