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Novice Councilwoman Developing Clout : Government: Linda Bernhardt occupies swing position between the two emerging factions on the San Diego City Council.

February 19, 1990|LEONARD BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the balance of power on the more liberal and pro-environment San Diego City Council still in flux, District 5 Councilwoman Linda Bernhardt is emerging as a representative with an inordinate amount of clout for someone with just two months on the job.

On issues ranging from the city's sewer system to port district appointments, Bernhardt has served as a key swing vote, an independent positioned between competing political factions on the newly realigned council.

"On issues that I'm very much interested in, I think she's crucial," said Councilman Wes Pratt, who with council members Bob Filner, Abbe Wolfsheimer, John Hartley and Bernhardt has won a number of close victories on controversial topics. "She's in a position where she can basically make or break some issues."

Says Bernhardt: "From what we can tell, right now I'm the only person on the council that gets along with everybody.

"I can (attract) a Bruce Henderson-Judy McCarty vote," she said, referring to the council's conservatives, "and also (attract) sort of an Abbe-, Bob-, Hartley-, Wes Pratt-kind of vote."

But, as she carves out that political niche, Bernhardt also is learning the political dangers of that posture and has demonstrated a tendency to change her mind. On her first day in office, she earned O'Connor's enmity when she switched her position on the politically sensitive issue of committee chairmanships.

Furthermore, some members of her core constituency of managed-growth advocates and environmentalists are troubled by her affiliation with Jean Andrews, a longtime fund-raiser for the building industry who was instrumental in the defeat of four growth-control measures in 1988. Bernhardt hired Andrews to help her pay off her $156,000 campaign debt by convening small gatherings at which Bernhardt accepts contributions from, among others, development industry employees.

"For an environmentalist to hire Jean Andrews would be akin to George Bush appointing Noriega as drug czar or Col. Kadafi as national security adviser," said Peter Navarro, chairman of Prevent Los Angelization Now! and a proponent of two slow-growth measures that Andrews helped defeat at the polls.

The decision to hire Andrews is all the more surprising because Bernhardt managed Citizens for Limited Growth's losing campaign for two of the propositions, which would have capped housing construction in the city of San Diego and unincorporated areas.

Bernhardt, who pledges to adhere to a campaign promise not to accept contributions from the principals of development firms, says she hired Andrews because she is good at what she does. She adds that Navarro's statement ignores the fact that Andrews also has raised money for a statewide environmental initiative and for pro-environment Councilman Bob Filner.

"I watched her skill level. It was enormous," Bernhardt said of Andrews. "That's why I hired her."

A 30-year-old land-use consultant who is the second-youngest woman ever elected to the city council, Bernhardt took advantage of the city's first district-only election to upset two-term incumbent Ed Struiksma last November, with the backing of community activists demanding the slowing of construction along the Interstate-15 corridor that dominates the 5th District.

A former Wolfsheimer aide, Bernhardt brought with her the advantage of experience in City Hall, a law degree and her knowledge of the sometimes arcane rules of land-use regulation. At the same time, her anti-development campaign rhetoric had some people worrying that she would be an extremist in a district where many of the city's high-profile growth issues are played out. Bernhardt made a splash during the campaign when she burned a Building Industry Assn. questionnaire on the steps of City Hall.

Refreshingly blunt in public, Bernhardt also is straightforward with her colleagues, they say.

"She is willing to relatively unambiguously state a position," said Councilman Bruce Henderson. "Obviously, the real name of the game is what do you do."

After assembling a talented staff that includes Jay Powell, one of the city's most respected environmentalists, and an experienced political pro in former Lucy Killea aide Chris Crotty, Bernhardt began her tenure on the political hot seat Dec. 4, the day she was sworn in.

Bowing to intense pressure from 23 environmental leaders and some of her colleagues, Bernhardt broke her promise to O'Connor to support Henderson as chairman of the council committee overseeing parks and swung her support to O'Connor's chief council enemy, Filner, sealing his election.

O'Connor was furious. In making nominations to the council committees and city commissions, she had awarded Bernhardt an unusual number of leadership positions, including a spot on the council's policy-making Rules Committee and chairmanship of the Housing Commission, in what some considered a play for Bernhardt's allegiance.

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