Becca Williams with her children in her Pacific Beach home (left) and Cody Petterson in his La Jolla home. / Photos by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran for Voice of San Diego

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Spending in San Diego Unified’s District C race has heated up in the final month before the election, with groups like the teacher’s union and political action committee, The Community Leadership Coalition, dropping tens of thousands of dollars on conservative charter school founder, Becca Williams and liberal professor, Cody Petterson.

Since early October, The Community Leadership Coalition has spent over $110,000 on mailers, with around $59,800 going to oppose Petterson’s campaign and around $54,800 to support Williams. That is over two and a half times as much as Petterson’s campaign has raised in total.

The PAC is also supporting other conservative candidates, including Jordan Marks in the county assessor race, John Duncan in the Coronado city council race and Julie Bronstein and Phan Anderson in the San Dieguito Union High School board race. The PAC has also spent big to oppose Ammar Campa-Najjar in the race for Chula Vista mayor, though they’ve spent more on the District C board seat than in any other race this cycle.

But even given that rush of funds, the teachers union has still far outspent Williams on Petterson’s behalf, dishing out $147,000 in the last month alone. The union has spent $69,000 on pro-Petterson mailers and digital ads, and $78,000 on mailers to oppose Williams. They’ve also spent a much smaller amount to support former nonprofit executive Shana Hazan’s run against former principal and educator Godwin Higa in District B, about $20,000 in the past month.

Petterson said there are certain elements at play in the increased spending. District B seems to be a uncompetitive. Hazan, the other candidate endorsed by the teacher’s union has exponentially outraised her opponent, and run a tight, polished campaign at odds with Higa’s grassroots approach. But the district C race is not only the only real competitive school board race, it’s also one of the only traditional Democrat versus Republican races in town. 

“If you look at what’s happening in the city of San Diego, there’s no real Republican races left,” Petterson said. But, he said it’s been difficult communicating that the race is competitive.

“The race got much, much bigger than we probably anticipated,” Petterson said. “And especially (during) the general election, I’ve had trouble convincing people that this is a real race. And it is a real race.”

The mailers sent out in recent weeks have become increasingly negative and leaned hard into national political messaging. Some pro-Petterson mailers depict Williams as a cowboy hat-wearing Texas Republican and connect her to tinfoil-hat COVID conspiracy theorists or red Make America Great Again hats. “Becca Williams’ extremism puts our kids’ education and safety at risk,” one mailer reads.

That messaging doesn’t surprise Williams.

“I took positions on very controversial things and I drew a lot of fire,” she said. “The masking, and if you say anything about vaccines, you’re immediately an anti-vaxxer no matter what the comment was,” Williams said.

She opposed the district’s masking policy and its vaccine mandate and has appeared with outspoken local anti-masking and anti-vaccine mandate activist, Sharon McKeeman, who founded Let Them Breathe and is running for the Carlsbad school board.

Still, Williams recently filed a cease-and-desist against the teacher’s union to push back against some of the characterizations in their mailers, like the claim that she moved to San Diego from Texas, when she actually moved from Washington DC where she attended the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

“You face significant civil liability for the harm that you have caused Mrs. Williams,” the cease-and-desist reads, requesting that the union withdraw the “false, defamatory, and malicious statements,” refrain from publishing further similar statements and issue a public apology.

Recent anti-Petterson mailers have also veered hard into politics. One mailer by The Community Leadership Coalition shows Petterson’s smiling face in front of a spooky graveyard. “Don’t let political activist Cody Petterson become a nightmare on the San Diego Unified School District board,” it reads. The mailer warns of “failing schools,” “struggling students” and “anxious teachers,” and promises that Williams “will bring an end to SDSUSD’s nightmare.” Other recent mailers sent by the county Republican party claim kids at the district are being “encouraged to change their gender without parental knowledge,” and that political activism is replacing instructional time.

The mailers highlight another dynamic in the race, which is that in some ways Petterson is running on a platform of supporting the district, while Williams seems to be running against the current formulation of San Diego Unified and its board.

“Honestly, I feel like I was running against (SDUSD board member) Richard Barrera for part of this race, and that it’s not really about Cody Petterson,” Williams said

Barrera has opposed Williams’ run, as in a recent email blast sent by the union showing that the single largest donor to The Community Leadership Coalition during the current fundraising period is Adriana Camberos, formerly Adriana Shayota. Camberos was convicted in a scheme to distribute fake 5-hour energy drinks in 2017 and was pardoned in a group of 11th hour commutations by former President Donald Trump. “Seeing this MAGA lawlessness unleashed by Trump start to infiltrate a San Diego School Board race is truly startling,” Barrera wrote, equating the funding to “criminal elements” supporting Williams’ campaign.

As much as some of her positions – like her opposition to the vaccine mandate, skepticism of masking and support of student vouchers – have chafed some voters and organizations and opened her up to attacks, Williams also thinks it’s been key to building what she sees as a significant amount of enthusiasm for her campaign. And regardless of what happens on Tuesday, she said she doesn’t regret taking those positions.

“I might not have the numbers, but I definitely have the enthusiasm,” she said. “And if I do win, that was actually the formula for winning.”

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter.

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