By CHRIS LAVIN
LA MESA – The race for mayor of La Mesa is heating up – literally and metaphorically – and is revealing some bitter fault lines within local politics.
On Saturday morning supporters of challenger Laura Lothian were crowding into her La Mesa Boulevard office, stocking up on lawn signs and getting what might be described as spiritual guidance from one of Mayor Art Madrid’s most consistent critics.
City Councilwoman Ruth Sterling gave the volunteers impromptu pep talks, recounting for them anecdotes from her many years of sparring with Madrid.
“He’s a mean and vindictive man,’’ she said. “For eighteen years he has belittled me. He’s made my self-esteem like this low,’’ she said gesturing with two fingers while holding back tears.
Lothian, moving back and forth between supporters in need of signs and Sterling’s discussions, criticized Madrid for attacking her during the race’s first public forum last week, but pledged not to follow suit.
“I am not going to attack,” Lothian said. “People don’t like that here.’’
Sterling had no such hesitance. She criticized Councilman Mark Arapostathis for following Madrid too closely. She told one supporter that she has raised four children and, like Madrid, had lost one child to an early death.
“I would never use that as an excuse to get drunk in public,’’ Sterling said. She was referring to Madrid’s explanation for an episode in which a gathering of his late son’s friends led to excessive drinking and a now renowned incident in which police found Madrid publicly intoxicated.
For his part, Madrid, who has been mayor for 20 years, said Sterling’s current criticism flies in the face of two decades of facts.
Madrid said he helped Sterling when she first thought about running for the council 20 years ago. When she was elected, he said, at Sterling’s request, he scripted virtually all her public statements and, also at her request, critiqued her performance after each council meeting.
“If it wasn’t for me,’’ Madrid said Saturday, “she wouldn’t be on council. If it wasn’t for me scripting her statements and making her sound like an intelligent person, she wouldn’t be there today.’’
But Madrid said over time Sterling began to resent his critiques and began depicting herself as a victim whenever anyone disagreed with her on an issue.
“It isn’t just Art Madrid,” he said, “it is anyone who disagrees with her.’’
Madrid charges that Sterling has become increasingly unprofessional.
Others see in Sterling’s public attacks another episode in what has been long simmering disagreements between Sterling and Madrid that seem more personal than based in issues.
Incumbents Ernie Ewin and Arapostathis were spending Saturday morning meeting constituents at a community health fair. Hearing of Sterling’s efforts with the Lothian supporters, both expressed chagrin over the increasingly personal tone of the campaign.
“I’ve never publicly criticized Ruth,’’ Arapostathis said, “but she is constantly criticizing me. I won’t go there.’’
Ewin said he believes the community would prefer sticking to discussions of issues “and that’s what we will continue to do,’’ he said. These exchanges between Madrid and Sterling, seem to occur with every election cycle, he said.
But at least on the ballot, this election isn’t between Madrid and Sterling. Sterling did consider running, but stepped aside when she decided Lothian was a credible candidate.
Both Ewin and Arapostathis said they were surprised when Madrid started publicly attacking Lothian at the recent La Mesa Chamber of Commerce candidates forum. “We are not part of his kitchen cabinet,’’ Ewin said.
Madrid tends to connect Lothian’s criticisms to Sterling and his past political opponent, Craig Maxwell, whom he defeated by a large margin four years ago. He will often say "they'' when answering Lothian's criticisms.
Madrid on Saturday said he doesn’t regret criticizing Lothian, but will endeavor to keep future debates focused on specific issues.
“But I’m like an umpire,” Madrid said. “I call ‘em as I see ‘em and if she criticizes the city, if she implies that we are incompetent or corrupt, I have to force her to show her cards.’’
There is a City Council meeting on Tuesday and on Saturday Sterling was pledging to bring her criticisms of Madrid to that forum as well.
“I will be there the entire time,’’ Lothian told her.
It should be an interesting meeting.