You might have seen Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas on TV before November’s election.

Salas, one of the county’s first Latina mayors, appeared in a commercial urging voters to support Measure B, which would have approved the sprawling 1,700-home Lilac Hills Ranch development near Valley Center, in northeastern San Diego County.

The development would have been more than an hour away from Chula Vista. Yet there was the city’s mayor, leading the charge for it.

The measure lost resoundingly — roughly 63 percent of county voters rejected the project.

Salas also appeared on mailers sent to households across the county supporting the measure. Alongside her picture was a map of where the project would be located in the county –the project and Chula Vista are so physically far apart that they couldn’t both fit on the same map.

Back in November, Salas declined to talk about why she supported the measure.

Now Salas said she got involved in selling Measure B because she knew Lilac Hills Ranch developer Randy Goodson from a project he worked on in Chula Vista years ago and the developer asked her for help.

She didn’t take a position on the project itself, and said its loss simply shows voters don’t want to make land use decisions at the ballot, but called her cameo in Measure B ads “utterly indefensible.”

“We do have an incredible housing shortage in San Diego County and Chula Vista has really borne the brunt of developing a lot of housing,” she said. “Yet, there are other areas of San Diego County that have been very reluctant to do their share to provide housing. Our duty to build housing should be shared by every part of the county.”

Salas also supported SANDAG’s Measure A, a half-cent sales tax measure that would have raised funds for transportation and infrastructure projects countywide. The measure had support from developers and construction firms but generated  opposition from anti-tax advocates on the right and many South Bay environmentalists and politicians.

She also successfully passed a tax increase for Chula Vista — a campaign she got housing developers to almost fully finance.

Salas has consistently supported almost every major development, every tax increase supported by developers and SANDAG and every issue that builders support in the community. On top of backing Lilac Hills Ranch and Measure A, she helped approve the massive master-planned communities in Otay Ranch as a planning commissioner in the ‘90s. She also wants to build up Chula Vista’s Bayfront to help spur the city’s economy.

Yet Salas, Chula Vista and the South Bay continue to take a backseat to more powerful politicians and regional priorities. It’s particularly true when it comes to SANDAG, the regional planning and transportation agency. Salas said she wasn’t able to get a leadership position at SANDAG, even though she was the only applicant. While South Bay residents are some of the county’s most avid transit users and financiers, SANDAG decided against expanding Interstate 805 and instead purchased an existing toll road, the SR-125, which users have to pay for. Chula Vista is poised for aggressive growth with the large Millenia project to the east, the Bayfront to the west and the University, while other cities in the county like Encinitas fight state-mandated housing growth.

Now Salas faces frustration from her left flank — environmentalists and liberals who had different expectations for her.

Marcus Bush, a former planning commissioner in National City who was against Measure A, had volunteered for two of Salas’ campaigns.

“It was really hurtful,” Bush said. “We in the environmental community, we had hopes that she would finally hold regional leaders accountable. But has she really been a progressive leader? I think most people would think she hasn’t.”

‘I Was Unacceptable to Them’

Salas said she struggled to earn a leadership role at SANDAG.

“I haven’t had the best experience with SANDAG,” she said. “I have a little bad taste in my mouth about how things operate there from a governance structure.”

Salas said she put in an application for a position called “Second Vice Chair” a couple years back, which would have put her on track to chair the SANDAG board one day. She was the only applicant.

A nominating committee was supposed to meet about the position, and then the general SANDAG board, which is made up of elected leaders from around the county, would vote on it.

Salas said the committee never met. She said she was told board leaders didn’t want to bring forward anything that might get in the way of the board voting on Measure A, which was very controversial.

“So I was a good girl and I said, ‘OK, alright,’” Salas said.

When the vote on Measure A happened months later, Salas said she was then told that it was too far into the year to vote on the second vice chair role.

“They invited me to apply the next year and by that time, I was just fed up with it and I thought, ‘You know, I did my homework. I asked to meet with all of these mayors so they could get to know who I was and, you know, I was unacceptable to them for some reason,’” she said.

The following year, Salas decided to support Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina for the position, but when the day came to consider the position, she said, SANDAG leadership abolished it.

“I just thought that was a little transparent,” she said. “It was a little ‘Keep the South Bay out, keep the Democrats out.’ Whatever.”

Steve Padilla, who became the first Latino and LGBT City Council member in Chula Vista in 1994, the city’s first Latino mayor in 2002 and was recently re-elected to the City Council, said what Salas is experiencing is part of a constant struggle for South Bay leaders.

“Political and economic power in Chula Vista and most of the region was in the hands of the same demographics for a long time,” he said. “Power doesn’t let go of power very easily. I saw people be dismissive of her because she’s a woman and a woman of color. I experienced some of the same things myself.”

San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez, who represents the South Bay portions of the city of San Diego and is running for the County Board of Supervisors in 2020, agreed.

“The North and South divide is sharply represented north and south of 94 freeway,” Alvarez said. “Our communities don’t have the infrastructure, don’t have the parks, don’t have access to the amenities. Access to the bay from the Convention Center south is very limited. That’s emblematic of the lack of attention that regional leaders give South Bay.”

Balancing the Economy and the Environment

A granddaughter of immigrants who married young and grew up on the poorer, western side of Chula Vista, Salas said she’s an advocate for the environment and human rights – one former city employee even remembers the mayor on the front lines picketing to shut down the South Bay Power Plant.

Salas says she stands by her decision to support Measure A, even though it got her some criticism and won her nothing at SANDAG. Her constituents are some of the county’s biggest users of public transit, but many of them also depend on highways to get to work every day.

“I’m really committed to the environment, but I’m also a very pragmatic person and I have to look at the needs of all people,” Salas said. “Sometimes, the things that are the best practice environmentally can harm others financially.”

She supports AB 805, a bill written by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher that would require an independent audit of SANDAG and allow transit agencies like the Metropolitan Transit System to levy their own measures. That could address some of the regional differences and appease the all-transit coalition that opposed Measure A, Salas said.

In Chula Vista, those who have worked with Salas appreciate – though they don’t always agree with – her pragmatic form of progressivism.

“She won’t be showing up at GOP meetings any time soon,” said Republican Chula Vista City Councilman Mike Diaz. “But she’s a consensus-builder.”

Salas worked hard to sell Measure P, a local tax increase for infrastructure that was approved by Chula Vista voters in November. She started her own fundraising committee for the measure and personally called developers with projects in the city to fund mailers she sent to residents, urging them to support it.

Critics of the measure, including Diaz, took issue with the fact the money raised would go into the city’s general fund and wouldn’t be legally allocated to the infrastructure projects promised.

“During my campaign in the fall, I went to the City Council and opposed it,” Diaz said. “And the mayor at the time, she kind of singled me out and said, ‘Mr. Diaz, well when you get elected, you can hold our feet to the fire.’”

Diaz said he appreciated how Salas handled that situation and in the end, the people of Chula Vista not only got a source of funds to deal with its failing infrastructure, they got Diaz to help ensure the money is spent properly.

“I think the citizens see that consensus-building in Chula Vista and they want that to continue,” he said. “On the Council, we all have a role in that, but at the end of the day, the mayor is the one that leads the meetings and she’s the one that could really steer the discussion down one path or the other and right now, we’ve been able to have everyone give their opinion.”

Michael Meacham worked at the city of Chula Vista for decades alongside Salas as director of Conservation and Environmental Services and director of Economic Development before retiring in 2015.

“She’s a smart politician and she’s going to do what she thinks is a necessity for the community,” Meacham said. “It’s rare I think – and I am a progressive person – to have somebody who has progressive values like Mary, but also has a strong background in economic sustainability. She recognized it’s a lot harder to worry about the environment when you first have to worry about having a roof over your head.”

Salas said she has no intention of running for other regional positions, like county supervisor in 2020. She plans to run for re-election in 2018 and, if she wins, retire at the end of her term, at which point she’d be 74.

“I’m doing the best job in the world for somebody who was born and raised in Chula Vista,” she said. “This is what I like. This is what I understand. I understand the work of a city council and mayor. I understand how cities work, why we exist, why we function and our responsibility to provide services to our community. Why would I want anything else?”

Clarification: An earlier version of this post said Mary Salas is the first Latina mayor in the county. She is one of the first Latina mayors in the county.

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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