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County Builders' Secret Political Endorsements Pay Dividends

November 10, 1986|DANIEL M. WEINTRAUB | Times Staff Writer

Taking a page from the political playbook of the environmental movement, San Diego County's building industry has devised a new strategy for helping industry-backed candidates win local elections, industry officials say.

The Building Industry Assn., bruised by three dramatic defeats within the past year, has decided it will no longer simply endorse candidates or causes and then pour cash contributions into their campaign coffers.

Instead, in the campaigns that ended with last week's elections, the association, through its paid political consultant, was quietly involved at an unprecedented level in the day-to-day activities of races for city council, school board and water board seats countywide.

A primary goal of the strategy was to persuade rank and file members of the building trades to involve themselves in grass-roots campaigns for candidates who would be sympathetic to the industry.

The industry's involvement was purposely kept secret for fear that exposure would threaten the gains the strategy hoped to accomplish.

"As an industry, we've learned a lesson I learned a long time ago," said developer Bill Snow, a member of the BIA's political policy committee. "You don't throw money at things and then go away. It doesn't work that way. This time we got involved. We got involved on a personal level, and we tried to help the candidates rather than just throwing money at them and endorsing them."

The results, though far from a clean sweep for builder-backed candidates, were better than might have been expected in an era when anti-development sentiment is running high in many communities throughout the county.

Even in North County, where open backing by the building industry can be political suicide, the BIA helped several candidates win election, tossing a handful of slow-growth incumbents out of office. In most cases, the public voted for the BIA's choices without knowing that the development industry had backed the candidates.

County Supervisor-elect John MacDonald was endorsed by the BIA, but he says he rebuffed the industry's overtures and did not know of its support until after his election.

In Vista, the mayor's office and two council seats were won by candidates supported by the development industry. In San Marcos, the mayor's office and a council seat went to builder-backed candidates. In Poway, two candidates endorsed by the BIA were elected to the City Council while two of the city's founding council members--both slow growth backers--lost their battles for reelection.

In Oceanside and Carlsbad, two of four council members elected were backed by the development industry, and in Carlsbad, where two competing growth control measures were on the ballot, the one most acceptable to the industry won more votes.

Countywide, 15 of 27 candidates endorsed by the Building Industry Assn. were elected to city councils. In contested water board races, seven of nine builder-backed candidates were elected. In school board races, 33 of the 53 candidates backed by the builders won office, the most prominent being Sheriff's Capt. Jim Roache, who defeated homemaker Sue Braun by 903 votes to win a seat on the San Diego city school board. In that race, the BIA mailed campaign literature for Roache to 2,500 workers connected to the industry and phoned each person twice to urge them to vote for him.

"I think we did fairly well," said developer Terry Sheldon, chairman of the BIA's political policy committee. "I think we had a real good slate of people."

Snow and Sheldon said the industry learned an expensive lesson during the past year, when one ballot measure and two candidates backed heavily by developers' dollars were defeated by lesser-funded campaigns:

- The 5th District Supervisorial primary in North County. Incumbent Paul Eckert, backed by the building industry, spent $173,778 in the primary, while Clyde Romney spent $96,589 and MacDonald spent $31,131. Yet MacDonald won the primary with 29.5% of the vote, and Romney finished second with 26.3%. Eckert was eliminated from the general election when he finished third in the primary with 24.2%.

- The race for mayor of San Diego. City Councilman and development industry favorite Bill Cleator outspent Maureen O'Connor by more than 2-to-1. Cleator spent $607,414 to O'Connor's $268.886. O'Connor won by a margin of 55.3% to 44.7%.

- Proposition A, the city's growth management initiative on the November 1985 ballot. Proposition A won by a 56% to 44% margin despite its backers being outspent by more than 10-to-1. Supporters of Proposition A spent $59,417 on their campaign. Opponents spent $672,175.

"Proposition A really got away from us," Snow said. "We sat back and did a lot of reflecting after that."

The product of that reflection was a new political outlook based more on strategy than money. Although the BIA spent more than $60,000 on races this fall, the group took steps to ensure that its money was spent with more direction than ever before.

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