Assemblyman Todd Gloria and Councilwoman Barbara Bry attend a mayoral forum in Bankers Hill. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Assemblyman Todd Gloria holds a slim lead over Councilwoman Barbara Bry with one week until Election Day, but nearly a third of city voters remain undecided, leaving the race highly competitive down the stretch, according to an exclusive poll commissioned by Voice of San Diego.

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Gloria leads Bry by 4 points among likely voters, 36 percent to 32 percent, with another 32 percent of voters undecided, according to The Voice Poll, conducted by FM3 Research. The poll reached 580 likely voters in the city of San Diego from Oct. 8 through Oct. 22, through a mix of online surveys and live-interview calls to both landlines and mobile phones, and has a margin of error of 4.1 percent.

The Voice Poll surveyed two political races, the San Diego mayor’s race and the District 3 race for the County Board of Supervisors, as well as residents’ trust in civic leadership, the direction of the region and more. (You can see the full crosstabs here.)

The race offers the first look at city politics under a dominant Democratic Party, after Republicans held the mayor’s office for 27 of the last 28 years. Despite both Gloria and Bry hailing from the same party, voters have aligned on stark ideological lines, with self-declared liberals siding with Gloria, conservatives consolidating behind Bry and moderates breaking down the middle. Political professionals, however, don’t expect the coalitions that have built around the race to last beyond the election.

Gloria has a 30-point lead among voters who described themselves as liberal – 55 percent to 22 percent – while those who said they were conservative favor Bry by a similar margin, 47 percent to 12 percent. Voters calling themselves moderate are split, 35 percent each, with another 30 percent undecided.

Democrats have been steadily growing into the largest share of city voters, with the cratering of the local Republican Party hastened by Donald Trump’s presidency.

But Republicans still live here. There were not enough of them to elevate a candidate into the runoff election for mayor, but they still represent a sizable chunk of the city’s electorate. Their consolidation behind Bry gives her the foundation of a potentially winning coalition.

Gloria holds a 51 percent to 23 percent lead among registered Democrats, and Bry holds a 47 percent to 15 percent lead among Republicans, while Democrats outnumber Republicans among likely voters by a roughly 2-to-1 margin. Independents, the second largest group of voters, favor Bry 34 percent to 29 percent, with 36 percent still undecided.

But Bry has put together a novel coalition. Along with conservatives and Republicans, she also leads among Latino voters, 33 percent to 27 percent. Gloria, however, maintains an overall lead among people of color, 34 percent to 26 percent, thanks to a 25-point lead among Asian voters and a 10-point margin among African American voters.

Gloria is doing better with men, where he holds an 8-point lead, than with women, where he is leading by just 1 point. Bry holds a wide lead with women who are not part of either party, 44 percent to 21 percent.

Bry has also built her support among voters dissatisfied with the city – fitting, as she’s run on a promise to clean up City Hall, especially over the botched 101 Ash St. transaction. Among Bry supporters, 44 percent say the city is on the wrong track, compared with just 25 percent who say it is on the right track. Gloria supporters are almost perfectly flipped; 44 percent of his supporters say the city is headed in the right direction, versus 26 percent who don’t.

That dynamic is repeated on the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, where 42 percent of Bry supporters disapprove and only 28 percent approve. Among Gloria supporters, 43 percent approve of the city’s pandemic response, versus 24 percent who don’t.

And there’s a strong split between supporters of the two candidates and views on the appropriate level of police funding. Forty-seven percent of Gloria supporters say they support reallocating some police funding to social services, while 45 percent of Bry supporters would oppose such a move.

Life in a One-Party City

San Diego Democrats have for years theorized, strategized and fantasized about a political world resembling other big cities, where Republicans are bit players.

The Gloria-Bry race presents a messy view of how that may play out.

Likely voters, according to the poll, have sorted themselves along a recognizable political spectrum, with Gloria building a coalition with left-leaning voters and Bry collecting everything to its right.

But at the institutional level – where elected officials and interest groups have aligned themselves with two officials who, prior to the race, were both regarded as moderate Democrats – it hasn’t been so simple.

“It’s not a clean break,” said Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chair of the local Democratic Party, and an outspoken Gloria supporter. “In interparty conflicts, you see relationships that make the alliances and coalitions that are formed seem messier, because it isn’t just ideological, it’s relational. The Black community is divided between the two candidates, and you have prominent Latino leaders on both sides. The overall shift (to Democrats) in the city doesn’t mean people of color will line up with the same candidates, but it does mean they’ll remain more visible.”

Indeed, the support the candidates have amassed among major groups makes the race look more schizophrenic than the straightforward picture presented by likely voters. Bry has endorsements from the conservative Associated General Contractors, and the lefty activists at the OB Rag. Gloria touts support from the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

Genevieve Jones-Wright, a former public defender who ran for district attorney as a criminal justice reformer in 2018, is an ardent Bry supporter, and said while the new dynamic on the left might be messy, it makes sense to her.

The relevant split is establishment versus anti-establishment, she said.

“The establishment protects the establishment, no matter the party,” she said. “The city of San Diego is a well-oiled status quo machine, and I see this as people running to maintain the status quo versus those trying to disrupt it.”

That’s true of the mayor’s race, she said, but also the city attorney’s race, where incumbent City Attorney Mara Elliott is facing activist attorney Cory Briggs. Both are Democrats. Jones-Wright said it was the same in 2018 for her unsuccessful district attorney run, and in the District 4 City Council race in which Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe ousted incumbent City Council President Myrtle Cole, a fellow Democrat.

But she also added the 53rd Congressional District’s race to that tally, arguing Sara Jacobs is the grassroots alternative to Council President Georgette Gómez, an environmental justice organizer before she won a 2016 Council race.

That Jacobs and Bry are wealthy, white and from well-to-do parts of the city is “complicating,” she conceded, but ultimately doesn’t change the dynamic.

“When I look at the grassroots, I look at people who tried to dismantle the system as we know it and push for a better city and better systems, and these are people who support Bry and Jacobs,” Jones-Wright said.

The breakdown of respondents who say the city is on the wrong track suggest voters might be picking up the dynamic Jones-Wright describes. They favor Bry by nearly 20 points.

Others don’t think the developing party breakdown is so easily defined.

Evan McLaughlin, a consultant for Democratic candidates and issues who supports Gloria, is a veteran of the time in San Diego politics when Democrats couldn’t field a competitive mayoral candidate, let alone two. He said it’s been odd to see the mayoral coalitions come together.

“A lot of that is a function of Barbara claiming whatever leftovers weren’t already claimed,” McLaughlin said. “It doesn’t break down cleanly issue to issue. The mayor’s race starts with Todd’s positions, then ends with what Barbara has chosen to adopt, where she’s said, ‘Let’s go be the contrast everywhere that Todd isn’t.’”

In 2012, Democrats won the mayor’s office – riding the coattails of President Barack Obama’s re-election – only to surrender it within a year, when former Mayor Bob Filner resigned in disgrace over sexual misconduct allegations.

But even in that year’s primary, Republicans could still flex their muscle. Former Councilman Carl DeMaio, a Republican who is now spending to support Bry, won the most votes among four mayoral candidates, and his conservative allies passed ideological reforms to city pensions and contracting rules. And the Republicans on the City Council took two seats outright, in District 5 and District 7, both of which they could lose to Democrats this year.

One of those unsuccessful Democratic Council runs in 2012 was by Mat Kostrinsky, who worked for Bry’s campaign in the primary and who continues to be a vocal supporter.

He said he worried for years that as Democrats ascended, they’d eventually resort to political cannibalism. And as he’s watched Bry get tagged as a Trump supporter, he thinks his fears have been realized.

“The reality is, they’re both fine on most issues,” he said. “I could object to Barbara on some issues – I support rent control, and she doesn’t. But Todd, I don’t see him leading. Todd is usually the last vote, not the first vote.”

It’s that sort of non-ideological, individual-focused alignment that Carol Kim, political director for the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council, thinks won’t have much staying power. If the coalitions in the mayor’s race are based mostly about Gloria and Bry, they’re unlikely to persist in races that don’t involve either of them.

“I think you’ll see constant realigning as we suss this out,” said Kim, who supports Gloria. “It’ll manifest with people trying to achieve their priorities with the partners they can find to align with them; coalitions will form, and fall apart, and then they’ll do it again. You’ll see groups that work together on one issue and then take opposite sides on the next issue. That happens a lot, and I don’t think it’ll stop.”

And while the left comes to grip with its new, controlling role, the remaining Republicans and right-leaning independents can’t be ignored.

It could end up, Kim said, with a similar dynamic to the way City Council president selection has played out in recent years. Democrats have had a persistent majority, but the Republican minority has nonetheless been able to wield its influence by uniting behind a moderate Democrat who could yield them policy victories.

“It really depends on whether the Republican Party becomes functional again,” she said. “Right now, it’s so dysfunctional that they can barely play a role.”

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

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