SAN DIEGO — After the headline-inducing sex scandal that led to the resignation of Mayor Bob Filner, the special election campaign to find a replacement has been mostly civil and frightfully earnest.
With some policy differences at the margins, the four top candidates have all promised to improve neighborhood services, hire more police officers and streamline city government to help private industry create jobs.
Many of the several dozen candidate forums ahead of Tuesday’s vote have focused on improving the city’s infrastructure, hardly a rallying cry to inflame voters.
“So much of what’s being discussed gets perceived as ‘same old stuff,’” said Mark Larson, talk show host on KCBQ-AM (1170). “People are talking more about Obamacare than the mayor’s race.”
The name of Filner, if uttered at all, is said with a sneer.
“Bob Filner was a dead-end for this city,” said Councilman Kevin Faulconer, the only Republican among the four top candidates.
Councilman David Alvarez, one of three major Democratic candidates in the race, prefers not to use Filner’s name at all, instead referring to unfinished business at City Hall left by “the last mayor.”
If Filner, who resigned Aug. 30 and now awaits a Dec. 9 sentencing on sex harassment charges, hopes to repair history’s judgment on his brief, chaotic tenure as mayor, the time has not yet arrived.
“The final legacy of the Filner fiasco is that his personal peccadilloes cost the city millions in unnecessary electoral and litigation expenses and, worse, months of leadership and forward movement on a host of pressing issues,” said Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.
Another aspect of the Filner legacy may be one he never intended: that his resignation gives the Republican Party a chance to reclaim the mayor’s job despite the fact that registration is trending toward Democrats and independents.
At last count, 40.2% of voters are Democrats, 27.7% independents and 27% Republicans.
When Filner was elected a year ago as the city’s first Democratic mayor in two decades, turnout was nearly 80%. But for this week’s election, the county registrar is predicting a 50% turnout.
Filner’s resignation may prove to be “a speed bump on the road to a more purple — and eventually blue — San Diego,” Luna said.
Based on requests for absentee ballots, the Democratic turnout, particularly in blue-collar neighborhoods south of Interstate 8, is lagging, according to a local think tank, the National University System Institute for Policy Research.
“Unlike November 2012, voter turnout has been low and concentrated in only a handful of neighborhoods,” said Vince Vasquez, senior policy analyst at the institute and author of the report.
The strategy of GOP and business community heavyweights to rally around one candidate — and discourage former Councilman Carl DeMaio from entering the race — appears to be working. At an invitation-only gathering in La Jolla after Filner’s resignation, the group decided on Faulconer.
Polls now suggest that Faulconer is the only candidate with even an outside chance of winning enough votes to avoid a runoff.
In the drive toward election day, former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher had tried to gain advantage by portraying Faulconer as the candidate of an entrenched power structure.
“I didn’t need a group of insiders and status-quo folks to anoint me and tell me I could run,” Fletcher said to Faulconer during a roundtable discussion among major candidates on KUSI-TV.
Alvarez and Fletcher are jousting for the second spot and a runoff with Faulconer early next year. Each has the endorsement of a collection of party notables and labor unions.
Fletcher finished third in last year’s mayoral primary behind Filner and DeMaio. At the time, he was an independent, having dumped the Republican Party. Now he’s a Democrat.
“As we go through life, we change positions,” Fletcher said during the roundtable, attempting to explain his party shifting.
Faulconer, 46, in his second term representing a beach district, was a close ally of former Mayor Jerry Sanders. Support from Sanders and the editorial page of the U-T San Diego newspaper is key to his campaign.
Fletcher, 36, who served in Iraq as an enlisted Marine, is now an executive at Qualcomm, whose co-founder, Irwin Jacobs, is a major supporter. Alvarez, 33, in his first term representing a district south of Interstate 8, is backed by labor unions and the Sierra Club.
Former City Atty. Michael Aguirre, 64, the third Democrat among the major candidates, is endorsed by the newspaper La Prensa. He refers to his opponents as “fine young men” but decries a political system that requires them to seek endorsements and contributions from groups such as labor unions with issues pending at City Hall.
Aguirre has attempted to shift the discussion to the city’s pension payments, which he warns will leave little money to improve neighborhood services.
The other candidates have shown little interest in dwelling on the pension issue that dominated city politics for nearly a decade and sparked media-fanned public anger aimed at city employees and their labor unions. The issue now seems to have lost its resonance with voters.
“I think, after Filner, people are looking for a little less drama,” political consultant John Kern said.