LOCAL ELECTIONS / SAN DIEGO MAYOR'S RACE : Little-Known Carter Looks to Democrats : Politics: The financier hopes a sprint-at-the-finish campaign geared to party loyalists will propel him into a runoff.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly four months after he entered the San Diego mayor's race as a long-shot political unknown, 52-year-old financier Tom Carter has reached the final days of the grueling primary campaign as a . . . long-shot political unknown.

While his three better-recognized opponents have elbowed for position in the four-way contest, Carter, who started the race mired in obscurity, has kept his head down and quietly organized a campaign that many believed had little chance of success.

Now the wraps are off Carter's sprint-at-the finish strategy, one that relies on direct-mail and street-sign appeals to Democratic loyalists as Carter's natural constituency in the nonpartisan race. He is the only Democrat among the four major candidates.

But, with just nine days to go until the June 2 primary, Carter must come from last place among the four top candidates in virtually every public and private poll to sneak into an expected fall runoff.

Despite spending more than $150,000 on the race, much of it from his own bank account, Carter still faces the question about who he is and why he wants to be mayor--just as he did when he jumped into the race in February.

"There are a significant number of folks who will vote for him because he's a Democrat," said former San Diego City Councilman Wes Pratt, himself a loyal Democrat. But "it would have been better if Tom had started about a year before he did."

"He has a real problem with name recognition south of (Interstate) 8," where the city's Democrats are most heavily concentrated, said Logan Heights community activist Al Ducheny. "People don't really know him. He's not viewed as an activist in either the Hispanic or the African-American communities."

In a Times poll conducted last week, Carter trailed his three major opponents by a large margin, receiving just 4% support from registered voters and 5% from people likely to vote in the primary.

But Carter, who has heavily plastered minority neighborhoods with signs that highlight his party affiliation, believes that the fragmented, four-way primary race and the electorate's anger at incumbent politicians will allow him to garner the estimated 50,000 to 70,000 votes needed for a major upset.

"When I sit down and look at the numbers, I can see very clearly how I can get there," he said.

Campaigning as a self-styled "citizen politician," the sincere, affable home builder has positioned himself as one of the race's two outsiders, promising to end politics as usual and bring a longtime businessman's perspective to City Hall.

"I think (voters) are tired of politicians," Carter said during an afternoon of campaigning in Serra Mesa. "I think they're tired of business as usual. I think it shows very clearly, when you have someone like Ross Perot, a self-made billionaire, getting one third of the votes nationally right now."

At doorways, Carter quickly tells voters that he has never run for office before, plays up his roots to the city and frequently pledges never to run for higher office. Carter is the only candidate who has promised to serve a maximum of two terms as mayor and then return to the private sector.

"We need to go back and have people run that are not committed to climbing (the political ladder), who are committed to making decisions for the community . . . they're associated with," he said.

But, because of Carter's longtime ties to some of the city's most prominent banks and civic institutions, critics find his reformer's posture difficult to swallow. A millionaire by the time he reached his 40s, Carter served for 17 years with San Diego Federal Savings & Loan, the precursor to Great American Bank, where he became a top executive under Gordon Luce.

He left in 1981 to form his own firm, Carter Financial, which he said is devoted primarily to development of low- and moderately priced housing, before returning to Great American in 1987, shortly before the bank began to fail under the weight of bad commercial real estate loans.

The co-chairman of Carter's campaign is Tom Stickel, president of a prominent financial services company, and his steering committee is sprinkled with well-known developers and attorneys.

"Tom absolutely knows a lot of the power structure in the city. He has been involved with a lot of the so-called network for a while," said Wayne Buss, an architect and supporter of mayoral rival Peter Navarro.

"I think he is going to have a very hard time separating himself from that," Buss said. "I think that all these promises of being unattached from that and simply being an affordable-housing developer take on a much different realm."

Carter, who was born, raised and educated in San Diego, is married and the father of two children, one of whom is deaf--a challenge, Carter tells audiences, that helped him deal with adversity and learn how to communicate with all kinds of people. Carter himself has survived skin cancer, which he contracted when he was 36.

He maintains that voters get the best of both worlds with him: an outsider capable of new direction, whose ties to the business community and major civic organizations will help him build consensus and get the city moving again.

"The issue is, who can bring this city together? Who can work with business and the schools?" he said.

As proof of his effectiveness, Carter claims involvement in the construction of 100,000 homes for low-income people, both as a San Diego Federal executive and a developer.

Carter, a liberal Democrat among the banking industry's staid Republicans, said he was responsible for pushing San Diego Federal into Southeast San Diego and helping to eliminate "redlining" of certain poor neighborhoods. Redlining is the practice of refusing to loan money in certain, usually deteriorating, areas.

As a veteran board member at Children's Hospital, Carter was instrumental in helping the hospital expand from 90 beds to 220 beds over the past two decades, said Blair Sadler, the hospital's president.

An insider in Democratic politics, Carter was also treasurer of the 1988 group that successfully passed a ballot measure moving the city to district-only City Council elections.

The mayor's race pits Carter against three other major candidates: County Supervisor Susan Golding, San Diego City Councilman Ron Roberts and Navarro, founder of the managed-growth organization Prevent Los Angelization Now! Magician Loch David Crane and accountant Bill Thomas are also on the ballot.

If no candidate captures 50% of the vote in the primary, a prospect considered highly unlikely because of the fragmented race, the top two vote-getters will meet in a runoff election Nov. 2.

One conventional analysis of the race holds that the divided electorate will choose one elected official, Golding or Roberts, and one outsider, Navarro or Carter, for the runoff. For that reason, and because Navarro is believed to enjoy support among some Democrats, Carter is considered to be in direct competition with Navarro for votes.

With the exception of sparring at some forums, however, Carter has taken the high road throughout the campaign, avoiding the sniping between Golding, Roberts and Navarro. That is in part because Carter is vulnerable to counterattacks that he was associated with a failed savings and loan, and that he is a housing developer, always a touchy subject in local politics.

Some believe Carter will be an attractive candidate to voters who want to propel an outsider into City Hall but can't stomach Navarro's aggressive style. Others say, however, that Carter's mellow style detracts from his message of reform.

Ducheny, the Logan Heights activist, cited the Rev. George Stevens' victory over incumbent Pratt in last fall's council election in saying that voters south of I-8 and in some of the city's other minority neighborhoods are looking for more powerful advocates in City Hall.

"People are going to support somebody who's aggressive, somebody who they feel will fight for change, who will fight aggressively to address their problems," he said.

But political consultant John Kern contends that "Carter's a possible (winner) if he follows the strategy he seems to be taking and not attack Navarro. The worst thing Carter could do right now is attack Navarro. Carter has to let people know what Tom Carter's about and not what Peter Navarro is about."

Carter said: "I have a lot of people who want me to get real negative. I'm going to live in this community until I die. I just don't want to do it that way."

Carter and his supporters contend that beneath the mellow exterior lives a hard-driving executive who has been through corporate political wars, who can hold his own in the occasionally vicious politics of City Hall, but who will not let the council dissolve into the bickering that has characterized its recent past.

"He's as tenacious as they come," said Don Schiffer, a campaign volunteer who worked with Carter at Great American. "He enjoys a good debate. I watched him operate at Great American. He's got a courage of conviction and . . . he's not afraid of conflict, but at the same time tries every possible fashion to forge cooperation."

Carter has "the ability to find consensus, to build bridges, to avoid unnecessary polarization between and among groups," Sadler said.

Although there is consensus among the four major candidates on many issues, Carter has issued some proposals that separate him from his opponents.

He has called for city government to direct its contracts toward San Diego companies, contending that, for example, the city's signature red trolleys should be built here instead of Sacramento. He also favors quicker construction of the trolley line than is now scheduled.

Carter would lower developer fees on low-cost homes to stimulate more construction of them and would set aside 20% of all new development for low- and moderate-income housing. He wants to dramatically increase the number of people living downtown.

Though he is the only candidate not to issue a written economic or crime plan, Carter, like his opponents, proposes to put more police on the street without increasing taxes. He believes funding can be sharply cut in city departments such as financial management and planning to pay for the increased police presence.

To tackle the social problems at the root of crime, he would establish apprentice programs in major businesses for inner-city youth, as he did when he was at San Diego Federal.

Carter emphasizes retention of the city's manufacturing base and would streamline the city's regulatory and permitting process to foster economic growth.

He is dubious about the prospects for a TwinPorts airport straddling the U.S.-Mexico border, and has said that North Island should be considered a possible site for international air traffic. But he has serious questions about the need for another international airport between Los Angeles and Tijuana, and would spend the money on higher priorities.

Carter supports a downtown sports arena--as long as it does not interfere with construction of new housing--a new central library near City College and scaling back the city's $2.5-billion sewage treatment project to save money.

He wants to put the homeless to work sweeping streets and supports more housing construction for the homeless by nonprofit groups. He wants to see proposed regional parks completed.

But, instead of voting for him based on any one issue, Carter wants voters to consider him as someone like themselves who decided he had to jump into the race and had the financial wherewithal to do it. Even if he loses, Carter said, he won't regret the investment of time and money.

"I'm serious when I say I don't want my kids to think of me as someone who didn't try to turn the way this city was going," he said. "I don't want it be like L.A. I think we still have an opportunity here."

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