Denied victory by only 13 votes because of a City Hall gadfly's write-in ballots, San Diego City Council candidate Valerie Stallings learned Wednesday that she will have to face Councilman Bruce Henderson in a high-stakes November runoff that could determine the council's balance of power.
Adding a new plot twist to an already compelling election that saw one other councilman unseated, final unofficial vote totals showed Wednesday that Stallings narrowly outpolled Henderson in Tuesday's 6th District primary but fell just short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff, drawing 49.94% of the vote.
In the three other council races on Tuesday's ballot, 4th District Councilman Wes Pratt was defeated by the Rev. George Stevens in a rematch of their 1987 contest, while Councilman Ron Roberts was easily reelected and Councilman Bob Filner won a second four-year term by a landslide.
The inconclusive outcome in the 6th District contest, however, dominated Wednesday's post-election analyses, because it sets the stage for a November showdown expected to be a microcosm of the volatile growth-versus-development debate that is a cornerstone of San Diego politics.
For Stallings, who had gone to bed Tuesday night believing that she was a councilwoman-elect, the reversal of fortune brought by Wednesday's tabulation of 481 absentee ballots was, she said, "excruciatingly painful" and left her wondering whether Tuesday's stunning upset can be replicated in seven weeks.
Conversely, an exuberant Henderson gleefully posed for Trumanesque photos with front-page newspaper headlines prematurely declaring his defeat, challenged his still largely unknown opponent to twice-weekly debates and eagerly awaited a fall campaign in which both sides--knowing that the race could dramatically shift the council's ideological balance--will "pour on the coal."
Of the 19,226 ballots cast in the 6th District primary, arguably none were more important than the 146 write-in votes received by Don Stillwell, a 61-year-old ex-Convair employee who routinely harangues the council at its weekly meetings. Although Stillwell's votes constituted only 0.76% of the turnout, they narrowly kept Stallings below the 50%-plus threshold required for outright election--and, consequently, forced a runoff that will cost the city $150,000.
Stallings' 9,601 votes were 13 short of the number needed for a conclusive victory, while Henderson received 9,479 votes (49.3%), according to the San Diego County voter registrar's office. When election officials certify the vote totals in several weeks, either Stallings or Henderson could request a recount--at his or her own expense.
"They call me a gadfly, but maybe now they'll start calling me a God-fly," said Stillwell, whose political philosophy blends the Bible, his Vermont lineage, the Federalist papers and engineering concepts. "I believe there's a God up there, and He has a sense of humor. But He also wants politicians to toe the line, and that's why this has happened."
However, Stallings, a 51-year-old Salk Institute cancer researcher, described the runoff as "unnecessary and expensive," expressing doubts that Stillwell "realized what he was doing" by waging his write-in campaign.
"I and most others never saw him as a real viable candidate," Stallings said. "To be thrown into another expensive race because of someone's whim is pretty frustrating."
Not surprisingly, Henderson, whose reelection chances are still alive only because of Stillwell's quixotic write-in effort, had a markedly different perspective on the runoff and its origins.
"Don Stillwell has as much right as anyone to run--in fact, I encouraged him to keep coming to these forums throughout the campaign," Henderson said. "And, because of him, we now have a very rare political opportunity.
"Very seldom in a politician's life does he get into a situation where the entire city is focused on his campaign," Henderson added. "But this will be the only game in town, and since the balance of power rests precariously on it, everybody will be watching. In some ways, this is almost better than winning."
Barred by city election laws from running as a write-in candidate in the runoff, Stillwell endorsed Henderson Wednesday, but said that he is uncertain whether he will actively campaign on his behalf.
Stallings' disappointment over being forced into a runoff was shared by local environmental and managed-growth groups, which raised money and provided scores of volunteers for her campaign against Henderson, the recipient of the Sierra Club's "Golden Bulldozer" award for having, in the group's eyes, the council's worst environmental record.
Early Wednesday, before the vote totals revealed the need for a runoff, environmental leaders joyfully looked forward to working with a new pro-environmental council majority including Stallings and Stevens, who also drew strong support from environmentalists.
"Even if Bruce were to win, Tuesday was a great victory for the environmental movement," said Michael Shames, chairman of the Sierra Club's political committee. "Admittedly, with Valerie there, we'd have far more fertile ground. But I think this election has made the whole council more attentive to environmental issues and quality of life concerns."
Stallings' campaign consultant, Tom Shepard, predicted Wednesday that developers will "pour tons of money and people" into Henderson's campaign in an effort to "cling to the majority they see slipping away" at City Hall. Stallings' supporters, however, also are likely to redouble their efforts in light of her first-place finish Tuesday--a happenstance that shocked even her closest advisers.
"We won the primary because people weren't happy with what they had in Bruce Henderson," Stallings said. "That dissatisfaction will become more obvious in the runoff. To be (forced into a runoff) when we came so close is disappointing, but most people didn't think we'd get this far. We'll finish in the runoff what we started in the primary."
Henderson, however, attributed his disappointing finish behind a lesser-known, heavily outspent challenger to Tuesday's low 23.6% turnout in the 6th District.
"With a high turnout, I think I'd have won easily," Henderson said, noting that he carried a majority of the district's highest-turnout precincts, while Stallings carried those with the lowest turnout. "I obviously didn't motivate my voters, and I've got to look in the mirror for the answer why. But I won't make that mistake again."
Analyses of the three other council races, meanwhile, focused on Pratt's inability to overcome his district's severe crime and unemployment problems, and on whether Roberts' and Filner's showing could bolster the potential 1992 campaigns that each is pondering.
One prominent Stevens supporter, Peter Navarro, the head of Prevent Los Angelization Now! (PLAN), argued that Pratt's 573-vote loss, 52% to 48%, stemmed largely from what he termed a "What's wrong with this picture?" attitude among voters in which bleak realities clashed with his rosy version of what had been accomplished during his four-year term.
"Wes talked about all these great programs, but what people saw was crime going up, drugs being sold on street corners and no jobs," Stevens added. "It just didn't ring true."
Filner, who trounced Andrea Skorepa, 5,507 votes (70%) to 2,054 votes (26%) in the Latino-majority 8th District, called his landslide victory a "humbling . . . mandate"--though he eschewed comment on how or whether it might influence his decision to seek a congressional seat next year. Long shot Lincoln Pickard finished a distant third, with only 274 votes (3.5%).
"To justify that level of confidence, you have to work even harder, and I intend to do that," Filner said.
Roberts, eager to avoid unfavorable comparisons of his 57% victory margin with Filner's more lopsided victory, pronounced himself "absolutely delighted" with his performance in the 2nd District race--widely seen as his tune-up for a 1992 San Diego mayoral bid. Roberts drew 9,774 votes, to 5,717 (33%) for former City Hall aide Richard Grosch and 1,603 (9%) for magician and frequent candidate Loch David Crane.
"In an election in which two of my esteemed colleagues ran into very major problems, I'm thrilled with these numbers," Roberts said. "If somebody wants to try to take the luster off what we did, that's political nonsense. In view of what seems to be a lingering anti-incumbent mood out there, I couldn't be happier."
FINAL ELECTION RETURNS
San Diego City Council
100% Precincts Reporting
Votes % Ron Roberts, i 9,774 57.2 Rich Grosch 5,717 33.4 Loch David Crane 1,603 9.4
100% Precincts Reporting
Votes % George Stevens 6,779 52.2 Wes Pratt, i 6,206 47.8
100% Precincts Reporting
Votes % Valerie Stallings 9,601 49.9 Bruce Henderson, i 9,479 49.3 Donald Stillwell 146 0.8
100% Precincts Reporting
Votes % Bob Filner, i 5,507 70.3 Andrea Palacios Skorepa 2,054 26.2 Lincoln Pickard 274 3.5
* i indicates incumbents.
* Elected candidates are in bold type.