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A week after San Diego Democrats grabbed control of every significant government agency in San Diego, they’re now pitted against each other for control of the San Diego City Council, a position that has never before been the subject of a public race.
Councilwomen Jen Campbell and Monica Montgomery Steppe – both Democrats elected in 2018 – have publicly declared their desire to become the city’s next Council president. In the past, the race for a position that controls the Council’s agenda and is in charge of committee appointments happened entirely behind the scenes, with City Hall figures reticent to even acknowledge the vote counting that insiders, reporters and staffers knew was happening.
That process has broken wide open now, and interest groups are lined up behind the two visions. After an early December inauguration, the Council – and its five newly elected members – will choose a president as their first order of business.
The race is in some ways breaking down as a moderate bid from Campbell, with the support of institutional players against Montgomery Steppe, a more progressive figure with the support of outside activist groups.
Both Campbell and Montgomery Steppe, though, are coming off an election in which they celebrated big wins even though they weren’t on the ballot. Campbell was a driving force behind Measure E, the move to remove the 30-foot coastal height limit in the Midway district. Montgomery Steppe led the charge to put Measure B, which created a new, empowered commission to oversee police misconduct, on the ballot, after two previous attempts died procedural deaths in City Hall before going before voters. Voters approved both convincingly.
Montgomery Steppe told Voice of San Diego last month she was running for the office. Later, her supporters took it upon themselves to post a web page for her candidacy, asking supporters to sign on to the effort and listing the nonprofit and advocacy groups that were already on board.
“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,” Montgomery Steppe said then. “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.”
A week later, Campbell also announced her desire to run. Monday, her Council office issued a press release solidifying her intention to be the next Council president.
“I’ve lived long enough and done enough that I’m not scared of anything,” Campbell told Voice of San Diego last month. “I am not scared, and I’ve got nothing to be scared of. I have no interest in higher office.”
Campbell said she had been urged to run by people inside and outside of City Hall, but didn’t want to name individuals who had done so. She also said she had spoken to “people who know how I roll,” from groups like the San Diego Police Officers Association, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce and organized labor about the situation.
“I certainly never thought I’d be running, but many people asked me and I decided, ‘yes,’” Campbell said.
Carol Kim, political director of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council, an active group in City Hall, said they wouldn’t take a public position in the race and hadn’t spoken to anyone about it. Jack Schaeffer, president of the SDPOA, said his group also did not plan to take a formal position on the race.
A handful of activists and advocacy groups, though, have taken a public stance. A website created by Montgomery Steppe supporters lists some of them, including the Center for Policy Initiatives, the Environmental Health Coalition, San Diegans for Justice, Mid-City CAN, Pillars of the Community and a local teachers union chapter.
The public jockeying is a departure for the Council presidency, a position that does not involve a public vote. In 2014, Mayor-elect Todd Gloria was the Council president, until Mayor Kevin Faulconer and four Council Republicans threw their support behind then-Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, a Democrat, who along with a vote for herself had enough support to oust Gloria. In 2016, two of the most powerful unions in the city split over who to support, with then-Councilwoman Myrtle Cole winning out. A year later, Cole nearly lost the seat when she yanked committee assignments from Republicans who had voted for her a year earlier. In 2018, Council President Georgette Gómez quickly pulled together support from the new Democratic supermajority to take the role, and the elevated say over city priorities – and Council resources – that comes with it.
“Part of our conversation is, maybe this shouldn’t be behind the scenes,” said Masada Disenhouse, executive director of environmental organization SanDiego350, who built the pro-Montgomery Steppe website. “There’s this idea that this is a decision between the Council members, but it’s really between the Council members and a few large special interests. I personally think it would be better if it was more public, and San Diegans have some more visibility into why a certain person gets chosen and how it gets chosen.”
The decision will be the first one made by the five newly elected Council members, forcing them to take a stand on the Council’s direction as their first order of business. It will also give some indication of with whom on the Council those newly elected officials might align.
Councilman-elect Sean Elo-Rivera said he’s letting the process play out before determining who he’ll vote for, but called the public-facing campaign for the race an extension of a movement he was part of in 2016, in which a handful of progressive groups published an op-ed in Voice of San Diego outlining their expectations for a progressive agenda from whoever won the Council presidency. Joe LaCava, another newly elected councilman, was a co-author of that op-ed.
“While it’s more public now, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that this was normally just decided by the nine Council members,” Elo-Rivera said. “The curtain has been pulled back, but the public has every right to weigh in on this, just like big institutions always have. From the advocacy side of things, 2016 marked a different level of engagement – but it felt like we were late to the game. I certainly understand wanting to engage in a more public way.”
The public race has the potential to grow more heated in the coming weeks.
Tasha Williamson, a homelessness and criminal justice reform advocate who ran for mayor in the primary, for instance, has urged supporters on Facebook to call into Council meetings between now and the vote to advocate for Montgomery Steppe, arguing that “power players … are showing and telling us they will fight against every Black woman attempting to lead the Council.”
“In the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders, as a region we’ve united to lift black voices,” Williamson wrote. “Why would Jen Campbell, a white woman chose to run against a more qualified Black woman in 2020? Question Your Systems! This underscores all that is wrong in San Diego politics.”