Say hello to Councilman Chris Cate, and a slightly smaller Democratic majority on the City Council.

Cate’s win shrinks the Democratic edge on the Council from 6-3 to 5-4, which means no more super-majority capable of overriding Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s veto.

But Council members and others say that’s not as important as people seem to think.

The bigger issues to emerge from Cate’s win are that control of the Council is now in play in 2016, the four Council Republicans can now force an issue onto the docket and what type of councilman Cate will become beyond his voting record.

The Veto-Proof Red Herring

For all the talk of how the race played into whether the Council could override a mayoral veto, you’d be forgiven for missing that the Council only ever did that one time since Faulconer took office in February– and it didn’t even matter then.

Council Democrats approved a minimum wage hike earlier this year. Faulconer vetoed it. The Council overrode the veto.

Then, business groups opposing the policy collected enough signatures to put in on the ballot in 2016.

“We’ve overridden one veto since he’s been in office. The majority of votes are bipartisan, if not unanimous,” said Council President Todd Gloria.

“What hasn’t changed, is the ability of special interests to referendize,” he said. “I don’t know if this will have impact, but it’s been proven that if you have enough money, you can purchase a result.”

It’s true that of all the contentious issues the Council’s faced lately — a proposed increase to a fee on commercial development used to pay for subsidized housing, the minimum wage hike and new development restrictions in Barrio Logan — the referendum has been used more often and more effectively than overriding a mayoral veto.

But Lani Lutar, who’s worked in policy and advocacy for politicians and causes on both sides of the aisle for years and was on Faulconer’s transition team, said most of the city’s contentious policies have been sorted out, but said preserving the mayor’s veto authority still matters.

“It’s significant only because you never know what’s going to be proposed tomorrow,” she said.

Another way to look at it: Faulconer’s veto now becomes a lot more meaningful.

He didn’t need to expend any political capital to veto the minimum wage hike, knowing the Council would override, and outside interests would go to the referendum anyway. Now, it’d be his pen alone that kills something.

Mike Zucchet, general manager of the union for white-collar city workers and a former city councilman, said the difference between having five reliable Democratic votes instead of six isn’t huge.

“Day-to-day, frankly (Faulconer) is still the mayor, he’s still a strong mayor, and whether it’s six or five Dems, he and the Council president are still going to work things out and votes will be unanimous or near-unanimous something like 90 percent of the time,” he said.

Council Majority in Play in 2016

What Cate’s win definitely means, though, is that partisan control of the City Council is now up for grabs in 2016.

Councilwoman Sherri Lightner will be termed out of District 1, a toss-up seat in the affluent northern coastal area of the city.

Whoever wins that seat will determine control of the Council.

(Councilman Scott Sherman, Councilwoman Marti Emerald and Councilman Mark Kersey will be running for re-election in 2016, but an incumbent Council member hasn’t lost in San Diego in over 20 years.)

“Forget a Democratic supermajority: We’re on the brink of having a Republican mayor and a Republican Council in a city that’s 13 points Democratic,” Zucchet said.

“In this business, you look two or three cycles down the road,” Sherman said. “And with (Cate) down here with us, that means the D1 race swings us from majority-Democrat to majority-Republican.”

With that much at stake, expect that 2016 Council race to set campaign spending records.

“There’s more money than anyone knows what to do with,” Zucchet said. “In this race, you had them running TV (commercials) for Cate in a race that isn’t citywide. I feel sorry for the voters of the First District.”

Gloria said Cate’s win had him looking to 2016, too.

“The good news for Democrats is that obviously, turnout in 2016 tends to favor us in a way that they don’t in an off-year election,” he said. “And (Lightner) and (Scott) Peters have proven that Democrats can get elected and re-elected in District 1.”

The Four-Person Memo

Any four members of the Council can join together to force an item on the Council docket. Normally, what gets onto the docket is mostly the Council president’s prerogative.

Sherman said he’s excited to get Cate on the Council so the four Republicans will be able to force issues on the docket with a four-person memo.

“When Chris shows up, we can push reform measures,” he said. “Right now, reform issues aren’t even in play. The four-person memo can make that happen, and I’m looking forward to having people who will go along with me on that.”

Sherman said he’d like to introduce measures reforming how the city spends money on subsidized housing, and the competitive bidding process for city services, but hasn’t been able to.

Gloria said he can’t think of a single issue he’s refused to put on the docket.

“Every Republican is a chair of a committee,” he said. “If I ran things in a far more partisan fashion, that wouldn’t be the case, but I don’t think that’s a good way to do business. No one has run roughshod over anyone.”

Chairs can bring items to their own committees. If they pass, Gloria could delay, but he couldn’t keep them from coming forward entirely. Likewise, Faulconer can direct city staff to bring an item forward.

“They have avenues to bring things to the docket if they want,” Gloria said.

But Sherman said the Council’s agenda is nonetheless dominated by Gloria as one of six Democrats, and that’s no longer the case.

“This gets us in a more cooperative frame of mind,” he said. “There are areas we could do some reforms, but they aren’t happening now. I’d like to see some departments go away.”

A Council Member Is More Than a Voting Record

So far, this is a list of concerns over counting votes on a partisan basis for the relatively small number of issues that are split on party lines.

Since most items aren’t partisan, the effect of a new Council member usually comes down to the approach and focus of that person.

In that sense, the biggest change Cate brings to the Council isn’t that he’s one more Republican, but whatever issues he tries to elevate by virtue of his position.

Councilman Ed Harris, for instance, was appointed to fill Faulconer’s seat. And while he entered the sixth vote in favor of the minimum wage, he made more of an impact rallying opposition to a city plan to allow more development near Morena Boulevard, and when he temporarily scuttled a negotiated deal for a long-term lease between the city and the operator of Mission Bay’s Belmont Park amusement park.

His colleague, Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, has been on the Council more than a year longer and has voted alongside her Democratic colleagues, but hasn’t used her position to make big changes while off the dais.

Predicting which way Cate will go, though, isn’t easy.

“Look at Harris, someone most insiders would have said was going to be a seat-warmer, and has been significantly more impactful than that,” Zucchet said.

By comparison, Councilman Mark Kersey’s conservative approach — he’s established himself on non-controversial issues like infrastructure and open government — might be surprising, given that he ran unopposed in 2012 and is in a reliably conservative seat.

“Chris takes initiative, he doesn’t wait for others,” said Lutar, who worked with Cate at the San Diego County Taxpayer’s Association and is a strong supporter. “With (Cate), you’ll see someone who will generate lots of ideas not just for his district but citywide.”

Specifically, she expected him to focus on infrastructure, issues facing small businesses and improving the competitive bidding program for city services.

“I won’t compare him to anyone specifically, but he will stand out, and we can expect to see a lot of specific plans from him.”

Gloria, who endorsed and proactively supported Cate’s opponent, said he’s nonetheless known Cate for many years and likes him personally. Based on Cate’s background as a onetime staffer for the audit committee and his role with the Taxpayers Association, he assumed Cate would gravitate toward those sorts of financial accountability issues.

Correction: This post has been updated to remove a passage that was included in error.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.