Everyone seems to agree on one thing when it comes to Lori Saldaña, who’s running to become a county supervisor: She’s a fighter.
Supporters see that as a virtue: As a former three-term state assemblywoman, Saldaña supported environmental reforms and marriage equality before those were popular causes, and pushed legislation considered years ahead of its time.
But a growing and vocal group in Saldaña’s own Democratic Party see her combativeness as a liability, citing battles that have pitted her against likely allies and distracted from the causes she champions.
In her bid to replace termed-out County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who represents much of the city of San Diego, and to serve as a progressive voice on a board long dominated by Republicans, Saldaña has embraced the fighter image.
She promises to bring a different approach to a largely unified Republican-led institution long criticized for not investing more in social services. If elected, there’s a strong chance she’d be the only Democrat on the board – meaning she’d face an uphill battle to win over colleagues on new initiatives or policies.
“I think people want a fighter,” she said.
But Saldaña’s policy fights have been overshadowed the past few years by disputes over party and union endorsements. She failed to win votes from party insiders in an early endorsement vote last fall and the San Diego Democrats for Equality club recently deemed her “unacceptable” in a nearly unanimous vote of dozens of members.
“Look, Lori should be the Democratic nominee on paper, but the reality is that she has burned a series of bridges in ridiculous and abusive conflicts,” said Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, president of the Democrats for Equality. “Many, if not most, are of her own creation.”
Saldaña and her supporters say she’s simply not willing to play the political game.
She speaks at countless public meetings and on social media about issues such as untested rape kits and the needs of homeless San Diegans. In more recent years, she’s lobbied politicians as an activist rather than as a behind-the-scenes insider and for a time, as an independent mayoral candidate.
Saldaña’s political career began in 2004 with a surprise primary victory. Saldaña, a community college instructor who grew up in Clairemont, bested two fellow Democrats in a contentious state Assembly primary and then beat a former Republican assemblywoman that November.
After she took office, Saldaña said she prioritized connecting with constituents rather than politicians and lobbyists.
“I was very focused to be a good policymaker for my constituents – not because I’m focused on my next seat,” Saldaña said. “I ran because I saw problems in my community that I wanted to solve.”
Few of Saldaña’s own bills drew broad attention or acclaim.
Environmentalists did take notice of a 2006 bill that aimed to phase out certain hazardous materials in consumer electronics. The bill died in its first year. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a reworked version the next year.
Advocacy group Californians Against Waste named Saldaña its legislator of the year.
Mark Murray, the group’s executive director, said his organization was impressed with Saldaña’s commitment and believed it would have become law under another governor.
“She introduced that legislation back when it had zero chance of passage, before anyone was even paying attention to this issue,” Murray said.
In the end, Murray said, Saldaña’s legislation indirectly inspired reductions in hazardous materials.
Saldaña also drew kudos for efforts to help military families and veterans. She wrote legislation that made low-income military families eligible to apply for state-funded preschool and eased the transfer process for military families moving from elsewhere.
Saldaña got more attention in her final term in office.
In one of her proudest victories, Saldaña banded with fellow legislators in 2008 to corral votes to make Los Angeles Assemblywoman Karen Bass the first black woman to serve as speaker.
Bass then named Saldaña the state Assembly pro tempore, putting her in charge of managing floor debates and sessions.
Former Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, who befriended Saldaña in Sacramento, said Saldaña effectively managed Assembly floor debates and personalities.
“That is like herding feral cats, and she did it very well,” Evans said.
But any influence Saldaña might have gained in that post or as chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus didn’t deliver a victory on her most high-profile piece of legislation.
In 2010, Saldaña introduced a controversial bill to ban open carrying of unloaded handguns.
Saldaña and her former staffers weathered protests. For a time, California Highway Patrol officers accompanied Saldaña to hearings, said Lucy Camarillo, Saldaña’s former chief of staff.
But the bill was derailed on Saldaña’s final night in office.
Then-Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Chuck Calderon refused to allow a final vote after the bill cleared the state Senate. Calderon, who did not respond to messages from Voice of San Diego, said at the time he wanted to ensure less controversial bills could go forward.
News stories documented heated confrontations between Saldaña and Calderon that evening.
Years later, Saldaña believes Calderon and then-Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, who both eyed the Assembly speaker post, punished her for supporting Bass. The following year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new version of the bill written by Portantino.
Portantino, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview request.
Evans said Saldaña shouldn’t be blamed for the loss. She said Saldaña’s ability to work with others in her leadership role and on budget talks during her time as an Assembly leader, in particular, showed she can team with others on important business.
But Evans and others acknowledge not all fellow lawmakers were fans of Saldaña.
“She’s not afraid to speak up for what she believes in,” Evans said. “That sometimes rubs people the wrong way when they believe in the status quo.”
But some of the folks who were rubbed the wrong way included prospective allies.
Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas, then a state Assembly newcomer, was assigned to sit next to Saldaña when she was elected more than a decade ago. It didn’t go well.
Salas said Saldaña was often short with her and repeatedly turned away when she tried to greet her.
“I felt so uncomfortable sitting next to her that I asked to be moved,” said Salas, a fellow Democrat who hasn’t endorsed in the supervisors race.
Former state Assemblyman Marty Block, another San Diego Democrat who served with Saldaña, declined to comment on his dealings with Saldaña but spoke about his decision to endorse Saldaña’s opponent Nathan Fletcher, another former state lawmaker.
“I found him easier to work with and more collegial,” Block said, referring to Fletcher.
Saldaña said tensions with Salas and Block reflected her focus on her Assembly leadership role over helping them seek other offices or leadership posts.
Saldaña said she wishes she had developed closer relationships with fellow lawmakers but believes she was able to work effectively with most Republican and Democratic colleagues.
Saldaña’s supporters declare comments like Block and Salas’ sexist. They emphasize that Saldaña is reserved and, as one former staffer put it, “not your stereotypical schmoozy politician.”
“I wonder what people would say about her style if she were a man,” said Dale Kelly Bankhead, secretary-treasurer of the Working Families Council. “She is certainly a person of strong opinions and will happily share them with you, and has goals and a vision and pursues them.”
Bankhead is at the center of one Saldaña’s latest inter-party fights. The Working Families Council is a new labor group born from disputes surrounding a wave of discrimination and sexual assault allegations against powerful labor leader Mickey Kasparian.
Saldaña recently accepted an endorsement from the council that further splintered local union groups. The council has since sunk $50,000 into a political action committee to support Saldaña’s run for supervisor.
Saldaña has defended the endorsement and noted that while she is a sexual assault survivor, she believes Kasparian deserves due process.
That position, coupled with her approach to the scandal surrounding former Mayor Bob Filner, has turned off many local Democrats.
She endorsed Filner for mayor despite her report to a party leader that a handful of women had told her they’d been sexually harassed by Filner. She later criticized the party for its inaction.
Saldaña has said her Filner endorsement came at the behest of party leadership. Former San Diego County Democratic Party Chairman Jess Durfee has said Saldaña or her campaign, not the party, decided she should endorse Filner.
The dispute spurred Saldaña to leave the Democratic Party in September 2014. She returned to the party ahead of her run for county supervisor.
Saldaña’s position has also seemed to shift on Kasparian.
In January, Saldaña tweeted that she “had no plans” to accept money or support from the Working Families Council under Kasparian’s leadership. She had been one of dozens of women to call on Kasparian to resign last year.
A spokesman for Saldaña said the tweet simply meant there was no process or plan for a Working Families Council endorsement as of January.
Saldaña and the Working Families Council two months later touted an endorsement and emphasized Saldaña’s years-long commitment to progressive issues and causes. Her prime Democratic opponent, Fletcher, after all, served for years in the state Assembly as a Republican.
“She has a long history of being a committed progressive leader who gets things done and who has always stood by working people,” Bankhead said.