With a newly created Latino majority that has never seen a non-incumbent Latino candidate elected to the San Diego City Council, the 8th District exemplifies both the frustrations and dreams that led to the advent of district-only elections and the city's protracted redistricting fight.
Challenger Andrea Skorepa hopes to capitalize on that history to become the first Latino elected to the council without first being appointed, but Councilman Bob Filner has urged voters to look at the candidates' record, not their ethnicity, when they go to the polls in Tuesday's primary--the first electoral test of the 8th District's new political dynamics.
"It's going to be an important new page in the district's history," said lawyer Michael Aguirre, who led the fight that resulted in District 8 becoming the city's first Latino-majority council district, with a 62% Latino population. "The only question is whether it's going to have a new ending or be the same old story."
With long-shot Lincoln Pickard being the only other candidate on the ballot, Tuesday's primary is likely to result in the 50%-plus victory needed for either Filner or Skorepa to avoid a November runoff in District 8, which stretches from Golden Hill, through eastern downtown, to the Mexican border.
From the outset, ethnicity has loomed as a backdrop to the campaign, given that the federal voting-rights lawsuit that led to the district's new configuration was intended primarily to enhance Latinos' prospects of electing a Latino. Though three Latinos--Jess Haro, Uvaldo Martinez and Celia Ballesteros--have served on the council during the past two decades, each initially gained the seat via an appointment.
"What happened in court won't mean much if we can't back it up at the polls," said Haro, former head of the Chicano Federation of San Diego County.
An unspoken, if widely recognized, issue throughout most of the campaign, the ethnic question became more overt in the contest's closing weeks, with Filner and Skorepa accusing each other of having made it so.
At a recent forum at the largely black Catfish Club, Skorepa accused Filner of using "scare tactics" in an attempt to split the vote along ethnic lines by implying that she "would just be looking out" for Latinos if elected.
"Bob tries to come across as the Great White Father, who, because he is not one of you, can fairly administer to all of you," Skorepa, the executive director of Casa Familiar, a San Ysidro social services agency, said in an interview. "It plays into people's natural fears."
Dismissing the charge as "absolute rubbish," the 49-year-old Filner said he has never raised the race issue "directly or indirectly," and points out that it was Skorepa who, at the same forum, remarked that it was natural that "people of color . . . work together in a coalition."
"It's an insult to the people of this district to even suggest that this should be a major consideration," Filner said. "People are going to vote on the basis of effectiveness and representation, not ethnic group or anything else like that."
The Skorepa campaign's attempt to put him on the defensive on the volatile topic is especially grating to Filner in light of a personal and political background that, as he often tells campaign audiences, has placed him "on the cutting edge of every progressive movement of the past 30 years."
"I've been in the forefront of the great social issues of our time--civil rights, anti-war, labor, the environment, women's rights," said Filner, who moved to San Diego in 1970 to become a history professor at San Diego State University, where he still teaches part time. "I've been there with you and for you, and will continue to be there."
As a youth, Filner walked precincts for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s in New York, and in the following decade served time in a Mississippi jail after being arrested as one of the original "Freedom Riders" who challenged racial segregation laws.
Filner, who later served as a legislative aide to the late Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) and two other congressmen, began his own political career in 1979 by upsetting a San Diego city school board incumbent. Four years later, he lost to appointed 3rd District incumbent Gloria McColl, rebounding in 1987 by winning a race for an open seat in the 8th District.
During his tenure at City Hall, Filner has blended a liberal stance on social issues such as jobs, housing and the environment with a consistent push for tougher anti-crime programs and increases in police staffing.
As highlights of his record, Filner points to his leadership in creating "drug-free zones" near schools that result in stricter penalties for drug convictions, gaining funding for new parks and recreational centers in previously "park-poor" South Bay communities, launching an aggressive anti-graffiti campaign and resolving the longstanding problem of Tijuana sewage spills fouling San Diego beaches by persuading the council to hook up Tijuana to San Diego's sewage system.
Borrowing a strategic tack from other council challengers, Skorepa downplays Filner's legislative record by telling voters that he was "usually just one vote" toward the achievements that he trumpets as his own.
"Bob Filner hasn't done half as much as he'd like you to believe," Skorepa says. "The City Council did these things, not Bob Filner."
Lacking a public record, Skorepa, a San Diego native, has stressed her deep roots in the district, characterizing herself as "the kind of community-oriented candidate that district elections were supposed to bring into the political process."
"My candidacy is about commitment and involving people in the governmental process," said Skorepa, a former school teacher who chairs the city's civilian police review board and Mayor Maureen O'Connor's Latino advisory board.
"That's a special challenge in this district, which has been ignored and used by politicians for so long that people began feeling they didn't have a voice--or at least not one that was heard--at City Hall," said Skorepa, whose chances hinge largely on her ability to improve upon the traditionally low turnout among Latino voters.
Underlining that theme, Skorepa has repeatedly challenged Filner to pledge to serve a full four-year term if elected--a delicate question that the councilman, who is mulling a possible 1992 congressional bid, ducks by saying that he does not "know what the future holds."
"This district has had a long history of lack of continuity in its council representation," Skorepa said. "It looks like Filner is going to try to continue that trend. . . .Besides, if he doesn't know his own future, why should we trust him with ours?"
In his standard dismissal, Filner never fails to remind campaign audiences that he completed his school board term and is the first 8th District council member to serve a full term in two decades--a period in which a succession of his predecessors left for higher office, were forced to resign amid scandal or served as interim appointees.
"I have no plans to do anything other than to continue serving my constituents," said Filner, whose Burlingame home is near his district's northern border. "If Skorepa wants to criticize me on the basis that I'm qualified for higher office, I'll take that as a compliment."
With rare exception--notably, her call for more police on beats in her district, even if it means asking voters to increase taxes--Skorepa's proposals, like those of most challengers in the three other council races, have been long on generalities and short on specifics.
Indeed, just as persistently as Skorepa tweaks him on his political plans, Filner has chided her for her seemingly calculated vagueness on one of the major issues confronting the district: Councilman Ron Roberts' proposal for a binational airport straddling the border between Otay Mesa and Tijuana.
Pledging that Roberts' "dream will not become Otay Mesa's nightmare," Filner has emerged as the leading opponent of the so-called "TwinPorts" proposal, which he contends would undermine community plans for a "$20-billion economy with 150,000 jobs and thousands" of homes by the early 21st Century.
Pickard, a 49-year-old South Bay activist and political unknown, supports the TwinPorts plan as a boon to the region's economy, asking rhetorically, "Where are all those jobs Mr. Filner talks about? They sure aren't there now. I think this would be one way of getting them."
Skorepa, however, has hedged on the issue, saying that, although she would prefer converting Miramar Naval Air Station to civilian use, she would be "willing to look at" the binational airport if the Miramar option proves unworkable--provided that noise, pollution, traffic congestion and other problems are properly mitigated.
"She's not only on the fence, but on both sides of it," Filner says caustically.
Though all three candidates say that they support growth management, they also note that shortages of jobs and affordable housing in the 8th District create a viewpoint that differs from the citywide perspective on that pivotal issue.
"There's a real balancing act between creating jobs and controlling growth," Filner said. "It's difficult, but one doesn't necessarily have to come at the expense of the other."
Skorepa is even blunter in her assessment, saying that Filner and other city officials "speak out of both sides of their mouth" by calling for economic development at the same time that they lament the effects of growth.
"That's an inherently flawed position," Skorepa said. Noting that many of the district's residents are blue-collar construction workers, she adds: "For them, no growth means no eat." Skorepa, however, has not specified how her handling of that issue would differ from existing approaches.
Meanwhile, Pickard, a Palm City real-estate manager, is widely viewed as the third man in what is essentially a two-candidate race, one in which he is heavily overmatched in campaign finances, name-recognition and most other conventional political yardsticks. Although Filner has raised more than $200,000, and Skorepa about one-sixth that amount, Pickard said he expects to spend less than $2,000.
In his public remarks, Pickard often complains that the 8th District "doesn't get the respect it deserves" at City Hall--and the same thing could easily be said of his candidacy. The two front-runners have all but ignored him, and he had to picket outside a recent forum to persuade organizers to allow him to speak.
At forums, Pickard frequently confesses unfamiliarity with issues being discussed, and often responds to questions with platitudes about "looking to the people for solutions" on myriad problems. One of his few specific suggestions calls for citizen patrols that would act as "the police's eyes and ears," reporting suspicious activity via cellular telephones.
Pickard, however, is expected to be little more than a footnote in a contest that is certain to prompt post-election analyses of whether and how Latinos exercised the added political clout that they gained both at City Hall and in federal court.
If he is reelected, Filner tells voters, it should not be interpreted as a sign that those victories were meaningless, because to do so would be to resort to the token attitude that members of one ethnic group cannot fairly address the needs of another.
"Empowerment is about effective representation," Filner said. "That's what the district is getting now, and that's why I deserve to be reelected."
Skorepa, meanwhile, recognizes that her candidacy offers heightened political hopes to a constituency that feels that it has, for decades, been competing on an unlevel playing field in local elections. Regardless of whether she wins on Tuesday or must reluctantly view her campaign in retrospect as simply "the first step in a continuum," Skorepa said she believes that her candidacy will have helped "rejuvenate hope and belief in the political process."
"We're trying to reach people who've lost touch for a long time with politics," Skorepa concluded. "That's a difficult thing to do in one election. I'm a process person. I know what a continuum is, and maybe that's what this campaign will be. Because what we're trying to do in this campaign . . . is like turning around the Queen Mary in a creek."