Of Scott Peters, rivals and flamethrowers

By Logan Jenkins
SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE

February 24, 2004

On the stage of a standing-room-only La Jolla auditorium, wedged between two aggressive challengers firing from their lips, Scott Peters looked as if he'd eaten some questionable shrimp.

You can't blame the San Diego councilman for suffering some indigestion at the Thursday night candidate forum.

Look at it from his point of view.

The voters hired him four years ago to represent District 1, which spans La Jolla, University City, Carmel Valley and Rancho Penasquitos. Now, he can point to an impressive laundry list of tangible accomplishments in his district, including a juicy personal plum -- a seat on the powerful Coastal Commission.

Any way you look it, he's riding high in the saddle. He's endorsed by virtually the whole political Rolodex, including the environmental heavyweights like the Sierra Club. He's cultivated close ties with the business community, garnering their sincerest expression of respect -- campaign donations. (Like the Mafia, business leaders don't feel gemutlich with a politician until they slip an envelope into his pocket.)

Peters can legitimately claim to be a bilingual politician, a liberal enviro who speaks the practical dialect of business. He could be an authentic example of that rare paradox -- a pragmatic idealist.

But if that's true, why in the Sam Hill are his opponents -- Kathryn Burton of Torrey Hills and Phil Thalheimer of Rancho Penasquitos -- smearing him as a shady pol on the take?

Why is he, despite the awesome advantage of incumbency and the blessings of practically anyone who matters, looking green around the gills as he sits between two candidates who, at least on paper, don't stand a snowball's chance in Borrego to unseat him?

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The answer to that question has a few layers.

Youthful and handsome in a preppy khaki-blue-blazer vein, Peters lights up a room, but he doesn't warm it. The environmental lawyer has star power, but it's a fairly chilly, remote star.

You can have a long breakfast with him and he'll never make you laugh. But he will make you smile occasionally in a wintry way.

If Garrison Keillor were writing this piece, he might pull out Peters' Midwestern roots and ancestral faith: His father is a Lutheran minister.

In his gloomy mien, Peters reminds of Mayor Dick Murphy, whom Peters praises lavishly for his stoic patience. Peters, it seems, has an innate distrust of "flamethrowers," overheated name-callers who could never organize their thoughts in a legal brief or be tolerated in a courtroom.

Asked what he learned in his first term, Peters answered: "The insiders don't know what they're talking about." He detests the "echo chamber" of unproductive gossip.

When Burton stood up in La Jolla and, glancing at a script, repeatedly blistered Peters for accepting donations from developers, Peters' contempt seemed to border on pity for her failure to offer a constructive vision of her own.

When he rose to speak, he steadfastly defended the integrity of his public works -- he voted with planning groups, he said, not developers; the mainstream environmental community backed him, he reminded -- but he did not lash back at Burton, who was clearly spoiling for an eye-gouging fight.

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"I think people -- this sounds stupid -- but it was hard for me to understand that you can't please everyone," Peters told me recently. "It really bothered me. There'd be some person out there screaming at you and you have to learn that sometimes people are inarticulate in the way they say they disagree with you. That bothered me a lot."

Could his manifest desire to transcend labels -- and avoid "the battles that hold people back" -- make him unusually vulnerable to attack during the political season?

"It's only ruinous if I can't redefine the job as a problem-solving job. If people want a political job, an us-vs.-them job, then it is not good for me. I'm testing that theory. It may be it's important for someone to have a flamethrower."

He says he's of two minds about this primary campaign that could -- could -- force him into an embarrassing November runoff.

On the one hand, he would have liked to avoid the whole hassle, as did his fellow councilman in District 5, Brian Maienschein.

Some time back, Peters promised his daughter that they'd get a dog if he didn't draw an opponent. Well, the pooch has had to wait.

But on the other hand, he thinks an air-clearing election might be the best thing for his complex district, which is undergoing dramatic change.

"There's so much noise around," he said. "I sort of think, `Let's have it out.' "

The San Diego Union-Tribune (Print Edition)
SECTION:  ZONE; Pg. NC-2; NI-2