When asked to compare herself to the San Diego City Councilman whom she hopes to replace, 6th District challenger Valerie Stallings once said: "Take the opposite of Bruce Henderson, and that's me."
Though Stallings' remark was as flippant as it was succinct, it accurately reflects the two candidates' sharp differences of style and substance, underlining how the Nov. 5 runoff election could significantly alter the council's ideological balance and personality.
"This is one of those times when voters can make a very clear choice," said Henderson, who was narrowly outpolled by Stallings in last month's primary. "If they're not black and white, our differences are close to it."
Indeed, on issues ranging from crime and the environment to social concerns and governmental reform, Henderson's record and Stallings' campaign pledges are often diametrically opposed, reflecting their considerable philosophical distinctions.
While Henderson, a Republican, has generally hewed to a doctrinaire conservative line during his four-year term on the council, Stallings, a Democrat, holds a moderate to liberal stance on most major 6th District and citywide issues.
With the council being evenly balanced between two loose coalitions of voting blocs--one a generally conservative, pro-development group and the other the remnant of the more moderate "Gang of Five" that dominated the council last year--a change in the 6th District seat could reshape the political dynamics within City Hall.
Over the past year, many of the council's major policy decisions have come on 5-4 votes--a fact that political activists on both sides of the 6th District race emphasize to rally their respective supporters and to dramatize the stakes in next month's district-only race.
"It's a district race with a citywide impact," said Stallings' campaign consultant, Tom Shepard. "That one-vote swing (on the council) can be determinative on a lot of issues."
A Stallings-for-Henderson switch, for example, would have reversed two of the council's most controversial environmental decisions within the past year: construction of the 2.4-mile Jackson Drive extension through Mission Trails Regional Park, and opening the city's so-called urban reserve to development.
In both cases, Henderson, who has been rated by the Sierra Club and Prevent Los Angelization Now! as having the council's worst environmental record, voted with the five-member majority. Stallings, who has been endorsed by the environmental groups, consistently tells campaign audiences that she would have voted differently on both issues.
The $70-million Jackson Drive project, Stallings argues, is a "tremendous waste of money" for a road that "does environmental damage and may not even be needed." Similarly, she termed the council's November, 1990, decision to permit developments with one home per 4 acres in the city's urban reserve, a 12,000-acre swath of vacant land stretching between Rancho Bernardo and North City West, a "premature move that pokes another hole" in San Diego's growth-management plans.
Henderson, however, characterizes the four-lane Jackson Drive extension, which will link up with California 52, as the "Park Boulevard of Mission Trails park," arguing that it will enhance public access there just as Park Boulevard does for Balboa Park.
Differing with environmentalists' interpretations, Henderson describes his vote to allow construction of luxury homes on 4-acre parcels on the city's northern fringe as a pro-environmental vote. In exchange for low-density development, he notes, the city will gain thousands of acres of parks and open space--land that developers will be required to contribute to the city to receive permission to build on some of their property.
Two major 6th District issues--alcohol restrictions at city beaches and a council-approved plan to reduce density in Pacific Beach--also have occupied a prominent place in the candidates' debate this fall.
Initially, Henderson opposed proposals to ban alcohol at the beaches, arguing that stricter enforcement of public drunkenness laws would curb crime and unruliness problems "without penalizing law-abiding citizens who want to have a cold beer at the beach."
Amid growing complaints from his constituents, however, Henderson reversed his position, explaining that his own experience "walking through gauntlets of drunks" at beachfront boardwalks convinced him that sterner measures were required.
Ultimately, Henderson voted for a council plan that expanded an existing overnight ban on alcohol at beaches by four hours, stretching it from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., as well as established 24-hour bans along boardwalks and at several beaches and parks.
Although Stallings favors that plan, she cites Henderson's initial opposition as evidence that he was "badly out of touch" with his district's needs, attributing his subsequent "flip-flop" to his recognition of political liability.
From Henderson's perspective, however, his shift demonstrates his open-mindedness and "willingness to be convinced there's a better way" to tackle thorny problems.
"He was against it, then he was for it, and he was everywhere in between," Stallings said. "That's not leadership."
The same questions could be raised, however, about Stallings' approach to the Pacific Beach down-zoning plan passed by the council at Henderson's urging.
In an effort to protect the community from an influx of apartments and condominiums, Henderson's plan prohibits property owners from building more than two dwelling units on an average-sized lot, half the number formerly allowed.
Stallings has repeatedly said that she did not differ with Henderson's objective so much as she did the "divisive manner" in which he pursued it.
However, when pressed in an interview to declare whether she would have voted to retain the four-unit-per lot zoning or to reduce it to the two-unit level, Stallings said: "I wasn't thrilled with either of the choices. Honestly, I think I'd have gone out for a cup of coffee."
Such comments, Henderson argues, lend credence to his dismissive remark that "I have a record and she doesn't even have a position."
"She seems to almost take pride in not taking positions or not explaining her position in detail," Henderson said. "The problem is, there's no 'maybe' button here."
Volatile social issues that have come before the council also reveal significant differences between Henderson and Stallings.
Henderson cast the only dissenting council vote against a controversial Human Dignity Ordinance to outlaw discrimination against homosexuals and against creation of a Human Relations Commission designed to target racial, ethnic and religious discrimination.
The Human Dignity Ordinance prohibits discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing and real estate transactions, education, business establishments and the provision of city services.
Henderson, however, contends that he does not see "clear, convincing evidence" that homosexuals suffer such discrimination, adding that the ordinance intended to protect their rights actually could infringe upon their right to privacy.
"Gays and lesbians say that they're in every occupation, that they live in every neighborhood and that they have access to all services," Henderson said. "Government has no right to get involved in our private lives absent some extraordinary need, and I don't see that being the case here. As a group, gays and lesbians have the most to gain from the right to privacy and the most to lose if it's not there."
Calling the Human Relations Commission "a bad law with a good purpose," Henderson explained that he voted against it because he feared that its investigations would produce "kangaroo courts" where the rights of those accused of discrimination were not adequately protected.
"People whispered to me, 'Bruce, you can't vote against a Human Rights Commission--people will use that against you,"' Henderson said. "But it was too flawed to support."
Stallings, meanwhile, supports both measures, saying that they provide "needed protections," adding: "I can't imagine a single reason not to support something like that. The fact that (Henderson) was the only no vote tells you something."
On another controversial issue, Henderson was on the losing side of a 5-4 council vote last year that created a $13-million trust fund to provide low-income housing and rental subsidies for the working poor.
"Government has been an unmitigated disaster in this area," Henderson said, warning that the resulting fees on new commercial and industrial development--the source of most of the revenue for the fund--could discourage economic growth.
Stallings, though, argues that the Housing Trust Fund offers "intriguing, exciting possibilities" to help remedy the city's shortage of affordable housing.
The two candidates also differ on various governmental reforms--notably, proposals to strengthen the mayor's powers and to establish a two-term limit for council members.
The advent of district-only council elections, Stallings says, has created a need for a strong mayor with a veto that could be overridden by a two-thirds majority of the eight council members. Although Mayor Maureen O'Connor is elected citywide, her vote currently carries no more weight than that of a council member whose constituency is one-eighth the size.
Henderson, however, adamantly opposes the modified strong-mayor plan advocated by O'Connor, arguing that alteration of San Diego' existing council-city manager form of government "could be fiscally and politically disastrous."
The idea of limiting council members to two consecutive four-year terms, however, is more appealing to Henderson, who says that he supports the notion of "systematically bringing in new blood" to any legislative body.
Stallings, meanwhile, said that she prefers campaign reforms, including spending limits, as a means of improving the political process, adding that she would reluctantly support term limits only as a "last resort" if other reforms were not adopted.
Although Stallings and Henderson view crime as a major district and citywide problem, their priorities in addressing it differ.
While Stallings favors putting more police officers on the streets and a renewed push to reach a goal of having two officers per every 1,000 residents, Henderson says that his top priority is construction of new jails to alleviate San Diego's longstanding jail overcrowding problem.
"Jails on the drawing boards now will be there when children now in the sixth grade become adults," Stallings said. "I'd rather see us put more cops on the street and more money into prevention, so that we perhaps won't need so many jails later."
Dismissing Stallings' position as "naive and simplistic," Henderson argues that jail construction and police staffing levels cannot be viewed in isolation from one another.
"Hiring more officers is important, and we've done that, but that's not going to solve the problem if there's no place to put the criminals," Henderson said.