Ray Ellis is a crucial part of the Republican Party’s push to swing the partisan balance of the City Council, but he doesn’t exactly fit the party mold.
His basic pitch mirrors the party platform. Ellis argues incumbent District 1 Councilwoman Sherri Lightner hasn’t done enough to fix the city’s deep financial woes, so voters should elect him instead.
More than anything else, Ellis talks about cutting pension costs. He calls himself an expert and passionate advocate on the subject, highlighting his business career and former position as head of the city’s retirement board.
Ellis supports Proposition B, a high-profile ballot initiative aimed at cutting retirement costs, and more managed competition, a bidding process that pits city employees against contractors to provide public services. Both are popular talking points among local Republicans.
And at a community forum Wednesday, Ellis spent more time highlighting these issues than how he would actually prioritize any savings from them. When residents raised concerns about building more fire stations, expanding library hours and fixing streets, Ellis shifted away from details to his broader vision.
“I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but we have to go back to the underlying issues,” Ellis said. “This talk about our financial stake being somewhat solved is not accurate.”
The campaign strategy throws Ellis into a cluster of Republican-backed candidates running for seats across the city. They support Prop. B, more managed competition and City Councilman Carl DeMaio for mayor.
But Ellis stands out from this pack in a few big ways. He supports DeMaio and state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who recently left the Republican Party and spurred a wave of scorn from its leadership. Ellis has also been reaching out to organized labor, the party’s bitter election rival.
In an interview Thursday, Ellis tried walking a fine line between his support for both DeMaio and Fletcher. At 55, Ellis said he would not be anyone’s stooge and his style of governing would be different than DeMaio.
An example: Ellis said he has sought endorsements from the city’s employee unions and would accept them if any offered their support. “Everyone deserves a seat at the table,” Ellis said.
Fletcher has touted a similar approach during his campaign for mayor and the endorsement of the city’s police union to back it up. DeMaio, however, has ridiculed his opponents in the race for accepting labor endorsements. DeMaio calls it inappropriate for those campaigning to represent taxpayers’ interests.
Another example: Ellis gave $500 last year to Proposition D, which would’ve allowed the city to increase the sales tax by a half-cent if it completed 10 financial reforms. DeMaio led the charge against the initiative. Voters roundly rejected it.
At one point in the interview, Ellis’ campaign manager, Matt Donnellan, chimed in and noted that Ellis had personally donated to Fletcher’s campaign before DeMaio’s. Ellis grimaced at the comment and said, “I don’t know if we wanted that out.”
Asked if his governing style would be closer to Fletcher than DeMaio, Ellis shifted in his seat, threw up his arms and didn’t give a specific answer. He seemed conflicted about siding with one candidate over the other.
In District 1, Ellis faces two big challenges. Democrats represent the largest group of registered voters and Lightner, a Democrat, has advantages from incumbency like name recognition. No incumbent council member has lost a reelection bid in 20 years.
But Ellis has the Republican Party’s backing and this year, parties can donate an unlimited amount of cash directly to candidates. More money helps boost name recognition. As of March 17, Ellis led fundraising among the four District 1 candidates with $203,000.
Ellis’ Top Three Priorities:
Pension Reform: Ellis and Lightner both support a high-profile ballot initiative that aims to replace pensions with 401(k)-style plans for most new city employees and pressure the city to approve a five-year pay freeze.
If voters approve the initiative, Ellis argues he would be a better advocate for implementing its proposals. He notes that Lightner didn’t publicly support the initiative until a U-T San Diego reporter asked her to weigh in.
“Instead of nobody asked me to, they’ll say Ray would you shut up,” Ellis said. If elected, Ellis pledged to refuse a city pension and donate his salary. He’s already made his money building and selling a marketing and direct mail company.
Managed Competition: Like the ballot initiative, Ellis argues he would be a better proponent than Lightner. He says the City Council hasn’t done enough in the past four years to put public services out to bid and find cost savings.
Ellis said he wants to revisit rules that allow city employees to win the bid if they come within 10 percent of a private company. Ellis said the rules favor the city too much and should be evened out.
Restoring Public Services: Ellis said his budget priorities would be public safety first, infrastructure second and then neighborhood services like libraries and parks. But he was short on specifics.
“I think I’d have to find more information where we get the biggest bang for our buck,” Ellis said. “I’d have a dialogue with the community.”
Best Way to Describe His Pitch
I’m a successful businessman and an expert on the city’s pension system. I know how to cut costs better than Lightner, and then we’ll talk about which neighborhood services get those savings.
Interesting Fact About His Life
Ellis created his first business when he was 20. He and a friend rented four Kawasaki Jet Skis at a lake in North Carolina. He said he spent the whole summer in flip-flops and swimming trunks.
What He’s Taking Heat For
Ellis took some heat last week for not defining his position on one of the biggest issues in the district, the Regents Road Bridge across Rose Canyon. He told a community group the proposal was off the table — for now.
In an interview after that meeting, Ellis said he wants to keep an open mind until funding for the bridge is available. “I have a hard time with never and always,” Ellis said. “Let’s come back and have a discussion about it.”
Get in Touch with Him
Office phone + email: 858.400.7433 + Ray@RayEllisForCouncil.com
Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about local government, creates infographics and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.
Like VOSD on Facebook.