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Is 'Ballot Crowding' At Work In San Diego City Council Race?

The candidates and incumbent in City Council District 1. Clockwise from upper left: Barbara Bry, Ray Ellis, Louis Rodolico, Kyle Heiskala, Bruce Lightner and Sherri Lightner.
KPBS, Candidate Courtesy Photos
The candidates and incumbent in City Council District 1. Clockwise from upper left: Barbara Bry, Ray Ellis, Louis Rodolico, Kyle Heiskala, Bruce Lightner and Sherri Lightner.

In District 1, the number of candidates grew from two to five in the span of a week

Is 'Ballot Crowding' At Work In San Diego City Council Race?
In the span of a week, the number of candidates running for the District 1 seat on the San Diego City Council ballooned from two to five. And there may be a strategy behind that.
Is 'Ballot Crowding' At Work In San Diego City Council Race?
Is 'Ballot Crowding' At Work In San Diego City Council Race? GUESTS:Andrew Bowen, KPBS Metro reporter

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and it's Thursday, March 10. Here are some of the San Diego stories were following on the KPBS newsroom. California lawmakers voted today to raise the smoking age from 18 to 21. Democratic must still sign off on the legislation. Long-term tradeshow bookings at the San Diego convention Center are running well ahead of last year's pace. That's from a report that says San Diego will here this afternoon and it says by the end of January 30 four conventions had already been booked. Listen for the latest news through the day right here on KPBS. First step, the San Diego city Council race that could determine the political majority on the counsel for the next few years has recently gone.curious. Republican Ray Ellis and Barbara Bry were set face-off on district 1 after the departure earlier of Democratic candidate Joe LaCava that now the field has gotten a bit more crowded. Joining me to sort this out is KPBS reporter Andrew Bowman. Andrew welcome. Who are these late filers. The first one was a man named Louis Rodolico and he is a retired architect. No real political experience. The second is with Bruce Lightner he is the husband of the incumbent Sherri Lightner and he is an engineer by trade. The third was a man -- a very young man named Kyle Heiskala. He has on Sherri Lightner's staff in his the community liaison to University City and he advises on environmental and transportation issues and as I mentioned he is by far the youngest candidate. I believe he is 24. Why do these candidates say they are running and why do people think they are running? Officially I think if you ask any of these candidates they will say exactly what a candidate is supposed to say. I want to the city of San Diego and district want to be safe and prosperous but when you look at these objectives really -- these developments objectively I don't think it's a conspiracy theory to say that there may be a strategy behind this. That's certainly been the desk suggested by observers. That strategy is if there are more candidates on the ballot in district once then it's more likely that no candidate will gain an absolute majority in June and then that will in turn forced a runoff election in November between the top two candidates. That's the ballot crowding that I alluded to in the beginning. Why would there be need to crowd the ballot in the first place? The roots of this issue are essentially partisan. Back it up a little bit in San Diego is an election is -- if a candidate in the June primaries for citywide office gains an absolute majority as I mentioned, the election is decided. There is no need for an election in November. Democrats if you talk to any Democrat in the city they will tell you how much they despise this rule. They say it's unfair and undemocratic for elections to be decided at a time when turnout is essentially very low in San Diego County in the June 2014 primaries -- especially for Democrats. Overall turnout was 20% across the county in June. In November it was still pretty bad but it was a little bit better it was 33% in November 2014. Now Democratic constituencies as you mentioned attended -- not that in June in part because the Democratic presidential primaries are usually wrapped up by then. Often the same for the Republicans. Republicans turnout in greater numbers in June and if you talk to Republicans in the city they will say this rule is fine. Everybody still has the right to vote in June. It's up to every individual voter whether they choose to exercise that right. What do the two original candidates Republican Ray Ellis and Democrat Barbara Bry have to say about their new opponents I spoke to both of them. Barbara Bry essentially sure did all. Here's a bit of what I told her when I asked her what her reaction to these new candidates was. We were very surprised. It hasn't changed our campaign strategy. We are still running a grassroots driven volunteer effort talking with voters about their issues and are continuing as we were before. Ray Ellis, her opponent told me something similar and he said he is happy to debate the issues with really serious candidates but he really hinted at exactly what we were talking about. He said I wonder if these are serious candidates. This could be political gamesmanship as he said. In his case he is actually supported by bit of evidence. If you go to Bruce Lightner's website that is the habit has been of the incumbent Sherri Lightner is a carbon copy of Ray Ellis's website. Here's what he said. We contacted our web designer and I asked her to take a look at it. She contacted the program is that did the underlying code and its our code there. Yesterday I spoke to a friend of his who happens to be an intellectual property lawyer and she said there may be copyright issues and they are considering sending a letter to force them to take that website down. If these charges are true the only reason it would be done is because this race is considered crucial. Why is it considered crucial for San Diego? District one is relatively easily spent by between registered Democrats and Republicans. Sherri Lightner is a Democrat and she is representing the district now. If she is replaced by Republican that would essentially give a Republicans a majority on the city Council that would mean if Kevin Faulkner is reelected they would have a virginal monopoly on city government. Any more late filers expected? The deadline tonight is five monopoly on city government. Any more late filers expected? The deadline tonight is 5 PM at the city clerk's office. I think it's -- it would be a tough Sprint to pull papers and then return them in the very same day. In the next five hours. I think these are probably all of them. I've been speaking with KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowman. Thank you very much.

As candidates for San Diego city offices face a Thursday deadline for filing papers to get on the June ballot, one race is distinguished by its last-minute growth in the number of candidates.

Two weeks ago, two people were running in City Council District 1, which includes La Jolla, University City and Carmel Valley — Democrat Barbara Bry and Republican Ray Ellis. Another Democrat, Joe LaCava, dropped out of the race in January.

Then, on Feb. 29, Louis Rodolico, a Democrat and political novice, pulled papers to enter the race. Later in the week, two more candidates joined him — and both are connected to the district's Democratic incumbent, Council President Sherri Lightner. She cannot seek re-election because of term limits.

The newcomers are Bruce Lightner, a Republican and Sherri Lightner's husband, and Kyle Heiskala, the councilwoman's representative to University City and a policy adviser on infrastructure and transportation issues. He has no party preference.

Some have speculated the last-minute growth in candidates was intentional. Elections are decided in June if a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote. Rachel Laing, a political communications strategist in San Diego, said the tactic of "ballot crowding" — diluting the votes for each candidate to deprive them of an absolute majority and force a runoff — is a "pretty standard effort" in city politics.

Laing added that having five candidates in District 1 made a runoff more likely and gives Bry a better chance of winning in November. Democrats tend to be at a demographic disadvantage in June elections because their voters are less likely than Republicans to cast ballots then. Democrats to have a higher turnout in November.

Bry and Ellis have downplayed their party affiliations for the nonpartisan office. Bry said she was "very surprised" by the race's new candidates but that it had not changed her campaign strategy.

"We are still running a grass-roots driven, volunteer effort, talking with voters about their issues," she said.

Two screenshots show the near identical designs of the campaign websites belonging to Ray Ellis and Bruce Lightner.
Two screenshots show the near identical designs of the campaign websites belonging to Ray Ellis and Bruce Lightner.

Ellis said he was happy to debate issues with serious candidates, but he was concerned the race's newcomers were playing "political gamesmanship."

He said Bruce Lightner's campaign website was a near copy of his own, with virtually identical source code. Ellis added that he is exploring options to legally force Lightner to take the site down.

"That's very troubling," Ellis said. "It opens up a whole lot of other questions. Is Mr. Lightner really a serious candidate?"

Bruce Lightner declined to comment for this story. His wife also declined to comment, saying only that she was endorsing her husband as her replacement. Sherri Lightner defeated Ellis in 2012 by nearly 10 percentage points.

Under California law, local elections are officially nonpartisan. But hanging over the entire District 1 race is the chance that it could decide whether Democrats keep their one-vote majority on the nine-member City Council or if Republicans take over.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.