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North County Report: Escondido Goes From MAGA to Mariachi

Sam Abed / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Progressive activists are raising money so they can celebrate the ousting of Escondido Mayor Sam Abed and a majority-Democrat City Council in style Wednesday — with a mariachi band at City Hall.

“We came together as a community to raise our voices,” reads a Go Fund Me page [1] for the musicians, “let the music follow!”

That’s quite a contrast from the Election Night scene at the U.S. Grant Hotel, where Abed declared an early victory and cited the number of undocumented residents who’d been deported since he took office in 2010.

Ballots are still rolling in, but with each passing day, Paul McNamara, a retired Marine Corps colonel, increases his lead over Abed.

This year’s election had much to do with immigration. Half of Escondido identifies as Hispanic or Latino [2]. A Lebanese immigrant and a Trump supporter, Abed is among the region’s most vocal critics of state sanctuary laws, pushing his city to file a legal brief that took the side of the U.S. Department of Justice over California in challenging the laws.

“It was mostly retail politics,” said Benjamin Martinez, a Lyft driver who organized weekly protests of Abed at City Hall — uploading the videos to his Facebook page — and spent his evenings knocking on doors. “One by one, household by household, at the kitchen table convincing them why they should vote.”

Martinez became a U.S. citizen two months ago, and he said he wound up making a lot of people like him feel guilty for planning to sit out the election because they aren’t conditioned to challenge local officials.

In May, Abed told President Donald Trump in person that the most prominent defense of sanctuary policies — that public safety would improve because undocumented immigrants would feel more comfortable reporting crimes — was “fake news.” (San Diego’s top law enforcement officials [3] have said otherwise.)

The meeting at the White House inspired plenty of outrage in Escondido — not only among the city’s Latino residents, but moderate Republicans, Martinez said. “There are a lot of wonderful and decent people here. As soon as they saw Abed at the same table with Trump, they decided to vote for a Democrat.”

That Democrat was McNamara, who sold himself as a source of civility on an otherwise divisive City Council.

He’ll join Consuelo Martinez, an organizer at the San Diego community group Mid-City CAN, and Olga Diaz, a businesswoman who’s been the lone no-vote on plenty of controversial issues since she was first elected in 2008. (Disclosure: Diaz is a member of Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.)

Martinez benefited from district-based elections — hers is primarily Latino [4] — and it helped too that she’d previously run for the City Council in 2014, albeit unsuccessfully, after decades of doing advocacy work. So she was known to her neighbors.

She ousted longtime Councilman Ed Gallo with nearly twice the number of votes and with a message that the city desperately needed to change its image. In 2006, officials wrote an ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting to tenants who could not demonstrate legal status. Abed and Gallo were on the Council then.

Although he cited sanctuary laws at the Grant Hotel on Election Night, Abed has since blamed his defeat on national pushback against incumbents [5] rather than any particular policy in Escondido.

Martinez’s priorities are decidedly local. She wants to talk about street sweeping, a new skate park [6] and the location of a water treatment center [7] in the middle of town. She thinks the library should not have been privatized [8].

“Even after the election,” she said, “many of my voters said, ‘Thank you, you’re the first politician to knock on my door.’ I think people just want to be heard and recognized.”

Democrats are also giving credit to Ammar Campa-Najjar and the larger organizations that supported him. He set up a congressional campaign office in Escondido, and although he didn’t beat Rep. Duncan Hunter, progressives believe interest in that race created a trickle-down effect.

For instance, the progressive PACs Flip the 14 and Code Blue reportedly [9] sent 11,400 texts, made 2,600 phone calls and mailed 9,500 postcards to Escondido voters. Civil rights icon Dolores Huerta recorded a robocall, which targeted Latino households.

The Center Is Becoming the Smart-Growth Coalition

McNamara is a registered Democrat, but in a Union-Tribune editorial board interview [10], he described himself as a centrist who leans “very right fiscally” and “left on most social issues.” He said he struggles with the definitions of Democrat and Republican these days (he’s not alone).

McNamara also expressed concern that development was causing Escondido to lose its “ambience.” He conceded that a housing crisis exists but argued that new housing is not a high priority for the Escondido residents he’d met on the campaign trail.

“I wouldn’t characterize them as being anti-growth, okay? But I think they are pro-smart growth,” McNamara told the U-T editorial board.

One project he opposes is the Safari Highlands Ranch, a gated community with 550 luxury homes [11] atop mountainous land.

Abed, on the other hand, a real estate development consultant, spoke in a separate interview with the U-T editorial board of the urgency of new housing [12]. He boasted that the city was building 7,000 units downtown, which would help bring down rents for low-income people.

“My daughter is one of them,” he said.

While talking to voters, Democrats pointed to the donations Abed got from developers as evidence that he’d end up choking their streets with traffic.

Thad Kousser, a UCSD political science professor who’s chronicled the decline of the “Buick and country club” conservatives in suburban California, told me that McNamara could have easily been a member of the GOP 20 to 30 years ago. After the Cold War, many of the affluent suburban Republican-types began moving inland and eventually out of the state, he said. They’ve been replaced in recent years by anti-immigration activists, who’ve pushed moderates toward the Democratic Party.

“It’s not that these cities are shifting from being rabidly conservative to rabidly liberal,” Kousser said. “It’s just that the center is this kind of smart-growth coalition.”

Carlsbad City Council Is Also Majority-Democrat

Cori Schumacher lost her bid [4] for the Carlsbad mayor’s seat, but she’ll remain on the City Council for at least two years, and likely join forces with two new Democratic members: Barbara Hamilton and Priya Bhat-Patel.

All three Democrats expressed concerns in the election that the city’s “character” was changing beyond recognition. But both Hamilton [13] and Bhat-Patel [14] have told the Coast News that the city should stop letting developers get around affordable housing mandates by paying fees instead.

A Democrat-majority Council could also push Carlsbad into community choice energy. Hamilton and Schumacher have talked about a publicly run energy system in glowing terms. The city is currently part of a coastal North County study to determine whether such a program is financially feasible.

County Housing Votes Delayed

The county recently delayed a hearing to approve 3,600 units of new housing, including the controversial Lilac Hills Ranch project near Valley Center [15]. The Board of Supervisors was set to vote on these new projects, which need special approval, at their Dec. 12 meeting. That vote has been delayed at least until the New Year.

In a press release, the county cited “varying reasons,” including staff workload and the ongoing litigation over the county’s climate action plan, which means some already approved developments remain in legal limbo [16].

The delayed vote means the projects will be heard by two newly elected supervisors who take office in January — Nathan Fletcher, who will be the only Democrat on the five-member board, and Jim Desmond, the current mayor of San Marcos.

Fletcher has said he doesn’t think projects like Lilac Hills are the way to solve the region’s housing crisis. Desmond’s vote will be closely watched. He supported one version of the 1,700-unit housing development a few years ago but during this year’s campaign said he regretted doing so.

The delay affects three major projects — Lilac Hills, Warner Ranch near Pala and Otay Village 14 near Chula Vista. Earlier this year, the county began to bundle major projects together for a single vote. Supervisors have approved a few other controversial developments that way, including the Newland Sierra project near San Marcos [17].

— Ry Rivard

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