After two-year campaign, Carmel Valley man approaching final days of heated supervisor race


Editor’s note:

This is the first article in a series profiling the candidates in the District 3 county supervisor race. The candidates for the District 3 seat include Steve Danon, Carl Hilliard, Dave Roberts, Bryan Ziegler and Stephen Pate. Next week we will profile Del Mar Mayor Carl Hilliard.

By Claire Harlin

Steve Danon began his campaign for District 3 county supervisor in 2009 — more than two years before his opponents — but he said the seed was planted even earlier than that.

It was the encouragement of community leaders and his political peers, he said, that made him start “testing the waters” — gauging whether he’d be able to get enough support to oust a 20-year incumbent — and the water was, well, comfortably warm. The Carmel Valley resident said he wouldn’t still be in the race today had he not steadily picked up the momentum and support he needed.

“I thought, ‘Would it be too eager to start early?’” said Danon, who is chief of staff for Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray. “But given the size of the district and the time and fundraising it would take to wage a competitive campaign, I had no choice.”

As residents of District 3, which encompasses Del Mar, Carmel Valley and Solana Beach, receive ballots in the mail this week, the race between Danon, Del Mar Mayor Carl Hilliard and Solana Beach Deputy Mayor Dave Roberts continues to heat up. And while Danon has been dubbed the top dog by many, he’s also been the recipient of most of the dirt in what’s become somewhat of a mud-slinging fest. Roberts has accused Danon of having ties to jailed and corrupt former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, and Hilliard has accused Danon of campaigning “on the federal clock” while working as chief of staff for Bilbray and going on “travel junkets” to China and Saudi Arabia. Stephen Pate and Solana Beach native Bryan Zeigler are also in the running — and they’ve stayed essentially mud-free.

The increasing heat may be helpful to Danon, however, because it’s bringing attention to the race and the supervisor position itself — which he hopes, if elected, to significantly change. After all, it may be difficult to run a campaign based on reform when voters are unsure what exactly is being reformed, Danon said.

“My biggest challenge in this race has been that people don’t know what the supervisor does,” said Danon, adding that much of his campaigning has involved education about the Board of Supervisors, which operates a nearly $5 billion budget and controls funding for services from law enforcement to social welfare to healthcare.

“I tell people that they handle everything from cradle to grave, from birth certificate to death certificate,” said Danon. “If you’ve been effected by having to go through a maze of bureaucracy for your local business, that’s the county. If you’re someone whose child has been taken away for abuse, that’s the county. If it’s the jails being told by the state they have to take more inmates, that could impact you. That’s a public safety issue.”

Danon’s reform initiative comes on the heels of current District 3 supervisor Pam Slater-Price coming under fire last year for awarding millions in public funds to the San Diego Opera and the Old Globe Theatre, while failing to report tickets received from those arts entities. Danon has proposed the establishment of an ethics commission and independent citizen review panel that will oversee use of the $5 million Neighborhood Reinvestment Program — which gives each of the five supervisors free reign over $1 million. The program has been criticized as being a slush fund, and Danon has suggested eliminating it altogether and establishing a stringent, merit-based allocation system that would be decided on by the board as a whole. He also wants to reinstate the whistleblower commission and implement a permanent ban on gifts from individuals and organizations that receive county funds.

Danon also wants to cut the supervisorial office budget by 20 percent, eliminate taxpayer pensions for supervisors and abolish the $12,000-per-year car allowance that’s added into their $143,000 yearly salary.

Calling for sweeping change on a board that hasn’t seen a new face for more than 16 years, however, may present its challenges.

“I’m running on a reform agenda,” said Danon when asked how he’ll get along with the board if elected. “Does that make [the board] uncomfortable that I know where the funds are and how the budget process works? Yes it does.”

Danon has earned a long list of endorsements along his campaign trail, many that were handed down early on when Slater-Price was still in the running. For example, local icon Father Joe Carroll and the Deputy Sheriff’s Association jumped on board with Danon in 2009, prompting many key organizations to follow suit. It has been speculated that it was Danon’s momentous, early-bird campaign that persuaded Slater-Price to not seek reelection, despite her explanation that it was simply time to retire after 20 years.

In the countdown to the June 5 election, Danon continues with his neighborhood listening and speaking tour that’s been ongoing since last year. Through that tour, he said he has been able to listen to concerns of people in all areas of District 3 and develop his own priorities.

The most glaring issue that needs fixing, he said, is that one in 10 San Diegans are out of work.

“My No. 1 priority is creating jobs,” he said, adding that he will work closely with local chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, trade associations and business leaders to make that possible. He also wants to put a focus on the over-50 demographic, especially those who want to return to the work force after being laid off.

Another recurring problem, he said, is the red tape business owners must go through to be able to operate. If elected, he said he will streamline the Department of Planning and Land Use to expedite permits for businesses to expand their operations or to build new facilities.

“It should not take five to 10 years to go through a bureaucratic process,” he said. “The county shouldn’t be a burden on businesses.”

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Editor’s note:

If none of the District 3 candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote in June, there will be a runoff for the supervisor’s seat in November.