Phone 'survey' effort angers Peters backers

The Corridor News, October 14, 2004

By Bella Silverstein

Some Rancho Penasquitos residents are angry about a recent telephone campaign calling itself a survey. The phone calls appear to be a disguised attempt to influence voters against City Councilman Scott Peters.

"I felt it was underhanded and misleading," said Lorene Joosten, a full-time mother in Rancho Penasquitos who received one of the calls.

Another Rancho Penasquitos resident targeted by the calls, which some are calling a push poll, said he considered it extremely unethical.

"I was furious," said David Smith, a retired environmental scientist. "I said, 'Hold on. This doesn't sound right to me.' They said, 'Well, we'd like to continue with the poll.' I said, 'Not with me you won't!' And I hung up on the guy."

According to Terry McComas, campaign manager for Peters, similar phone calls have been going all over District 1 in an attempt to prejudice voters against Peters.

Callers ask leading questions that blame Peters for the city pension underfunding crisis, among other things. The calls were put out by Peters' opponent for the District 1 City Council seat, Phil Thalheimer, a fact Thalheimer initially denied.

"We're not denying it at all," said Scott Barnett, a political consultant for Thalheimer. "Push polls generate information for us. Peters has done the same exact thing," he said, referring to a telephone campaign Peters conducted in the primary election in March.

Cliff Williams, Scott Peter's chief of staff and also a recipient of one of the phone calls, said the charge that Peters used similar tactics in the primary election is untrue. The poll last March "was a legitimate poll to determine the mood of the electorate," Williams said. Thalheimer's phone calls constituted a push poll, and asked slanted questions under the guise of a survey, he said.

"That's a huge distinction," Williams said.

Last week Peters held a press conference to denounce the push poll, which he called offensive to District 1 residents.

Thalheimer claims Peters' press conference was timed to divert attention from a meeting about the pension crisis that Thalheimer was holding at the same time. Thalheimer's event castigated the council for its "mismanagement" of the crisis, and included Diann Shipione, a pension trustee and vocal critic of the 2002 council vote to continue putting less money than needed into the pension fund, against the recommendation of an official city advisor.

Thalheimer is defending the phone calls. "We're using all means that are legally available to us to let the voters know what Peters' record is," he said last week.

Those means, however, may not be legal. "I didn't think this was allowable," said Joosten.

Last week the City Council passed several amendments to the Election Campaign Control Ordinance to make sure these tactics are illegal. The new amendments forbid such calls without clear identification of the person or group paying for the calls, along with the name of the candidate associated with the payer.

Joosten said that when she questioned the person who called her, he said that the Republican Party was behind the phone calls. Jonathan Buettner of the San Diego Republican Party emphatically denied this, saying last week that the party has authorized no such poll.

"It would be a violation of the law," Buettner said. He also said that the chairman of the party has offered a bounty "to get them for impugning our reputation. If we find the culprit, we will litigate," he said.

Thalheimer has so far spent $918,000 of his own money on the campaign, which Peters characterizes as an attempt to "buy the election." Thalheimer says he uses his own resources because he has pledged not to take money from developers. Thalheimer claims Peters is beholden to developers because of their contributions to his campaign.

Smith, the retired scientist who received one of the calls, says the ersatz survey sounded so illegitimate to him that it helped him decide whom not to vote for.

"I'm not very partisan," said Smith, "But I'm going to tell all my neighbors about this."