Councilwomen Jen Campbell and Monica Montgomery at Golden Hall on election night in 2018 / Photos by Adriana Heldiz

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe now has support from the left’s most influential establishment organizations for her bid to be the city’s next Council president, just two years after both groups opposed her election to the City Council in the first place.

The process to lock up that support, though, reflects the way things have changed since 2018, and how they haven’t.

Last Wednesday, for instance, the San Diego-Imperial County Labor Council voted overwhelmingly to support Montgomery Steppe for Council president, with over 75 percent of the delegates from other regional unions voting for her over Councilwoman Jen Campbell. Two years earlier, the group gave significant financial support to former Council President Myrtle Cole’s re-election bid, who Montgomery Steppe eventually ousted.

This year’s Council president race is the first playing out in full public view. While establishment groups with interests in City Hall have long lobbied the Council over who to select, activists have this year succeeded in taking that jockeying into the press, social media and, most recently, endorsement votes at major institutions. It also means the new 8-1 Democratic City Council’s first vote, on Dec. 10, will be a contentious one.

But the Labor Council didn’t publicly announce its endorsement Wednesday night, or the day after. By Friday, the group still hadn’t announced the decision and the group declined to confirm to Voice of San Diego that it had, in fact, endorsed Montgomery Steppe.

Keith Maddox, the group’s executive secretary-treasurer, also sent an email Friday afternoon to other members of the Labor Council’s executive board that explained why the group had not announced its position.

“I have received calls from some of our Executive Board members questioning the vote taken at the Delegates meeting on Wednesday evening,” Maddox wrote in the email, obtained by Voice of San Diego. He noted that the item had not appeared on the agenda ahead of time.

He wrote that the decision hadn’t gone through the required formal endorsement process, and it hadn’t first been voted on by the full executive board before it was voted on by the organization’s delegates.

“These are two questions that are related that needs clarity,” he wrote. “I was not going to be the person that attempted to shut down this discussion. But we have an issue that will need sound advice.”

But on Saturday morning, the organization issued a statement affirming its endorsement.

“The San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council, representing 200,000 working families, supports Monica Montgomery Steppe for San Diego City Council president,” read the statement, which the Labor Council also posted on social media. A spokesperson for the Labor Council couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Shane Parmely, a National Education Association board member and Labor Council delegate, made the motion to support Montgomery Steppe, and said they specifically phrased it as a “letter of support” so that it didn’t run afoul of the organization’s endorsement procedures.

They said the overwhelming outcome of the vote showed not only the outpouring of support for Montgomery Steppe – but that there was a supermajority ready to amend the organization’s bylaws if the organization’s leaders decided to make an issue out of it.

“There clearly is a split between leadership and the rank-and-file,” said Parmely, who also shared her frustration on Facebook Friday night, after Maddox’s email. “I think pointing that out could get people to rethink things. You don’t normally get that kind of vote.”

Temika Cook, a Labor Council delegate and labor and party activist, sent an email to the rest of the executive board Friday evening, after receiving Maddox’s email. In it, she argued it was clear that because the vote was for a “statement of support,” it did not need to follow the specific bylaws in question, which she said were written “to suppress the voice of the Delegates.”

“I have sat back and have not been vocal on a lot of the racist, misogynistic, and homophobic behavior! Enough is enough!” Cook wrote in an email to the Labor Council’s executive board, obtained by Voice of San Diego. “If the vote was in favor of a statement of support for Dr. Jen Campbell (a woman of privilege) or a Latino/a/x there would be no doubt of the vote. Since the vote is for a woman who defied the odds that was stacked against her, you want to question the vote.”

Cook told Voice of San Diego Tuesday it’s clear to her the Labor Council’s leadership wants to support Campbell, and is using procedural concerns as an excuse.

“As a member of the Labor Council, they have still not examined what happened in 2018, and they haven’t learned their lesson,” she said. “They need to listen to the community.”

One labor group that did support Montgomery Steppe during her 2018 Council bid – in which despite being heavily out-endorsed and outspent by the incumbent Cole, she won a landslide victory on the back of support from outspoken District 4 groups and progressive activists – was SEIU 221. That group is scheduled to consider an endorsement in the Council president race that it will announce after Thanksgiving.

But Montgomery Steppe’s experience at the San Diego County Democratic Party last week showed a starker contrast from 2018. There, it was the party’s leadership – which took over after the 2018 election cycle – that pushed for an endorsement vote, against opposition that said it couldn’t because the party didn’t follow its formal endorsement process. Leadership prevailed by arguing that because the Council president decision doesn’t go before voters, it didn’t fall into the normal endorsement procedure.

Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, the party’s chair since early 2019, said the way the Council president endorsement vote played out is indicative of a party that is changing.

“What we’re looking at right now is a party that is engaging in the politics of the day by supporting the community-backed and community-minded candidate,” he said. “When I became chair, I promised we would do this – we would engage in elections, and we would engage in the policy of the day. And if the party had not done that, the Council presidency could be going a different way.”

He said there’s a momentum effect in politics, and he thinks the party vote helped pave the way for the Labor Council vote.

“It’s very clear that in this conflict there are people who are very powerful who are operating behind the scenes to select the next Council president,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said. “What we’ve seen, mostly because of the leadership of activists is, this conflict has been brought into the open.”

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

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