Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez speaks to a crowd assembled for the Sen. Elizabeth Warren. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

When the Voice of San Diego crew sits down to deliberate the Voice of the Year list, we set a pretty high bar for elected officials, who, by virtue of their job, are newsmakers to begin with.

If they have an especially high-profile role and a tendency to regularly generate media coverage, we move the bar even higher. Thus, the bar is set about as high as it can go for Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who has both a powerful role as chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee and who consistently speaks out on controversial issues. Yet Gonzalez cleared the bar this year with room to spare.

Her profile has grown so large that when San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric lobs insults, he uses Gonzalez as a stand-in for the Democratic Party itself, and refers to her husband, County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, not by name but as “Lorena Gonzalez’s husband.” (Score one for equality, I guess, that men can now share the honor of being derided as nameless spouses.)

She tackles so many gnarly issues that even the measures that don’t generate as much coverage would probably qualify as the most high-profile thing any other legislator had ever done. This year alone, she passed a law ending mandatory arbitration as a condition of employment, and one extending the statute of limitations for victims of childhood abuse – both monumental shifts whose impacts will reverberate nationally. And yet, those were not in the top two of her biggest endeavors this year. (Let me reiterate: Gonzalez’s third-most high-profile measure this year could bankrupt the Catholic Church.)

Gonzalez once again took a leading role, alongside Sen. Richard Pan, in an effort to rein in vaccine exemptions, re-igniting a volatile conversation about the line between personal medical choices and societal responsibility. That conversation grew so loud and unruly that it resulted in an assault on Pan, and multiple disruptions to legislative proceedings, culminating in the most memorable one, in which a demonstrator threw a cup of menstrual blood onto lawmakers in the Senate chambers.

But each of those efforts pales in comparison to the discussion Gonzalez led this year about what it means to be an employee.

AB 5, which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, limits the instances in which employers can classify workers as independent contractors. The law was aimed at providing more security and protection for gig workers and others, but the debate over it grew like a sinkhole, swallowing up everyone from strippers to truck drivers to freelance journalists.

At times, Gonzalez has tried to have it both ways: She’s responded to criticisms of the law by insisting she was merely codifying an existing state Supreme Court decision laying out who qualifies as an employee, but has also reveled in pointing out the sweeping, historic change AB 5 represents.

Either way, the discussion won’t be dying down anytime soon. Virtually all of the leading Democratic presidential candidates have weighed in on AB 5 and incorporated some version of it into their labor platforms. Meanwhile, gig companies like Uber and Doordash have poured tens of millions of dollars into an effort to overturn the law at the ballot box next year. (Uber has simultaneously argued that the law doesn’t actually apply to its drivers, a curious position for a company investing so much in destroying it.)

One of the most pervasive critiques of San Diego is that its leaders are terrified of rocking the boat, and therefore rarely accomplish big things. Gonzalez this year ensured that anyone making that argument will have to include an asterisk so big it would block out the sun.

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

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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