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Party officials and progressive activists celebrated Democrat Paul McNamara’s surprising win over two-term Republican incumbent Sam Abed in 2018. But a year later, many of them say they still don’t know much about McNamara or what he’s done to change the city.
In the run-up to the 2018 election, Escondido’s then-mayor, Republican Sam Abed, cast his re-election bid in stark terms. He told the Union-Tribune he was concerned “somebody like Paul McNamara, who is a very left ideologue, wants to change all these successes we have.”
After McNamara pulled off a surprise victory against Abed, a two-term incumbent, progressive activists celebrated by bringing a mariachi band to City Hall.
But if McNamara is the “very left ideologue” Abed warned about, he hasn’t shown it yet a year into his stint as mayor.
McNamara recently voted against a plan to expand regional transit and teamed up with a Republican mayor in the process – a move that opposes the views of leading Democrats in the county and the Democratic Council members in his own city.
McNamara, a Democrat, was a member of the GOP before registering with the Democratic Party in 2006. He says he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by that distinction.
“They make a big deal about the fact that I’m a registered Democrat and candidly, I really don’t care about what your party registration is,” McNamara said. “What I care about is that you care about Escondido. I always tell people, leave Sacramento politics in Sacramento and leave Washington politics in Washington.”
McNamara’s recent moves – including his role on the regional SANDAG board, engagement with the Latino community and transparency among constituents – showcase a more centrist approach than many who elected him expected.
McNamara last month partnered with Republican SANDAG Chair Steve Vaus to reject and amend SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata’s $600 million, five-year spending plan aimed at bolstering public transit in the region.
McNamara told VOSD that neither he nor Vaus believe adding more roads will completely solve the region’s congestion problems, but that he questions the practicality of Ikhrata’s transit-focused plan.
“How long is it going to take to build that public transportation before it’s finally elite and mature enough to alleviate the problem?” McNamara said. “And then the question that we don’t know is, are people going to, even if they build it, will they build it correctly?”
Ikhrata has argued that the only way the region can sustain itself and preserve its quality of life is to radically reimagine the way San Diegans gets around.
“We can’t build our way out of congestion,” he said last month.
Cody Petterson, president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, said he recognizes it takes courage to make a transit-centric push in North County, so he’s not entirely surprised that McNamara, who is not an “out-and-out” progressive, might feel a bit hesitant.
Petterson said he’s hopeful McNamara will change the politics in Escondido but that the SANDAG vote was disappointing.
“There’s some disappointment, particularly on his SANDAG role, aligned fairly closely with Republicans on SANDAG,” Petterson said. “And that may reflect his deep-seeded beliefs or may reflect his understanding of where his constituents are on those issues.”
San Diego Democratic Party Chairman Will Rodriguez-Kennedy said he thinks McNamara is out of step with other Democratic mayors in the county when it comes to transit.
“I’d probably disagree with some of his decisions. We’re a big tent party and we have a host of different opinions. I think he probably feels like he has to be relatively moderate on a lot of these issues,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said. “There is a little bit of disconnect on some issues. But I’ve never known him to be someone who doesn’t listen.”
“Mac is probably fairly moderate in terms of political views, to be honest, but he flipped Escondido,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said.
The two Democratic members of Escondido’s City Council, Olga Diaz and Consuelo Martinez, say they disagree with McNamara’s vote against the SANDAG plan, and that she would not have voted to oppose Ikhrata’s plan. Republican Escondido Councilmen John Masson and Michael Morasco, meanwhile, support McNamara’s decision.
Masson said he stands with McNamara and the other mayors who want to build roads over new transit options.
“It’s a fatal flaw in transportation planning. I think the mayor and other North County and East County cities see that,” Masson said. “Paul is making a realistic decision.”
But Diaz said that despite her disagreements with McNamara, she believes the relationship between the Council and the mayor is far less toxic than it was under Abed.
Latino activists in particular celebrated McNamara’s victory in 2018.
Many Latino constituents in Escondido had supported McNamara, hoping he would bring change to a city that was so anti-immigrant it was nicknamed “Little Arizona.” The city famously beat back efforts to open a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children, and in 2006, it became the first city in California to ban renting property to illegal immigrants.
McNamara said he views the Latino community as a resource that should be celebrated, whereas Abed viewed those constituents as a problem.
Abed traveled to the White House in 2018 for a meeting where participants railed against sanctuary policies, and told President Donald Trump that it was “fake news” that policies limiting police officers’ roles in immigration enforcement ensures immigrants feel more comfortable reporting crimes.
But the Latino activists I spoke to were mixed on whether McNamara has made an effort to change the culture in the past year.
Benjamin Martinez, an activist and supporter of the mayor, said he appreciates McNamara’s attention to the Latino immigrant community but that there’s only so much a mayor can do to ease community fears because they’re mostly driven by federal agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Lilian Serrano, a research coordinator at the National Latino Research Center in San Marcos, supported McNamara during his campaign. Serrano said Abed’s views didn’t reflect those of the Latino community in Escondido.
Serrano said there was a sense of hope when McNamara won the mayoral race because it meant the city might finally move beyond its xenophobic reputation. The community was excited about McNamara’s win – but it might have been mostly because it also meant an Abed loss.
“The conversations were all, ‘We need better than Sam Abed,’” Serrano said.
Serrano said the Latino community still doesn’t know much about McNamara.
“We’re barely getting to know him and he’s getting to know us,” she said.
She said there are still plenty of unanswered questions about police collaboration with ICE and McNamara’s position on SB 54, a state law limiting collaboration between local law enforcement and immigration authorities.
McNamara said he wants Escondido to be welcome, open and tolerant and is currently addressing a crackdown on Latino immigrants by ICE agents in the city by making sure community members can properly distinguish city police officers from ICE officers.
He gave the example of an instance when an Escondido police officer used an unmarked car to check on traffic near a school – a vehicle that could have mistaken for ICE.
“And we kind of went, no, what are you doing? You’re using an unmarked car. I mean, be a little bit more sensitive to the impact,” McNamara said.
McNamara said he doesn’t want anyone to feel afraid to live in the city.
“I’m not an immigration guy,” he said. “If you’ve got a problem with that, call Duncan Hunter. He’s our congressman.”
McNamara said he grew up in a split household: His dad was a Democrat and his mom was a Republican. “So there you go. I grew up in a very blue-collar union family,” he said. “My dad was a union member and I benefited from the union … I believe in the union. I support the concept.”
McNamara officially registered as a Democrat in 2006.
“I was looking into ‘where do I lie?’ Am I a Republican or a Democrat?” McNamara said. “And I, and at the time I thought, you know, I’m really more, probably lean more towards the Democrats. And so I became a Democrat … And interestingly enough this was almost like a new thing for me, right?”
Though his campaign had plenty of help from progressive activists, McNamara decided not to list endorsements on his mayoral campaign website last year. The decision, he told the Union-Tribune, was based on the idea of building a non-partisan support base he called a nonpartisan race.
“If you list all the right side or left side endorsements, you get lumped into an assumption that you identify totally with one side or another. But I’m trying to build community,” McNamara told the paper.
McNamara’s Democratic colleagues on the Council told me that his election represented a big shift for the city, and that he’s fair and inclusive – values they didn’t think described Abed. But they also said he can be unpredictable in terms of how he’ll vote on an issue, meaning it’s never a given that he’ll land on their side.
“He’s more open-minded, but there’s an unpredictability of his individual Council member votes,” said Diaz. “I can’t predict him yet. I think it might take time. He doesn’t say much … If you say very little, people are left to read between the lines.”
Diaz said that may be because McNamara is on a steep learning curve. “What’s inconsistent about him is his depth of knowledge on any particular issue,” she said.
McNamara opposed a 550-home development project north of the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park, formerly known as Safari Highlands Ranch, during his mayoral campaign.
The city will likely hear the project – now called Harvest Hills – in early 2020. Opponents of the project have expressed concerns about its impacts on the environment.
Diaz said it’s an area she disagrees with McNamara on but that she’s unsure how he’ll ultimately vote.
McNamara said at a City Council meeting in September that he is impressed by improvements to the project.
Petterson said he and fellow environmentalists across the region are hopeful McNamara will oppose Harvest Hills, but they’re not sure.
“At some point he said he thought that the proponent had made some desirable changes,” he said. “In general, we don’t know where he stands.”