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The candidates for City Council District 9 agree on almost everything, including their choice of political insults.
The two Latino Democrats in the race, Ricardo Flores and Georgette Gomez, can’t resist comparing each other to Donald Trump.
Their race is the last real City Council race on the ballot. The Council is guaranteed to have a 5-4 Democratic majority, but the winner of the District 9 race will help define its tone.
They both talk about many of the same issues – public safety, infrastructure, housing. They both lament the city’s inability to focus on things that don’t involve a football stadium, a convention center or both. They don’t differ much on hot policy debates, except for Measure D – which would raise hotel taxes and potentially build a convention center that could double as a football stadium. Gomez supports it, Flores doesn’t.
But they’ll have a different approach to the job based on their backgrounds, allies and personalities.
Gomez is an associate director at the nonprofit Environmental Health Coalition. She was a visible presence and driving force during the fight to separate homes and heavy industry in Barrio Logan to protect residents’ health, an effort ultimately overturned by voters. She grew up in Barrio Logan and lives in Azalea Park.
Flores is chief of staff to outgoing District 9 City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who is perhaps the Council’s most liberal member. Flores talks about his role in helping get five days of paid sick leave for workers in the city and working to deregulate the taxi industry to benefit cab drivers. He grew up in City Heights and lives in Kensington.
Gomez’s campaign yard signs promise she’ll “Shake Up City Hall!” She talks about a city run by powerful interests that are holding people back –downtown developers, City Hall insiders.
“It will only change if you have the right people fighting for these communities,” she said.
Flores frequently invokes a more positive arc of recent city history. About four years of political chaos were followed by about four years of civility and stability, he says. Now, San Diego is ready for four years of growth and he wants to be on the Council to make that happen.
When Gomez’s people say Flores is part of the City Hall “establishment” they want to shake up, Flores fires back, “The other word I would use for that is ‘experienced.’”
Their differences come across in campaign filings, too. Though Flores has labor endorsements, the rest of his list of supporters is a who’s who of business interests. They include lobbyists and major developers. Their campaigns have raised similar amounts of money – Gomez $154,000, Flores $171,000 – but Flores has received lots of help from third-party groups. The San Diego Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee alone has spent nearly $100,000 to help Flores.
Despite all the talk of shaking things up, Gomez has plenty of support from people in power. She has endorsements from City Councilman Todd Gloria, Assemblywoman Toni Atkins and City Councilman David Alvarez, who Gomez campaigned for when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor.
Enter, somehow, Donald Trump.
As the campaign winds down, Gomez has tried to tie Flores to Trump in a recent press release and in a new campaign mailer. This takes a bit of connecting the dots.
At least two Flores supporters have also given money to Trump. Both are frequent Republican donors and real estate developers: Thomas Sudberry and Lance Waite. Both donated to Trump in June – Sudberry gave $200, Waite $800 – and support Flores now.
In September, Sudberry Properties, where Sudberry is chairman of the board, donated $5,000 to Public Safety Advocates, a political group that has been spending money on anti-Gomez campaign mailers. Sudberry also gave directly to Flores’ campaign. In early October, Waite also gave $5,000 to Public Safety Advocates.
The Gomez campaign says it wants Flores to condemn the Sudberry and Waite donations. The Gomez campaign goal is make Flores seem odious to immigrants and refugees who call District 9 their home.
Sudberry, who did not respond to an email seeking comment, has also given to other Democrats this cycle, including Councilman-elect Chris Ward and Barbara Bry, the presumed winner in District 1. Gomez said she isn’t calling on Bry or Ward to return the money, just Flores.
“We’re talking about him and he hasn’t denounced any of that,” Gomez said.
Flores said it’s Gomez who is the “Trump-style” candidate.
By that, he means she does not have an actual plan for the district, he said.
“If I didn’t know what I was trying to say about running for office, I would attack developers and special interests, ‘transparency,’” Flores said, doing his best to go through Gomez’s talking points. “I would basically give Trump-style rhetoric at the end of the day, to be honest with you. I would just feed meat to somebody and hope they would say, ‘This is good’ and vote for me.”
Flores also compared Gomez to Carl DeMaio, the former Republican city councilman who campaigned on an anti-City Hall theme.
But on both style and substance, neither has much in common with Trump. Flores is a lifelong aide to Democratic politicians; Gomez works for a nonprofit that tries to protect people’s health and the environment. Flores and Gomez both talk admiringly about the incredible diversity of District 9. Both are Latino.
Gomez has bashed developers but also talks about how parts of the city need new development. Asked how she squares that circle – being for development but knocking developers – Gomez said some City Council members are so desperate for any type of new development they fail to negotiate good deals for their community with developers.
“It’s more about how you negotiate the deal,” Gomez said. “You either say, ‘Developers, come in and you can do whatever’ – and that narrative happens quite often. Or you can say, ‘Developers, come in but these are the boundaries.’”
Flores sees it differently.
“You can’t tell the voters that this group is evil and then turn around and work with that same group,” he said.
Flores’ supporters in the business community have said the same thing for months when asked why they’re supporting Flores. Over the summer, Aimee Faucett, COO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber endorsed Flores because he was “open to hearing our issues and concerns.”
During the primary, the Chamber started a political action committee to help Flores. Now, it’s helping Flores through two different groups. One is Public Safety Advocates and the other is the San Diego Police Officers Association Political Action Committee. The Chamber gave $25,000 donations to each on Oct. 17.
The company CROWDPAC looks at the donation history of all a candidate’s donors to establish the candidate’s political relationships and forecast his or her political ideology. Both Gomez and Flores are left of center, but the analysis considers Gomez a liberal and Flores a moderate.
Optics, donors and rhetoric aside, as KPBS put it earlier this year, the District 9 race features a tug and pull between two neighborhoods separated essentially by just a roadway that are a world apart: Kensington has a 60-70 percent voter turnout and its median income is about $90,000 a year. By contrast, City Heights’ voter turnout can be as low as 14 percent, its median income is $21,000 a year.
Flores has been playing up his childhood in City Heights but gets many of his donations from Kensington-Talmadge, where he lives. Gomez has been playing up that she lives in City Heights now, and many of her donations come from there.
Whoever gets elected could also cast the deciding vote for the next Council president, an influential role because it controls what items reach the City Council docket. But both said they would not support the sort of Republican coup that made Sherri Lightner the current Council president. In 2014, she unseated Gloria with the backing of the Council’s Republican minority.
Gomez said there needs to be a Democrat in that role and went further, saying she wants someone who has been on the Council for a while, which would rule out Bry, Ward and whoever wins District 9. That leaves either Councilwoman Myrtle Cole or Gomez’s ally, Alvarez.
Flores said he would support a Democratic Council president, because the voters have made clear that’s what they want.
“I think that ultimately the voters have said they see the fact that there’s a Democratic Council with Democratic values and beliefs as important to the balance of the city,” he said.