San Diego Democratic Party Chair Will Rodriguez-Kennedy / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The San Diego County Democratic Party made a fascinating decision this week. It came out against Measure A. That’s the initiative that would force most housing projects that require special changes to the general plan of the county to get support from voters countywide.

The measure is intended to stop or slow development supporters deride as sprawl.

Why it’s so interesting: Siding against the proposal was not necessarily shocking – many high-profile Democrats in town have.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, for instance, offered a cogent argument in favor of shutting down large-scale general plan amendments. He said he opposed the measure because elected officials are elected to make those sorts of decisions. Plenty of people like him oppose ballot box planning, even if it might produce a result they favor.

But Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, the party chair, issued a statement on the decision that did not seem to be a procedural complaint about the appropriate way to make land-use decisions. He took the interesting step, instead, to argue for the importance of projects that could be stopped by the new requirement.

“Measure A is bad public policy that would prevent badly needed affordable housing from being built and contribute to racial and economic segregation,” he wrote. “It would force more San Diegans to move to Riverside or Tijuana to find housing, and cause more vulnerable people to end up homeless.”

And with that, we saw the head of the Democratic Party seemingly endorse what many of his Democratic counterparts call sprawl.

And why that’s so interesting: Most of the general plan amendments the county is dealing with today are fairly characterized as suburban sprawl. Partisanship doesn’t always map onto land use well, but typically the Democratic position on development has been yes to urban infill, and no to sprawl projects that extend the suburban edge.

We asked Rodriguez-Kennedy if it was fair to see the endorsement as an endorsement of sprawl.

“We opposed a development that would be considered sprawl,” he said. “This isn’t a mandate on sprawl development. It’s a mandate on ballot box planning.”

Yeah, things were even more interesting: Rodriguez-Kennedy was referring to the Democrats’ position on Newland Sierra, on the ballot in March as Measure B. The party endorsed the no side of that project this week, too.

It’s somewhat confusing, but in the Newland case, the “yes” side is the one that would technically be opposed to ballot box planning. The County Board of Supervisors approved the project. It’s on the ballot because opponents collected enough signatures to force that decision to a referendum. If you oppose ballot box planning on principle, you’d vote as the supervisors did last year.

“I recognize the distinction, but I don’t know that the distinction is salient,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said. “No one explained to the Central Committee (which votes on party endorsements) that the ‘no’ side in this case is the one (against) ballot box planning. Ballot box planning is flawed and leads to these issues. We shouldn’t be making decisions like this at the ballot box, and if you do then decisions will be weird because you have 1.6 million people voting on complicated issues with limited information.”

He said that should be everyone’s takeaway from where the party stands on the issue.

“That’s the point – there’s a clear mandate against ballot box planning,” he said. “For the most part, the position is we elect officials to do this, and it’s unreasonable to expect 1.6 million people to make these planning decisions.”

But, what about “badly needed affordable housing?” It’s still hard to reconcile the party’s first statement on the endorsement with the explanation that this is just about ballot box planning. After all, that statement said the projects that Measure A could prevent represented “badly needed affordable housing,”

Why is that not the case, then, with Newland Sierra?

“I honestly don’t know,” he said. “The principle is, I should not be making decisions on housing in Vista, Escondido, San Marcos. It all comes back to ballot box planning. If something like this were going to be passed, it should be in such a way that the people who vote on it are the people affected by it. I don’t know enough about Newland except to know that it is sprawl.”

How’d it go down: We also asked Rodriguez-Kennedy about the party’s deliberations on Measure A.

“The ‘Yes on A’ side was unable to address the racial problem, in a way that clearly made our African-American voting members very uncomfortable,” he said. “Some language in the initiative seemed coded, things like defending neighborhood character and preventing urbanization – those are words long associated with communities of color. The optics of their case just were not good.”

“It’s similar to the language (Councilwoman) Barbara Bry uses when she’s talking about housing – coming for our homes, protect our communities,” he said. “That’s coded language and it raises alarms among communities of color who have heard it before. These sorts of dog whistles have been a part of the discussion on housing before.”

A watershed moment? As Democrats are ascendant in local politics, we’ve been keeping a close eye for clues that traditionally right-of-center groups are reorienting themselves.

Is this the start of a relationship between the Democratic Party, and the Building Industry Association, which vehemently opposes Measure A?

“The alliance might be shifting, but I’m not sure it’s settled yet and I wouldn’t say this is a beginning of a relationship with the BIA or any other institution,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said. “You might see the BIA endorse Democrats, but I don’t think it’s fundamentally changed the coalition.”

The Fissure on the Left

Inevitably, the party’s stance means there’s some dissent among Democrats about development in the unincorporated county.

While lots of Democrats had already sided against Measure A, so too had many lined up for it. The Climate Action Campaign, a nonprofit group led by Nicole Capretz that started to push cities into adopting and enforcing aggressive plans to combat climate change and shift to renewable energy, has endorsed the “Yes on A” side.

We also got an email from a few people on the left last week, reacting to news that Fletcher and other affordable housing advocates had opposed Measure A.

“WTF,” wrote Cody Petterson, a local activist and president of the San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.

“So ALL the Democrats are selling out?! So why be one?!” wrote former Supervisor Pamela Slater-Price, who was a Republican as an elected official but joined the Democratic Party in 2017.

More: We talked about this a lot on the pod.

Pro-Housing Group Is Standing by Olga Diaz

Olga Diaz appears at a Politifest 2019 panel. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara caused quite the hullabaloo recently when he rescinded the endorsement of his City Council colleague, Olga Diaz, and instead went with her Democratic opponent for District 3 supervisor. Goodness gracious me, talk about awkward!

Diaz characterized the mayor’s decision as no big deal — a difference of leadership styles. She and the mayor are just out of sync, she said. But McNamara wasn’t the only one rethinking their involvement in the D3 race.

The YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County met to debate whether they, too, should rescind their support for Diaz. Members of the pro-housing group weren’t happy that Diaz, on the same day they endorsed her, helped kill a mid-sized apartment project in downtown Escondido.

Then and now, Diaz has insisted that her record on housing is strong, and she made the point again when she met with the YIMBYs face-to-face. She didn’t like that particular project for a number of reasons. Such as: The developer wanted a bunch of fee waivers, hadn’t gotten community buy-in and had put off meeting with her in person.

Maya Rosas, the group’s founding president, said Diaz pointed to her support for an initiative that would have converted a blighted golf course into hundreds of new homes. That decision likely contributed to her loss in the 2014 Escondido mayor’s race.

Diaz also encouraged the group to hold her accountable on housing issues, and asked whether they were purists or whether they were willing to trust elected officials to have nuanced positions on housing.

In the end, the YIMBYs voted 28-10 to keep the endorsement. They chose to be nuanced.

“The point is to move San Diego Democrats toward the direction of supporting more housing,” Rosas said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a switch you turn on and off.” Diaz voted “the wrong way” on that particular housing project in Escondido, Rosas added, “but I’m very comfortable still standing by her.”

— Jesse Marx

Bry, Then and Now, on the State’s Role in Local Development

Councilwoman Barbara Bry says there’s one bright, shimmering difference between her and Assemblyman Todd Gloria on housing and development policy.

They might both vote time and again to OK local projects and increase development opportunities in San Diego neighborhoods, but she has drawn a red line around any state laws that usurp local electeds’ right to make those decisions.

“The key thing is I am against Sacramento dictating local control of land use. That is a big differentiator. In San Diego, we are making these decisions. It is not Sacramento telling us to make these decisions,” Bry told us in a recent interview.

The pressure point there is the increasing desire among state officials to intervene where cities have made it hard for developers to build. SB 330, which passed this year, barred cities from enacting development moratoriums or to adopt policies that decreased development potential in cities. SB 50, which was tabled this year and is due for discussion early next year, would increase development potential near transit and jobs throughout the state. Gloria supported SB 330, but has said he does not support SB 50 in its current form.

Then: In 2016, though, when Bry was running for City Council, she wrote an op-ed for us in which she argued that the state needs to have a role in solving San Diego’s housing crisis.

“In discussing these issues, it is important to remember that the housing crisis cannot be solved entirely at the local level,” she wrote. “Reforms in state planning laws would ensure more efficient local land use practices and simpler environmental reviews for affordable housing.”

It’s just a couple sentences, but you could argue that that’s exactly what SB 330 and SB 50 seek to do.

In an interview with the Union-Tribune during the 2016 election cycle, she also invoked the need for a state role.

“I’d like to look at how we can have communities where there are more projects that are walkable and close to transit and work with communities to make sure they have the infrastructure in place to support them,” she said. “It’s not just a local issue. It’s a state issue in terms of what state laws are … the state giving us some money to help with it.”

Now: We asked Bry this month what specifically she had in mind for a state role back in 2016, where she now thinks the state should stay out of land-use decisions.

“Infrastructure,” she said. “Just think, in this community (Bay Park), they want the bridge over I-5, the pedestrian and bike bridge, if you could put that in at the beginning, instead of years later after you’ve collected enough developer fees.”

How should that play out?

“The state could do bond measures, direct spending, they’re sitting on millions of dollars in reserves,” she said. “This is an investment. Infrastructure creates jobs.”

Infrastructure is not the same as “reforms in state planning laws” as she had called for before. But OK.

DeMaio Snubbed by GOP Congressmen

Carl Demaio, who lead the effort on Proposition 6 appears at Golden Hall on Election Night 2018. / Photo by Adrian Heldiz

Darrell Issa dropped an interesting endorsement announcement this week in his race to replace Rep. Duncan Hunter. Issa broke the news that every single GOP member of Congress from California — all six of them, excluding Hunter himself — had endorsed him for Congress.

We’re not sure if DeMaio cares about this (surely he would prefer it didn’t happen). But if he cared about even just losing one of those guys’ support, it seems like it would be that of Rep. Tom McClintock, who represents a large swath of the Sierra Nevadas on California’s eastern side. McClintock and DeMaio share a similar type of fierce populist and fiscal conservative political approach and they collaborated on the failed push to repeal the gas tax last year. DeMaio went out of his way to endorse McClintock last year, calling him a “fighter” … twice. For his part, McClintock was in awe of DeMaio’s effort locally on pension reform and he supported DeMaio’s 2014 campaign against Rep. Scott Peters.

We heard McClintock was supportive of DeMaio until recently.

Batten Hands Baton to Leventhal

Loyal readers of the Politics Report know that earlier this year a big theme for us was which Republican would emerge in the District 5 race of the San Diego City Council. We’re so unaccustomed to seeing any political contests there — Brian Maienschein, Carl DeMaio and then Mark Kersey have run basically unopposed there as Republicans for the last nearly 20 years.

But now there’s an actual Democrat with an actual chance (Marni von Wilpert). And the Republicans had broken up into at least two camps.

Until now: Pat Batten, a lobbyist and former Marine, dropped out of the race.

And he endorsed attorney Joe Leventhal. Leventhal built a juggernaut since he was allowed to start raising money after a cooling-off period from when he served on the city’s Ethics Commission.

The endorsement was kind of interesting considering how bellicose and feisty Batten had been in previous comments about how ready he was to take on Leventhal. Now, he’s on Team Joe.

“Joe and I share the same priority of making a positive impact on the lives of everyday San Diegans. I trust that Joe will advocate for better streets, support law enforcement officers, and work to tackle problems contributing to homelessness in our city,” Batten said in a written statement.

Tis the Season of Ballot Arguments

Both San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott and her now rival, Cory Briggs, proclaimed victory in a court battle over how voters should be asked whether to increase the hotel-room tax.

It was a big fight but the result isn’t so huge.

Old ballot language: Shall the measure be adopted to: increase the City of San Diego’s 10.5% hotel visitor tax by 1.25 to 3.25 percentage points, depending on hotel location …

New ballot language: Shall the measure be adopted to: increase the City of San Diego’s 10.5% hotel visitor tax to 11.75, 12.75 and 13.75 percentage points, depending on hotel location …

The city attorney also agreed to remove “independent” in the description of the city auditor who would audit the spending.

But the changes were not as big as Briggs pushed for.

Briggs: “My clients are delighted that the judge saw these flaws in the ballot question and agreed to re-write it so the voters will have better information about the measure when they cast their votes.”

Elliott: “We appreciate Judge Whitney’s thoughtful ruling and his flat rejection of the plaintiffs’ claims that the ballot question was in any way false, misleading, or defective.”

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Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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

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