Councilwoman Barbara Bry speaks at a mayoral forum in Bankers Hill. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

It’s not often that campaign emails spark such an immediate and visceral reaction that they succeed in re-framing an entire race, but that’s what Councilwoman Barbara Bry’s mayoral campaign managed to do this year.

“They’re coming for our homes,” she warned in June, jumping on her opponent, Assemblyman Todd Gloria’s vote in favor of SB 330, which bars cities from decreasing the amount of homes that can be built in an area or imposing moratoriums on housing construction, while forcing them to speed up permitting times and limiting the number of public meetings that developers must hold.

She then bragged about her refusal to meet with the YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County, a local group that’s part of the “yes in my backyard” movement that advocates for building dramatically more homes in San Diego.

“I understand the corporate interests backing the ‘Yes in My Backyard’ movement,” she wrote. “That’s why many insiders refer to that group as ‘Wall Street in My Backyard.’”

The email drew an immediate reaction from the political world. Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, the newly elected chair of the county’s Democratic Party, typified that conversation when he called it “out of bounds behavior.”

“How Not To Run For Office 101: Impugning the motives of a group of middle/working class millennials who’s main fight is affordable housing from a multimillion $ home in La Jolla. Extra Credit for fearmongering w/ hyperbolic coded language that reinforces every ism possible,” he wrote on Twitter, alluding to the racism and classism that many others saw in the sentiment.

Bry and Gloria have both been seen as business-friendly Democrats throughout their local political careers, during which they had never had any meaningful policy disagreements that played out in public.

But in a race with, at that point, no major Republican contenders, Bry found a distinguishing topic.

And in doing, she picked up the torch of a movement that has a long history in San Diego politics, and which has been well represented in recent city decisions. Residents who like their neighborhoods the way they are and aren’t moved by the city’s various commitments to become a denser, more urban and transit-connected place seem to have found a mayoral candidate willing to run on their issues.

And for Bry, the position on development aligned well with two other areas on which she had already staked a claim. Her “they’re coming for our homes” warning fit in perfectly with her position against motorized scooters and short-term vacation rentals.

Bry succeeded in depicting her position when she adopted a CityBeat cartoon into a new campaign ad. Standing over a neighborhood of single-family homes, an enlarged Bry stands with her hands on her hips, wearing a cape. A protector from creeping urbanism and all it entails.

Behind his campaign, Gloria now has the Democratic Party, labor unions and the Chamber of Commerce, a unified coalition of often-opposing forces that we thought we’d never see. But behind her, Bry is testing the power of a populist movement that likes its neighborhood as is.

Another mayoral candidate, activist Tasha Williamson, drew raucous applause at VOSD’s Politifest when she declared, “We are talking about scooters and bikes so passionately, but I can’t get police officers to stop killing people.”

It was a passionate plea for San Diego to pay attention to some of its most uncomfortable challenges. But it was also an acknowledgement that, for better or worse, the mayoral debate so far – thanks to Bry – has been almost exclusively about how the city should grow (and if it should grow), and whether candidates stand with residents or developers.

This is part of our Voice of the Year package, highlighting the people who played a major role in shaping civic discussion in 2019.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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