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At Politifest in 2012, I asked Scott Peters about the biggest blemish on his political career. The city of San Diego had gone through years of tumult over its employee pensions. In particular, in 1996 and 2002, the city decided to grant better retirement benefits at the same time it decided to shortchange the fund that was supposed to pay them.
Peters had been part of that second choice. I asked him how we could trust that he wouldn’t do something like that again in Congress.
“First of all, the city had 30 years of bad habits. Not funding its pension, borrowing against the pension. Unfortunately, as you pointed out, I did continue those habits in the early part of my term. I have to tell you, we realized that we had a problem, we recognized it and we took action to solve it,” he said.
Video of our full discussion is here.
Peters has been dealing with questions like this for quite some time and they will only get more intense as he fights to stay in the House seat he won that year.
Here’s a reader’s guide on Peters.
His Biggest Baggage
Peters loved being a city councilman, especially when he became Council president. People enjoyed working with him, he built strong alliances and his colleagues and employees from those days remain intensely loyal.
But he has struggled with voters. After he was termed out of the City Council, he decided to throw his hat in the ring against former City Attorney Mike Aguirre.
At the time, Peters hadn’t yet embraced a regretful tone about what had happened with the pension system in San Diego. His message, instead, was that the city wasn’t unique, nothing incredibly improper had happened and they’d done a great job reforming everything when the problems became clearer:
To Peters, voters have the power not just to put people into office, but to validate (or spike) the ideas the candidates proffer.
Peters has always believed that out in San Diego Land a silent majority of people existed who quietly watched the city descend into an unnecessary controversy. He has always believed that all of the scandal of 2002 and beyond was largely an artificial bubble of hysteria.
But Peters lost the primary, earning only 20 percent of the vote.
If you really want to get into his state of mind about the pension crisis and the people who provoked it, read the summary of his interview with investigators from Kroll Inc., who produced a costly report on the whole history of it. The summary also serves as a great oral history of early 2000s San Diego. (My favorite part of the memo is Peters’ acknowledgement that he thought then-city manager Michael Uberuaga was “overmatched” but he wouldn’t dare say anything publicly.)
Now, Peters has adopted a more regretful tone about what happened in 2002, which he also quickly transitions into pride about how the city recovered.
Who Is He?
Some major points:
• Before entering politics, Peters was an environmental lawyer. Originally from the Midwest, he went to Duke University as an undergraduate and NYU for law school. He and his wife have two adult children.
The wealth largely comes from his wife, Lynn Gorguze, who, with her father, runs Cameron Holdings, a venture capital firm.
• Those roundabouts in Bird Rock? Peters did that.
• Peters was the first City Council president after the city switched to a strong-mayor form of government. The switch ditched a city-manager system that had frustrated Peters.
• By 2007, no investigation we’d done had ever quite generated as much discussion as our revelation that Peters’ family used 923,000 gallons of water at their large La Jolla home, about seven times the average in San Diego and far more than any of his colleagues.
• Recently, for a fact check, we dove deep into Peters’ dealings with the Mount Soledad Cross controversy. The result is a nice history of his involvement.
• Before he actually left office, he helped arrange his own appointment to the Port Commission. At the port, he championed long-term land-use decisions, like the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan and the Convention Center expansion. He also got into a public brawl with U-T San Diego CEO John Lynch, who threatened to try to have the port abolished if Peters and his colleagues didn’t support the newspaper’s vision for the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal.
By 2012, Peters had decided he wanted to serve in elected office again, and he picked Congress. He had to quit the Port Commission. San Diego CityBeat pressed him on that decision in a long and informative Q-and-A.
Peters bested Democrat Lori Saldaña in the primary election and advanced to face incumbent Brian Bilbray in November 2012. He barely won. Out of 296,000 votes cast, Peters won by fewer than 7,000.
His was one of the tightest races in a year in which Democrats swept all major local contests. Three things contributed to his win: Labor unions mobilized to fight a major anti-union ballot measure, Proposition 32. Turnout also spiked to support state tax increases and President Obama.
But the 52nd remains a deeply divided district. The Rothenberg Political Report rates the race a “pure tossup.”
So Peters has to tout his moderate appeal to survive. He champions innovation. His most notable effort has been to ingrain himself in the No Labels cause and he’s a member of the New Democrat Coalition, which champions moderation. Here’s how No Labels describes itself:
No Labels is working constantly to foster a dialogue on how to move the country forward without the rhetoric or petty partisan bickering. I am proud to be a member of their ‘Problem-Solvers’ group; our focus is to get America and Congress working for the people we represent and to bring a new tenor to Congress.
In the CityBeat Q-and-A, Peters indicated support for entitlement reform, saying he would be open to raising the retirement age for Social Security and to changing benefits for those currently in their 30s, but not older folks counting on current benefit levels.
Here was Mel Katz, a local businessman, in an op-ed on our site explaining why Peters should keep his job in Congress precisely because of these efforts to have “adult conversations” with people on the other side of the aisle. (It was in response to a blistering take from entrepreneur Olin Hyde.)
His rivals hope to frame him in the aging criticisms that have dogged him for years. But he remains affable, with very loyal friends. The question is whether that’s enough.
To read our guide to Carl DeMaio, click here.