Politics Report: What the Dramatic Council President Contest Taught Us - Voice of San Diego

Politics

Politics Report: What the Dramatic Council President Contest Taught Us

Some takeaways from the fierce contest for Council president. Also the new one picked her team.

Jen Campbell
Jen Campbell celebrates her San Diego City Council win on Election Night. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Councilwoman Jen Campbell is now Council President Jen Campbell.

The change came after by far the tensest, longest and most divided process to select the Council president since the system was implemented in 2006. Every year since, the Council has selected a president and it has always resolved into a lopsided vote after a very short meeting. It was baked. Not unethically or anything, the politics just arranged themselves in private conversations among City Hall’s leaders, their staffs and the orbit of lobbyists, interest groups and activists around them.

But this year was dramatic. Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe forced it all into the open. She forced so many different leaders and organizations to articulate what they wanted in the role and who they wanted to serve in it. It was a profound act of public service, and it was entrancing.

And it climaxed in a nine-hour meeting Thursday that featured hundreds of voices pleading for the Council to support Montgomery Steppe with very few calling in to support Campbell. Several of the callers berated Campbell for fighting for the job.

But beginning weeks ago, Campbell refused to be drawn into the open campaign for the role. She declined an invitation to a debate we were going to organize. She and her allies did not tout the support they earned and none of the groups that supported her did either. She simply rejected the concept that this would be a contest for the public to witness, where the parties on both sides would identify themselves and even market their cause. Mayor Todd Gloria appeared to want no part of that either.

Campbell, essentially, just bet that the old way of winning the job behind the scenes would prevail over this new way of appealing to the public. And she won.

And it taught us a lot about how things work. But also maybe how they may work in the future. Here are a few things we took away:

I. They can’t keep having meetings like this.

The City Council has a public engagement problem. For the second time this year, the City Council listened to hours of comments from hundreds of people — over the phone, during a pandemic — who overwhelmingly asked them not to do something that insiders knew was going to happen.

In both instances, the public commenters (and community groups aligned with them) were motivated by racial justice concerns. First, they wanted the city to cut SDPD’s budget. This week, they wanted a Council president who has prioritized criminal justice reform during her time in office. Both times, the Council said no. The Council isn’t obligated to side with public commenters during a meeting. The segregation and social injustices stemming from exclusionary housing policies, for instance, persist because the beneficiaries of those systems can galvanize segments of the public to lobby for an outcome in their interest.

But it is hard to watch people pour their hearts out for hours and hours and know that it won’t change anything. It can’t be that every six months, a young and diverse group floods the Council with a policy demand, only to be quietly ignored. There’s got to be a better way for the city to register community engagement, even while duly elected representatives retain their voting prerogative.

II. Campbell faces a huge challenge.

Campbell won and now has plunged herself into the roughest waters local politics has. She has to address this popular movement she quashed and coordinate a Council that divided as severely as it has in one of these contests.

And then there’s her own job. A recall movement has peppered signs throughout her coastal district for months but that’s not very unusual.

Friday, though, it jumped to a new level. Former City Councilwoman Barbara Bry announced that she would join the movement to recall Campbell and try to help it. She told KUSI she thought Campbell was controlled by special interests. She had particularly objected to the compromise and regulatory framework Campbell has been pushing on vacation rentals.

That has upset many coastal residents, some of whom joined the calls to oppose Campbell in the Council president contest.

All of this is nothing compared to the ongoing public health crisis, deep recession and overwhelming financial problems that will poison city budget discussions and force difficult decisions.

She has really leveled up in the leadership game. It won’t be easy to get through.

III. The Democratic dominance could usher in some big battles. 

Among the arguments in favor of Montgomery Steppe from the community groups and activists who called into the meeting was that Democrats, if they are as committed as they say to the cause of racial justice, can demonstrate it by choosing a qualified, Black woman as their leader. Others said her commitment to equity and community empowerment, even if it reveals tensions within the city, need to be the Council’s priority, too.

Yet in the end, four Democrats — including three elected just last month — as their first order of business cast a vote that the party’s chair and others aligned with him said raised questions about their true commitment to equity, diversity and racial justice. That’s a big difference of opinion, and it’s day one of San Diego: Democratic City.

Committee Assignments

A mural of Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe at the Kali Artist Konnect Healing Arts and Culture Center / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

They’re out: Montgomery Steppe got to keep her job as chair of the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods committee. That’s not nothing — from there she can continue to propose reform legislation for police practices. But if Thursday’s vote is any indication, that won’t be easy either: joining her on the committee are three councilmembers who voted against her, and none who voted for her.

The Republican keeps a chair: Chris Cate got the chair of the committee on Budget and Government Efficiency. Joe LaCava, a Democrat, will not chair a committee.

Check them out here.

Tough First Week in Sacramento for Chris Ward

Scott was one of several who criticized now Assemblyman Chris Ward for dining out with several other legislators Monday evening after their swearing-in ceremony in Sacramento.

Sacramento Bee reporter Hannah Wiley spotted the group and asked them why they felt comfortable dining out with several different households. Dining outside is still permitted in Sacramento, and they were outside. But state guidance says you shouldn’t even do that with more than three people from different households. And Ward was with Tasha Boerner-Horvath, who also represents San Diego where dining at a restaurant is not allowed, indoor or outdoor.

The story and criticism went viral and Ward told us he was mortified. He said he spent the week setting up his office, getting legislation ready but also responding to constituents who were mad about the decision he made.

He passed along a written statement: “Being sworn into the California State Assembly was an honor and a day that will always hold meaning for me, however during all the excitement I made an error in judgement and I apologize. A higher standard is expected of elected leaders and though I acted only on an opportunity to get acquainted with new colleagues, it was not appropriate for me to break bread with others outside my household, even though we had all tested negative and believed we were in line with Sacramento County’s health order at the time.”

He said he spoke to a neighbor, a doctor and a nurse who all felt let down.

“This job is about them, and we ease their hardships by diligently exercising common sense practices to stop the spread of this devastating disease. Like so many others, my family and I feel sometimes exhausted by the social restrictions, but we persist to try our best to adhere to public health guidelines and I promise to model best behavior for the health of everyone.”

Faulconer Does Not Support Tax Hike for Transit Plan He Supports

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

One of the most significant moves former Mayor Kevin Faulconer made was supporting Hasan Ikhrata, the outspoken leader of the San Diego Association of Governments, first as the agency’s new director and then against opposition to his policy agenda from Faulconer’s fellow Republicans.

Ikhrata wouldn’t have been hired if Faulconer didn’t veto the agency’s attempt to hire its previous deputy director, who was present for the scandal that opened the position in the first place. And Faulconer’s support – and the city’s weighted vote – gave Ikhrata the political capital to disrupt the agency’s direction.

But Faulconer does not support a tax increase for local transit projects that Ikhrata says is essential to implementing the transformational vision he’s drawn.

Faulconer supports Ikhrata. Ikhrata has stuck with his “Five Big Moves” plan, calling for hundreds of miles of new rail transit across the county, and Faulconer supports that too. Ikhrata has been clear that it’s not possible to build that plan without a tax increase – one he’s floated as essential to be before voters, perhaps as early as the 2022 election.

“I would support ways to not raise taxes that reach the goals of 5 big Moves,” Faulconer said in an interview this week. “I think it’s incredibly important that you’re creative, you look at external funding, whether that’s private or in grants and federal support. And Hasan is one of the best at that.”

He said SANDAG should aggressively pursue federal transportation grants to build projects, for one. And, he cited the possible San Diego Grand Central project – Ikhrata and Faulconer have pursued a plan to partner with the federal government to redevelop the Old Town NAVWAR facility into a dense, urban environment complete with a massive transit hub for the region – as a way to turn private money into funding for the transit system. Similarly, he said a transit connection to the airport could leverage money from airline carriers looking to expand the airport’s Terminal 1.

But if those alternative sources don’t amount to enough to build the dramatic increase in transit infrastructure Ikhrata envisions, will that mean simply forgoing some of those would-be projects?

“With every plan it is important to know how you fund it,” Faulconer said. “As you move forward it becomes ‘What is the art of the possible?’”

SANDAG has not always been honest about the funding limitations it faced. The agency has not been clear about how it uses local tax collection to attract federal grant money. A 2004 tax increase, for example, is bringing in billions less than was initially expected. For years, as project costs increased and revenue collections waned, the funding gap it needed the federal government to fill consistently grew.

Rather than admit it might not be able to build those projects, SANDAG just kept assuming the federal government would fork over more money. The 2004 ballot assumed the feds would hand over $1 for every $1 San Diego taxpayers provided. Historically, SANDAG has done better than that, at nearly $3 from the feds for every $1 locally.

Now, just making good on all the projects San Diego residents are expecting from that proposal, will require the federal government giving SANDAG $9.60 for every $1 in local revenue.

“To make up that gap we have to get $10 from other sources for every dollar,” Ikhrata said last year. “If you go by last year, we got 2.4 dollars for every dollar. It’s not going to happen. This. Program. Was. Overpromised. You’re not going to have funding to finish the projects.”

And that doesn’t even include all the new projects Ikhrata’s envisioning – which Faulconer supports – that the federal government and private sources are going to need to cover, too.

More on Faulconer: We spent some time on his legacy this week, in case you missed it. Lisa Halverstadt explored his claim he reduced homelessness in San Diego — perhaps the accomplishment he would tout the most in a gubernatorial run. She did a second part where she coined the “Faulconer Doctrine” on homelessness, which is, basically, provide a ton of money and services but use the threat of law enforcement to compel people to use them and get off the streets.

Andy looked into his big housing promises and actions and how we’ll have to wait to see the results. (Housing is still very expensive here, turns out.) And Jesse Marx and Sara Libby looked into his legacy with law enforcement and lack of interest in, well, saying anything about the hottest of issues.

More Politics Things

  • Faulconer did say an interesting thing this week: He said he voted for President Donald Trump’s re-election. He confirmed that to George Skelton at the L.A. Times. That’s not going to go over well with some folks but Skelton points out it matters to a key group. “Roughly 6 million Californians voted for Trump. And Faulconer needs them for his base support.”
  • It reminded us of the time that Faulconer visited Trump and then Trump said Faulconer thanked him for building the wall. Then Faulconer said he absolutely did not thank Trump for the wall.
  • The Republican Party of San Diego County will pick its new leader this week. After 14 years at the helm, Tony Krvaric will step away. Or maybe not, who knows. He named South Bay Realtor Paula Whitsell as his chosen successor but the full Central Committee will have to vote.

Hasta La Vista, Shermanator

Councilman Scott Sherman attends a press conference in in support of Measure C. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Former Councilman Scott Sherman famously had a countdown of the number of days he had left in office. When the new Council was inaugurated Thursday, Sherman wore his finest Hawaiian shirt.

“I was San Diego’s first YIMBY,” he said. “I was a YIMBY before they called people a YIMBY.”

Sherman in 2017 took over as chair of the city’s committee on housing and land use and, along with former Councilman David Alvarez, put together a laundry list of reforms they thought could make it cheaper and easier to build housing. The Republican-Democrat pair – dubbed “the Odd Couple” by Voice of San Diego, later repeated by a paper in New York – saw many of those reforms win Council approval or become cornerstones of Faulconer’s housing focus in his final years in office.

“If you think about it, when we started, housing wasn’t on anybody’s radar as an issue,” Sherman said. “Through a lot of work, we got people to realize it was a major issue, and it became something that both mayoral candidates campaigned on.”

He listed changes to granny flat regulations – which led to a boom in people building the second homes on their properties – and reforms that made building restrictions more flexible, and which created incentives for developer to build low- or middle-income units in exchange for increasing their projects’ density, among his biggest wins.

“I was talking to some developers, and they said our legacy is, we really made it easier to build,” he said. “Hopefully, that supply begins to translate into lower housing prices.”

The zoning liberalization and regulatory reforms of the Faulconer and Sherman era have not yet increased housing production in San Diego, though housing experts told us it could take five or six years to see the effects.

Sherman said his biggest regret is that reforms to the city’s community planning process that he ushered through City Hall weren’t adopted yet.

“When I first started, no one wanted to touch it – planning groups were a Holy Grail that can’t be touched,” he said. “But we got buy in, and people realized they can be a problem. Got a Council vote in committee for 28 reforms, and then politics got involved and it wasn’t pushed forward by the time I left. Now, I don’t know if anyone will touch it after I leave.”

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

Show Comments
Loading