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How Bry’s (Likely) Win Will Shake Up the Council and City Politics

Bry’s win would protect a Democratic majority on the City Council and perhaps lead to a much stronger rivalry between the Council and the mayor. It also has people talking about whether conventional wisdom about how well Democrats can do in primary elections still holds up.

Businesswoman Barbara Bry is likely to become San Diego’s next District 1 city councilwoman.

It could happen as the county registrar finishes counting provisional ballots in the next few days or weeks, pushing her ever so slightly across the 50 percent threshold. Or it could happen in November, when an even more liberal turnout is expected after she already bested her Republican rival, businessman Ray Ellis, by 15 points.

The chances of Ellis performing better against Bry in November are not good.

Bry’s win would protect a Democratic majority on the City Council and perhaps lead to a much stronger rivalry between the Council and the mayor. It also has people talking about whether conventional wisdom about how well Democrats can do in primary elections still holds up.

The Next Council President

If she wins, Bry will replace Sherri Lightner, the current Council president.

She said she doesn’t view her victory as a Democratic victory. And she couldn’t imagine a set of policies that the Council would now pursue that it wouldn’t have been able to if Ellis had won.

“I don’t think in partisan terms,” she said. “I think in terms of community.”

But a Bry victory would matter in partisan terms in one specific way: It would ensure Democrats keep control of the City Council. One of the five Democrats on the Council would be the next Council president.

The Council president appoints Council members to committees and schedules issues for Council consideration. It’s a role that can pursue, within reason, a specific policy agenda.

Three of the five Democrats on the Council will be brand new: Bry, Chris Ward, who won in District 3, and whoever prevails in November between Ricardo Flores and Georgette Gomez in District 9. Presumably, a new Council member will not become Council president.

That leaves Councilman David Alvarez and Councilwoman Myrtle Cole as the likely options.

Alvarez, who ran for mayor against Faulconer, has been the loudest liberal voice on the Council dissenting from the mayor’s agenda. He’s done so on water rate hikes and the SDPD’s retention issues, among others.

If he took the same approach as Council president, it would be a departure from Lightner, who hasn’t pushed the body to take up any big issues or strongly oppose the mayor’s priorities. It would also be closer to the model of Councilman Todd Gloria, who as Council president pushed progressive priorities like a minimum wage increase, the city’s Climate Action Plan and an increase in fees charged to developers to pay for affordable housing.

Cole would be the next most experienced of the Democrats on the Council. She’s also had no problem collaborating with Faulconer in her district, working with him and the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation to attract developers to the area, and supporting Reese Jarrett, Faulconer’s pick to lead Civic San Diego while it pursued a bigger role in her district.

If she’s interested in becoming Council president, she would be an alternative to Alvarez for her fellow Democrats. She could also consider voting for herself, and along with the votes of the Council’s four Republicans, become Council president without her party’s support, as Lightner did two years ago. She’s not given any indication she intends to do that, but maybe the Republicans on the Council can re-create the success they had replacing Gloria with Lightner.

Rethinking Democrats’ June Gloom

It wasn’t that long ago that the District 1 race had Democrats running through doomsday scenarios.

Community planning advocate Joe LaCava dropped out of the race, leaving Bry and Ellis in a one-on-one race. Anticipating the typical low turnout of a primary election, Democrats feared that Ellis could win outright in June.

At the filing deadline, two new candidates – Lightner’s husband, Bruce, and one of her staffers, Kyle Heiskala — joined the race. Ellis accussed Bry of stacking the ballot with additional candidates to keep him under 50 percent and extend the race into November.

Now it’s Bry who could win outright. She’s within 1 percentage point of doing so.

Ironically, it could have been the slew of late entrants that have kept her under 50 percent so far. Bruce Lightner and Heiskala combined to take 15 percent of the vote.

“The probability of anyone winning outright in a five-person race is just crazy,” said Francine Busby, chair of the local Democratic Party. “I give Barbara a ton of credit for the person she is, and how she ran her campaign.”

In another ironic twist, many Republicans are now likely rooting just as hard for Bry to cross the 50 percent threshold as final ballots are counted. Her showing in the Republican-favoring June race makes a November win improbable for the GOP. But if Ellis is on the ballot, the party would need to throw in more time and more money to give it a go. Surely some donors and politicos would see it as throwing good money after bad.

Together, it raises the question: Were Tuesday night’s results – and Bry’s win specifically – enough to call into question the conventional wisdom that Republicans get what they want in June, and Democrats can only win in November?

Michael Zucchet, general manager of City Hall’s largest union, the Municipal Employees Association, said he didn’t see enough evidence to rewrite that thinking.

“I don’t see how someone can tell a coherent story of all the races,” he said. “I think Barbara ran a strong campaign, and Ellis – who is a competent, affable guy – had a bad couple months. You look at District 7, and Justin DeCesere was a strong Democratic candidate and it wasn’t close. If there was a Democratic wave, (Faulconer) wouldn’t have won by this much.”

The real story, he said, is that people don’t follow such partisan voting patterns in local elections.

Labor leader Mickey Kasparian, president of UFCW Local 135 and the San Diego Imperial Counties Labor Council, had been part of a push among local Democrats to change the city’s law that lets candidates win outright in June elections.

In state and federal races, even candidates who get more than 50 percent of the vote still need to win in November. Democrats have argued the city should follow the same rules, so voters aren’t confused and so leaders are elected when facing the largest electorate possible.

District 1 was definitely a win for the left, but Kasparian still thinks the rules should change.

“Strong showing is definitely encouraging,” he said. “It’s one district, though, in a presidential year. It doesn’t take away from fact that we should be consistent in how elections are decided. They should be done in the same manner as state and federal elections are decided.”

Kasparian also joked that maybe, after this year’s primary results, he could even get some support from Republicans in his effort to change the rules.

The conservative Lincoln Club has itself had a lot of success in past June elections. It supported the pension reform measure and an initiative on city contracting requirements that won in a June primary. Two years ago it supported Councilwoman Lorie Zapf’s re-election campaign, which ended outright in June.

Brian Pepin, executive director of the Lincoln Club, wasn’t willing to write off this year’s primary as a bad night for Republicans.

“It’s a very mixed bag,” he said. He cited Faulconer’s big win, the re-elections of Councilmen Mark Kersey and Scott Sherman, and the victory of Proposition H as evidence the electorate did not favor Democrats.

He said he’d wait and see how things played out with Ellis and Bry as more results came in. And it’s worth questioning whether the conditions, with presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders duking it out at the top of the ballot, could be counted on for Democrats in future primaries.

“UCSD is in District 1,” he said. “There’s been some thought that a lot of Bernie voters would come out, and if they voted down ticket, they’d vote for Bry. Maybe that’s what we’re seeing there. We’ll see when it’s over.”

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