San Diego Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer took out nominating petitions to run for city attorney Thursday, creating the possibility of the first credible challenge to 19-year incumbent John Witt since 1973.
The District 1 councilwoman said that the chances of her running against Witt are "50-50," but political observers doubted that Wolfsheimer would take out candidacy papers if she were not serious about challenging him. Wolfsheimer, who said she will start gathering the signatures she needs shortly, must file the petitions by March 10.
"It looks exactly 50-50 today, because I haven't really been able to sit down quietly and determine what my work product would be in each office and whether (being city attorney) would be satisfying to me," Wolfsheimer said.
A Witt-Wolfsheimer contest, which would be decided by voters in June, carries the potential to be more interesting than past low-key races for the office Witt has held since 1969. Wolfsheimer has frequently criticized Witt on issues ranging from his handling of the city's interests in the troubled U.S. Grant Hotel to the size of his office's budget.
In 1986, Witt launched--then quickly dropped--an investigation of whether Wolfsheimer violated the City Charter by calling for an investigation of high-ranking city administrators who, she claimed, purposely withheld crucial information involving the proposed sale of surplus city land. She opposed the sale. Wolfsheimer apologized to City Council colleagues for the brief political tempest.
Witt may be more vulnerable this year than he has been in the past. He came under fire shortly before Christmas when he issued an opinion banning a Nativity scene from Balboa Park, saying it violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The next day, after intense pressure from city officials and community members, he reversed that position, admitting that "we've handled it badly."
During a September conference of city managers in Cincinnati, Witt accused San Diego Padres officials of using "big lie" tactics during negotiations over a new lease for San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. Witt did not know that a reporter was in the audience while he was speaking.
Witt's last opponent, former City Councilman Michael Schaefer, used publicity stunts referring to Witt's 1980 arrest for drunk driving in an unsuccessful effort to unseat him.
"I think (Wolfsheimer) is a credible challenger," said political consultant Davis Lewis, who also has fought with Witt as a member of the city's Civil Service Commission. "Whether she can beat him or not, I'm afraid I'd have to say I'll hedge and wait to see a poll."
Wolfsheimer, 49, has demonstrated a willingness to finance races out of her own pocket. The Republican from La Jolla won election to her seat in 1985 by spending more than $125,000, the vast majority of it her own money. She is paid $45,000 annually as a city councilwoman.
The 55-year-old Witt, who spent about $31,000 in defeating Schaefer in 1984, is more accustomed to opponents with small budgets and little name recognition among voters. His last tough election came in 1973, when he defeated attorney Jim Webb, who was later killed while riding his bicycle.
Witt, who earns $95,064, said Thursday that his campaign manager had drawn up a similar budget for this year's contest. That budget would have to be jettisoned if Wolfsheimer enters the race, he said.
"We have taken into consideration that Abbe might be the opponent, but the budget (Campaign Manager Sarah Katz) has prepared is not with a candidate like Abbe in mind," Witt said.
Though neither has taken polls, both claimed that they would win the election. Witt has also taken out candidacy papers, but has not submitted petitions.
"I think if the San Diego public is as intelligent as I think it is, and recognizes the virtue of stability and the fact that we've had a nationally recognized city attorney's office, I think I'd do very well," Witt said.
"I wouldn't have taken out the papers if I didn't think I could run a viable race," said Wolfsheimer, a former law professor.
Wolfsheimer said she is interested in the office because of the influence the city attorney has over local legislation and contracts.
"The legislation either lives or dies at the hands of the city attorney," she said. "Contracts either live or die at the hands of the city attorney." But Wolfsheimer said that she is still unsure about abandoning her council seat with unfinished objectives in the areas of transportation, land use, sewage and water use.
' . . . Something Personal'
"It's really hard for me to understand why (Wolfsheimer) would want to (be city attorney)," Lewis said. "I'm sure it's something personal. Definitely, it's a very influential position, certainly more powerful than most people understand."
Wolfsheimer said that a primary goal of hers would be paring down the size of the city attorney's office, an issue she raised as recently as Tuesday when she complained loudly during City Council budget deliberations about the type of office furnishings Witt wants to buy--including the type of appointment calendars he intends to order for his secretaries.