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This story has been significantly altered since it was was first posted Tuesday evening. The original version was based on the erroneous assumption that Supervisor Greg Cox was termed out in 2018. Cox is running for re-election this year — with no major rival — so the Republican majority on the Board of Supervisors is secure at least until 2020. 

For many years, Democrats have dreamed of a demographic overhaul of the county Board of Supervisors. Two Republican supervisors have long represented districts with large Democratic majorities.

If the demographics actually ever played out on Election Day in those districts, the Democrats would have two seats and Republicans would have two seats.

For the foreseeable future, then, it will be the coastal District 3, where control of the body going forward will play out. And this year, we have a preview of what those contests might be like.

Two Republicans are running against incumbent Supervisor Dave Roberts, who in 2012 became the first Democrat elected to the board in two decades. But the party lines are blurry in the coastal district, covering Torrey Pines State Beach to Encinitas and to the east from Mira Mesa to Escondido. He’s running against Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar and Escondido Mayor Sam Abed.

Roberts won a tight race in 2012, besting his Republican rival with roughly 51 percent of the vote.

“It’s a good battleground district,” said Tony Krvaric, chairman of the county’s Republican Party.

As of March 31, the district had 95,966 registered Democrats and 106,699 Republicans, with another 85,115 voters without a party – and likely to swing the outcome one way or the other.

Pam Slater-Price, who represented the district before Roberts for 20 years, said her constituents were progressive Republicans – fiscally conservative, but fiercely supportive of environmental restrictions and opposed to new development that would increase traffic and population density.

Like other local offices, supervisorial seats are nominally nonpartisan: Candidates’ party affiliation isn’t listed on the ballot. But in practice, parties help fund candidates and drive voters to the polls.

Of the county’s five districts, two of them – the ones represented by Supervisor Dianne Jacob in East County and Supervisor Bill Horn in inland North County – have reliable Republican majorities.

Supervisor Ron Roberts’ district is mainly made up of the city of San Diego and is heavily Democratic. So is Supervisor Greg Cox’s district in the South Bay. Roberts is termed out in 2018 and Cox is termed out in 2020 — he’s running for re-election this year without a major challenger.

That means there won’t be a change in control of the board until at least 2020. If Republicans are able to replace Roberts this year, it could protect their majority for many years. Voters approved term limits in 2010. Now, supervisors must exit after two terms.

“Once term limits kick in, it could make a big difference,” said Brian Adams, a political science professor at San Diego State University. “It could decide the balance of power. If Greg Cox and Ron Roberts are replaced by Democrats in the future, which is likely, then this district becomes pretty important.”

Krvaric acknowledges that those seats will be tough to keep, given current voter registration totals. Nonetheless, he said, it wouldn’t be the first time a Republican wins despite being outnumbered – San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer presides over a Democrat-majority city.

Busby thinks Democrats will control the board within a decade, even if Roberts’ seat goes to a GOP candidate.

“Coastal North County has become much more Democratic and moderate Republican,” Busby said. “North County is in flux. This really is a swing seat, but ultimately it will be a Democratic board no matter what because of demographic changes.”

The county has 17,000 employees and a budget of roughly $5 billion. The board acts much like a City Council for the unincorporated parts of the county – it makes land-use decisions, runs the police force and operates libraries, parks and street maintenance.

Some smaller cities contract with the county for police services from the Sheriff’s Department. The county also provides fire services and is the first responder for wildfires.

The board also implements state and federal programs in the county, over which they have some flexibility and discretion. For example, the county is in charge of administering the state’s food stamps program, CalFresh.

The county exerts influence over how that and other social, welfare and health care programs operate. A recent report found that only about 30.7 percent of eligible CalFresh residents in the county are enrolled. A Democratic board that sought to expand social services across the county could prioritize reaching out to eligible families, for example.

Busby said that’s already started to happen, even with just one Democrat on the board, as Roberts expanded health care and renewable-energy programs.

“They had millions that could be spent on health care, for example, that wasn’t being spent and Dave Roberts was able to collaborate with other board members to provide services for HIV, Alzheimer’s, abused adults and children, suicide prevention and expanded mental health services,” Busby said.

Republicans, meanwhile, fear a Democrat-controlled board could imperil the county’s strong fiscal position. San Diego County is one of six counties in the U.S. that has a Triple A bond rating, the highest available credit rating, which ensures the county can borrow money at low interest rates.

“If you have three Democrats on the board, it will be a completely different government, with no fiscal responsibility,” said Abed, one of the Republican candidates. “The county is successful because of the fiscal policies that the Republican board has implemented.”

Krvaric said Democrats could also endanger the county’s ability to build new housing and maintain functioning infrastructure.

“Their environmental partners won’t allow anything but bike paths to be built,” Krvaric said.

Gaspar thinks bringing new members onto the board could give special interests new opportunities in the county.

“The changes between now and 2020 will be pretty monumental,” Gaspar said. “You’ve had that board intact for decades and these are the first opportunities for people to come in and try to exercise outside influence.”

She specifically said the board is vulnerable to majority control by organized labor.

While there are some philosophical differences between parties, Gaspar said it’s important that board members remember that most of the services they provide are nonpartisan in nature.

Dave Roberts said term limits have made everyone concerned about turnover. The influence of political parties is something all the board members, including the Republicans, were concerned about. That’s why all five of the current supervisors decided to cap campaign contributions.

“The most important thing at the county is being able to build a coalition,” Dave Roberts said. “Historically our county Board of Supervisors has tried to stay out of partisan issues and that is why we’ve been effective.”

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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