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When the Union-Tribune editorial board endorsed Linda Lukacs in her race to oust City Councilwoman Jen Campbell, it offered a strange logic.
Campbell, the paper said, had laudable positions: She had resolved the long, torturous dilemma about how to regulate vacation rentals and she supported major investments in housing and development in the Midway area. In contrast, the paper wrote, Lukacs had “disappointing” views on housing and “seemed too inclined to Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) thinking.”
But ultimately, none of that mattered and the U-T endorsed Lukacs. Why? Campbell had refused to debate her challengers all but once. Her constituents see her as not responsive (seems accurate to me). And, her worst sin? She didn’t do an interview with the editorial board.
Yet Campbell woke up Wednesday morning a comfortable 10 percentage points ahead of Lukacs in the latest vote counts. She will win re-election without ever having to face tough questions and her opponent. Her and her consultants and the independent groups that spent sizably on her behalf ran an audacious campaign based on the simple theory that the best way for her to win was to face a Republican that they could tie to former President Donald Trump. They helped Republican, Lukacs, defeat two Democrats in the primary. She did and then they executed the final part of their plan and delivered Campbell another four years.
But the audacity of Campbell is more interesting than just how she engineered her re-election. All the things the U-T and the labor unions and the business community and others like about what she accomplished came not despite her lack of connection to her community, her unwillingness to engage her constituents. Those achievements came because of her unresponsiveness to the community.
If she were responsive to her community, she would have had views much closer to Lukacs. She would never have tried to broker a compromise on vacation rentals that the U-T hailed her for. The winning position in her district would be to demand a total ban on vacation rentals. They didn’t mention it but the other major legislative accomplishment she pursued was a deal on sidewalk vendors. It hasn’t had the impact in Ocean Beach and Mission Beach yet as the California Coastal Commission has only recently allowed it to be fully implemented. But it’s the exact sort of sticky issue that simpler politics would have had her avoid engaging with any sort of compromise in mind.
A responsive councilmember would have never supported an exemption to the height limit for the Midway area. Ten years ago, we did a story about the then 40th anniversary of the proposition that imposed a 30-foot height limit on construction west of Interstate 5. It included some thoughtful takes about areas that maybe, perhaps, could be allowed to build higher to accommodate housing needs.
The story didn’t even include then City Councilman Kevin Faulconer but he scrambled to put out a press release reassuring residents that he was not at all considering any exemption to the height limit!
Two years ago, when the City Council was considering Campbell and Councilman Chris Cate’s proposal to put an exemption for the entire Midway area on the ballot, Campbell was caught in a hot mic moment. The Council was meeting over Zoom and she didn’t mute her mic when she took a call.
“I’m not chicken at all about it,” she could be heard saying about the height limit. “What have I got to lose, right?”
That’s it. That was both the case for, and the case against, re-electing Jen Campbell. Her opponents were right — the U-T was right — she is not responsive to her constituents. That’s the only way she does something like the height limit exemption. Faulconer wouldn’t do it, as a City Councilman. If Mayor Todd Gloria were City Councilman for that coastal district, I can’t imagine him supporting it.
They are too responsive to their community. Sure they both supported the change as mayor but that’s different. Measure E in 2020 proved broadly popular citywide (except for on the coast, of course).
When I called asking for comment for this piece, her consultant, Dan Rottenstreich explained how they see it.
“She has succeeded where virtually every councilmember before her failed on some of the thorniest issues facing the city. She doesn’t let a small group of insiders and elitists and extremists stymie progress,” he said.
Cool, I said. Can I talk to her? He said he would ask.
Later he said she wouldn’t be able to talk to me. She was too busy, he wrote in a message, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, “doing community outreach.”