A Reader's Guide to the San Diego Primary
San Diego primary voters will make big decisions about local land use, the Convention Center and more. Here’s a guide to the races and issues we’ve covered.
Though it’s only late February, California’s primary is suddenly upon us – it’s the first primary to take place since the state moved up the election so voters in the nation’s most populous state can play a bigger role in determining presidential nominees.
The good news is that there are far fewer ballot measures and propositions to study than in some of the most recent elections. This is also the first election in which both city of San Diego and San Diego County candidates cannot win outright in the primary, due to recent ballot measures pushed by local Democrats.
We’ve rounded up our election coverage of the measures on the ballot, plus several key local races, here.
If you prefer to get your election info via podcast, check out our recent San Diego Decides episode in which we run down the state and local ballot measures.
Prop. 13 is a school bond that would send $15 billion to California public schools and higher education institutions for construction and renovation projects.
Prop. 13 would do away with the state’s first-come, first-serve school facility funding application process, long criticized for favoring larger, wealthier districts. The new system would instead allocate a portion of the funds to small districts and favors those who serve more vulnerable youth, like foster children, English-learners and those from low-income families. It also favors projects that come with a union-friendly project-labor agreement.
Supporters say the new bond will help schools deal with urgent safety needs like mold, asbestos and lead in drinking water. But despite messaging that centers on present and future school facility needs nothing in Prop. 13 stops state funds from going to school projects that have already been completed. That means projects completed years ago could receive money from the new bond. Supporters include Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Democratic Party. The bond’s major opponent is the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
If approved, Prop. 13 would be the fifth state school facility bond measure passed since 2002. Previous measures funded $45 billion in projects.
Measure A: Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside
Measure A is the ballot measure that would require voters countywide to sign off on housing developments that don’t comply with the county’s general plan.
If a developer wants to build more than six homes in an area not zoned for housing — think rural, unincorporated parts of the county — they would need voter approval. Developers regularly ask for permission to build projects that don’t comply with the county’s general plan. Currently, decisions about whether to OK projects seeking an exemption to the general plan are made by the County Board of Supervisors.
Because the county general plan is central to this measure, it’s helpful to understand what the general plan is. Here’s how we’ve described it in the past:
San Diego County’s general plan is a framework that guides land use and development decisions across the region.
The plan, approved in 2011, took 13 years and more than $18 million to develop. It set the land zones and outlined where housing should go and where it shouldn’t. The plan reduced housing capacity by 15 percent while shifting where that development would occur from far-flung eastern, backcountry areas to western communities closer to existing development, transportation infrastructure and jobs.
The purpose of the change was to “reflect the county’s commitment to a sustainable growth model that facilitates efficient development near infrastructure and services, while respecting sensitive natural resources and protection of existing community character in its extensive rural and semi‐rural communities,” the plan reads.
Supporters of Measure A argue that developers seeking an amendment to the general plan usually intend to build sprawl, housing developments that are far from jobs, transit and infrastructure. Therefore, the thinking goes, those projects should require buy-in from county voters.
Notable supporters of the measure include the Climate Action Campaign, Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters, San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez and Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara.
Opposition to Measure A falls into two broad categories: procedural and substantive. Some opponents agree with Measure A’s ultimate goal of stopping sprawl but disagree with how it would do that: by bypassing the Board of Supervisors and instead enacting what’s called ballot-box planning – where voters make planning decisions directly. These opponents argue that voters in Chula Vista shouldn’t be weighing in on major land-use decisions near Escondido, for example.
A more substantive argument is that we shouldn’t be adding more barriers to building new housing in the midst of a housing crisis.
Groups that oppose Measure A include the San Diego County Democratic Party, San Diego County Republican Party, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego Housing Federation.
Measure B: Newland Sierra
Measure A was all about whether voters should weigh in on approving general plan amendments. Measure B is one of those general plan amendments.
Measure B would allow for the creation of Newland Sierra, a community that developers say will create house 2,135 homes, a school site, retail and parks north of Escondido in the Merriam Mountains. The county’s general plan currently allows for only 99 homes on the land.
We vetted the enforceability of the Newland Sierra developer’s promises to include affordable housing in the project.
The Board of Supervisors approved a general plan amendment to allow the project in September 2018, but more than 117,000 county residents signed a petition to force the decision to a countywide vote. That effort was bankrolled by the nearby Golden Door luxury spa, the project’s main opponent.
Supporters of Measure B argue that Newland will provide badly needed housing that will actually be affordable. According to the campaign, 62 percent of the homes “will be affordably-priced for local working families.” They also promise that 10 percent of the community will be set aside for families making less than half of the county’s area median income. Measure B has the support of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce and several local mayors.
Opponents of Measure B have said the decision will determine whether the county plans to pursue smart growth or sprawl. Attorneys for Golden Door are also challenging the developer’s promise to include affordable housing, and argue that promise isn’t legally enforceable. Developers could have written an affordable housing commitment into the project approvals in the beginning, but they chose not to.
Other notable opponents of Measure B include the San Diego County Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters.
City of San Diego Measures
Measure C: A Hotel Tax Hike
Measure C would increase hotel-room taxes to fund an expansion of the Convention Center, homeless services and street repairs. The measure must win support from two-thirds of city voters to pass, though it’s possible backers will try to assert that it passed if it only gets a simple majority of the vote. Ongoing litigation asserts that citizens initiatives that raise taxes only need a simple majority to pass.
Measure C is designed to deliver something city power-brokers and tourism industry leaders have long wanted: a Convention Center expansion they believe will bring additional hotel visitors and jobs. To do that, the city would increase taxes for visitors rather than city taxpayers. The amount tacked onto hotel bills will range from 1.25 to 3.25 percent depending on the hotel’s proximity to the Convention Center.
The campaign estimates the measure will pull in about $3.8 billion to expand the Convention Center and later help with operations and maintenance. The tax is also expected to generate $2 billion for homelessness programs over the next four decades, although it does not dictate how the homelessness funds should be spent. A portion of hotel-tax increase would be funneled toward street repairs after the first five years. Supporters anticipate those funds will total $604 million.
Our reporting found that many of backers’ assumptions about the benefits the measure would bring in are uncertain at best and risky at worst.
A key argument for Measure C is that tourists pay, not residents. Supporters also argue the funds could help keep conventions in town, create new jobs and bring in guaranteed revenue streams to fund homeless services and road repairs.
Measure C’s biggest supporters include Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Rep. Scott Peters, Assemblyman Todd Gloria, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, City Councilman Scott Sherman and several labor groups.
Arguments against Measure C include that the language does not set limits on administrative spending and that the cost for a convention center expansion could ultimately be significantly higher than current estimates. Opponents also argue that it will be hard to hold officials accountable because there are no details or specifics guiding how the homelessness money should be spent.
The primary opponent of the measure is Michael McConnell, one of San Diego’s biggest homeless advocates.
Measure D: City Auditor Reforms
Measure D would amend the city charter to let the City Council, instead of the mayor, appoint the city auditor. It would also limit the position to two, five-year terms instead of the current 10-year terms.
Measure D was proposed by Councilman Scott Sherman, who is running for mayor. Sherman argues that there’s an obvious conflict in allowing the mayor to appoint someone whose job it is to investigate the city that he or she runs. There is no registered opposition.
Other Local Measures
Measure S: A Sales Tax Increase in Lemon Grove
Lemon Grove voters are being asked to approve a three-quarter cent sales tax increase that has no sunset and is projected to generate nearly $3 million in additional revenue annually if passed. Measure S supporters say the additional revenue would fund much-needed services, many of which have been cut over the years due to longstanding budget issues. The measure also mandates an independent audit and citizen’s oversight committee, which they say would ensure accountability.
While many California cities are facing budget woes, few are grappling with the possibility of disincorporating as a result. But that possibility is hovering in the background of Measure S, and the measure’s supporters don’t explicitly reference it in ballot statements but they do say the sales tax increase could “save” Lemon Grove and keep it an “independent city.”
The opponents of Measure S, including a former city councilwoman, argue city leaders haven’t coupled their plan for more revenue with a decrease in spending.
Measure P: A School Facilities Bond in Poway Unified School District
Less than 10 years since entering a debt deal that made the district infamous and sparked state school bond finance reform laws, Poway Unified is back asking voters to approve a new bond measure for school facilities.
Measure P is a $448 million bond that will cost an estimated $650 million to repay over 28 to 30 years.
To justify the new bond measure, Poway school leaders point to crumbling infrastructure and a recent facilities assessment that showed at least 23 of the district’s 39 campuses will be in poor condition by the year 2023. The money would be spent to add familiar safety upgrades, like removing asbestos and lead paint, replacing roofs and plumbing, as well as the construction of single points of entry and more robust emergency communication systems desired in an era of school lockdowns. New school technology is also being emphasized.
The district’s bond communications campaign is also flirting with state rules barring governments from spending public funds to campaign for or against ballot measures.
San Diego Mayor
San Diego’s mayoral race could conclude a leftward shift the city began in in earnest eight years ago, only to see it put on pause when former Mayor Bob Filner resigned his office in scandal only to be replaced by a moderate, business friendly Republican much like the city has elected for years.
Now, though, there’s a heavy expectation that the next mayor will be a Democrat, joining the City Council’s Democratic supermajority. Yet the presumptive frontrunner, Assemblyman Todd Gloria, demonstrates the city’s changing political stripes as much by the coalition he’s assembled as anything else: both the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council support him, combining the left and right establishment.
He’s facing Councilwoman Barbara Bry, who has framed her campaign around both protecting neighborhoods – by opposing short-term vacation rentals, scooters and dense development – and reforming City Hall with a businesswoman’s eye. Down the stretch, she’s trained her rhetoric around the city’s disastrous acquisition and remodeling of the former Sempra Energy headquarters downtown.
Councilman Scott Sherman jumped into the race late, ensuring that the Republican Party would at least offer a candidate for an office it has controlled for 26 of the last 27 years. Sherman’s run on a promise to combat the ascendance of unions at City Hall and the need to dramatically cut development regulations to make way for new housing, while increasing law enforcement’s role in combating the homeless crisis.
Tasha Williamson, a criminal justice reform activist, has not received any major endorsements nor has she raised much money, but she’s run a campaign focused on criminal justice reform and the city’s inequitable treatment of minority groups. She’s promised to replace the SDPD chief.
In October, we hosted a debate between the four major mayoral candidates.
We had lengthy, sit-down interviews with Gloria, Williamson and Sherman. Bry declined an invitation.
In August, Gloria won the Democratic Party’s endorsement over Bry and Williamson. That gave the party the ability to spend heavily on his behalf.
That endorsement came with the help of nearly unified support from the region’s organized labor movement. Gloria had a long, rocky history with labor during his local political career, but as that movement has gained power, his relationship with them has improved as well.
If Sherman were to win, he’d still face a Democrat-controlled City Council. Even still, he says he’ll roll back union influence over city decisions.
A lot went right for Gloria early in the campaign as he locked up endorsements from the party and labor. One thing that didn’t go well was a campaign finance violation that dominated news around the race for weeks, and for which he eventually paid a fine.
For months, Bry successfully framed the race around Gloria’s support for dense urban development in the city, and her promise to protect single-family neighborhoods. Yet for all the slogans thrown around for each of their development views, their voting records – and the support they’ve generated from the development community – paint a much more complicated picture.
Not too long ago, Bry supported the homelessness reduction strategy known as “housing first” – now she doesn’t. She also told us in October that she was all in on a proposal to raise property taxes for low-income housing – she now says she’ll take a look at that proposal once it’s finalized.
San Diego City Attorney
Back when she first sought the city attorney’s office in 2016, Mara Elliott said the person in the role should act as a quiet, apolitical legal adviser to the city. Once in office, Elliott made a series of high-profile political decisions that have kept her in the spotlight.
She’s declared short-term vacation rentals illegal, sued to keep the Mission Valley stadium deal off the ballot and was the force behind a wildly controversial effort to decimate the California Public Records Act.
She talked with us about some of those efforts and her evolving view of the job in a recent podcast interview.
Elliott’s main opponent in the race is attorney Cory Briggs, who’s inserted himself into city politics many times over the years by suing over high-profile projects and disrupting other local efforts. He’s arguing that the city attorney should … act as an apolitical legal adviser to the city. (Briggs did not respond to our podcast interview requests.)
San Diego County Board of Supervisors, District 1
For the first time in more than two decades, voters in the South Bay will elect a new representative to the County Board of Supervisors. Whoever they elect is virtually guaranteed to be someone who is both a Democrat and Latino.
Democrats have a more than 72,000-person voter registration advantage in the district, and there are four Democrats vying for outgoing Supervisor Greg Cox’s seat: Rafael Castellanos, an attorney and Port of San Diego commissioner; Nora Vargas, a Southwestern Community College trustee and former Planned Parenthood executive; state Sen. Ben Hueso and Sophia Rodriguez, an employee at the county’s Health and Human Services Agency.
While major political institutions, like the Democratic Party of San Diego, have steered clear of endorsing any candidates in the race, there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes drama involving the Democratic Party clubs in the South Bay over the race.
We’ve also talked to the candidates about how they would take on some of the biggest issues in the district if elected county supervisor.
All of the candidates agree that housing is one of the most pressing issues in the county, though they all have different plans to tackle the region’s housing crisis.
The flow of cross-border sewage into parts of the South Bay is an issue unique to this district. Some of the candidates think the county should get more involved in the issue than it has in the past; others think the county’s current approach, which is more focused on diplomacy, is the best way forward.
District 1 has some of the highest poverty rates in the entire county and all the candidates agree that the county needs to do more to ensure needy residents can access county programs, like CalFresh and Medi-Cal. They all plan improve to outreach to communities to enroll them in public assistance and other county programs and want to improve training, compensation and workloads for county staff, so the county can better administer these services.
San Diego County Board of Supervisors, District 2
Voters in District 2, which covers parts of East County, will be electing a new representative for the first time since the 1990s. D2 remains the most conservative district in the county.
Running to replace outgoing Supervisor Dianne Jacob are former state Sen. Joel Anderson, Poway Mayor Steve Vaus and marriage and family therapist Kenya Taylor. Anderson and Vaus are Republicans, and Taylor is a Democrat.
Taylor has the support of the Democratic Party and several democratic groups. Anderson and Vaus have split support from conservatives, with Anderson touting endorsements from former Rep. Duncan Hunter Sr. and former Gov. Pete Wilson, and Vaus counting among his supporters Jacob, and the other Republicans currently on the Board of Supervisors.
Anderson and Taylor sat down with VOSD for in-depth podcast interviews about their candidacies, which you can check out here. Vaus did not respond to our interview requests.
San Diego County Board of Supervisors, District 3
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors’ District 3 is among the most important races in 2020. It’s a moderate swing district that includes Encinitas, Escondido and parts of northern San Diego. If Democrats can oust Kristin Gaspar, the incumbent Republican, they’re likely to take control of the county’s priorities and purse strings.
Polling suggests that voters in the district are most concerned about homelessness, the cost of housing and climate change. There’s plenty of overlap on these issues between Gaspar’s Democratic challengers, Olga Diaz and Terra Lawson-Remer. As you’ll hear in our podcast interviews, their differences largely come down to approach and background.
Labor groups are divided in this race, but Lawson-Remer has SEIU, the biggest county employee union, in her corner. There’s been some infighting over the endorsement. Democratic Party leaders have also agreed to set their differences aside after the primary and unite against Gaspar.
Gaspar declined our interview request, but her ballot statement should give us all a sense of where this election is headed in November. She rails against public employee unions and their bosses.