Cars are unloaded from the Swan Ace at the Port of San Diego’s National City Marine Terminal. / Photo by Sam Hodgson
Cars are unloaded from the Swan Ace at the Port of San Diego’s National City Marine Terminal. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

This post originally ran in the Dec. 5 Politics ReportSubscribe to the Politics Report today.

Sandy Naranjo this week became National City’s newest representative on the Port of San Diego, the agency tasked with governing state 34 miles of state tidelands along the San Diego Bay, after the City Council voted to appoint her to the position.

Naranjo is not a new face in local politics. She’s been a labor organizer with the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and the United Food and Commercial Workers – where she was also one of the first women to allege gender discrimination against the group’s former leader, Mickey Kasparian, eventually leading to his ouster – and an outspoken environmental justice activist with the group Mothers Out Front, and the Environmental Health Coalition.

Sandy Naranjo is National City’s newest representative on the Port of San Diego. / Photo courtesy Sandy Naranjo
Sandy Naranjo is National City’s newest representative on the Port of San Diego. / Photo courtesy Sandy Naranjo

Naranjo ran a successful public campaign for the seat, openly making her case on social media and at the San Diego County Democratic Party, bucking the tradition of appointments to regional bodies like the Port happening mostly in private.

We talked to her about new priorities she could bring to the agency, and why she hopes public campaigns for boards and commissions becomes a trend.

It seems like your career history represents a departure from the typical profile of a Port commissioner – do you agree with that, and how would you describe the difference?

The way I’d describe how I’m different is my background – it’s been in grassroots, whether that’s labor organizing, or environmental justice. Traditionally, these seats, the types of appointments you see are retired business folks, people who still have active careers in business, attorneys or people from the military. There’s this profile that’s set up. For me, to be selected, it shows the importance of grassroots organizing, and community intelligence is as important as real estate financing expertise or military experience. I’m the first Latina on the Port Commission. And my background shows what my priority is, and that will be environmental justice.

Regional agencies like the Port are often very staff-driven – they have a strong executive and staff, and the board often ends up saying yes or no, or offering direction within a narrow window, but not necessarily pushing an agenda. Do you think you can change that dynamic?

I was involved in the AB 617 steering committee. That was a law passed in 2017, which allocated state money for communities hit with toxic pollution. It allocated $18 million to Barrio Logan, western National City and Sherman Heights. That goes to monitoring and mitigation, which could be used for things like electrification. We were responsible with coming up to solutions to reduce injustices. So instead of allocating money to an agency, and then having a staff that runs it and says, “here’s what we think,” the law said, “you need a stakeholder process, and the majority of your members needs to be from your impacted communities.” So for two years, we met with people who lived in environmental justice communities, representatives from industry, from the Navy, the Port and MTS, and we developed a community emissions reduction plan. To be successful, it needs to be implemented, which means everyone needs buy in. You can’t have the traditional way of staff drafting it, saying, “This is the way it is.” You need an organic, grassroots process to develop strategies and policies … that whole process to me means, engaging the community and tracking progress. My priority when I say environmental justice, I look at a CalEnviroScreen map, see where it’s red and say, “What are the steps to turn it green?” The Port showed us that at the 10th Avenue Terminal, there are 20 pieces of equipment contributing to emissions. That equipment, we can find funding to electrify it. And so there’s a process going on, there’s a community saying, “There’s a problem,” so lets create spaces for them. We need to be aggressive seeking the funding. There are a lot of things happening at our state, providing funding to help electrify. There’s a bill in Congress with millions for ports to help electrify. You have to be aggressive, not sit and wait for staff to bring something to the agenda.

Are you keeping a close eye on other cities’ appointments, and what the composition of the board might look like?

I’m looking on the city of San Diego, and what will be important is the Council president decision, because whoever gets it will determine the process of the Port appointment. I’m watching, I don’t have any detailed information from being on the outside. But what I hope is, whoever gets the Council presidency, that they select two commissioners who value environmental justice, that they value creating innovative solutions to advance our waterfront.

You publicly campaigned for this seat, where appointments have previously been hashed out behind the scenes. Do you think we’ll continue to see this sort of public discussion around powerful boards and commissions going forward?

I hope it becomes a pattern. It’s really important to have a campaign, so folks can understand the importance of these commissions. They make policy. They impact people’s lives. When it’s in the dark, it doesn’t benefit the public.

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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