From left: Democrats Terra Lawson-Remer, Nathan Fletcher and Nora Vargas / Photos by Adriana Heldiz

Democrats appear to have taken control of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors for the first time in at least a generation.

In District 3, a seat that includes North County and portions of northern San Diego, Terra Lawson-Remer was leading incumbent Republican Supervisor Kristin Gaspar by a significant margin early Wednesday morning. In the District 1 race between Democrats Ben Hueso and Nora Vargas in South Bay, Vargas was leading with about 55 percent of the vote early Wednesday morning.

Leading up to Election Day, Democrats and activists laid out their vision for a more liberal county government, one that oversees more than $6 billion in funds and employs thousands of people. They identified specific policies they’d like to change, but spoke in unison about a major cultural shift.

Doing that will be much easier said than done, and some are already managing their expectations, particularly around criminal justice.

There will be a lot of pressure on the new Democrat-majority board to move to the left, and quickly. There’s certainly a lot of overlap between the Democrats. But that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically agree on what to prioritize, or how to go about it.

Lawson-Remer has offered a vision for the county that is arguably more progressive than her peers. She’s talked, for instance, about a carbon mitigation bank that will pay for the retrofitting of homes and small businesses with solar panels. She’s talked about using government to create an economy that relies less on the whims of tourism.

Nathan Fletcher, a Republican turned independent turned Democrat elected in 2018, has always had a more pragmatic streak, although he’s also helped push the current board toward more Democratic priorities, like boosting behavioral and mental health services. He’s proposed a legal cannabis system.

Vargas, a former Planned Parenthood executive and a Southwestern College governing board member, has grounded her vision for what the county should do in her experience in health care and social services. She’s advocated that the county increase its outreach to provide more assistance, like through social welfare programs, to those in need.

On Tuesday night, Vargas said she was “cautiously optimistic” since not all votes had been counted, but noted that if the votes continue to trend in her direction, she will be the first Latina and the first immigrant on the board. Her first priority will be to continue mitigating the COVID pandemic and leading the county through an economic recovery.

“That absolutely has to be priority for all of us on the board,” she said. “We have to make sure people are safe and healthy.”

The county bureaucracy has been shaped for at least a generation by a board that is both socially and fiscally conservative and that has long prioritized its credit rating over all else.

Collectively, the Democrats want to slice off more of the county’s $2.4 billion reserves — its ginormous piggybank — to make investments in things like behavioral health and drug treatment and drive the region’s agenda around homelessness and other major challenges that individual cities are reluctant or unwilling to solve.

In doing that, the Democrats may clash with the county’s internal culture, which was on display in August when officials were forced to dip into the reserves and grab several hundred million dollars to help pay for the ongoing public health response. Chief administrative officer Helen Robbins-Meyer, the county’s top bureaucrat, cautioned officials against making that the norm. She spoke of the discipline needed to bring the reserves back up while combating COVID-19.

Fletcher, who served in the Assembly during the Great Recession, has been sensitive to the criticism and has attempted to get ahead of any future criticism that the Democrats are somehow behaving recklessly.

On Tuesday night, he said the county’s management has been implementing a conservative agenda.

“I have full faith that the appointed staff members whether at the leadership level or rank-and-file level, when the Board of Supervisors sets a new direction and a new tone and a new culture, they will follow that,” Fletcher said.

Vargas pointed to Fletcher’s ability to push the board as its sole Democrat over the past two years. She said the responsibility for the vision of the county really lays in the hands of the board and she “doesn’t see why staff would not want to be a part of that change.”

But if they want to jump into spending some of those reserves immediately rather than wait for the formal budget process, which takes place every June, the Democrats will need a fourth vote. Supervisor Jim Desmond is unlikely to be that person. Last month he cited “fiscal responsibility” as one of his ongoing priorities no matter who won the election.

That means the District 2 seat-holder could be crucial to the Democrats’ plan to spend any additional dollars outside the budget process. In the run-up to the general election, both Poway Mayor Steve Vaus and former state Sen. Joel Anderson made appeals to Democrats. Vaus had a slight lead late Tuesday night.

Whatever the outcome of that race, Desmond, who was elected two years ago, is likely to be the senior Republican on the Board of Supervisors, the leading voice pushing for a quicker reopening of the economy during the pandemic. Desmond has proposed that the county stop enforcing the state’s COVID-19 restrictions and pressed his fellow officials to file a lawsuit. Neither happened.

Vargas said that while having a majority of Democrats on the board would shift the county, it was important to remember that the position is a nonpartisan seat and she didn’t doubt that the Republicans on the board would align with the Democrats on certain issues.

“Everyone wants to make sure that we’re mitigating COVID and make sure our economy gets back on its feet,” Vargas said. “I think there is common ground.”

The Democrats may disagree with one another from time to time, but there’s certain to be disagreement with Desmond. Fletcher said he welcomes it.

“Dissent in governing bodies is a good thing,” Fletcher said. “You need people to push the envelope and to stretch the debate and you need to make well and robust decisions. … We’ll hash it out and then it’ll be a time to vote and I think some of those votes will start going in a different direction.”

When he ran in 2018, the board was entirely Republican.

“It’s taken significant steps forward in a lot of areas,” Fletcher said. “And now we go from taking steps to taking leaps and we can do it responsibility. We can have fiscal discipline in an appropriate way.”

Activists Split on Whether Big Changes Are Coming

Perhaps the more immediate question is what advocates and activists expect of the new 3-2 Democrat-majority Board of Supervisors.

The region’s housing and homelessness crisis has been an ongoing issue that all elected officials need to grapple with. And the county has been increasingly involved in those issues in the past couple of years.

Ricardo Flores, executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a nonprofit that funds affordable and homeless housing, said he expects a Democrat-led board to consider an affordable housing bond of its own at some point. The city of San Diego’s affordable housing bond, which was on this ballot, was on track for defeat Wednesday morning.

Flores also hopes that the board will consider other housing-related policies — like rent control — to “stem the bleeding in poor neighborhoods,” as well as zoning changes and new requirements of developers to encourage more housing construction.

Nicole Capretz, executive director of the Climate Action Campaign, said she expects the new board to finally develop a legally defensible Climate Action Plan that meets state goals to reduce carbon emissions.

“It’s truly unprecedented,” Capretz said of the previous Republican-led board. “They’ve had to publicly rescind their Climate Action Plan twice.”

A court rejected the plan earlier this year in part because the county had allowed developers to offset the carbon-emissions caused by their projects through the purchase of carbon offsets in international markets, which have little oversight or accountability. Climate advocates tried to sound the alarm bell years ago.

Similarly, Capretz said she hopes the new board puts a stop to all planned sprawl development still percolating in the county’s planning system. She also said she hopes the county finally moves forward on a public energy program and breaks away from San Diego Gas & Electric.

Capretz also noted that with Gaspar off the board, the county’s representative to SANDAG will change and likely result in more support for the agency’s plan to revolutionize transit across the region.

Advocates will be looking to the county for criminal justice reforms as well.

Khalid Alexander, the founder and president of Pillars of the Community, based in southeast San Diego, said he’d like to see the new board shift money toward preventative measures, like sending social workers to respond to people with mental health issues, so law enforcement doesn’t need to get involved in so many situations.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in the Democratic Party, but they will at least have a conversation and a willingness to look at those systems, see how they are broken and how they intentionally target Black and Brown folks, and search for flaws and solutions,” Alexander said.

Lillian Serrano also hopes the new board will try to take action to further stop the Sheriff’s Department from working with federal immigration agents, through ICE transfers and ICE access to jails. The sheriff currently posts the release dates of its inmates publicly, allowing ICE to pick up immigrants on their way out.

Serrano also said she hopes for the creation of a county office dedicated to immigrant inclusion, but mainly she is expecting that the Democrats on the board will actually listen to the immigrant community. One of Fletcher’s campaign promises, which hasn’t happened yet.

“These are conversations we’ve long wanted to have, but there was a closed-door policy,” Serrano said. “We are hoping for an open-door policy so we can ensure refugee and immigrant needs are assessed.”

Like Alexander, Cornelius Bowser, a gang violence reduction counselor in southeastern San Diego, also expressed skepticism that a 3-2 majority Democratic board could change all that much on criminal justice, especially because Sheriff Bill Gore is elected. Even though the supervisors control the budget, Gore controls the department’s daily operations and over the summer he flexed some bureaucratic muscle. When it comes to jail services, he reminded the supervisors, he alone has the authority.

Shifting money to social workers might help reduce violence, Bowser said, but most interactions with the public are initiated by deputies out in the field.

“If we’re gonna change how our communities are policed, we need to change policies within the Sheriff’s Department,” he said.

But at the same time, he said he hopes the board finds ways to lower the bar for organizations like his own to work on behalf of the county. Some grants require the program manager have a master’s degree or show proof upfront of the money to pay staff. It’s not easy to raise that kinda capital, he said, while you’re working other jobs and pressed for time, but the people closest to the community can nonetheless make a real difference in people’s lives.

Bowser is managing his expectations about what a Democrat-controlled county will mean at the grassroots level because of what he’s seen in San Diego.

“A lot of times people just want Democrats in there, but I saw when the City Council had a supermajority, we couldn’t get the things we wanted to pass on (criminal justice) reforms. These guys are still controlled by special interest groups,” he said, citing police and other public sector unions.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents thousands of county workers, is viewing a Democratic victory much more optimistically and sees the partisan shift of the board as a broad coalition of environmentalists, union members, community activists and immigrant and racial justice groups.

“The new board has a golden opportunity to pursue a progressive policy agenda to get us through the COVID-19 crisis by investing in public health, worker’s rights, criminal justice reform, the environment and vital services,” said David Lagstein, the union’s political director. “In order to achieve this, we’re going to need to see a change in the culture of county government to one that actually values employees and the services they provide.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized Measure A. It need a two-thirds vote to pass and as of Wednesday morning was on track to lose.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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