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The mayoral candidate comes out strongly against an ambitious vision of mass transit in San Diego County – and that illuminates her campaign’s main narrative.
Earlier this month, Councilwoman Barbara Bry told the Union-Tribune’s Joshua Emerson Smith that she was not crazy about SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata’s plan to rebuild transportation in San Diego around a European-style transit system and freeways that manage congestion through tolls.
Ever so slightly, though, she left the door open. Maybe she would warm up to it later, she implied. In a new statement emailed to supporters this week, she closed that door. Definitively.
First, here’s what she told Smith: “This is another rush deal during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “After the pandemic ends, we should step back to see how remote working and commute patterns change and what this will mean for future transit needs.”
Here’s what she said this week, in an email directed at her opponent, Assemblyman Todd Gloria.
“You support SANDAG’s $177 billion tax increase plan, which I believe is hopelessly out of date and fails to embrace the emerging technological revolution that can actually deliver on the promise of clean air and confronting climate change while reducing traffic congestion without destroying our neighborhoods.”
That’s pretty straightforward: SANDAG’s plan is bad, and rail-based transit is not only out-of-date, but will be responsible for “destroying our neighborhoods.”
She doesn’t specify what technological revolution she’s referring to but it’s a common argument among SANDAG’s board members who are critical of increasing transit spending.
For example: Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, a Republican and vocal Ikhrata critic wrote this for us in an op-ed two years ago:
“The future of transportation is not large, empty buses and trolleys traveling on fixed-routes and fixed-time tables,” he wrote. “The future of transportation is on-demand autonomous vehicles traveling on roads and highways, providing riders with better, faster, and cheaper, point-to-point service.”
An evolution: Bry’s searing critique is also quite a bit more pointed than her position on transit a year ago, when she discussed the issue at our mayoral debate at Politifest. Then, she focused on the need for SANDAG to rebuild public trust after a scandal before we ask voters to increase taxes – and said the region needs to make new transit projects like the Mid-Coast Trolley successful before pivoting to new ones.
“I think we still haven’t regained the trust of the public,” she said. “And I think if we’re going to pass a tax measure, we need to do it on a regional basis after we’ve regained the trust of the public, and after we’ve demonstrated that we can make transit work on the Blue Line, which will connect downtown to the UTC area, which is the number one employment center in the region … We need to prove we can address first-mile and last-mile issues on the Blue Line if we’re ever going to have a chance of getting the voters to pass a tax increase.”
A note of clarification: It’s true SANDAG estimates its plan would cost $177 billion, and that they would need to increase taxes to pay for it. But the tax measure wouldn’t cover the full cost. Rather, state and federal governments would be expected to foot about two-thirds of that bill, Ikhrata said. The other $59 billion would come from a 1 percent sales tax – it’s unclear when that would go on the ballot, maybe as early as 2022 – that would not have an expiration. And while the $177 billion is quite big, keep in mind that the current county plan – a system that looks like the one we have now but adds some transit lines and expands some freeways – would cost about $130 billion. That difference is nothing to sneeze at, but we’re dealing with big numbers that would require new taxes no matter which plan you prefer.
Bry’s increasingly strident position against the SANDAG plan completes a unified narrative for her campaign. It aligns with her story that she is the protector of the city’s residential neighborhoods against change. The villains are short-term vacation rental owners, developers and now transit advocates. (See previously: “They’re coming for our homes.”)
She hit the note twice in this week’s email, arguing Gloria supports “the YIMBY political agenda to eliminate single-family neighborhoods.”
President Donald Trump is making a similar plea to connect with people’s fears about suburban lifestyle being under attack.
Meanwhile, Gloria’s trying to tell a much different story. He has avoided labeling any actual villains he would blame for San Diego’s problems. And though he has had some sharp criticisms of Bry, he has not placed her in a storyline of any villainous network.
Villains or no villains: Both Democrat Bob Filner and Republican Carl DeMaio ran in 2012 for mayor with expressly clear narratives of who were the villains in the city and who were the good guys. To Filner, the treacherous San Diego business insiders, developers and Republicans had rigged the city’s political system to send resources to their pet projects and away from neighborhoods.
To DeMaio, the city’s employee unions were the villains, securing benefits he would blow up into billboards while the city struggled to maintain service levels.
The race to replace Filner had fierce arguments but Kevin Faulconer and David Alvarez refrained mostly from drawing those same kind of lines of who was good and who were the villains of San Diego politics. You can see the dynamic nationally too. Trump and Bernie Sanders outlined – very different – narratives of who are the villains responsible for the nation’s various maladies.
Hillary Clinton, however, was never that clear. To her, America’s problems were big and complicated and needed to be addressed incrementally and expertly. That’s kind of Joe Biden’s thing too. (Though they both have one big villain: Trump.)
Gloria is coming at the race for San Diego mayor this year that way.
He wants to be aligned in voters’ minds with the national Democratic Party – a network of hopeful earnest aspirational leaders – and opposition to Trump. The problems in the city aren’t the result of any specific villain class, to Gloria. Rather they’re large, nuanced and difficult.
Friday, while Bry blasted him, he again went to that national narrative. He sent out a press release highlighting that he would be introducing U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris at the Democratic Party’s annual Roosevelt Honors fundraiser – being held virtually this year.
Harris and Gloria have been friends many years and she campaigned for him before the primary election. Gloria’s confident he would have a line to the White House with the connection.
Here was Harris speaking to his campaign volunteers in a video his campaign circulated: “I came here because I love Todd Gloria. And I love him for so many reasons that are personal but also about who we are as a state and who we are as a nation. And when I say who we are, my definition of that is what we all know, which is what we can be – unburdened by what we have been,” she said.
In each election cycle, there’s a wave in which campaigns litigate the appropriate ballot information that should be included about themselves and their opponents. And while it can get a little overheated, it’s easy enough to understand the focus: In low-information contests, what voters see on the ballot might be all the know about a race.
Anyway, we’re in that part of the election. Last week we talked about a judge’s decision to make Democrat Marni Von Wilpert change her ballot description. Here are a few other resolutions to ballot disputes this week:
There was no daily briefing scheduled from county public health officials Friday to update the public on the virus. That is, there wasn’t until the governor shocked everyone by announcing a new tiered system of reopening that put San Diego into a new “red tier” of substantial spread of the coronavirus.
Even though that was the second worst of the four tiers, it actually suddenly meant that restaurants, salons, gyms, churches and more could all open for indoor activities Monday.
It was a stunning, unanticipated development. Many of us expected new re-opening guidelines but not that these places would suddenly be allowed open Monday.
The county hastily called a press briefing for the afternoon, announcing that Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten and County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher would present.
But while Wooten did present, Fletcher was a no show.
He later put out a statement on Twitter that he was dismayed by the changes and objected to them. It was a remarkable, though implied, criticism of Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Fletcher friend.
“I believe we should take a more cautious and safe approach to re-opening than what was outlined today. My concerns are with the size, scope and speed of what is being reopened on Monday,” he wrote.
He said that while some businesses could open, the previous re-opening in June led to outbreaks we’re only now seeing improve.
“At the same time, we are moving forward we are trying to give schools a chance to start again and have college students returning to campus. I believe our focus now should be on a narrow section of low risk entities and doing everything we can to support our schools,” he wrote.
He pushed back on the suggestion that was a criticism of the governor and pointed out the county itself could have put in more restrictions but did not. But then he acknowledged the county was completely blindsided by the news.
“She was put in a terrible position,” Fletcher said of Wooten’s decision to acquiesce to Newsom’s determination.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the judge’s ruling on Zosa’s ballot title.
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