Politics Report: About That SANDAG Seat

Politics

Politics Report: About That SANDAG Seat

Carlsbad Councilwoman Priya Bhat-Patel was among the city’s Democratic leaders who voted to make Republican Mayor Matt Hall the city’s representative at SANDAG. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

When Will Rodriguez-Kennedy took over San Diego’s Democratic Party, he proposed setting the party’s electoral priorities around a  straightforward metric: whether the race flips a seat on the board for SANDAG, the regional agency revamping the county’s transportation system, and all the infrastructure spending that goes with it.

His “SANDAG Strategy” was one part a solution to a recurring party problem: the perception that races were prioritized arbitrarily or by the influence of candidates running in them. And another part was recognition of a shift at SANDAG, once an uncontroversial agency where most decisions were unanimous, and now one of the region’s most combative partisan arenas.

Democrats in Rodriguez-Kennedy’s first election cycle secured seats at SANDAG that, due to the agency’s weighting of votes to population, effectively ended the ability of conservatives to pursue old commitments to expand highways as the agency increased its focus on transit. With pro-transit Democrats in the mayor’s office and the weighted seat for the county, it’s all over.

But then a funny thing happened in Carlsbad this month.

Democrats there picked up a Council seat in November, giving them a 3-2 majority. Even when Republicans had a majority, Democratic Councilwoman Cori Schumacher had been the agency’s SANDAG representative since 2019, after Republican Mayor Matt Hall represented the city before her.

A couple weeks ago, the city sent Hall back to SANDAG, on a 5-0 vote.

Rodriguez-Kennedy was not happy: In a public Facebook post, he spelled that out, reasoning that the party had spent millions of dollars and marshaled hundreds of volunteer hours to get Democrats elected, with the explicit expectation that they would then send fellow Democrats to SANDAG.

“We were wondering if we should censure or sanction any Democrats, because it’s a major priority of the party, but it appears it was a miscommunication,” he said in an interview. “What we’re saying now is, let’s let this one slide, but moving forward, understand that if we elect a Democratic majority, we expect Democratic representation at SANDAG.”

He said, in the grand scheme of things, SANDAG is fine for him. Democrats still run the show.

What was the miscommunication? I still don’t really know. It doesn’t seem like anyone does.

Councilwoman Priya Bhat-Patel, for instance, was appointed that night on a 3-2 vote to the Clean Energy Alliance, a public power agency with which Schumacher had been closely involved. I asked Bhat-Patel why she voted for Hall.

“Councilmember Schumacher had previously held the seat, and was the first to vote for Matt Hall,” Bhat-Patel said in an email. “The decision to vote for him was unanimous, all 5 Council members voted for his appointment, including the other Democrat on Carlsbad City Council.”

That’s where Rodriguez-Kennedy said the mix-up occurred, and he came to that conclusion after a few tough conversations with Bhat-Patel. The Council Dems couldn’t talk ahead of time, because of the Brown Act, he said, and there wasn’t any discussion during the meeting. Once Schumacher voted for Hall, the other two Democrats did the same. A big mix-up.

Schumacher said it was set in motion ahead of the meeting, when Hall asked everyone but her for a list of the regional appointments they desired, and used that as a basis for a set of appointments for Council approval. That included sending himself to SANDAG, and he asked Schumacher to vote on it first.

Rodriguez-Kennedy and Schumacher said they thought soliciting those desired appointments could constitute a Brown Act violation. What if, I asked, it was just a matter of Hall outfoxing them?

“Anyone willing to break the Brown Act is able to outfox anyone else who is trying to play by the rules,” Schumacher said. “It’s not outfoxing, it’s pitting corruption against integrity.”

But while Rodriguez-Kennedy is content to write it off as a miscommunication, Schumacher is not.

She chose her words carefully, but implied that Hall wasn’t the only person who got what he wanted that night.

“Look at the Clean Energy Alliance, which was my project and what I ran on in 2016, that made clear to me what the motivations were for some people,” she said, of the agency at which Bhat-Patel now represents Carlsbad. “How the mayor went about it wasn’t transparent, but there was also personal jockeying that was less about SANDAG, and more about launching this project that we worked on.”

At the following Council meeting, Schumacher and the other Democrat on the Council, Teresa Acosta, proposed bringing the appointments back for another hearing. Bhat-Patel did not support their motion.

“The rest of Council voted not to bring it back, and that should be clear as to why,” Schumacher said.

Rodriguez-Kennedy said he’s confident that isn’t what happened.

Hall, meanwhile, praised Bhat-Patel for her decision, which would seem to support Schumacher’s contention that the two collaborated. But remember, Hall’s appointment to SANDAG was unanimous. Schumacher voted for it first.

“Regardless of political affiliation, life is about ethics and morals, and our ability to come together,” he said. “I applaud Priya for doing what was best for the city of Carlsbad, and not to hold politics as her primary purpose.”

Rodriguez-Kennedy rejected that thinking.

“If this is a partisan endeavor, it’s because of the machinations of Mayor Hall,” he said.

So, what about SANDAG? In 2015, Hall was part of a group of SANDAG board members on the right who joined with other board members from the left – including now-Mayor Todd Gloria – to pursue Measure A, a sales tax increase for highways, transit projects and city infrastructure spending that failed to win voter approval. He said the board needs to get back to that sort of thinking if it’s ever going to increase transportation funding.

“At SANDAG, it’s part of what drove Priya to the decision she did,” Hall said. “In 2015, those two sides broke rank with their parties for the greater good. I hope Todd is the same leader he was then, and when he comes back to SANDAG, he’ll have the skillset to bring us back together.”

He cited Rodriguez-Kennedy’s Facebook post, and the party’s SANDAG Strategy in general, and said if Democrats on the board have the same mindset, the agency is doomed.

“If that’s the direction, we’re just spinning our wheels,” he said. “We’re looking at a combination of a sales tax increase, and gas tax or a charge on vehicles per mile. We’re going to need to be at least 80 percent of the board approval. There is going to have to be compromise.”

The Progressive Labor Alliance Becomes a Thing With a Leader

Lucas O’Connor, the policy and political analyst and progressive book maven who most recently served in Chris Ward’s City Council office as deputy chief of staff, announced this week he has taken a job as executive director of the Progressive Labor Alliance.

The group will now go forward as a sort of policy shop for Democrats in San Diego.

We sent O’Connor some questions, and he responded via email.

Politics Report: What is the Progressive Labor Alliance? I thought it was an event or summit?

Lucas O’Connor: In the past, the Progressive Labor Alliance has mostly done one-off projects depending on the bandwidth of volunteer board members, and the annual Progressive Labor Summit has been the organization’s major public feature. We’re excited for the summit to return in 2021, and by expanding to fund permanent staff and programming, we’re making a big move into ongoing efforts to bring a labor lens to governing throughout the region.

What will you be doing? Is it more actual politics and campaigns? Or theory, policy and intellectual work?

As many governments throughout the region are moving to new levels of Democratic leadership, progressives have an opportunity and responsibility to govern that is unprecedented in recent San Diego memory. Our primary focus is on making sure we all make the most of this mandate to govern with aggressive, progressive policy that centers the needs of working people and develops a strong, resilient post-COVID local economy. We’ll be very interested in how campaigns and elections unfold, but candidates are elected to govern and we’re here to help them govern well.

What is the difference between progressives and labor, and why would they need an alliance?

“Progressive” can be both a noun and an adjective. In this case the goal is to bring together progressives both inside and outside of organized labor to identify mutual goals and priorities, and use our shared political power to avoid infighting and deliver tangible results for hardworking San Diegans who are expecting exactly that.

You have worked for electeds for quite some time now. My take is that this has made you keep your opinions more private. Will you be personally and publicly weighing in on issues more?

The project isn’t really about me, but I’ll certainly be as outspoken as necessary to get good things done.

The 79th Roundup

Shirley Weber is sworn in as California secretary of state by Gov. Gavin Newsom. / Photo courtesy of Akilah Weber

Shirley Weber, secretary of state: Weber was sworn in Friday as secretary of state by Gov. Gavin Newsom. We pulled a clip from her speech on the Assembly floor for this week’s podcast and we talked about her and the shift she has sparked in local politics.

The 79th Assembly District: Marco Contreras did make his run for the 79th Assembly District official with a high-quality video bio. The Republican, former USD football player and businessman is a long-shot in the district but maybe he sees a route because of how much is unsettled in state politics right now. We feel tremors of change every day. The governor’s recall? Probably going to get on the ballot, for example. Or perhaps Contreras is introducing himself to local politics. As June Cutter, who recruited him to run, told me, she’s anxious to build a bigger bench of competitive Republican candidates.

Toni Atkins supports Weber’s daughter: Dr. Akilah Weber, who leads the Pediatric & Adolescent Gynecology Division at Rady Children’s Hospital, is in the race and can now count the president of the Senate, Toni Atkins, as one of her supporters.

Gonzalez’ take: Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez was devastated by the governor’s decision not to pick her for secretary of state. She said so in a public Facebook post this week. She lamented how much work she had done to prepare for the job and campaign for it. “And, it was all pulled out from under me when the Governor said he had to provide balance in his appointments,” she wrote. “Dr. Weber is an icon and a woman who has been a friend for years, she will serve California exceptionally well. I opened up a committee for re-election and moved on.”

She doesn’t have a candidate, yet: We quoted Gonzalez recently stating her excitement for the candidacy of Leticia Munguia, a top official in Southern California with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. But in the Facebook post, Gonzalez made clear that while she will endorse in the race, she has not yet decided whom and she has affection for them all.

Another one in: Aeiramique Glass Blake announced she was running as well. “I’m unafraid, I’m unapologetic, unbought and unbossed, and I hope I’ve earned your support,” she wrote.

And finally, totally unrelated: Every couple of years the Earth tells us it does not want Highway 1 to be where it is. Here’s an incredible view of the latest example.

If you have any feedback or ideas for the Politics Report, send them to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org. 

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