Though many of the people who appear on this list are accomplished, inclusion is not an award or an honor. Rather, their appearance here is an acknowledgment of their role – for better or worse – in shaping the debates and discussions that defined civic discourse in San Diego this year.
Voice of San Diego sets out each year to identify the people who drove the year’s biggest civic discussions.
It’s a group of people from different communities, backgrounds and political ideologies. San Diego’s status quo has established a startling resiliency in recent years. Yet the people on this list distinguished themselves by raising issues, causes and proposals that threaten staid homogeneity.
Without further ado, the 2017 Voice of the Year is …
In her campaign for San Diego city attorney, Mara Elliott pledged to blend in as the city’s dutiful legal counsel.
Elliott said she would make the city attorney’s office – where she was a deputy – less political.
She was nostalgic for the system she’d seen across town at the county of San Diego. There, the county counsel doesn’t take credit for anything the agency achieved, she said. Nobody in the community even knew who the county counsel was.
A year since she took office, though, San Diegans very much know who Mara Elliott is.
She did not blend in. She quickly discovered how important her signature is on major policies. She repeatedly asserted legal interpretations that shaped San Diego’s biggest debates.
Her interpretations have been forceful and disruptive, leaving the mayor and City Council scrambling to pursue its goals within them.
Nowhere was that clearer than in the debate over short-term vacation rentals. Elliott declared all short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods illegal. That forced the mayor into the awkward position of refusing to address what his lawyer says is illegal activity in the city’s neighborhoods.
It made her a hero to those who want to see the city crack down on vacation rentals. But Elliott said she issued her legal opinion to spur the City Council and mayor to act on the issue.
Likewise, she issued a blunt memo detailing what she saw as significant problems with a ballot initiative to redevelop the former Chargers stadium site into apartments, offices, retail and a soccer stadium. The project’s opponents quickly seized on the points she made and amplified them. When a different memo about the issue – one she had stamped confidential – landed in the hands of the developer of the project, she declared a crime had been committed.
When Councilman Chris Cate acknowledged he had done it, she referred the matter for criminal prosecution and declared that she couldn’t trust him – a striking thing for an attorney to say about her client.
In between, she’s fundamentally changed our understanding of the city’s budgeting process, challenged the city’s police chief on rape kits and pushed the city to disrupt neighborhood park and recreation councils.
She was no passive attorney staying in the background and providing advice. Like her two predecessors, she learned how big of a role she can play in some of the city’s thorniest disputes.
Plus, she went out of her way to sign the city on as an opponent to President Donald Trump’s agenda. The City Council has, at her request, signed amicus briefs supporting gay rights and transgender students in cases before the Supreme Court and joined the state of Washington in a case challenging Trump’s travel ban.
After promising to be a thorough and professional but politically invisible legal counsel, Elliott has made good on the former but bucked the latter promise. She has been at the center of every major issue the city has faced, and brought the city into issues it would have otherwise avoided. And in the process, she’s become the highest-profile Democrat and perhaps the most powerful politician in the city.
She was the Voice of the Year.
— Andrew Keatts and Scott Lewis
The Rest of the List
Below is the rest of our 2017 Voice of the Year list.
The Crowes’ forceful objections to Summer Stephan’s appointment as district attorney provoked an important conversation about whether former DA Bonnie Dumanis and the County Board of Supervisors were overreaching by bestowing Dumanis’ preferred successor with the power of incumbency.
Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina has been arguing for years that governments on both sides of the border need to deal with sewage spills, but this year, a massive spill caught the nation and world’s eye and put Dedina on the map.
What happens to the land in Mission Valley will define a big part of the city forever. Voters will next year likely face a choice between two visions with many similarities. Many people framed the public conversation about these choices but none more than Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Nick Stone and Tom Sudberry.
Loxie Gant voiced her concerns about a La Jolla High School physics teacher’s classroom behavior when she was a student in the 2002-2003 school year, and again 10 years later. In 2017, she described unwanted touching by the teacher in a Voice of San Diego investigation.
As president of Service Employees International Union Local 221, David Garcias helped lead a conversation about the county government’s priorities and resources.
Some people called French artist JR’s installation of a baby peering over the border wall opportunistic and cheesy. Others called it timely and clever. Love or hate it, JR’s work spurred a critical conversation about immigration and border politics.
They said, “me too,” almost a full year before #MeToo was a thing.
For years, businessman Michael McConnell was a largely behind-the-scenes influencer devoted to reducing homelessness in San Diego. Then McConnell decided he could make a greater impact speaking out to the public.
Like so many other things that go viral, Joseph MacRae’s protest of Chargers owner Dean Spanos articulated something bigger.
When national reporters sought a voice for immigrant advocates, time and again they turned to Enrique Morones, director of Border Angels.
Two acronyms – six letters total – eventually took down San Diego’s most powerful public agency.
Ramla Sahid forcefully pushed for unapologetically liberal policies that hadn’t been significant parts of the city’s housing conversation.
This year, two powerful voices with Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s ear forced a conversation about an interim response, leading a movement to erect temporary homeless tents like those the mayor proudly abandoned two years ago.
Kevin Shenkman lives in Malibu, but the attorney might have done more to shape the political landscape of North County than anyone in recent memory.