Democrats now control every elected office in the city of San Diego, but Republicans won pivotal seats Tuesday in city halls across the county.
Those flipped seats won’t just change control of those cities – including the second and fourth largest in the region. They could also shift power at regional agencies like the San Diego Association of Governments and the Port of San Diego, where municipal officials or their appointees dictate policy as board members.
It may be cold comfort for a party that not long ago held the San Diego mayor’s office and the County Board of Supervisors, but it demonstrates that Democrats’ demographic ascendance has not resulted in uniform control of regional policy.
The party’s biggest win came in Chula Vista, where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two to one. Yet Republican City Councilman John McCann was up 10 percentage points against his rival Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar in the latest ballot count released Thursday evening. Another Republican, Steve Stenberg, won a City Council seat , leaving partisan control of city government to a what will likely be a low-turnout special election next year to replace Councilman Steve Padilla, who won his race for the state Senate.
In Escondido, Mayor Paul McNamara lost his re-election bid, four years after a surprise victory amid a Democratic wave. Republican Dane White’s victory means the city will send a Republican to SANDAG. McNamara had let the seat sit vacant for the last six months, after the Republican-majority council blocked his attempt to appoint himself.
National City’s new mayor won’t be a Republican, but Ron Morrison, the city’s former mayor, is a right-of-center independent who beat two Democrats in a city with nearly three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans.
Morrison and McCann could have more company in the South Bay, too, with Republican Shirley Nakawatse and Paloma Aguirre separated by just 30 votes as of Thursday’s count. Aguirre holds the lead in the count.
Each of those South Bay cities have a representative on the Board of Port Commissioners for the port of San Diego, which controls development in the state-owned tidelands along the San Diego Bay – they decide projects like the ongoing Seaport Village redevelopment. A power shift in those city halls could in coming years materialize as a shift on that board, too, as the terms of the appointed representatives end.
Republican Melanie Burkholder also won a seat in Carlsbad that was held by Democrat Cori Schumacher until she resigned last year. Republicans have a 3-2 majority there. Burkholder and Councilwoman Laura Lothian, who won re-election in La Mesa, both focused their campaigns on opposition to SANDAG’s most controversial policy: a proposal to eventually charge drivers for every mile they drive to fund transportation projects and curb climate change.
That, Republican Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey said, is the big takeaway from the party’s wins this cycle.
“I look at a lot of those elections as a referendum on SANDAG,” he said. “In each of those races, SANDAG issues were a big part of the campaigns, and the candidates pushing for a more balanced agency ultimately prevailed.”
Bailey has been among the most outspoken SANDAG board members opposing the policy direction of Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata, who has had the support of the board’s larger and more urban cities in his to make the region’s transportation system more transit focused to comply with state environmental mandates. Because each board member’s vote is weighted to the size of the city they represent, that support allowed him to prevail over the objections of representatives from smaller, more rural and more conservative cities whose leaders wanted the agency to continue prioritizing freeway widening.
That was true until last December, when the board approved a long-term transportation plan for the region that included a proposal to eventually levy a countywide driving fee. Criticism of the proposal had by then made it politically toxic, leading San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, the board’s chair, to pass a motion moments after approving the plan to drop the fee from it.
That still hasn’t happened, but it created a wedge between Ikhrata and the board majority. If Republicans can get a representative with Chula Vista’s weighted vote, which could come down to the results of the council special election, that gap could widen even more.
“I think the combination of people seeing campaigns have success running on SANDAG reform, along with new faces at SANDAG, I think you’ll have a more balanced approach,” Bailey said.
La Mesa Councilwoman Laura Lothian won her seat last year in a special election, then won re-election this year. But the city also elected a Democratic mayor, and a Democratic councilwoman alongside Lothian.
La Mesa Councilman Colin Parent said the fact that Republicans did better than in recent years but still lost plenty of races reflect an important difference between elections in big cities and small cities.
“In small cities it really matters who the candidate is,” he said. “Personal relationships mean more, and party affiliation and endorsements from political affiliations mean less. Because, with a smaller electorate, the candidate can have genuine relationships with a larger percentage of voters. In larger cities, voters have to rely on the information shortcuts that come from endorsements and party affiliations. Ron Morrison has been around a long time. People know him and like him. It’s easy to forget that that matters in a world of partisan polarization.”
Parent is shorting the lasting impact of any partisan shift on SANDAG’s board, though.
“Despite all their talk, SANDAG doesn’t have the revenues to do all the stuff they want to do,” he said. “If by some strange circumstance there’s Republican control of agency, it won’t change much on which projects are built and funded in the immediate term. They could control for a couple of years, and there still isn’t a ton of money for projects. They could direct planning for highway projects and abandon transit projects, and then two years from now an election could change things again.”