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“It’s going to be chaos.”
“Oh yeah, very disruptive.”
Those were some of the comments we got this week from Democratic insiders. It’s hard to overstate just how much of a temblor U.S. Rep. Susan Davis triggered when she announced this week that she was not going to run for re-election in a district that just about every high-profile Democrat in San Diego thinks they could represent well.
Legislators, part-time Council members from small cities, candidates already running in contested races and their counterparts defending safe seats – everyone, suddenly, is expected to explain why they won’t run, not why they will.
This seat is special. It’s not the safest Democratic seat in California but it’s close. A young person could stay in the seat for decades, as Davis did.
We asked veteran political consultant Tom Shepard just how far politicians map out their careers into the future.
“Some of them truly never give the next step a thought and others have figured out every possible permutation going out two decades,” he said.
For those who carefully plot their careers years into the future, counting every pending vacancy created by term limits and positioning themselves to take it in, this news was disruptive.
Then there are layers of disruption below the 53rd Congressional District. Remember what happened when Bob Filner left his congressional seat? Then-state Sen. Juan Vargas took the seat. Then-Assemblyman Ben Hueso took the state Senate seat. Then-Labor Council Secretary-Treasurer Lorena Gonzalez took Hueso’s seat and school board member Richard Barrera took the leadership helm at the Labor Council.
This race could have similar impact.
So here’s everything we know and think about the race.
First: We Talked to Davis
We discussed a lot of this on this week’s podcast. All three hosts drafted three potential candidates each and explained why they may or may not run. And of course we talked to Davis herself.
She said the thing she’s most proud of in her two decades representing San Diego in D.C. is voting against the war in Iraq.
She wouldn’t say who she wants to run, but: We heard she hopes it is a woman. If a man runs and wins, every one of the five San Diego-area representatives in the House will be a man.
Second: Some Facts
The primary is in March. That’s not that far away! Political fundraising can be difficult in November and December. (That’s when you’re supposed to be donating to nonprofit news outlets.)
The state Democratic Party could endorse in the race at the party’s convention in November. That decision could be influenced by local delegates who make a recommendation. That means, if anyone is running, they’d only have a month, if they announced now, to woo those delegates.
There are two candidates already! Jose Caballero has been storming local Democratic clubs trying to get some traction for a resistance run against Davis from her left. He fashioned himself an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (remember, she ousted a Democrat in a safe Democratic seat). His supporters have been vocal on social media asking that potential contenders defer to him. And Joaquin Vasquez, who’s father was deported leaving his family homeless as a youth, has also launched a spirited run.
Third: The Not Interesteds
Several folks have already said they are not running – and it includes some of the biggest names. That so many people have said they aren’t running has cast significant intrigue on those who have not said that.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez is not running and quickly got sick of the suggestion she should or would. “Now stop texting/asking… I’ve got work to do,” she wrote on Twitter after clarifying there was zero chance she would run. Her husband, County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, conspicuously did not say anything like this publicly.
If Gonzalez had run, it would have had vast ramifications all through South Bay politics.
State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins also announced she was not going to run. As did Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who is gunning for mayor.
- Speaking of the mayoral race: A Friday poll from the Union-Tribune and 10News found Gloria leading against Councilwoman Barbara Bry, taking 31 percent of the vote to her 15 percent. Community activist Tasha Williamson had 8 percent support, and 46 percent of voters were undecided.
Fourth: The Contenders
This is in NO particular order. Well, actually, let’s list them from most likely to run to least likely to run as best we can tell.
Why she would run: Because she’s totally running.
Why she wouldn’t run: She won’t not run, probably, so what’s the point of this? She will face some criticisms. This is the third congressional district she will have either run in or wanted to run in. While a lot of potential candidates do not live in the district, she may be a bit more vulnerable to the criticism that she doesn’t know the area well.
But seriously: A candidate capable of funding their own campaign would have a decided advantage in an abbreviated race like this. We’re well into the 2020 cycle already. The primary is in March, and congressional races are expensive. Whoever runs needs to be able to pull in at least $500,000, and probably more, in the next two months.
She has personal wealth and an existing fresh database from her 2018 campaign in the 49th District. Whatever challenges she faces are made a lot easier to overcome with vast resources. She could launch TV ads tomorrow and begin not only to define herself but her rivals as well.
Why she would run: Within minutes of Davis’ announcement, people began speculating about Gómez. She did very little to quiet that when she tweeted she appreciated the outpouring of encouragement to run and that she was considering it, a response that begged for a “she’s running” rejoinder.
In a short time, Gómez has accumulated gobs of political capital. She became Council president in her first term, and after becoming chair of the Metropolitan Transit System (with the support of Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who has routinely touted how easy it is to work with Gomez despite their ideological differences) quickly spearheaded the agency’s push to put a tax increase for transit on the 2020 ballot.
Gómez is young, LGBTQ and Latina, marking a number of potential firsts for the county’s congressional delegation. She built her career in grassroots activism, giving her credibility with the party’s progressive base, and she’s since ingratiated herself with the city’s establishment because she’s a straight shooter.
Why she wouldn’t run: Running for Congress would be a high-stakes bet on herself. Gomez is up for re-election for her Council seat in 2020. She has no challengers now. To run for Congress, she’d need to walk away from a safe seat – and the Council presidency, and MTS chairmanship that comes with it. Her focus would undoubtedly move away from her priority to pass a new tax in November to support transit. She’s also in the middle of negotiating for an increase of city affordable housing requirements, her signature Council effort.
After quickly accumulating political power, Gomez could lose it even more quickly. If she doesn’t win the congressional seat, she’d have no seat at all just over a year from now.
Her leaving would open up a fifth seat on the City Council. Every single 2020 City Council election would be an open race. And it would trigger yet another scrum for Council president.
Why she would run: There may not be an elected Democrat who is more respected – revered – by her peers. She’s a powerful orator in Assembly chambers and has made a living on controversial policies that most electeds stay away from: criminal justice reform and accountability for performance in education.
She has never been afraid to take a big swing. This would be another one, and the legacy she’s built in her political career thus far could be enough to scare off any of the other candidates who might otherwise run against her.
Why she wouldn’t run: She is 70 years old. That wouldn’t be a problem – it certainly hasn’t been in the Assembly, where she just passed the highest profile bill of anyone in the Legislature this year – a new change to the standard police officers must meet when they kill someone. But Congress is built on seniority. Weber would walk into the capital as a freshman legislator expected to pay her dues before taking on major committee assignments. That takes time, and even Weber is going to want to retire someday.
Why he would run: Well, the still-freshman county supervisor has not yet ruled out a run. We reached out to him and he declined to respond. His district is as close to any as overlapping CA-53, and he trounced Republican Bonnie Dumanis. He probably would like being in Congress as he has dabbled in national political discussions and he loves going to big important meetings with big important people.
Why he wouldn’t run: He’s only been a county supervisor for nine months. He mobilized a lot of people to get him there, including the biggest union of county employees, who want to see him deliver results. He could very well be chair of the Board of Supervisors over a newly Democratic majority in just more than a year, and he said he was committed to the job. He’s built up some momentum on policy – especially on homeless and mental health issues – and it would be awkward to drop all that for a focus on national issues.
Why he would run: On the San Diego City Council, Ward represents the Uptown and North Park areas that are home to an active political class that’s also within the CA-53 district, and he’s already running for an Assembly seat that overlaps both of those areas. That means he’s already been elected by some CA-53 voters and is already building a campaign to talk to more of them. Ward’s a young guy with a strong political resume and policy chops and, again, we’re talking about a congressional seat that doesn’t come available very often and that he could be in for decades. Audentes fortuna juvat.
Why he wouldn’t run: Sacramento makes sense for Ward – so much so that he’s already decided to walk away from the City Council when he still has another term available, to run for the Assembly. He obviously loved it there. He knows many people. He had been a chief of staff to state Sen. Marty Block. And Ward’s already running for a seat that represents a promotion, where he’d be able to begin a state legislative career that could last 12 years before he’s termed out.
Why he would run: The La Mesa city councilman and head of the transit advocacy group Circulate San Diego has never been shy about his ambition. He’s methodically built support groups for emerging liberal leaders and causes he cares about and started with modest political ambitions in a small town.
Why he wouldn’t: He seems like he likes local politics and is the kind of guy who would love to someday be chair of SANDAG.
Why she would run: It wasn’t long ago that Democrats didn’t win City Council seats in La Mesa. Then Parent won in 2016, and Akilah Weber did the same in 2018, emerging from a large field to win a resounding victory (she finished first out of four candidates, beating the closest contender by nearly 6 points). Weber could help build a Weber political dynasty as her mom, Shirley Weber, finishes out her term in the Legislature. Plus, the CA-53 area is often associated with the Mid-City neighborhoods where Davis lives, but the boundaries cover large portions of Lemon Grove, Spring Valley, Encanto, Paradise Hills and other southeastern San Diego neighborhoods, historical center of the region’s black community. A Weber run could catalyze a demographic group that has been represented on the City Council, but has not seen itself reflected in the region’s congressional delegation.
Why she wouldn’t: Akilah Weber won her seat on the La Mesa City Council not yet one year ago. While she was one of the local candidates that reflected San Diego’s response to the 2016 election, when new candidates decided it was time to get involved. Running for Congress would be a major leap, and fast. Maybe she’d decide to bide her time, and take it slow.
Why he would run: Padilla was elected to the Chula Vista City Council in 2016, 10 years after he left the Council from a previous stint – he was elected for the first time in 1994, and served as the city’s mayor from 2002 through 2006. He’s currently on the California Coastal Commission and has previously served on boards for the San Diego Association of Governments and MTS, and represented Chula Vista on the Unified Port of San Diego between his stints on the Council.
Enough biography, here’s the point: Padilla has been around in local public affairs, paying his dues and building relationships along the way. That could all come in handy, especially if the field gets crowded. And, a representative from Chula Vista would be a useful nod to another long-ignored reality about CA-53: It covers a huge portion of the South Bay, with a western boundary of I-805 all the way down to Otay Mesa, making East Chula Vista squarely in the district.
Why he wouldn’t run: Life is complicated. He could have personal relationships he doesn’t want to damage with other would-be candidates, or he might not be eager to start commuting 3,000 miles.
Scott’s Galaxy Brain Take
A dunk, by Andy Keatts: On Thursday, as everyone came to the conclusion that Gómez’s tweet was a campaign announcement, Scott added his perspective. He tweeted that it seemed like San Diego Council president would be more fun than being a member of Congress.
Yes, indeed. Who could imagine giving up the barrel of laughs that is controlling the San Diego City Council docket. I mean, surely Gomez walks into the stately confines of City Hall every day and thinks, “You mean to tell me I get to make an appointment to the Horton Plaza Theaters Foundation? Shit, how did I get so lucky?”
It’s almost like covering local politics for the better part of his adult life has given Scott a distorted view of the role of the Council presidency, esteemed though it is.
And yet, lo and behold, Scott’s tweet generated a “like” from one man who is surely in a position to opine on the matter.
Rep. Scott Peters, he formerly of the Council president’s chair, punched that little star button with the fury of a thousand suns (we assume).
We reached Peters Friday afternoon. And dagnabbit, he said Scott was right.
“Council president was a more fun job. It was a great job. Three years was good for me,” Peters said.
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