Unexpected Forum Proves Enlightening on Current San Diego Issues
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Todd Gloria, Marti Emerald, Sherri Lightner
Though the executive board of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality (formerly the San Diego Democratic Club) hadn’t planned it that way, their September 22 meeting turned out to feature three incumbent San Diego City Councilmembers — Todd Gloria, Marti Emerald and Sherri Lightner — defending their records on the Council and talking about the future of San Diego.
The club hadn’t planned it that way because the original agenda had been to endorse all three Councilmembers for re-election next year as so-called “friendly incumbents” — officeholders whose track records expressed their support for Queer issues and the club’s other concerns — without making them go through the rigmarole of filling out an issues questionnaire and appearing at a meeting. But club member Bob Leyh, expressing his discontent with the whole idea of the “friendly incumbent” shortcut, pulled all seven proposed “friendly incumbent” endorsements (the three Councilmembers, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Congressmember Susan Davis and Assemblymembers Toni Atkins and Ben Hueso) from the club’s consent calendar. This forced the club to debate each endorsement individually and led club president Doug Case and political action vice-president Craig Roberts to call the already present Councilmembers to speak.
Leyh said that, “especially now, with America, the state and the city under financial crisis,” the club needed to demand answers from the candidates on how they would handle non-Queer issues like “the deficit, the budget problem in California and the pension crisis and underfunding of infrastructure” in San Diego. “I think if we just give them a friendly endorsement without holding them accountable, we don’t have any power. I want to call them back here to speak to how they’re going to solve problems in America, and not necessarily just re-elect them.”
Todd Gloria, up first, said that at $57 million San Diego’s current budget shortfall is “less than half San José’s and much less than Los Angeles’s or San Francisco’s. We’ve held the line [on spending], held down costs, kept from closing libraries and restored the fire stations that were browned out (temporarily closed). We’ve had 17 miles of roads resurfaced and will have 19 miles more by the end of the year. We have to hold the line on the budget, but we also have much work to be done in redeveloping North Park and restoring streetcar service to Hillcrest.” He also mentioned that if he’s re-elected, he’ll be the Councilmember representing Balboa Park during its 2015 centennial.
Gloria got called to account for his vote for the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and a task force headed by Dr. Irwin S. Jacobs, co-founder and former CEO of Qualcomm, to remodel the Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park to eliminate cars from the center of the park. The project has been controversial because Jacobs has offered to fund it — but only on condition that his proposed design be adopted without any changes. Gloria said he’d voted for the MOU with the Jacobs group because “Dr. Jacobs has put up the money for the environmental review,” and he argued that the Council will still have the right to vote yes or no on the Jacobs plan or any competing project.
A more sympathetic voice came from Alex Sachs, the club’s former vice-president for political action who was back in San Diego for a rare visit after having relocated to Iowa. “Four years ago I was in a different place,” Sachs admitted — when he was one of the loudest voices in the club arguing for endorsing its former president, Stephen Whitburn, over Gloria. “I think Todd has been an exceptional Councilmember. I’m concerned about what happened on Balboa Park, but if there’s anybody who should be looking out for Balboa Park, it’s Todd.” Gloria’s endorsement eventually carried by voice vote without any audible opposition.
Marti Emerald, up next, said, “When Todd, Sherri and I took office [in 2009] we had a much more serious pension problem that started with previous Mayors and City Councils deliberately underfunding it for a Republican convention and a new ballpark. We’ve worked diligently to bring down the pension bill, and we’re all concerned about our city employees and those who will retire with lower benefits in the future. We want to preserve jobs and not have to cut more.” She also paid tribute to the “firefighters, police and water employees who kept us safe” during the September 8 power blackout. “Our first job, after public safety, is to keep people employed,” she said.
Bob Leyh criticized Emerald for voting for an appeal from a University Heights homeowner who remodeled an historic house without advance approval from the city. The Council split 4-4 on the appeal, which meant it failed; Gloria and Lightner both voted against the appeal. Emerald acknowledged she had “lost my cool” during the meeting because she “felt very frustrated with the current Municipal Code and felt our government overstepped.” She promised to “get myself better acquainted about the Code” so she can better balance the interests of property owners and historic preservationists.
Asked by former club president Andrea Villa what she plans to do about San Diego’s poverty rate, which according to a recent survey is growing faster than in any other city in the nation, Emerald sang a familiar refrain: the city is getting stuck with the problem because the County of San Diego, whose governing Board of Supervisors consists exclusively of white Republicans, won’t address it seriously. “When I first got on the City Council, I called the County to task for its low rate of processing applications for the food stamp program,” she said. “We’ve got half a million kids going to bed hungry.”
Emerald also said that she, Gloria and Lightner “have been sounding the alarm to create good middle-class jobs” in San Diego. “We can’t support this community on a service economy,” she said. “We’re working with green energy, biomed, universities and neighborhood groups. The County has abdicated responsibility.” She said she would support the plan of San Diego Congressmember and Mayoral candidate Bob Filner to rebuild San Diego’s economy and job market by making San Diego “a world leader in alternative energy.”
Other questions Emerald got asked included how she’d vote on the initiative in June 2012 to ban project-labor agreements (PLA’s) on city-sponsored developments — PLA’s, which require developers to pay local prevailing wages and hire local workers, have been under relentless assault from the Republican party and the Right in general — to which she responded by hoping Governor Jerry Brown will sign the state legislature’s bill to “ban the ban” on PLA’s. She was also asked about why she’s chosen to run for re-election in the newly created District 9, which was formed as a so-called “Latino empowerment district” when lines were redrawn by the city’s independent commission. The issue was important enough that Linda Perine, who headed the Queer redistricting task force that worked in coalition with Latino activists to lobby for a second Latino district, decided to vote against Emerald’s endorsement on that issue alone.
“As much as I respect Linda for her work on redistricting, the lines didn’t get drawn where we wanted them,” said Jess Durfee, former club president and current chair of the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee. “We have an incumbent who’s been faithful to this community and who has served us well. It’s rare we have an incumbent this good, and the sooner we endorse her, the sooner we can help her raise money in a tough economic environment.” Emerald eventually won her endorsement with 39 votes in favor to four opposed.
Sherri Lightner, up next, said she’s running against a Republican opponent, Ray Ellis, who “is worth $200 million and can self-finance” his campaign. “I expect another hard-fought race,” she said — referring to the thin margin of victory by which she won the seat in 2008 against another well-to-do, heavily favored Republican. “My district is not like your district,” she said. Covering La Jolla and much of the relatively less developed north part of San Diego, “it was gravely impacted by the Fire Department brownouts.” She thanked the club for their endorsement in 2008, asked that they endorse her again, and made an unusual demand that seemed to anticipate that her opponent and his supporters will lie about her and her record to win: “Given my campaign last time, which involved some whispers on the ground, if you hear things that don’t sound like Sherri Lightner, please report them to me.”
Development vice-president Matt Corrales criticized Lightner for voting against the so-called “big-box” law requiring economic impact reports on any proposed large-scale stores that sell food items. The Council originally approved it, then repealed it after Wal-Mart, the principal target of the proposed law, got enough signatures to have it put on the ballot in a referendum and the Council decided to fold rather than spend the $3 million to have an election and give voters the chance to decide. “I reviewed information in the general plan and the Municipal Code and feel what is already in these documents is sufficient to contain Wal-Mart,” Lightner said. “I do not shop at Wal-Mart, and when people come to my office with folders with Wal-Mart’s logo, I talk to them about it.” Asked if she would contact Governor Brown and ask him to sign State Senator Juan Vargas’s bill to require the economic impact reports statewide, Lightner hemmed and hawed a bit but finally said she would.
Todd Gloria, who had spoken for Marti Emerald in the endorsement debate, stood up for Lightner as well. “Her neighbors love her,” he said. “She absolutely deserves re-election. Her opponent can self-fund. Under the new [strong-mayor] form of government, we need six votes [out of nine] to keep a progressive majority on the City Council.” Former club president Larry Baza, an artist and long-time activist in San Diego’s arts community, backed Lightner and thanked her for helping keep the city’s arts budget from being cut in the current economic climate. Eventually Lightner won her endorsement with just one no vote and one abstention.
The other friendly incumbents — Atkins, Hueso, Davis and Feinstein — also won their endorsement bids. Atkins wasn’t there, though she sent a written statement and her campaign manager, Tim Orozco, was present. Atkins was endorsed with one opposed; Hueso, with one opposed and three abstentions; Davis, who was particularly thanked for her work on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” with one opposed; and Feinstein with three abstentions.