Assemblyman Todd Gloria delivers a speech on election night. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

There’s an old story in local politics: San Diego is California’s second largest city, but doesn’t act like it.

If he makes good on a central promise of his campaign, the city’s next mayor could retire that story.

Assemblyman Todd Gloria will be the next San Diego mayor. Thursday’s update in the vote count showed his vote lead over Councilwoman Barbara Bry had only grown. He was up 56 percent to her 44 percent.

Gloria became the second Democrat to win a mayoral election since 1988, and he did it with a coalition of voters symbolic of a changing city.

It’s those changes that Gloria says are driving San Diego to finally act like a big city. A big city, in his conception, is one that focuses on its biggest problems, rather than fixating on its smallest ones.

“It’s not about trying to turn San Diego into Los Angeles,” Gloria said, after results showed him with a comfortable lead over Councilwoman Barbara Bry, whose campaign was a throwback to the growth-weary San Diego of recent decades. “What it is about is no longer spending a mayoral campaign talking about scooters and vacation rentals instead of homelessness and infrastructure. That’s what a small town would do.”

Gloria won big, as of the votes counted by Thursday night. And the areas of the city where voters came out strongest for him were different than those that had selected the city’s long streak of moderate Republicans who were mostly white men. He won in the city’s urban core, the South Bay and in southeastern San Diego – areas that are disproportionately composed of renters, people with lower incomes, young people and people of color. He lost in the coastal areas and the city’s northern suburbs, areas that are disproportionately older, whiter and wealthier.

His margin – and the areas of the city that produced it – mirror the results in two other city races on the ballot. A measure to increase property taxes to build low-income housing, and one to remove the 30-foot coastal height limit in Midway, each received nearly the same margin as Gloria, and with support from the same portions of the city.

Few policies embody the city’s old politics quite like the coastal height limit, a measure approved by voters in 1972, which limited new development to three stories in the city’s beach communities. It’s been viewed as sacrosanct ever since, symbolic of the view that San Diego did not need to change, especially if change meant growth. Mayor Kevin Faulconer, then a councilman, called it untouchable just eight years ago, before supporting this year’s effort to amend it, making way for dense, climate-friendly redevelopment to address the city’s housing shortage in the Midway district. Gloria supported it, and Bry opposed it.

“It’s not just time to stop being afraid of being a big city, it’s long overdue that we start playing up to our level,” said Dike Anyiwo, a board member of the local Midway planning group that supported overturning the height limit there. “What does it mean to be a San Diegan? For a long time, for the generation that preceded ours, it meant a certain thing. That’s been shifting. And it looks like based on the mayor’s race, and [the Measure E] race, that we’ve turned something of a corner.”

Midway is part of Gloria’s vision of a grown-up San Diego. There’s a long list of other intractable problems in the vision, too. One is a commitment to reinventing the region’s transit system – an effort already underway at the San Diego Association of Governments that, again, Gloria supports and Bry opposed. That plan was essentially on the ballot. It got a shot in the arm Tuesday. Another is confronting the city’s decrepit infrastructure, and the lack of funds to address it. And housing and homelessness are at the center.

But Gloria isn’t deriding the “small problems” that have taken up too much of the city’s discourse. It’s just, he said, that a big city needs to fix them, rather than fixating on them.

“If you live next to a rowdy vacation rental or are a senior citizen knocked over by someone riding a scooter on the sidewalk, those are real issues,” he said. “But a real city addresses them head-on, gets it off the table and frees up bandwidth to do other things.”

A New Coalition

The path to victory among San Diego’s parade of moderate Republican mayors was simple. It meant locking in predominantly older voters, Republicans, right-leaning independents and voters living north of I-8 while – crucially – benefiting from low turnout south of I-8, especially in communities of color, often because the races weren’t decided during November of presidential elections.

That is not how Gloria won.

Vince Vasquez, an independent election analyst, said Gloria was instead able to build a coalition of voters for whom housing and homelessness were the top issues, based on an analysis of the precincts that went for him most heavily.

“Those issues affect young people, renters, people of color and multi-generation San Diegans who do not have multi-generational wealth,” Vasquez said. “This isn’t a blue-versus-red map. It’s more to do with who the candidates are, their portfolio of work and housing is where Gloria has spent his political career.”

Perhaps the most revealing outcome Tuesday night, he said, was the relative similarity in how voters came down on Measure A, which would have increased property taxes for low-income housing, Measure E, the Midway height limit initiative, and the mayor’s race. A roughly equal share of voters said yes to low-income housing, yes to increased development in Midway and yes to Mayor Gloria – and precinct-level analysis showed similar levels of support throughout the city.

“You see some energy around having to fix these deeply entrenched issues,” Vasquez said. He called the results of Measure E “eye-popping.”

“The height limit, that’s the golden calf of San Diego politics, it’s our third rail,” he said. “With the pandemic, plus the housing crisis, plus the homelessness crisis, we reached a tipping point locally. With Todd, this will be a new San Diego, not the traditional political agenda.”

There’s no question that housing and homelessness have become the premier concerns of San Diegans. A Voice of San Diego poll of county residents before the election confirmed as much: Eighty percent of respondents said the cost of housing was either a very serious or extremely serious problem facing the region. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said the same about homelessness. There may not be consensus on a solution just yet, but with nearly 60 percent of voters approving both funding for low-income housing and deregulatory actions to increase supply, perhaps those potential solutions are not as contentious as leaders have long thought. (Despite winning a solid majority, Measure A, the housing bond measure, failed because it required two-thirds approval.)

“We have said over and over and over that most people support pro-housing policies, and this seems like a good indicator that those instincts were correct,” said Maya Rosas, founder of a local “yes in my backyard” pro-development group that Bry during the campaign derided as part of a faceless “they” who were looking to destroy single-family neighborhoods, and from whom she would protect the city. “Renters have been underrepresented, and we need people in power whose top priority is San Diegans being able to live here, and we have that now,” Rosas said.

Gloria said he’s hopeful that the results indicate he’s walking into the mayor’s office with a mandate on his biggest priorities.

“Certainly the margin that we enjoy, and those other key outcomes, including the Council races (where Democrats swept the ballot and now hold an 8-1 advantage) gives me hope that people agree it’s time for a change,” he said. “I think it’s time, and I hope that I was helpful in convincing people.”

What’s a Big City?

San Diego has another leader who has been arguing the region needs to stop seeing itself as a small town: Hasan Ikhrata, director of the regional transportation agency SANDAG.

Not everyone has loved his pitch to remake the region’s transportation system by building hundreds of miles of new rail lines, and managing traffic through tolls, rather than expanding freeways.

Gloria, long regarded as a champion of transit – although he supported a 2016 tax measure that included freeway projects and was a far cry from Ikhrata’s vision – has been a vocal supporter of the new plan. Bry opposed it, referring to it as yet another proposal capable of “destroying our neighborhoods.”

Ikhrata, who donated to Gloria’s mayoral campaign, said his election “is a way of saying, ‘It’s time. It’s time to start thinking that we as a region deserve bold ideas, and I’m honored to be a small part of that.”

Alongside his so-called Five Big Moves transportation plan, Ikhrata has also proposed what he calls San Diego Grand Central Station, a central hub for the massive rail system he envisions, as a partnership with the federal government. It would replace the current NAVWAR facility in Old Town, adjacent to the height-limit-free Midway district, with a regional transit station, thousands of new homes and a new employment center. It would essentially extend downtown San Diego north of Little Italy.

“Other people look at it and say, ‘It’s too much,’ and Gloria looks at it and says, ‘It’s about time,’” Ikhrata said. “It matches the urban area that we are. You take risks when you run for office, and he took it and was consistent. There are opportunities for San Diego to chart a new future that some view as threatening. Him being elected mayor, and his ideas of what San Diego should be, will let Five Big Moves become a reality.”

Other major Gloria supporters have other ideas for what it will mean for him to make good on his promise to make San Diego act like a big city.

Michael Zucchet, for instance, is the leader of the Municipal Employees Association, the union for city office workers, that made a hefty financial commitment to Gloria’s election, bankrolling along with the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce an independent committee that attacked Bry for allegedly falling asleep in City Council meetings, and sent mail to Democrats calling her a Republican and to Republicans calling her a Democrat.

What was it about Gloria, or about Bry, that warranted such brutal attacks against a councilwoman who had always been regarded as a reliable vote for city workers?

“This wasn’t about Barbara. It was about Todd,” Zucchet said. He recalled that Gloria was on their side in 2010 when they tried to to raise sales taxes for a city then in the grips of structural revenue deficits, and in 2012 when they fought a ballot measure to end pensions for new, non-police city hires. Gloria kept fighting for both even after it was clear they were on the losing side, Zucchet said.

“We needed to support him, and the committee was the path to do it,” he said. “Our eyes were open that punches would be thrown – and to be fair. Barbara had been throwing significant punches at Todd since March.”

Zucchet said he and MEA do not have any list of ideas about or expectations of a Gloria administration. They just expect a new approach.

“Something has to fundamentally change in San Diego,” he said. “Citizens have been told for a generation that they don’t have to pay for trash pickup, that they don’t have to have the same taxes and fees as other cities not just in California, but in San Diego County, that we can do more with less. The fact of the matter is, we can’t.”

“We want to have the best streets, the best parks, the best public safety, all at a discount,” Zucchet said. “Something’s got to give here. The city is not in good shape right now. There’s going to be a fundamental decision, are we going to be the bigger city Todd has articulated, and we have to grow the pie with projects he’s talked about, or to grow revenue, or to reprioritize what we want to do as a city.”

The Chamber of Commerce, though, isn’t a group that’s had a lot to complain about when it comes to the succession of moderate Republican mayors in San Diego. Its current leader, after all, is one of those moderate Republican mayors. And yet the Chamber went with Gloria in the race. It too was part of the committee that unleashed the bruising ads against Bry.

Jaymie Bradford, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Chamber, said it was willing to do so because it had been misled by Bry in the past.

“Most people think businesses ask for lower taxes and regulation, but where Todd had the edge was certainty,” she said. “When you talk to an elected official and they tell you one thing and do another, that can be devastating. That’s why Todd had the edge – when he’s not with you, he tells you.”

The Chamber’s other priority in the race was Measure E. It too had a good night, but Bradford said she doesn’t see the public’s approval of changes in Midway as a green light to pursue dense housing throughout the city.

“We will always have that tension – I don’t see it ending,” she said. “I don’t know that it speaks to acceptance of density everywhere, but where it’s appropriate and where it can make for an exciting place. It’s like with Todd, people tend to go with someone who has a vision, who has a positive outlook of what San Diego can become.”

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

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