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Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UCSD, weighs in on the District 3 Board of Supervisors race. Courtesy photo
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Political expert weighs in on race for District 3

REGION — A local political expert said that while the scandal made District 3 Supervisor Dave Roberts vulnerable to his competitors, several factors play in his favor — incumbency, the time delay between the settlements and the election, partisan politics and the presidential primary election.

As an incumbent, Roberts can run on his record, which includes projects and services he has delivered to various communities within the district, said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego.

And time, Kousser said, appears to have dulled the effect of the scandal, which threatened to derail his re-election hopes a year ago.

Roberts faces challenges from Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar and Escondido Mayor Sam Abed.

“I think the scandal is the only reason there is a competitive race this year,” Kousser said. “But the scandal looks much worse a year ago than it does today. There is still enough material for his opponents to put on a campaign flyer, but all charges were dropped against him, and the time delay has given Roberts a chance to explain his side of it to voters and move on, which didn’t look possible a year ago.”

Gaspar said she believes that voters will hold Roberts accountable, despite the length of time that has passed between the scandal’s peak and the primary election.

“People need to demand more from elected officials,” Gaspar said. “The fact is that when all is said and done, we are talking about a half-million dollars of taxpayer money to settle these legal claims, and that to me is unacceptable, considering the many needs we have for the region.

“I strongly believe it is time we don’t dismiss these issues, that we hold our elected officials to a higher standard, period,” Gaspar said.

Kousser said the dynamics of the presidential primary also could help Roberts, a Democrat, advance to a runoff election against one of the two Republican candidates. With the Democratic presidential nomination still in the balance, California Democratic voters are much more likely to participate in the primary than Republicans, whose party have all but selected Donald Trump as the party’s presidential candidate.

Those voters will likely be more willing to forgive Roberts for previous transgressions, he said.

“I think (the primary) is going to boost up the vote for Dave Roberts because the democratic (presidential) campaign still matters,” Kousser said. “Hillary Clinton’s campaign is going to run strong ‘Get Out the Vote’ efforts, and that all makes things look better for Roberts. If this were a race that really excited the Republican Party, you could potentially see two Republicans reach the runoff, as you saw a few years ago during the primaries.”

Moving beyond June 7, Kousser said that the makeup of the district’s demography would suggest that Roberts’ biggest threat in a runoff would be Gaspar, who has positioned herself as the type of moderate candidate that has succeeded in Coastal North County races and in the third district.

“She is not as polarizing a figure as Sam Abed, and generally county supervisors are not running based on their international immigration policies,” Kousser said of Gaspar. “She is positioning herself as a moderate and a pragmatist, essentially running the same campaign as Roberts four years ago. Her pitch is that she is untainted by scandal.”

Gaspar said that she believes her election performance in the 2014 Encinitas mayoral election demonstrates her crossover appeal, and that her ability to work well with the voting majority on the council as the political minority bolsters that notion.

“It is important to note that I was the first elected mayor in a largely Democratic city running as a Republican, which demonstrates I have crossover appeal,” she said. “I am really proud of the support I have in the community.”

Given the scandal, though, Roberts said he doesn’t feel like the underdog and expects to advance through to the general election in November. One advantage, perhaps, is he is running against two Republicans, who may split hardline voters leaving the democratic base for Roberts as well as moderate republicans and independents.

Roberts said the voters are concerned with the issues affecting quality of life, a leader who provides a strong economy and environment, among other issues.

“I think people will see through this nonsense that has really been put out there and say, ‘Dave has done a great job and we want him to continue to do a great job,” he added.

Abed also championed his ability to attract voters from other parties, noting he won 60 percent of the vote in his mayoral re-election and 35 percent of independents and Latinos.

“I am very proud of my record serving Escondido and I’m looking forward to serving the county,” he said. “I have the most cross-over votes of any candidate.”

Like her opponents, Gaspar also said she appeals to a variety of voters and noted her ability to overcome being in the minority to accomplish her goals that will resonate with residents.

“I also that feel that governing in the minority has made me a stronger elected official,” Gaspar said. “I’ve done something that I believe hasn’t been done, and that is served in the majority, the super majority and in the minority all during my first term in office, and I believe having to adapt to each situation has made me a stronger leader by working with everyone. I am proud that our council has restored a level of professionalism that didn’t exist before, and we are operating as a cohesive group, which is something that is important at the county level as well.”

Kousser said that this moderate roadmap has proven successful throughout the region’s history.

“Being a coastal moderate, from Brian Bilbray (former U.S. Representative), to Scott Peters (current U.S. Representative), to Dede Alpert in the State Senate to Pam Slater-Price (former District 3 supervisor), has been a successful path to victory in a politically moderate North County,” Kousser said. “We haven’t elected any fire-breathing Democrats or fire-breathing Republicans. This is a business-friendly, environmentalist and socially liberal territory, or ‘leave us alone and let us surf.’

“I think the Roberts camp has to be cheering and rooting and hoping that Mayor Abed is the general election opponent, because this is a pretty middle of the road district,” Kousser said.

Another potential strength of Gaspar in a runoff against Roberts is the fact that while she is a more moderate candidate than Abed, who received the endorsement of the Republican Party, she still is a registered Republican with support from various high-ranking party figures, including San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and each of the Republican members of the San Diego City Council.

When asked about how this race compares to the 2012 San Diego mayoral election, which had a similar dynamic of a Democrat (Bob Filner), Republican (Carl DeMaio) and moderate running for the city’s top job, Kousser said the main difference is that unlike the independent in that race, Nathan Fletcher, Gaspar hasn’t alienated herself from the party.

“The big difference in that race was that Fletcher wasn’t part of either party, so you had this dynamic of ‘we’ll show you why you don’t abandon the party,’” Kousser said. “Even though Gaspar isn’t getting a lot of money from the party, she still has a considerable amount of support within its ranks, and in a general election scenario, she’d likely have the party’s backing against Roberts.”

Kousser, who compared Abed to a “Donald Trump-like” candidate, said that Abed’s advantage lies inland, where he is a well-known figure. But in order for him to become a serious contender against Roberts in a general election, he would have to garner support from the district’s coastal region, where partisanship is usually in shades of light blue or pink.

“The fire-breathing candidate typically doesn’t play very well here,” he said.