From Left: Escondido City Councilwoman Olga Diaz and Terra Lawson-Remer / Photos by Megan Wood

The District 3 Board of Supervisors’ race is arguably the most important local race in 2020 because it’ll determine which political party controls the county government — and its $6.2 billion budget.

Republicans maintain a 4-1 advantage at the moment. But a Democrat is almost certain to flip the South Bay’s District 1 seat.

The two Democrats in the District 3 race agree on most policy issues. As you’ll hear below in the separate podcast interviews we recorded with Olga Diaz and Terra Lawson-Remer, their differences largely come down to approach and background. (The incumbent in the race, Republican Kristin Gaspar, declined our invitation to record a podcast interview.)

Diaz is a veteran of the Escondido City Council who helped build out the political infrastructure of the Democratic Party in North County over the last 12 years. Lawson-Remer is an activist-turned-academic with ties to the Obama Treasury Department.

On the major issues — housing, transit and homelessness — there’s plenty of overlap between them. But in our podcast interviews, they tended to emphasize different things.

Both, for instance, support Measure A, the countywide initiative that would give voters veto power over developments that don’t comply with the county’s general plan. Both acknowledged the need to cut down commutes and build more housing in urban areas, but they framed infill and density in slightly different ways.

Diaz spoke of aesthetics. She called for higher design standards and the need to be conscious of historic preservation. She won the endorsement of the YIMBY Democrats, a group that wants to build more housing.

Lawson-Remer leaned harder into environmentalism and economic theory. She argued that if cities are going to upzone, officials should recapture the profits that are awarded to property owners whose land suddenly becomes more valuable thanks to the government. She also advocated for a public bank to help borrowers who are willing to set aside more affordable housing units.

Both believe the region’s public transit systems need improvements and agreed that the San Diego Association of Governments’ decision to study the cost of a better, connected public transit system that spans the entire region is a good start. Both think Republicans have established a false choice between roads and transit — although the fact remains, the agency doesn’t have enough money to deliver on freeway improvements it previously promised the public.

Both also argued that the county’s approach to homelessness is reactive and both want the county to employ more mental health professionals who can assist authorities on emergency calls. But while Diaz has suggested that those professionals should be available in every area, Lawson-Remer has argued they should be going on the calls with police.

If elected, both have said they’d work well with Nathan Fletcher, the only Democrat on the board right now. He’s endorsed Diaz. But he’s also joined with other Democratic leaders in calling for a post-primary “unity breakfast” to quickly turn everyone’s attention back to defeating Gaspar in the general election.

For such a high-profile seat, the D3 candidates have been surprisingly sparse in their public criticisms of each other. Instead, they’ve wrapped their judgments in language that elevates their own skill sets and experience.

Even when face to face and offered the opportunity to debate, they’ve passed.

I witnessed this last week at a Rancho Santa Fe Democratic Club forum in Solana Beach. Much of the conversation revolved around the question of whose experience was more relevant for county government and who has a better chance of ousting Gaspar. At the event, Diaz argued that her time in local government means she’ll get up and running more quickly.

“The county is a very robust agency where there aren’t just two or three issues that matter,” she said. “There are 100 or more issues that matter. But when you’ve worked on these things in person, when you’ve read (environmental impact reports), when you’ve read commission reports, when you’ve heard hours of testimony from the public — not only in English but in Spanish — when you’ve engaged in this level of detail, you understand how it works.”

In response, Lawson-Remer pointed to her work on economic inequality at the United Nations and other global organizations as well as her time running a committee that helped flip the 49th Congressional District for a Democrat. She did so to make the case that she’s capable of seeing things from a higher level.

“I don’t believe that the best preparation for being an elected official is always having been an elected official,” Lawson-Remer said.

But she also noted: “Whoever makes it through this primary is going to be much better prepared to beat Kristin (Gaspar) in November because we’ve been training together like a cross-country team.”

It’s clear that Republicans would rather compete against Lawson-Remer, given her history of rabble-rousing and her work with progressive social movements. She co-founded STARC: Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations. In 2004, she was arrested while protesting the Republican National Convention.

Gaspar’s campaign consultant, Jason Roe, told the Coast News last month that Diaz quietly supported Gaspar’s campaign in the last election and worked against her own party’s interests then. She also attended a conservative Lincoln Club dinner the year before at Roe’s invitation.

I asked Diaz about Roe’s claims during our podcast interview, and she disagreed with parts of it. She did not support Supervisor Dave Roberts, a Democrat and Gaspar’s opponent in 2016, who was embroiled in scandal, and it was partly personal, she said, because Roberts hadn’t supported her when she needed him in Escondido. But she denied that she ever told Roe, a friend, anything that he could not have obtained publicly.

Diaz was even more forceful about the matter at last week’s forum when asked about it by a Democratic club member. Diaz said she did not support or vote for Gaspar in 2016. She also said the anonymous sources quoted in the Coast News — who filed ethics complaints against her with the county party — were cowardly for declining to be named while slinging accusations.

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Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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