City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner is a crucial part of the Democratic Party’s push to retain partisan control of the City Council, but she doesn’t exactly fit the party mold.

This should sound familiar. Lightner’s well-funded Republican challenger, Ray Ellis, has shown a similar pattern of breaking from his party.

And on some of the biggest issues this year, Lightner and Ellis land on the same side. They both support a ballot initiative aimed at cutting pension costs and managed competition, which puts city services out to bid.

Supporting both policies has cost Lightner the favor of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, which spent roughly $100,000 on her first campaign. This election, the powerful group has promised no endorsement, no money. It gave her an ‘F’ on its annual report card.

Lightner ties her stances to her primary career as an engineer. She wasn’t always into politics. She said her votes aren’t ideological and that sometimes means breaking from the pack.

“I know my community,” Lightner said. “I do not make irrational decisions. I don’t walk in step with anyone.”

Lightner argues the city is now recovering financially and can begin doing more for its residents. “We’ve made so much progress,” Lightner said in an interview Friday. “I don’t want to see any backsliding and I want to have some of the fun of rebuilding.”

She wants to add police officers, firefighters and lifeguards to District 1, and repair more of the area’s streets. She wants to add more hours at libraries and recreational centers, too.

Lightner’s big challenges will be convincing voters that conditions have improved under her watch. While the mayor now considers the city’s budget structurally balanced, many core services have been slashed or cut entirely in recent years. Despite more efforts to repair roads, they’ve continued to worsen.

Her main advantages are the power of incumbency and the financial support that comes with the Democratic Party’s endorsement. Of the four candidates vying for District 1, Lightner has raised the second-most cash with $171,000 in total receipts as of March 17.

Lightner’s Top Three Priorities

Fiscal Stability: Lightner describes pension reform and managed competition as the continued solution to San Diego’s financial woes. On managed competition, Lightner said she wants to figure out how services could be improved through the bidding process. Right now, the process primarily aims to provide the same level of service for a lower cost.

Infrastructure: Lightner said 34 miles of District 1 streets have been repaired and more than 1,200 potholes filled under her watch, but much more needs to be done. She supports the mayor’s plan to continue borrowing money to try to catch up on repairs.

Energizing Residents: Lightner recently got her constituents together to identify and fix potholes at two events. She viewed them as a way to engage the community.

“We didn’t just go out. We actually get them filled,” Lightner said in a veiled jab at City Councilman and mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio, who’s organized similar events to identify but not repair potholes.

Lightner said the pothole events are just one example of how she wants to work with residents more often and attract them to become involved at City Hall.

Best Way to Describe Her Pitch

She helped the city’s financial health get better. She has the experience to make sure it continues to improve and bring back some of the services we’ve lost.

Interesting Fact About Her Life

Lightner didn’t seem particularly excited about discussing pensions, potholes or her critics during our meeting. It was a matter-of-fact conversation, the same kind Lightner is known for conveying during council hearings.

She only showed an uncharacteristic amount of emotion while talking about her career as an engineer. A campaign staffer jumped in the conversation and said Lightner had once worked on making bombs, but Lightner quickly corrected her.

“I wasn’t working on bombs,” she said. “I was working on nuclear fission reactors.”

One of her favorite projects, Lightner said, aimed to test what happens to planes when birds fly into the engines. They basically propelled birds into the engines and then tried to reconstruct what happened in a computer simulator.

“Engineers get so excited when we break things because then we figure out how to fix them,” Lightner said, a smile stretched between her cheeks.

What She’s Taking Heat For

Lightner’s stances are not always clear or consistent. She’s voted both for and against an expanded Convention Center, and said she still hasn’t made up her mind whether it’s worthwhile. She said her vote will depend on the final financing plan and the city’s environmental review of its impact.

On the pension initiative, Lightner only revealed her support after a U-T San Diego reporter asked. She didn’t voice her position during council meetings or months of public debate.

Lightner’s support also means the City Council could’ve approved some of the initiative’s proposals through a council vote. They didn’t need to be settled by voters. Asked why she hasn’t worked with other proponents on passing the proposals, Lightner stumbled to offer an explanation.

“We were waiting for certain steps in the process,” Lightner said. Pushed to describe what exactly she was waiting for, Lightner replied, “I don’t know.”

She leaned back in her chair, thinking in silence for a few moments. A couple cars drove by the La Jolla coffee shop where we met. My pen hovered above my notepad, waiting for her answer.

And then Lightner said they needed something from the IRS. She wanted more information on moving employees into a 401(k)-style plan, a key component of the ballot initiative.

Get in Touch with Her

Office phone + email: 858.454.4764 +



Twitter: @SherriLightner

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 or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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