Countdown to Primary: San Diego Council Races : District 2: Rich Grosch is waging an uphill battle to unseat Ron Roberts, who appears to have mayoral aspirations.


Rich Grosch is no stranger to monumental effort. In the early 1970s, he and his wife devoted 18 months of painstaking, day-and-night work toward building themselves a 19-ton, 44-foot sailboat that they intended to pilot around the world.

The trip was dashed when Grosch was involved in a serious auto accident just weeks before departure. By then, the couple had lived on the vessel for years, sailing it up and down the California coast.

"It was a tremendous challenge," Grosch said of the sailboat construction. "I'd never built a boat before, just like I'd never run for office before. Everyone said we couldn't build it on our own, and we built it ourselves."

Nearly two decades later, Grosch has unflinchingly thrown himself into another Herculean task, taking on District 2 Councilman Ron Roberts in one of the most unevenly matched contests of the four on Tuesday's primary ballot.

With little name recognition outside his Ocean Beach base, Grosch is seeking to unseat a man who has spent nearly four years attempting to elevate himself to citywide prominence, an ambitious politician who can back up his campaign claim to be "Getting Things Done" with a budget expected to reach $260,000.

Most neutral analysts believe, however, that Grosch's bid for the council will be dead in the water come Tuesday.

"It's my guesstimate that Roberts is likely to be the most easily reelected of the four," said one consultant, who asked not to be named.

Besides having little money with which to wage a campaign--Grosch had raised $11,497, including a $5,000 loan to himself as of Aug. 31--Grosch faces the difficult task of trying to stake out a position against an incumbent who has perfected the politics of moderation, most likely as part of a strategy to run as a candidate for mayor when Maureen O'Connor steps down next year.

"In many areas, (Roberts) has excelled at maintaining that middle-of-the road stance," said Michael Shames, chairman of the Sierra Club's political committee, which is staying out of the race this year to concentrate on cancer researcher Valerie Stallings' campaign against Councilman Bruce Henderson.

Although incumbent councilmen like Henderson and Bob Filner present their challengers with more controversial behavior and stands to run against, Grosch has seized on the more nebulous quality of "failed leadership" in his attempt to persuade District 2 voters it is time for a change.

"People are real fed up with the City Council and its lack of leadership," the 46-year-old former teacher and City Hall aide said. "People feel that City Hall has failed them. That's the key issue of this campaign."

Grosch claims that the council and Roberts have fallen short in providing more police officers, abandoning the goal of two officers per thousand residents when it became economically infeasible to reach.

"What good is it to have a shiny downtown when people are afraid to walk the streets?" he asks.

He believes that the city's new misdemeanor jail, set to open next year, is a waste of money that will not solve the city's major crime problems because it will hold only misdemeanants awaiting arraignment--and only for a few days.

Grosch ridicules Roberts' TwinPorts concept for a joint U.S.-Mexican airport on Otay Mesa that would leave Lindbergh Field open as a short-haul airfield. Grosch wants Lindbergh closed and relocated to the Miramar Naval Air Station, where the commercial airport would share facilities with the Navy.

And he calls Roberts, an architect by profession, one of the major backers of San Diego's "next wave of uncontrolled growth," alleging that Roberts has and will assist major campaign contributors in carving up the city.

"Ron Roberts is for sale!" is a Grosch refrain in news releases. "And what he is selling is San Diego. Piece by piece."

The 49-year-old Roberts dismisses Grosch's claims as the unfounded accusations of someone without a grasp of the issues. "Basically, he's trying to confuse," Roberts said, adding that Grosch "has turned out to be more of a jerk than I would have expected."

Roberts notes that Police Chief Bob Burgreen labeled construction of a pre-arraignment detention facility his top priority. It will allow police to incarcerate people--some of them violent--who now are given tickets and released because of crowding at the downtown jail.

The TwinPorts plan, while still in its infancy, is the best hope to date for moving Lindbergh, Roberts says, maintaining that it is unreasonable to believe that the airport can be totally closed in the foreseeable future.

Nancy Palmtag, a Point Loma activist who spent years attempting to get Lindbergh relocated, concurs with Roberts. "That was the best we could get," said Palmtag, who has held a gathering in her home for Roberts and done some volunteer work for the campaign.

"I went through the process. I saw what reality was. And politically, it wasn't going to happen," she said.

Also running in the election is perennial candidate Loch David Crane, a teacher of business communication and magician, who is perhaps best known for performing tricks and reciting his campaign pledges to a rap music beat at candidate forums.

Crane's platform includes relocating the airport, cleaning up San Diego and Mission bays and reclaiming more sewage for use in irrigation. He would tax church property and impose heavy fines on toxic polluters to fund some of his programs.

Roberts, who lives in Mission Hills, is running largely on a substantial list of accomplishments on citywide and district issues to bolster his assertion that his four years on the council have been productive at all levels. The district includes Point Loma, Midway, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, Mission Hills, University Heights, Downtown, Old Town and Nestor.

Besides helping to negotiate creation of the new jail, Roberts cites his work in an agreement that reduces the number of older, noisier aircraft that can use Lindbergh Field; his lead role in pushing the city to build facilities that reclaim sewage for use in irrigation and work obtaining state and federal funds to restore the Ocean Beach pier.

Despite a generally pro-development stance, Roberts can point to some significant environmental accomplishments that muddy attempts to paint him as part of the council's "Bulldozer Brigade."

Roberts led last year's failed effort to win voter approval for a $100-million bond measure to purchase parkland and open space. He also led the effort to purchase and restore Famosa Slough, and voted against the extension of Jackson Drive through Mission Trails Regional Park.

"Ron Roberts has tended to be more understanding toward development than a lot of environmentalists would like," said Don Wood, former president of Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, an urban environmental group that does not endorse in political races. "On the other hand, he did go out of his way to initiate the open space bond and he did bust his chops getting Famosa Slough."

Grosch has been endorsed by Prevent Los Angelization Now!, the organization that has placed another growth-management initiative on next June's ballot. Grosch supports the measure.

PLAN! asserts that Roberts received the most money from development interests in 1987, when he was elected to the City Council, and had "the worst record on growth management" of the four incumbents facing reelection this year. Roberts voted the organization's position only 25% of the time, according to an analysis it prepared.

"If every voter in District 2 knew where Ron Roberts' money came from and his voting record on growth management, then Rich Grosch would win with 75% of the vote," PLAN! chairman Peter Navarro said.

"I think he has relinquished his independent voice on the council just to be elected mayor," Grosch said.

Roberts, however, contends that San Diego must prepare for an era when cuts in defense spending will dramatically slow job creation and housing development. "We have to continue to manage growth," he said, "but our strategies have to be different."

Those approaches include streamlining regulations that make expansion of existing businesses and opening of new ones extremely difficult. More housing must be built downtown and less on the city's perimeter, he said.

In perhaps his most successful attack on Roberts, Grosch last month uncovered evidence that 23 contributors to Roberts' campaign had exceeded the $250 legal limit in donations. The Roberts' campaign was forced to return three checks and inform other contributors that their money could be used only in the event of a November runoff.

Most observers believe that is extremely unlikely, viewing Roberts' reelection effort as a tune-up for his bid to succeed O'Connor as mayor next year.

Already, he has aired citywide television commercials, despite the fact that the election is restricted to District 2 voters.

Roberts skirts the issue, while Grosch attempts to use the incumbent's plans against him. Regardless, anything less than a resounding victory in Tuesday's primary will be seen as damaging to Roberts' mayoral aspirations, political analysts say.

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