By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - San Diego voters head to the polls on Tuesday to choose between two city councilmen vying in a race seen as too close to call to succeed disgraced former Mayor Bob Filner, who resigned amid a hail of sexual harassment allegations in August.
The runoff between the two top vote-getters in a special election last fall pits Republican Kevin Faulconer, backed by the city's downtown establishment, against Democrat David Alvarez, who is seeking to become the city's first Hispanic mayor.
Faulconer, the front-runner in a field of 11 candidates who ran in November, holds a scant 1 percentage point lead over Alvarez, according to a Survey USA poll commissioned by local news outlets UTSanDiego.com and 10News.com.
According to that survey on the eve of Tuesday's runoff, 47 percent of voters favor Faulconer and 46 percent support Alvarez, with 7 percent still undecided.
To supporters, Faulconer represents the center-right that was long the political pedigree of mayors in California's second-most populous city, which has traditionally tended to lean conservative, in part because of its large military and retired military presence.
The 2012 election of Filner, a 10-term U.S. congressman who became San Diego's first Democratic mayor, was considered a political turning point.
Alvarez, whose platform most resembles Filner's, was elected to the city council in 2010 by largely working-class and Hispanic neighborhoods, including San Ysidro and Barrio Logan, where he grew up. He has established a track record of fighting for those communities, often finding himself at odds with downtown interests.
Support from San Diego's Latino neighborhoods, long ignored by the city's mainstream politicians, was seen as key in elevating Filner, who ran on a progressive platform.
Now Alvarez has a clear shot at becoming San Diego's first Hispanic elected mayor - at least since California statehood - in a city originally founded as a presidio, or military post, by the Spanish five decades before Mexican independence.
Filner resigned at the end of August, after nearly 20 women came forward to publicly accuse him of making unwanted advances or other inappropriate behavior, starting with his then-press secretary, Irene McCormack Jackson.
Filner apologized for his behavior and sought psychiatric treatment, but the political and public outcry against him drove him to step down. He later pleaded guilty to criminal charges of false imprisonment and battery involving three women and was sentenced to three months of home confinement.
On Monday, municipal officials announced that the city and Filner had agreed to a $250,000 compensation package to settle the sexual harassment suit brought by McCormack Jackson, with the entire sum coming from city coffers.
The race between Faulconer and Alvarez turned nasty in the final days of the campaign, with stacks of mailers alleging that Alvarez is a tool of the unions and is too young, at age 33, to run America's sixth-largest city.
Other mailers point out that Faulconer is a member of the San Diego Yacht Club, voted to cut death and disability benefits for firefighters, and charge that he is a pawn of downtown business interests.
The special election and run-off are expected to cost the city more than $7 million, according to county Registrar of Voters Bonnie Stone. Many of the ballots are being returned by mail, which may further slow the vote-counting process, she said.
(Reporting by Marty Graham; Editing by Steve Gorman and Ken Wills)