(Clockwise from top left) San Diego County Board of Supervisors District 1 candidates Rafael Castellanos, Nora Vargas, Ben Hueso and Sophia Rodriguez / Photos by Vito Di Stefano

For the first time in more than two decades, voters in the South Bay will elect a new representative to the County Board of Supervisors. And when they do, the district is pretty much guaranteed to be represented by someone who is both a Democrat and Latino.

Four Democrats are vying for the seat being vacated by Republican Greg Cox: Rafael Castellanos, an attorney and Port of San Diego commissioner; Nora Vargas, a Southwestern Community College trustee and Planned Parenthood executive; state Sen. Ben Hueso and Sophia Rodriguez, an employee at the county’s Health and Human Services Agency.

Yet despite the historic shift the race will represent, most of the county’s major political institutions – and even Cox himself – haven’t weighed in.

The Democratic Party of San Diego hasn’t endorsed in the race. Nor has SEIU 221, the union that represents county employees. Cox said he also would not be endorsing anyone before the primary.

Most progressive institutions have focused on North County’s District 3, where Democrats hope to oust Republican Supervisor Kristin Gaspar.

It’s easy to see why District 1 has been an afterthought: So far there are no Republicans in the race, and Democrats have more than a 72,000-person voter registration advantage. District 3, in contrast, is a contested race that could shift the majority on the board from Republican to Democrat.

The fact that District 1’s next supervisor will be a Democrat, however, doesn’t mean all the candidates are interchangeable.

“There is no question that all of the candidates would be stronger for working families than the incumbent Republicans, but there are real differences in history, experience and style among the candidates,” said David Lagstein, the political director of SEIU 221. “Within labor and the progressive movement, reasonable people disagree.”

Lagstein said it was critical to endorse in District 3 so the union could support the candidate best-positioned to defeat Gaspar.

Cox said he wasn’t surprised that major political institutions haven’t weighed in on the race. There are four Democrats running and less than 20 percent of the district’s population is white.

“The bottom line is, with the composition of the district, it’s not surprising to not see a lot of focus from mainstream media and major parties,” Cox said. “I think there are four candidates who could certainly do the job. I’ve taken the position to not decide anything during the primary, and after I’ll take a look and decide if I want to weigh in. I will only be one vote, but I hope whoever succeeds me will be focusing on these issues that are at the forefront of what our needs are.”

Part of the reason the Democratic Party hasn’t weighed in on the race is because of some of the candidates’ own maneuvering, said Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, the party’s chairman.

For the party to endorse a candidate in the race before the filing period ends for the primary, its central committee members, their alternates and associate members in the area need to vote to deem the race strategically critical. That vote in the party’s South Area caucus didn’t muster the required two-thirds majority.

Some of the District 1 candidates and their supporters blocked the vote out of fear they wouldn’t get the early endorsement, Rodriguez-Kennedy said. When the party backs a candidate early, it means an influx of resources to their campaign, greatly increasing their chances of success. Rodriguez-Kennedy declined to say which candidates were behind the move.

Earlier this year, Hueso called for an independent investigation of the San Diego County Democratic Party’s clubs in the South Bay. In a letter, he asked party officials to postpone discussions of which 2020 races should be declared critical.

The party’s clubs are supposed to connect the party with its members on the ground. They typically center on a topic or geographic area and allow members to discuss policy and find new candidates. They also make recommendations on who the party should endorse.

Activists said that a Chula Vista-based consultant used the clubs to game the endorsement system by corralling high school students into a dozen youth clubs, which would then vote to endorse that consultant’s friends and clients, making it far more likely those people will receive the party’s money and support.

Hueso suggested that the endorsement process was rigged against him in his March letter, because the youth clubs associated with the consultant would have a significant say.

Hueso declined to comment for this story.

It’s still possible that the party will endorse someone in December, before the primary filing deadline, Rodriguez-Kennedy said.

Rodriguez said not having major institutions endorse early on has been good for her campaign.

“I think it’s a positive thing,” Rodriguez said. “We’re at a point in local elections where we’re allowed to have different viewpoints even within the party. It gives us all – especially me as the newcomer – an equal footing.”

Vargas said that while major political institutions seem to have their focus on the District 3 race, she thinks there are significant differences between the District 1 candidates that matter to constituents.

“The truth is this district hasn’t had a Democrat representative in 20-plus years, so it does matter who will represent them and whose special interests will be at the table,” Vargas said. “I think we all come from different places in how we approach governance. Whether we get a board that is majority-Democrat or not, we’re going to need someone at the table who can talk about the differences and uniqueness of District 1.”

Vargas said the 2020 primary will also pose a unique challenge to candidates, since it will be held in March for the first time in years.

“Many people in our communities aren’t primary voters,” Vargas said. “Getting people out there, I think, is our responsibility. It’s always great to have the support of organizations that are like-minded, but in the end it’s really up to each candidate to get out there and tell voters why they’re the best person.”

Rodriguez said that in her experience as a District 1 resident, the mailers and materials put out by the party and other organizations aren’t what voters in the district rely on to make their decisions.

“Even though we get so many mailers, at the end of the day I think a lot of people look at the book that all registered voters get,” Rodriguez said. “It was kind of like a family thing. We would discuss who’s running and read the descriptions.”

Rodriguez also pointed to Monica Montgomery’s election to the San Diego City Council in 2018. Montgomery didn’t get the party’s endorsement, but still won.

“The spam mail isn’t working as much anymore,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not the one thing that will make or break a candidate. I don’t think a nomination is a guarantee for a candidate.”

Cox said that in his 20-plus years of representing the district, he’s learned that partisan politics don’t interest his constituents. Indeed, Cox has cast many votes and put forth several initiatives recently alongside the board’s sole Democrat, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.

“What I found over the years is people don’t really care about the partisan issues in D1,” he said. “They care that potholes are being filled and people are getting services.”

A representative for Castellanos did not respond to an interview request for this story.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Rafael Castellanos as chair of the Port of San Diego. He is a Port commissioner but not the chair.

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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