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Less than six months before the June election and there’s no major Democratic challenger to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s re-election bid.
That’s still the case even now that former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña is jumping into the race.
Saldaña was a Democrat for years but left the party in September 2014 after a series of disputes with local leaders and a growing antipathy for party politics. Saldaña served in the state Legislature from 2004 to 2010 and lost a bitter primary battle for Congress against current Rep. Scott Peters in 2012.
She also made waves in 2013 when she revealed that she warned Democratic Party officials about ex-Mayor Bob Filner’s behavior with women during the 2012 mayoral campaign. She didn’t speak out publicly until after the allegations against Filner came out.
Saldaña plans to make formal announcement of her campaign on Thursday, but she talked to me in advance. She said she’s under no illusions about the challenges she faces going up against Faulconer. The mayor not only is popular but also has more than $1 million in his campaign accounts when you include PAC money.
“Looks pretty hopeless,” Saldaña joked.
But she said the city deserves a conversation about its future and won’t get one unless Faulconer, who has touted his ability to reach traditionally Democratic constituencies, has credible opposition from the left. Saldaña is going to push for debates.
“If he never debates me,” she said, “he shows his limitations.”
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start really simply. Why are you doing this?
If you want more people to turn out and vote, you need to give them choices. You need to also give them a clear contrast. Too often, I hear people say, “They’re all the same. I can’t tell the difference between Candidate A and Candidate B.”
I’m running to give voters of San Diego a choice. And the ones who might otherwise choose to simply not turn out to vote because they feel that they don’t have a dog in that fight, I want them to know that I’m there for people who otherwise feel disenfranchised by the process ‒ not just the current election process but the process that got us here in the first place.
If you look at the last 15 years the history of San Diego, we have had mayors elected by special election time after time after time. When Dick Murphy left, triggered a special election. Low voter turnout. Then we had the whole fill-in-the-bubble Donna Frye question that I think discouraged people from trusting the election system. Then we had Bob Filner and all of the problems associated with his election, which led to a special and low voter turnout and I think again disenchantment and discouragement that somehow this system is not working for the majority of San Diegans. You’re seeing increasingly lower numbers of people choosing the top-level position in the eighth-largest city in the country, over a million people. I believe in more voter participation. I want to encourage more people to turn out to vote and I want to have a very spirited debate on the future of this city. That won’t happen unless someone steps in and says, “I’m running for mayor of San Diego.”
Why independent instead of through a party?
There’s a couple things. One, there’s a real populism growing in the country. You see that with the Democratic candidates. Bernie Sanders is I think a Democrat with a small “d”. He’s independent and he is now gaining on what many considered the establishment Democratic candidate. You see increasing numbers of decline-to-state, independent, however they classify themselves, voters.
If you’re turned off by the parties and you’re an independent, consider voting for an independent. The only way we will challenge this dual-party system, which I think by its nature creates a very combative approach to politics instead of problem-solving, we’ve got to look at a different way of electing candidates. I’d like to try this as much as a social experiment. I believe in this city. I believe in the voters here. I think they’re informed, they’re educated and they’re concerned about the future of their city.
You were a lifelong Democrat?
I think I was a Green at some iteration in college a long time ago because of my background and interest in environmentalism. Then I became a Democrat. I believed in the values that the party was espousing. That’s another issue.
You were the first person that I called to say here’s what happened (with Bob Filner). You tried to get me to talk about Bob Filner’s transgressions and I felt compelled as a party leader to just let things carry out. I had no idea he was so … the women who had talked to me when I called (former local party chairman) Jess Durfee reported harassment in the office space, nothing like the physical assaults that these other women went on to describe. I was horrified when it started to come out. It did discourage me from continuing as a Democrat.
I think the turning point really was the 2014 congressional race where sexual harassment accusations were leveled against Carl DeMaio since found to be not only false but a federal crime. (DeMaio accuser) Todd Bosnich has been convicted of federal obstruction of justice charges. There are more people involved with that that will never bear the legal burden of what they did.
(Note: Bosnich admitted to lying to federal investigators about an email chain he said bolstered his sexual harassment claims against DeMaio. The claims themselves, as well as those from a second accuser, haven’t been retracted.)
Are you saying that you think Peters’ campaign was involved in promoting that?
(Peters staffer) MaryAnne Pintar went to the police with the information without checking with Todd Bosnich if he wanted to be outed basically. It’s very troubling that someone who is serving as a federal employee during part of the year and then switches over to serve in the campaign. In my experience as a legislator, the people in my office that are field representatives and handle constituent issues have an absolute requirement of privacy. If a constituent comes to you and says I’m having a problem, you honor that privacy. In this case, it was used for political gain. I was horrified by that.
Then I began being attacked for speaking out about it and saying this looks like a political smear job. This looks to me like using the horrible issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment for political gain. Let’s talk about issues that are important to people, policy issues. Instead, it just overwhelmed the entire campaign.
For all of those reasons, at that point, this is about a year and a half ago, I just said I’m done. I’m done with party politics. They’re corrosive. They get increasingly personal and destructive and if I ever – and at that time I had no plans to run again – if I ever choose to enter politics again I’m going to do it differently.
(Note: I asked Pintar to respond. She said: “I received information, while working at the campaign, that someone was being sexually harassed and threatened. Worried about his safety, I turned it over to the police. When we think someone might be in danger, we have an obligation to alert the proper authorities; that’s what responsible people do. The police thanked me for doing the right thing.”)
Have you talked to the Democratic Party here about your decision to run?
I have been encouraged for months by leaders within the party, the volunteers, the Democratic Club presidents, the executive board members, all of whom wanted me to run as a Democrat.
They were, then before Todd Gloria made his decision, hoping Todd would run. That didn’t happen. Then before Toni Atkins made her announcement, they hoped Toni would run. I forget who came down the list after that. David Alvarez! They were hoping David would run. Francine Busby tried to recruit Ed Harris and talk about your irony of ironies. Here’s a person who was just undercut by her not that long ago when he wanted to run. He was an excellent representative on City Council. Thank God Gretchen Newsom got inspired to step up. I had no idea. I don’t know Gretchen well. But I have called to thank her for taking the pressure off other people in the fall.
So finally, when it appeared that no one – and I understand there is a man running and I can’t recall his name – I don’t think he’s got much of a campaign strategy going on, and I thought back on my experience in the Legislature. Serving with a Republican governor, serving during a time of extreme cutbacks and austerity programs at the state level. Working on international issues. Traveling with delegations around the world with leaders who wanted the expertise of California legislators to help inform them in Central Asia, in Southeast Asia, touring Japan on high-speed rail technology. I feel like I have a lot to offer the city. What’s missing, and I saw this in the State of the City address, is really a vision, a broader vision beyond our frankly corner-of-the-country mentality.
I’m going to jump into a bunch of city stuff in a second, but I did first want to ask one other thing that I’m sure people who will oppose you in this campaign are going to bring up. It relates back to the Filner issue. Ultimately, despite the misgivings you had and despite the warning that you gave the Democratic Party about his behavior, you ended up endorsing him for mayor. Can you talk about what happened with that?
Yeah. I hope we do have a discussion about what really is an epidemic of sexual assault and sexual harassment and the impacts it has on people, not only in the immediate act of it happening but in the long term, in the aftermath. One of things of going through grief counseling after my father died (last year), and realizing, why was I so conflicted about this. And coming to terms with the fact that I’m a survivor of sexual assault.
When this whole thing came up around Bob Filner, it triggered an emotional response that was very much like what happened to me when I was a young woman in my 20s. Feeling powerless, feeling bullied. Feeling, frankly, in shock. This is at a time when women were not encouraged to report this. It was a date rape type of situation, and you just moved on. I was fortunate. It was interrupted by somebody who came upon us and prevented it from being much worse than it could have been.
After my father’s death, in talking with a grief counselor, I said I didn’t want to speak publicly about that when my father was alive. I didn’t want to have to have him look back and think, “Oh my gosh, why didn’t I protect my daughter?”
It was very hard for me to be powerful and be supportive of these women because I was going through my own emotional quandary. I think as a survivor of that I have real compassion for people and I needed to do better. One reason I’m running now is I want to tell people I want to do better. To make sure this doesn’t continue. I allowed myself to be frankly bullied into supporting Bob Filner by his supporters who were harassing my staff, harassing me. It triggered a lot of emotional responses that were not in the best interest. It was a self-protective response.
I certainly have learned from that and I hope any woman who has gone through that and has sealed it off can realize that it’s important to be an advocate and speak out openly about it because otherwise there is an epidemic of that happening and it’s going to persist and continue.
What’s your main issue at the city?
If we had to narrow it down to one theme, it’s the income inequality that we have in this city. Those who are doing well now are being supported and will continue to do well by the current administration. [Faulconer] announced that in his State of the City. But those who are still struggling were really given crumbs. They’re given parks. But they’re not given services. They are being told that the city of San Diego will work with researchers to solve Alzheimer’s and cure Alzheimer’s. But they’re not being given paid family leave to care for family members with Alzheimer’s.
Let’s look at what he said about the high-speed internet. He didn’t make any mention of making that affordable or even available to people who are struggling to pay their bills.
If he’s going to partner with Cox and AT&T, why not provide citywide WiFi services? Then people don’t have to go to a library to do their studies. They can go someplace else and log in to the city-provided WiFi. I think what he’s doing again is bolstering private industry, but doing nothing to address the high cost of that.
If he was concerned about it, he would not have vetoed the minimum wage ordinance a year and a half ago. If he wants to explore this high-tech world, there’s a cost to that. He’s not talking about how average working families that are still often working but working poor, are going to afford access to those types of services. Before we find a cure for Alzheimer’s, how are we going to care for family members?
Let’s go over a couple particular city issues. How would you approach infrastructure differently than what the mayor is doing?
I would be honest about the need to fund infrastructure bonds, just as we’ve done at the state level and put people to work. Jobs here in San Diego that are going to have value in the long run.
People who say well I’d be willing to pay for that if they use the money well. That’s a big argument. I’d say, how much do you pay to have your alignment redone on your car because you hit that big pothole on the way to work? How much do you have to pay to replace your phone that you just dropped in the street because it flew out of your hand when you were walking or riding your bike and you tripped on the sidewalk? If you paid a fraction in increase in taxes, in property taxes or some other means. I don’t really like sales taxes because they tend to be very regressive. But if we look at a bond measure on property owners in San Diego.
And he didn’t address affordable housing (in the State of the City). Not once. Except for homeless veterans. If we paid a little bit to help with affordable housing, to help with infrastructure, we would make tremendous progress. That sense of shared contribution. I don’t want to say shared sacrifice because I know if I paid a few dollars on my property tax bill, as a first-time homebuyer, and I knew it was going to help somebody in need or help our streets and sidewalks and sewer system be improved, I’d feel like that’s a great bargain for me because I’ve committed to be here in the long run. We have short-term thinking in the mayor’s office too often.
The Chargers. How would you handle that situation?
It’s like throwing good money after bad. This is casino capitalism that the NFL plays. The players are great and the fans are great. But the NFL is the biggest monopoly that has used again the tax system, regulations.
I went head to head with them in Sacramento. I introduced a bill that said basically if you want subsidies then give us no blackouts. The NFL responded by saying well that’s an agreement we have with the telecasters and we make our money off this and blah blah blah. But the whole weight of the NFL quickly squelched any discussion of what does the public get in return for subsidizing their business. It made me realize they’re not interested in the public’s well-being. They’re not interested in the communities that support them so passionately. They’re interested in making money.
So no taxpayer money at all for a stadium?
Not for a private business that can up and move and leave us with a black hole of financial debt. I think that’s a terrible way to do public-private partnerships. You are privatizing the profit and benefits for a business and you’re publicizing the potential losses.
You’re starting late in terms of fundraising. You have a mayor who by all accounts is pretty popular. You have no party infrastructure.
Looks pretty hopeless.
Unfavorable makeup of the electorate for a progressive candidate in June as compared to November. What kind of expectations are you putting on your campaign?
We have a minimum wage ballot measure that’s coming up. I will be speaking out the same way other populist candidates are going to be speaking up about income inequality and the wage gap. I hope people will pay attention to that as a conversation not just for my campaign but for the overall city in this ballot measure.
As I said, I’ve been getting a lot of encouragement from Democrats who supported me before. If no Democrat is willing to set up and run, I think they’re going to go through some manipulations and figure out ways to support my candidacy.
But I was not endorsed by the party in my first run in 2004. I won a highly contested primary. I was outspent by a million dollars and I won by 10 points. In my last go-through for the congressional race, I was not endorsed by my party and in fact my party actively worked against me. I was outspent by almost $2 million – a lot of it personal money – and I lost by half a percentage point. I have a track record of running as a complete underdog with no money against establishment Democrats with a lot of money. The voters see something in me that I don’t fully understand even. But somehow I manage to come out if not a winner, very close to that.