Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Councilwoman Jen Campbell was ousted from the Council president’s seat Monday, after a surprise move that led to Sean Elo-Rivera becoming the body’s new leader. 

Elo-Rivera’s win, and Campbell’s loss, came at the hands of an unconventional Council majority. Councilman Chris Cate, the body’s lone Republican, joined the Council’s left flank to vote against Campbell’s re-election. 

That came just a year after the same left flank mounted an unsuccessful effort to put Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe in the position, only to run into a wall of the city’s political establishment. Campbell, with the backing of organized labor and the business community won the seat, as dozens of calls from social justice advocates supporting Montgomery-Steppe fell on deaf ears. 

Cate’s influence on the Council was clear both last year and this year. One of the Council President’s main roles is assigning council members to committees. Despite the 8-1 Democratic supermajority, last year, Cate voted for Campbell and snagged the role of chair of the budget committee, perhaps the Council’s most influential committee. 

It was unclear if Cate would keep that spot this year. He declined to explain more about why he would not support Campbell again, pointing only to a public statement that congratulated Elo-Rivera.  

“I appreciate the relationship we’ve built & look forward to working with you in 2022,” he wrote. 

The upheaval came as a surprise to most City Hall observers. Last year, Montgomery Steppe ran a public campaign for the position. She made her case in the press, and rallied constituents to support her during the public selection.   

This year, though, there was no public discussion of the election ahead of Monday’s meeting. All previous Council presidents since 2006 had won at least one re-election to the role.  

Instead, Monday, the meeting opened with a chaotic, stilted selection process filled with procedural disputes and confusion over who was allowed to make a nomination and when, and councilmembers opting to delay their vote until they could gain clarity on how things were unfolding. 

Councilman Stephen Whitburn attempted to re-elect Campbell, and Campbell shut down attempts to seek alternatives. It became clear she didn’t have the votes when she decided to make a case for herself. 

“We have had a year of consensus in our year on the Council,” she said, arguing the city had created a “center for equity” in all its policies. “I hope I can continue to lead our Council on this important work, and with your support I know we can improve our city and our region for all our residents, and I hope you will vote for me.” 

But Councilman Joe LaCava, after moving himself to the end of the line, cast the deciding vote against her. 

Campbell briefly attempted to nominate Whitburn instead, before calling for a recess to huddle with city lawyers on the process. When the Council came back from its break, the meeting again descended into the fog of Roberts Rules of Order before Campbell relented and granted Cate, Montgomery Steppe and Councilwoman Vivian Moreno’s collective attempts to vote for Elo-Rivera. 

He won on an 8-1 vote, with only Campbell voting against him. 

“To me the role of Council President is ensuring that we are being governed well, that we are being governed responsibly, that we are doing everything we can to ensure that all San Diegans get the leadership that they deserve from our Council, so that we can be the world class city for all that I know we can be,” he said.  

Elo-Rivera in his first year on the Council has led a nascent effort to repeal the People’s Ordinance, a long-standing voter-approved measure that keeps most owners of single-family homes from paying a special trash collection fee. The city collects trash at their homes. Most people who live in apartments or condos, on the other hand, must pay a special fee to private haulers to have their trash collected.  

He’s also, along with Cate, spearheaded an attempt to reform the San Diego Housing Commission, which is in the middle a scandal-plagued year over a financial conflict-of-interest case stemming from its acquisition of a hotel for formerly homeless residents, and subsequent deaths of those residents at the Commission-owned hotel. 

Campbell, meanwhile, bested a recall attempt earlier this year. Opponents had mounted the push because of her attempts to create a new regulatory regime around short-term vacation rentals and her support for removing the coastal height limit in Midway. It gained steam, though, after she won the Council presidency over Montgomery Steppe. 

She’s up for re-election in 2022, though it’s unclear who is running against her, as the political world waits for the final decision of the city’s redistricting process. Earlier Monday, KPBS reported that a Campbell staffer had submitted a new redistricting map that ended up becoming the basis of the map the commission is expected to vote on later this week. 

Council president is widely seen as an advantageous position to exert leadership and set the policy agenda for the Council. The president manages the Council’s workflow and schedule, determining when items will be discussed in public meetings, but also determines committee assignments and runs the Council’s meetings.  

Recent Council presidents, though, have had an auspicious run. Campbell was ousted Monday. Former Council President Georgette Gomez elevated her profile in 2018 when she took over the position, but then ran for congress last year and lost. That was after Montgomery Steppe knocked off former Council President Myrtle Cole as the incumbent in District 4, in part because residents in her district thought her office’s constituent work suffered as she was distracted by the president role. She was preceded by former Council President Sherri Lightner, whose career in politics ended after her time in the role. Lightner ousted Mayor Todd Gloria from the position, with the help of votes from four Republicans. 

Now, the role falls to Elo-Rivera. 

Andrew Keatts

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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