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The room inside the Montevalle Community Center in Chula Vista slowly fills with residents who want to hear from the six candidates competing to become the city’s next mayor. Some spend time mingling and others settle into their seats, but no one stands out more than Aurora Murillo.
The 42-year Chula Vista resident quickly picks a seat close to the candidates, pulls out a pen and pad for notes and keeps an eye out for the volunteer collecting questions from the audience. A long-time property owner who runs them as rental properties, Murillo wants to know what the candidates think about an ordinance the City Council is set to take up regarding rent rules.
She’s still learning about some of the newer people in the race, she tells me, but with the primary inching closer she feels more pressure to decide. As the candidates pitch their big ideas for Chula Vista, she quickly scribbles notes. She mutters comments under her breath as each candidate speaks – not always positive, but an indicator she’s closely following this race.
Those running to replace now termed-out Mayor Mary Casillas Salas are once-congressional hopeful Ammar Campa-Najjar, Chula Vista Councilman John McCann, army veteran Spencer Cash, community college executive Zaneta Encarnacion, Chula Vista Councilwoman Jill Galvez and former Councilman Rudy Ramirez.
The key issues in the race are those many residents have heard about for years: bringing a university to Chula Vista, changing its sleepy town stigma to a place that invites business and innovation and hiring more police officers and fire fighters.
But it’s apparent after speaking with dozens of residents, that it’s not the topics they have grown tired of, it’s more of the long-standing promises from their city leaders about bringing them to life.
At the forum hosted by the San Diego chapter of the Women League of Voters in April, Campa-Najjar taps into that frustration when he jokes that people’s eyes glazed over at the first mention of bringing a university to Chula Vista.
“You’ve heard about it for 25 years,” he said.
Candidates and residents say the city seems to be at an interesting turning point – though it’s been there before. But residents tell me they are yearning for change that improves their quality of life.
The city continues to grow, and the same pressures that it’s faced for years are becoming even more compounded. Solutions sought by its previous leaders to address homelessness, improve public safety, and balance its budget are no longer something that seems sustainable to residents.
Its leadership is changing not only with the open mayor’s seat, but also two City Council seats for districts 1 and 2 and a city attorney. Councilman Steve Padilla, who represents District 3, is running for the California State Senate. If he wins that race, the council could appoint someone or hold a special election.
That’s potentially five of Chula Vista’s six elected positions in flux over the next few months, ushering in a new class of leaders to shape the city it becomes.
Failure to Launch
Chula Vista is the second largest city in the region, with a population of more than 270,000 – 60 percent of which are Latinos. It manages a budget of some $472.9 million.
It’s also a city that many just drive past, residents tell me. It’s the kind of place where people purchase homes, but work and spend their money elsewhere – one candidate even joked that the city’s own residents would rather spend a date night out in Little Italy than their own city. It’s also a place where its own small businesses owners say they wouldn’t recommend fellow entrepreneurs set up shop.
But it’s also a city rich in diversity, culture and community. It has a big voice in the region’s local government agencies such as the San Diego Association of Governments. And the people who call it home feel immense pride over it and want to see the city prosper for their children.
“I don’t think I’ll ever leave,” Steve Garcia, owner of Thr3e Punk Ales brewery on Third Avenue, tells me over coffee one day. “I like it here too much. Where would I go? I’m from Chula Vista, I have a Chula Vista tattoo on my arm … on my back.”
Garcia wants a mayor who has fresh ideas and is willing to bring investment to the city. Someone who is willing to work with council members to improve the city and bring some long-standing promises to life.
“Why are we always that city that plans, but then has a failure to launch … kind of mentality,” he said.
He remembers hearing murmurs about a university coming to his town when he graduated from Bonita Vista High School in 1997. He’s also all too familiar with another long-standing promise: the bayfront redevelopment. He opened a bar in 2018 off J Street because it was a good opportunity, but also with the foresight that it would be a prime location for a business if the bayfront became a reality.
It’s taken time, but that project is making some progress.
“I feel like we deserve somebody who’s ready to take the reins and take us to a level that I feel we deserve,” Garcia said.
Garcia spent the last couple months interviewing the mayoral candidates on his podcast Emo Brown. And though he hasn’t totally decided who he is voting for, one person’s name comes up.
“It’s going to take somebody with new connections, new ideas … somebody who is completely ready,” Garcia said. “The more we talk about it, it sounds like Ammar to me. He paints that picture, and we’ll see. Good luck to him.”
Campa-Najjar spent four years trying to make a name for himself in East County. But now he’s making a run for Chula Vista.
“We need a mayor with a big city vision,” Campa-Najjar told me over a recent lunch at his favorite Chula Vista restaurant.
That’s an old tale often shared about the city of San Diego, and Mayor Todd Gloria shared that same big city wish back in November 2020.
Campa-Najjar wants to get the city to more aggressively pursue state and federal dollars, attract more businesses to east Chula Vista and redevelop areas of west Chula Vista to attract more visitors and encourage local entrepreneurs to open businesses.
Campa-Najjar snagged the endorsement from several labor groups, including the firefighter’s union. He talks about making sure that the city’s firefighters are paid fairly. He had a handful of fire fighters join us to talk about their community and what they want from their next city leader.
“He cares about the people, and you can tell,” said Brett Martin, a first responder in Chula Vista. “We are not here today, just for more money in our pockets, which we do need, it’s about the city, it’s about the people.”
A few weeks after the candidate forum Murillo shares that she thinks the city is ready for a mayor who prioritizes the needs of its residents over their own.
“Someone that focuses on what is the best thing for the community, whether it gives (the candidate) notoriety or not, instead of seeking self-glorification,” she said.
Murillo was deeply disturbed by how the city’s leaders handled the trash strike that forced residents to drive their own trash to the landfill or watch as their garbage piled up. City officials tied their own hands several years ago when they approved a franchise agreement with Republic Services that gave away the city’s leverage. It basically said the company wouldn’t be at fault in the face of an “uncontrollable circumstance,” which included a strike or work stoppage.
Cash said the trash strike is why he’s running. In an interview, he said financial mismanagement is at the root of every problem facing the city.
He is the only independent in the race. If elected, he said he would strengthen the city’s contract process so that situations like what happened with Republic Services don’t happen again.
“I’ve lived my working career as a good steward of the taxpayer’s dollars serving our federal government for over 20 years,” Cash said.
Murillo thinks the next mayor should be someone who isn’t afraid to be criticized by residents, but who listens to residents on big policy decisions.
Encarnacion is supported by dozens of elected officials including Casillas Salas, County Supervisor Nora Vargas, and the Democratic party.
She said the city needs to confront the tension between helping the city grow – bringing business and more housing – and making sure the city doesn’t lose what makes it special. That means engaging the community early on and in a way that is intentional, not just antiquated public forums or public comments at council meetings, to allow residents to be a part of the process.
“We have to keep our community involved because what happens is that when the community is involved what happens is sustainable because it’s something they have helped create, something that they own,” she said.
She said that approach will be important as the city continues to mature because that same growth is what has forced people to face the impacts of that growth.
“As more people move into our city, and less jobs in our city, more and more people are seeing the urgency of needing to do things a little different,” she said.
Murillo said she still needs to do more to learn about Zaneta, but after the forum, she’s leaning toward supporting Ramirez.
Ramirez served on the City Council from 2006 to 2014. During an interview he said he feels strongly about making himself available to residents during public office hours if elected.
He feels that for far too long the council has operated under a staff-led agenda that he intends to change. He wants the council to drive the agenda on the issues of homelessness, and business, and for it to take its place as a leader on regional boards.
He said that direction will be important in helping the city as it continues to grow.
“It’s poised to take another big step and we don’t have a lot of time to squander,” he said.
A Person Who Knows Chula Vista like the Back of Their Hand
Jorge Marroquin has lived in Chula Vista for 26 years. He sits on the city’s Safety Commission.
He’s focused on the city’s homeless population and improving the quality of life in the city.
It’s important to him that whoever replaces Casillas Salas is someone who has been present in the community for many years. That’s a feeling that other community members share.
On a recent Monday, Galvez spent the morning speaking with voters. Galvez has served on the City Council since 2018. She said she is determined to do right by Chula Vista and not sell out to special interests. She points to a recent vote regarding a change of zoning for a plot of land from industrial to residential, but it’s near a landfill, which seemed to have a more appropriate use for industrial, she said. Galvez was the lone no vote.
“This is my passion, taking care of people,” she said. After being frustrated by decisions by other councilmembers, she decided, “I’m gonna drive the bus or get off the bus.”
Later that day, she said, she knocked on 127 voters’ doors. She had conversations about the city’s role in the region, improving transportation and increasing housing supply.
At a law enforcement appreciation event earlier this month, a volunteer at one of the booths pulls Councilman John McCann aside and tells him he has his vote because he thinks there needs to be some common sense in leadership.
McCann said people are concerned about potholes being filled and that their basic needs are taken care of: roads, police and fire.
As we walk, he speaks to a firefighter who tells him that he’s sorry the union didn’t back him and that he’s his preferred candidate.
McCann is the only Republican in the race. He currently represents Chula Vista’s District 1. He’s served on the City Council since 2014. And he secured the endorsement of the Chula Vista police union.
Just 22 percent of Chula Vista’s voters are registered Republicans, according to the county’s latest registration figures. But as the only Republican in a crowded field, McCann will have an inside track with that chunk of residents. The field of Democrats will square off over the 46 percent of the city’s registered voters who are party members. But the second largest group of voters in Chula Vista declined to choose a party, at 26 percent.
McCann said he’s proud of what he’s accomplished as a council member.
“It takes understanding the complexities of making things happen and I believe I have the qualifications to be able to do that,” he said.