What's Behind the Effort to Recall Council President Jen Campbell

Politics

What's Behind the Effort to Recall Council President Jen Campbell

Whatever else there is to say about the recall of San Diego City Council President Jen Campbell, it would not be happening had she not tried to forge a compromise to regulate vacation rentals in the city.

Councilwoman Jen Campbell speaks at the San Diego City Council inauguration ceremony in 2018. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Whatever else there is to say about the recall of San Diego City Council President Jen Campbell, which became a legal process last week and launched as a campaign this week, it would not be happening had she not tried to forge a compromise to regulate vacation rentals in the city.

Proponents of the recall wanted Campbell to indulge what she and her staff say is a big lie: the claim that vacation rentals could be prohibited within city limits – you could rent out a room, sure, or maybe if you went to Europe for a summer you could let renters stay there, but the city could make it so that a whole home could not ever be a permanent vacation rental.

But Campbell didn’t go that route. She got a major vacation rental platform and the hotel workers union that had fought vacation rentals to come to a compromise. It enraged a cadre of coastal residents who have long believed the city could outright ban short-term rentals.

“They told us to back off, to wait. They felt we were trying to rush it because we wanted to get a deal done before Barbara Bry won the mayor’s race,” said Venus Molina, Campbell’s chief of staff.

Bry, who had once also tried to forge a compromise, ran for mayor on that very promise: to eradicate vacation rentals.

To Campbell, it was delusional. There’s no political route to prohibiting vacation rentals. The Council, after all, had tried to severely limit and regulate vacation rentals but the big platforms, led by Airbnb and HomeAway, easily forced it to throw out the ordinance by collecting enough signatures to force a referendum. Under what possible process would even more severe restrictions stick?

To that, supporters often point to current law, which they say makes vacation rentals de facto illegal. The city, however, has been collecting hotel-room taxes on thousands of vacation rentals for many years. To suddenly shut them down would trigger legal actions the city can neither afford nor defend.

Campbell said she wanted to tackle the problem. The compromise she set with the hotel union and one of the platforms would cap the number of permits the city gives for vacation rentals at about 6,500, including more than 1,000 just for Mission Beach. That would be about half the short-term rentals in the city now. It survived the Planning Commission, and she’ll put it before the full Council in coming weeks.

She wanted actual regulation of vacation rentals to begin, and she wasn’t willing to entertain the persistent idea that the city could somehow ban them. It was a lie vacation rental hawks were selling, she said.

“I think they are brainwashed into thinking something that isn’t real,” Campbell said.

Whatever they’re thinking, they’re now trying to boot her from office. John Thickstun, the lawyer who has long led Save San Diego Neighborhoods, the anti-vacation rental group, created the committee to fund the recall and it’s the top complaint of her on recalljen.com.

But it is not the only complaint. A good part of what may be considered Campbell’s base has turned on her. Campbell walked out – as best you can on Zoom – of a Point Loma Democratic Club meeting after a participant questioned her ethics for supporting Measure E, the exemption to the coastal height limit for the Midway area.

It was the first major modification of the nearly 50-year-old, voter-approved law limiting buildings west of Interstate 5 to 30 feet.

“When she ran, there’s an interview with the Union-Tribune where she clearly states she supports the 30-foot height limit and she will protect it. That’s what we said she would do when we walked precincts,” said Susan Peinado, a political activist and longtime member of the Point Loma Democrats.

Measure E, Peinado said, was a betrayal.

“It makes us look like we’re liars. It cuts us off at the knees,” she said. Peinado supports the recall, as does the club. Point Loma and Ocean Beach are on a peninsula, and the Midway area is the only way in or out. As hideous as it is now, to Peinado and others there’s no way to imagine it getting anything but worse.

“She’s wrong,” Campbell said of Peinado. “That’s an area where the height limit didn’t belong – it just happened to be west of the 5.”

She said a welcome remodel of the blighted area is at hand, now, and thousands of new desperately needed housing units will help with what she says is her top priority: homelessness and housing.

Well, that’s second only to putting COVID-19 down and rebuilding the economy. And she’s angry about this distraction.

“At a time when the city’s facing a huge budget deficit, it’s incredibly irresponsible to try to make the city spend up to $1 million on a recall election that is unnecessary,” Campbell said. “If they don’t agree with the job I’m doing, they can vote for someone else in 2022.”

Recall efforts in the coastal San Diego area are not that unusual. In 2001, Councilman Byron Wear, who was already termed out, faced down a recall push. Subsequent representatives learned quickly not to mess with coastal fears about housing and threats to the height limit. Kevin Faulconer cultivated a strong relationship with Ocean Beach and Point Loma by never doing anything to make protectionists uneasy.

Campbell, though, is 75 and has no political ambitions beyond this. The fearlessness has made her interesting, but also enemies.

“I want to take on the tough things,” she said.

And she wanted to be Council president. To get that job, she had to take on Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe. At the meeting in which a new City Council had to choose between the two, hundreds of callers spent hours effusively praising Montgomery Steppe and, sometimes viciously, excoriating Campbell. It was an unprecedented public involvement in the normally secret negotiations, and it was a painful letdown for many that you could see coming hours before it happened.

I asked Campbell if she regretted going for that job.

“No, I think the city needed me. I was asked by so many people to do this. They wanted someone who could sit down and talk to all the players and all the people. That’s what I do and that’s the best way to make politics work and we get things done,” she said.

The power move, though, left a scar. Tasha Williamson, an activist and supporter of Montgomery Steppe, said she would speak at the launch of the recall effort for Campbell. She said it is already apparent Campbell wouldn’t push for the progressive change she wanted to see and she would never get over how Campbell would not support a qualified Black woman for the job.

“She continues to use her one or two marches with Martin Luther King to prove she is for Black people when she is not. She treated our only Black City Council member, Monica Montgomery, with disregard and disdain,” Williamson said.

The Council, under Campbell, Williamson said, was not nearly as progressive as it acted.

“Progressive means you are bold in your stance to make sure people have what they need, and I have not seen that in this Council and their president,” she said. “Jen Campbell will be just the first of many recalls.”

Supporters of the recall have started the process and will soon begin the 120-day rush to gather signatures. They need about 14,000 of them. Most observers are watching closely to see if anyone puts in enough money to allow them to pay signature-gatherers. If it’s just volunteers, they will struggle to reach the threshold in that short of time.

Some wondered whether Bry would use her personal wealth. When Campbell asserted herself for Council president, Bry attacked her and announced that she would lead the recall. She said Campbell was a patsy for labor union leaders who could not stand up to them.

Two months later, though, Bry has not been especially vocal about the recall. In an email announcing her next moves, and the launch of her new podcast, Bry offered just one line at the end about her ongoing support of the campaign to oust Campbell.

But unions are worried.

“We’re taking it very seriously,” said Keith Maddox, the executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego Imperial Counties Labor Council. “We’re talking about doing a recall during an economic crisis when people are struggling to pay the bills. People who are supporting this care nothing about the priorities of this city.”

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