Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe speaks at a press conference announcing San Diego Police Department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe wants to be the next Council president, she confirmed to Voice of San Diego Friday.

After the election, the newly seated City Council will vote for its new president, who will be responsible for setting its agenda and appointing its various committees.

That means it’s early to say how the nine Council members will vote, because we don’t yet know who those nine Council members will be. Five will be determined on Election Day. The four incumbent representatives – the ostensible pool of candidates for the Council presidency – are Montgomery Steppe, fellow Democratic Councilwomen Jen Campbell and Vivian Moreno and Republican Councilman Chris Cate.

“As the people’s Council president, I will work to amplify the community’s voice by building a true strong Council,” Montgomery Steppe said in a statement.

She said her top priority as Council president would be reimagining police and public safety. She’d also focus on increasing economic opportunity across the city and creating “safe and healthy communities.”

“With the looming uncertainty around the pandemic, and race and equity being at the center of every conversation, we need leaders who we can count on,” she said. “Leaders that we can trust to give it to us straight. We need compassionate leadership.  There is no better time for me to serve as Council president.”

Times are changing: In years past, Republicans representing a Council minority could nonetheless swing the presidency by pledging their votes to a candidate who, with a vote for themselves, could cobble together five votes for the job. But Republicans could represent as few as one of the Council’s nine seats this year, depending on election results, limiting their power.

The Council president race, then, could offer a preview of opposing coalitions that could emerge on the new, Democrat-dominated Council. That breakdown will also be heavily influenced by the outcome of the tightly contested mayoral race between Assemblyman Todd Gloria and Councilwoman Barbara Bry.

Montgomery Steppe won her seat in 2018 against then-Council president Myrtle Cole, who had the support of virtually the entire Democratic establishment: Labor unions, the party itself and elected officials all lined up behind her. Heavily outspent, Montgomery Steppe won anyway, and it wasn’t close.

She has emerged as the city’s most prominent advocate for criminal justice reform, though she faced severe backlash from constituents and criminal justice advocates this summer when she voted for a city budget that increased police spending despite an activist push to cut the department’s budget.

She defended her vote by touting concessions she won in the budget, including the creation of an office of race and equity, and has pledged to take steps to reimagine police spending in the next budget cycle. She’s also the chief proponent of a ballot measure that would reform SDPD oversight by creating a new watchdog group to investigate police misconduct.

Careful what you wish for: The political boost of winning Council president has been downright bad in recent years. Council President Georgette Gómez took it over in 2018 and has little to show from it as she fights out a tight congressional race with Sara Jacobs, who has never held elected office. Cole took it over in 2017 and was voted out of office a year later. Sherri Lightner took the seat in 2014 and accomplished little until her term ran out and she left politics. Gloria held the seat before Lightner, was ousted by her and four Republican votes, then ran for Assembly. Tony Young held the seat before him, and abruptly resigned in late 2012 to take a job with the Red Cross.

If You Get a Barrios Slate Mailer, Here’s Why

Kelvin Barrios is running to represent District 9 on the San Diego City Council. / Photo courtesy of the Kelvin Barrios campaign

Dispatch from Jesse Marx: Kelvin Barrios announced recently that he was hitting pause on his bid for the San Diego City Council. He pulled ads from Facebook, but he might still appear on a mailer.

Barrios’ employer, Laborers Local Union 89, is sponsoring a committee that’s raised and spent more than $200,000 to get him elected over the last year. Those expenses include space on four slate mailers that are set to disseminate within the next few days.

The owners of three slate mailers confirmed to VOSD that they would be removing Barrios from their campaign materials going out later this month. Steven Barkan, a political consultant working for the Laborers’ committee, said he’d informed the vendors, but noted in an email: “Some of them may have gone to print before [Barrios] suspended his campaign. That is out of our control.”

The owners of the fourth mailer, known as the California Latino Voters Guide, didn’t return messages for comment this week. That mailer is supposed to drop in the mail on Tuesday, according to campaign finance reports, so it might be too late to revise.

After a series of press reports about a criminal probe and potential ethics violations — Barrios went to work for the Laborers while he was employed at City Hall, and after working on a major infrastructure project that benefited them — he announced on Sept. 28 that he was suspending his campaign. But he later clarified to the Union-Tribune that he would still serve if elected.

Creationism in Classrooms?

Joe Leventhal is running for the City Council District 5 seat, which includes the Ranchos and Scripps Ranch. He has been more willing than other Council candidates to weigh in on education matters.

The Council has a very limited scope of influence on the San Diego Unified School District. They can put up ballot measures to change the district’s governance, as they did this year with Measures C and D to change how district elections work and to make the process for removing board members more clear.

Recently, opposition researchers working on behalf of Marni Von Wilpert dug up an old law school article he wrote while attending Georgetown Law School. It was called “Bringing Creationism Into Public School Classrooms.” It was archived from an old version of his website under “writings.”

The Politics Report asked him what was up with that.

He said it was just an academic exercise.

“Looks like I was analyzing the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment for a seminar I took,” he said. He pointed out that when he wrote it was about the same time Von Wilpert last lived in San Diego before moving back shortly before she ran for Council.

So would he want creationism taught in schools?

“That is so outside the scope of the City Council,” Leventhal said. At some point, he said, like in college, students should be exposed to a diversity of ideas.

Campa-Najjar Rethinks Livestream Appearance

Ammar Campa-Najjar, who is giving former Rep. Darrell Issa a sweat in his bid to take the 50th Congressional District, got into some hot water this week when he appeared on a Facebook livestream smoking a cigar with the leaders of the group Defend East County.

Defend East County emerged after protests gave way to looting this summer in La Mesa. In August, the U-T’s Andrew Dyer wrote about how the group had grown rapidly and begun dabbling in disturbing conspiracy theories and glorifying violence against Black Lives Matter protesters.

Campa-Najjar explained his appearance on the group’s livestream as a way to challenge them.

“I went on there to shutdown the years long conspiracies about my identity & heritage that were becoming the centerpiece of [Defend East County]. The only way to deal with these kinds of things is head on. Most members still commented I’m a terrorist, but more than I expected changed their minds,” Campa-Najjar wrote.

By Friday, though, he was cleaning it up more.

“It has been brought to my attention that some in this group have made overt threats to people’s lives, I categorically denounce those words and actions. I regret not knowing about these incidents at the time of this Q&A and condemn these statements and actions fully and have made that clear to the group’s leaders,” he wrote.

Vacation Rentals Will Sit for Next Council

Dispatch from Lisa Halverstadt: After many years of failed attempts by fellow city officials, City Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell had hoped to get vacation rental regulations on the books before an election that will reshape the City Council.

But the city’s planning commission this week decided that Campbell will instead have to pitch the regulatory compromise she brokered to five new City Council members.

After a Thursday presentation, the city’s planning commission directed city staffers to sketch out more details on some pieces of the draft ordinance. Campbell had written it after striking a formal agreement between the hotel workers’ union Unite Here Local 30, and Expedia Group, the parent company of vacation rental platforms HomeAway and VRBO.

The compromise proposes a cap on the number of vacation rentals the city can license among other features. It will need to return to the planning commission on Dec. 3 before it can be routed to the City Council. Five new City Council members will take office on Dec. 10.

Venus Molina, Campbell’s chief of staff, acknowledged she would have preferred to wrap things up before then, given the current group’s long history on vacation rentals debates.

“They have a lot of history and the institutional knowledge on this issue,” Molina said.

Thursday’s decision means Campbell’s office will need to hold onto the unprecedented coalition it has pulled together for months longer and encourage new City Council members to back the proposal. Campbell will also have some time to try get holdout platform Airbnb on board.

For now, Molina said she remains confident her boss can get regulations on the books.

“I feel good about it,” Molina said.

Roundup: More Debate

Future of Balboa Park: Friday, we held a mayoral debate specifically about Balboa Park. And we broke some news there: The Balboa Park Conservancy and Friends of Balboa Park are in the final stages of merging. The two nonprofits have similar missions for the park. The Friends has been around much longer, though, and the Conservancy was started to eventually take a lead on managing and raising money for the park, perhaps allowing the city to outsource the role almost entirely. The model was the Central Park Conservancy.

But it never came to be. The Conservancy, though, said goodbye to its CEO and now seems to be on pace for another go at it. Both mayoral candidates, Assemblyman Todd Gloria and Councilwoman Barbara Bry, agreed that a private nonprofit should take a management role over for the park.

Proposition 15: Few items on the ballot would have more impact either way on the future of California than Proposition 15, which would allow commercial properties to be assessed eventually at their market values for the purpose of property taxes. (Here’s a simple explainer.) It would mean large increases to property taxes for owners who have held properties for a long time under Proposition 13 protections. We noticed that, despite it being a major goal for progressives in California for decades, a lot of Democrats locally were unwilling to get on board. County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher responded with a commentary about why he wants to see it passed.

Speaking of Fletcher: The County Board of Supervisors has long rotated the chairperson role. But they have also long been all Republicans. Fletcher has assumed that when it came time for his “turn,” he wouldn’t get it. At Politifest, Fletcher confirmed that if the Democrats take control of the County Board of Supervisors, they will take control of the chairperson role and be able to decide on the direction. Now, what would they do with that power? Marx explored that question.

Weird S.D.: When Our Elections Went Rogue

Dispatch from Randy Dotinga: With all due respect to Portland, weirdness and San Diego go together like sand and sea. Consider for example, our long and colorful history of quirky religious leaders (see here, here, here, and most definitely here).

So it stands to reason that we’ve had some odd elections. Here are the most memorable.

Who Won? It’s a (6-Foot) Toss-Up!

Ties, like other things, happen. Under state law, they have to be decided by a game of chance – and it’s up to locals to figure out which one.

In 1994, the tied candidates in a Borrego Springs fire protection board race drew envelopes out of a box. A Valley Center school board race in 1999 was resolved by drawing numbers from a hat. In the South Bay, a coin toss decided a 2000 race for a spot the Otay Water District board.

A tie vote in a Ramona water district race in 1992 spawned the oddest resolution of all: a coin toss with two single-spaced pages of rules, including a requirement that the quarter in question be tossed at least six feet in the air.

On-Again, Off-Again Gig for Bill Horn Is On, Again

Bill Horn, the arch-conservative county supervisor who represented inland North County from 1994-2018, is the ultimate survivor. He was perennially in hot water over some controversy or another (or another or another or another or another), but was never in any danger of being booted from office. Turns out his luck at the ballot box began early.

In 1989, the school board that runs Escondido-area high schools appointed avocado-grove owner Horn to an open position. Around the same time, the Christian Voters League raised an outcry over a reading of “Death of a Salesman” in a high-school class. Attention must be paid, the group claimed, because the play included bad words.

The league demanded the play no longer be read aloud, and they targeted Horn, who supported the district, with a recall petition drive. But then they stood down when they realized he actually was an ally in general. Meanwhile, another group went after Horn and gathered signatures from 1.5 percent of voters in the school district, enough to trigger an obscure state law that forced the removal of Horn from office.

Then all heaven broke loose as two ministers, Horn, and five others ran for the seat in a special election that cost $120,000 – the equivalent of $257,000 today. Horn, who called the election a “sham,” won – guess it wasn’t a sham after all – and began his extraordinary political career.

Who Broke Into City Hall? The Mayor-Elect

Back in 1905, a former military captain named John Leicester Sehon easily won a race for mayor of San Diego, a town of fewer than 18,000 people. All was well and good until things went haywire. The problem: Critics said Sehon couldn’t run for office because he’d illegally get income from both the city (a salary) and the feds (a military pension). They convinced a judge to issue a subpoena, which needed to be served in person. But then the mayor-elect went on the lam: “Has Anybody Seen Capt. John L. Sehon?” asked the San Diego Union in a headline.

Sehon eventually reappeared, possibly after absconding to Tijuana. His cronies decided that possession is nine-tenths of the law, so they broke into City Hall at 2 a.m. on Inauguration Day and ushered in Sehon, who’d conveniently avoided the “breaking” part of “breaking-and-entering.” He then declared himself mayor, the Union reported, as “the broken glass [was] carted away.”

The whole mess landed in court, where appeal judges eventually let Sehon stay in office. He’d later become police chief, overseeing a head-cracking crackdown on free speech and hustling prostitutes out of town, a move that spawned the classic headline “138 Are Arrested in Stingaree Raid/136 Promise to Leave City; Two Agree to Reform.”

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

San Diego was a hot mess in 2004, managing to be dubbed “Enron by the Sea” by The New York Times. Councilwoman Donna Frye – dismissed in one out-of-town newspaper headline as a “surfer-mayor wannabe” – stood out as an eccentric yet powerful advocate for challenging the status quo. She launched a long-shot write-in bid for mayor and would have won in a stunning victory if all the votes for her had actually been counted.

Unfortunately for national news reporters who loved to throw words like “shred” and “wave” into their coverage, a few thousand Frye supporters failed to fill out a bubble next to the space on their ballots where they wrote in her name.

A judge threw out those votes for not following the rules, and Frye lost to a judge named Dick Murphy, who’d go on to resign in disgrace and write a book called – we’re not making this up – “San Diego’s Judge Mayor: How Murphy’s Law Blindsided Leadership With 2020 Vision.”

Did we mention how politics here are a bit odd sometimes?

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I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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...

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