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Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

It’s now less than a year until the primary for the District 6 San Diego City Council seat.

Candidates are lined up, and they’re sweating a big deadline: June 30 is the last day they can collect donations before the first fundraising period ends. Not only do they want money, they want to show that people want to give them money, which will help them persuade more people to give them more money and give them more chance to win.

But how much money they’ll raise is far from the only uncertainty hanging over the candidates. Redistricting and the COVID-19 pandemic havecollided to create a number of big unanswered questions for an impending Council race.

It’s the only open seat on the City Council in 2022; Councilman Chris Cate will be termed out. Cate is currently the only Republican on the City Council, and the Republican he hoped would replace him dropped out of the race three weeks ago. An effort is underway to recruit a replacement. There is a very real chance that the City Council will have no Republicans for the first time since there were Republicans.

Then there’s the fact that nobody knows exactly what District 6 will be. The Redistricting Commission will be redrawing the lines for City Council districts and could make major modifications to it. Clairemont, for example, is mostly in District 6, but a key part of the neighborhood along Morena Boulevard is part of District 2.

And Rancho Peñasquitos is part of the district, but also not part of the district. Both neighborhoods could push for unification. And that could even cut some of the candidates out of the district – or into one where an incumbent is running. It’s all very complicated and will not be resolved until the end of 2021.

Activists worked hard in 2011 to secure an Asian empowerment district that would give Asian-Americans a large say over who represented the area, if not actually ensure that it was an Asian-American candidate who won the job. And one did: Cate.

“Chris Cate was the first Asian American on the City Council in 50 years. Will he be the last? We do not want that,” said Wesley Quach, the director of the Asian Business Association. “Whoever wins will need to be aware that your district was created to empower Asian-Americans — whatever staff you hire should be culturally competent.”

The San Diego Association of Governments estimated the district gained just less than 9,000 new residents in the past decade — far less than other areas that grew faster, and about 8,000 less than what will likely be needed for the district to be close to others in size. Those numbers, though, are only estimates. The real ones from the U.S. Census are delayed far longer than usual because of COVID-19.

That means the candidates must run without knowing exactly what they’re running for. District 6 could be modified or chopped up between many districts. Or the could stay largely the same.

“Obviously, there is some level of uncertainty, but if you want to run an effective campaign and be viable you have to just start running, create your own good luck and don’t worry about the uncertainty. The only thing you can control is your campaign,” said Dan Rottenstreich, a Democratic campaign consultant who is not currently working for anyone in the district.

The alternative, Rottenstreich said, is for candidates to wait. And if they do that, they’ll be way behind by the time it’s resolved.

And nobody’s waiting. The candidates didn’t seem overly concerned about how the boundaries will change.

“It’s more important to think about the people who are impacted and that there is a candidate looking out for them. You need to have a candidate who has their full heart in it regardless,” said Nicole Crosby, a deputy city attorney who is running for the seat.

If a year out can be called late, Crosby was sort of a late entry to the race, but her presence changes it. When City Attorney Mara Elliott launched her high-profile effort to secure gun violence restraining orders against people who might be a danger to themselves or others, she tapped Crosby to lead it. If Crosby wins, she would join two other former deputy city attorneys on the Council who won tough seats against Republican opponents: Raul Campillo in nearby District 7, and Marni Von Wilpert in District 5. Having “deputy city attorney” as your ballot description didn’t hurt Campillo and Von Wilpert at all.

Crosby said she, like other candidates, is thinking about the uncertainty of the district’s boundaries. And like other candidates she is gearing her appeal to a more general audience as she waits for more clarity.

That’s not the only uncertainty, though, hanging over the race. The other is the burden of history: How important is it for the Council to include representation of Asian Americans?

Tom Hom was the first Asian American elected to the San Diego City Council. That was 1963. Hom was also the first non-White person to take a seat on the Council. That was almost 60 years ago. Cate was the next Asian American.

“It’s not fair to ever state who or who should not be in that district based on their identity. Beyond just checking a box, we should be looking for people who are rooted in their community,” said Kent Lee, the executive director of Pacific Arts Movement.

But he said that with the circumstances Asian-Americans have faced since the pandemic began, nothing beats representation.

“Having allies is not the same as having representation at the table and as much as we can hope for others to speak for us, sometimes it takes people within particular communities to understand the barriers they face and the opportunities to change,” Lee said.

He said he’s handling the redistricting chaos the only way he knows how: by connecting with all the communities in the district as best he can.

Another candidate, Joel Day, similarly said that there are plenty of universal issues to focus on over the unknowns of redistricting.

“Redistricting doesn’t change the fact that we have massive income inequalities, a crisis in confidence in policing and a climate crisis. They are affecting all of us, and those are the vulnerabilities my candidacy is seeking to address,” said Day, a former top city manager who oversaw community engagement, public safety and police oversight. Day recently pledged to refuse campaign donations from police officer unions.

Day managed the city’s emergency effort to move homeless residents into the Convention Center after the COVID-19 pandemic hit San Diego.

And Tommy Hough, the environmentalist and former radio host who ran in 2018 for the job, said he’s not going to try to control something he can’t control either.

“Whatever the boundaries end up being, that’s what I plan on representing to my full abilities. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

And as for the need to represent people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, Hough said Mayor Todd Gloria’s election showed it’s more important to think of it as a city issue, not just a District 6 issue. Gloria calls himself “a Native American, Filipino, Puerto Rican gay guy” and is the first person of color elected mayor.

“We’re not just an Asian-empowerment district but an Asian-empowerment city,” Hough said. He’s attracted support from environmentalists across the region, including Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina.

We won’t know what the new district actually will be, however, for half a year at least. For many years, Chris Cate was a rising Republican star, a leader of a strong minority on City Council under a Republican mayor. He was discussed as a mayoral candidate but now has no intention of running for office again. His preferred successor to the seat dropped out of the race in early June and no Republican has indicated interest in it.

Rottenstreicht said it wouldn’t matter much for the Council as a whole. What’s one Republican versus none? The district though will care about its own district needs and challenges.

We’re just unsure for a while which neighborhoods the district will include.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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