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Democrats swept all major San Diego city races Tuesday, much as they did in 2012, but future political fights at City Hall will likely not be about the things that divided the two parties over the last decade.
The mayor has led a reconciliation of Republicans with the city’s labor unions, agreeing to contracts and stalling the program to outsource city jobs. City Hall’s finances no longer drive the conversation.
But labor unions outside of City Hall are newly emboldened and new issues will be as contentious as ever, if not more. Those fights, though, won’t always reflect party alliances. They are fights over issues like where things can be built, where vacation rentals can be, how to regulate marijuana retail stores and how to solve the homeless problem.
The coalitions addressing these issues are forming not along partisan lines, but geographic ones. A big first sign of how things will go will be the upcoming choice of who will succeed Sherri Lightner as council president.
Take the Council’s rebuke last week of outgoing Lightner’s attempt to ban short term vacation rentals throughout most residential neighborhoods in the city.
Only Republican Lorie Zapf joined Lightner, a Democrat, in supporting the ban. But Lightner and Zapf had a different basis for their alliance: they both represent coastal districts, where the issue is most acute.
The proposal likewise faced heated bipartisan disapproval. Republican Councilman Scott Sherman and Democratic Councilman Todd Gloria both dismantled the proposal and the way it was proposed.
It’s becoming a common occurrence in the city and region. Gloria was perhaps the most outspoken champion of Measure A, a sales-tax hike for transportation, while fellow Democrat David Alvarez and a cohort of lefty environmentalists fought against it. Likewise, Alvarez joined Republican Councilman Chris Cate in opposing the Chargers’ downtown stadium bid, which won support from Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Democratic Congressman Scott Peters.
It isn’t clear that San Diego’s Democratic and Republican parties have settled positions on the land-use issues facing the city.
Others aren’t so sure we’re entering a nonpartisan moment.
Fights on the horizon might not fit within our existing ideological spectrum, but that says nothing of fights that could emerge
A handful of progressive leaders are pledging that the three new Democrats on the Council are there to push a true policy agenda.
The New, Nonpartisan Fight
Last week’s tussle over short term vacation rentals is a preview of nonpartisan fights to come.
Since Faulconer’s election, he negotiated new five-year agreements with the city’s labor unions and paused managed competition, a voter-approved program to outsource city work.
Those decisions opened up some bandwidth to discuss other issues, and chilled the long-running animosity between city workers and the Republican party, said Michael Zucchet, general manager of the Municipal Employees Association, the city’s white collar union.
“Historically, the mayor sets the agenda, and he is focused mostly on infrastructure and basics,” Zucchet said.
Zucchet isn’t expecting a political kumbaya at City Hall. For six months every two years – during elections – he expects things will continue to be strictly partisan. But in between, he said disagreements are more likely to fracture the Council on an issue-by-issue basis, with measures splitting councilmembers on district concerns, not ideological party underpinnings.
That could include issues like regulating adult marijuana use, making way for increased development in places like Mission Valley, Bay Park and Uptown, or helping the city’s growing homeless population.
Fights over increasing the city’s supply of housing specifically show the potential for cross-party alliances.
Alvarez, for instance, pushed the City Council to adopt a new, long-term growth plan for the area around Logan Heights by arguing it would revitalize the neighborhood and give residents better housing and employment opportunities. Likewise, Sherman pushed a plan to increase housing development in his district, at Qualcomm Stadium, in a bid to finance a new Chargers stadium there.
But when local residents balked at a proposal to increase development potential in Bay Park, Zapf rallied to the cause and called on the city to drop the idea. Lightner, similarly, led the charge against One Paseo, a dense development proposal in Carmel Valley.
“The fights are no longer partisan, they’re geographic,” said Rachel Laing, a lobbyist whose clients have included the short-term vacation rental industry, medical marijuana dispensaries and One Paseo’s developer.
Cate said there’s still room for partisan squabbles; he called for caution on city spending as increased pension payments again put a squeeze on the city’s budget.
But he also said many of the questions facing the city force him to consider the city he and his wife want to live in 60 years from now – how to accommodate a growing population, where to embrace technological change, how we’ll get around and what that new city might look like.
“That’s a different mindset, and those are questions we haven’t been able to focus on in the past because we were dealing with financial calamity,” Cate said. “Now you’re seeing changes in the economy, and those are the conversations we need to have.”
A Potential Push from the Left
But Democrats just won a lot of local races. The people who helped them get there expect them to push a progressive agenda, said Gretchen Newsom, political director of the local electrical workers union, IBEW
She agreed that a number of the city’s main issues aren’t partisan – but said its incumbent on leaders to force new issues into the discussion.
“The assessment that’s missing is, what to expect of the new progressive leadership on the City Council,” Newsom said. She said the city expects newly elected councilmembers Barbara Bry, Chris Ward and Georgette Gomez to make a mark.
“When you see this new crew coming in and working with (Alvarez), you’re going to see a new progressive agenda,” she said. “And labor is going to get together and hash out what that looks like.”
She said that agenda starts with reforming SANDAG, the agency run by political leaders from around the county that’s in charge of regional planning issues like public transportation. She also cited an aggressive push to adopt specific policies in the city’s Climate Action Plan, an outline to halve the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. And she thinks the city could still push for more union-friendly requirements with Civic San Diego, which regulates development downtown, even though the Council reached a new five-year operating agreement with the group last month.
But labor won’t be hashing out that agenda alone.
Nicole Capretz, executive director of the Climate Action Campaign and a driving force behind the city’s Climate Action Plan, articulated a similar vision for the city’s new Democratic leaders.
“What you will see from the progressive community is an expectation that the Council majority has a set agenda with platforms that they’ll focus on,” she said.
Capretz said implementing the Climate Action Plan could be the basis of enacting that agenda. It would mean delving into thorny land use decisions like pushing major increases in housing density in certain neighborhoods or reducing parking requirements to break the city’s car-dominated transportation system. Those decisions could cleave the Council, if residents reject the changes, but her group has already threatened to sue the city if it doesn’t force the issue.
She also cited criminal justice and increasing the amount of publicly subsidized housing in the city as potential planks in a renewed progressive agenda.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve never worked for a Council that had an agenda even though it’s always had a Democratic majority,” the longtime Council aide said. “It’s a huge missed opportunity to set our priorities.”
Perhaps the most powerful local figure on the left, Mickey Kasparian, president of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, said it’s more about a broad mentality change.
He acknowledged City Hall isn’t as partisan as it’s been. He’s been on the other side of the mayor on big issues, like increasing the minimum wage, but he’s been able to get things done with him and he expects that to continue.
But he still said it’s time for Democrats in the city to start thinking bigger, like finding new ways to fund subsidized housing construction.
“We need to have a broader conversation about people being left behind,” he said. “We have to prioritize the people living at poverty level.”
The biggest indication on the Council’s direction could come soon, once the newly elected councilmembers are seated and they elect a council president.
It could be Alvarez, who would be expected to push an alternative to the mayor’s agenda. The chances of that happening got a boost Tuesday when Gomez defeated her more moderate opponent, Ricardo Flores, who had Faulconer’s support.
Or the Council’s four Republicans could again succeed in moderating the Council by lifting another Democrat – like Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, the only other Democrat who isn’t newly elected – to the position, as they did with Lightner two years ago.
“It’ll somewhat come down to Council president,” Zucchet said. “Different people that have been talked about bring a different approach to the Council that may or may not mesh with the mayor’s agenda, and that’s infrastructure and basics.”