The Rise and Fall (for Now) of Georgette Gómez

Politics

The Rise and Fall (for Now) of Georgette Gómez

Georgette Gómez quickly rose from environmental justice organizer to one of the most powerful Democrats in San Diego. But in a few weeks, she’ll be out of a job. The loss reflects the extent to which she still has work to do if she hopes to revive her political career.

Council President Georgette Gómez appears at a rally on Election Day. / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

Perhaps no one in San Diego benefited more directly when San Diego Democrats dominated the November 2018 election than Georgette Gómez.

The party took a veto-proof majority of the City Council, and she quickly assembled the votes to be San Diego’s new Council president. A few weeks later, the city’s Republican mayor took a rare trip to the Metropolitan Transit System to cast the decisive vote that made her the agency’s chair. She was also the representative for the city’s outsized vote on the San Diego Association of Governments.

It was not a stretch to call her the most powerful Democrat in local politics. Just four years earlier, she was the lead organizer for the Barrio Logan community plan, an effort to limit industrial pollution in the working class, heavily Latino neighborhood that was crushed by the financial heft of the industrial shipyards nearby when it was sent to a citywide vote. Now, she was steering the city’s ascendant progressive majority, perfectly positioned to shape an environmentally friendly, transit-focused vision for the region.

Last week, she lost a congressional bid in a landslide – 19 points, as of the latest ballot count – to Sara Jacobs, who has never held elective office and lost a race in a different congressional district in 2018. As of Dec. 10, Gómez will hold no public office.

“I never thought that someone like me, a Queer brown woman from Barrio Logan, would ever run for office, let alone run to make history in Congress,” Gómez wrote in an election-night concession. “And while we did not win this one, I will never give up the fight for equality and justice and a sustainable planet.”

Her congressional race had the gleam of one that could capture national attention – a queer Latina who came to politics through environmental justice organizing in some of the city’s poorest communities, against the heir of one of the wealthiest men in San Diego County, who not only had never held elective office, but whose roots in local politics reach back only two years.

Indeed, Gómez collected endorsements from national figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, helping place the race into a familiar template: leftist woman of color versus a moneyed stand-in for the establishment.

But it did not play out that way.

It didn’t help that Jacobs refused to play the centrist to Gómez’s leftist. While her biography fit the profile, Jacobs’ positions on the most pressing issues didn’t: She supports the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, “wholesale reform” of federal border and immigration agencies, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and expanded gun violence prevention measures.

But Gómez had her own problems to overcome too. And the results – specifically in the part of the congressional district that overlaps with her Council district – reflect the extent to which she still has work to do if she hopes to revive her political career.

The share of voters who supported Sara Jacobs, by precinct, in the 53rd Congressional District race, and the piece of the district that overlaps with City Council District 9. / Map by Vince Vasquez

At least one presumed advantage Gómez had was that she was already an elected official, so voters had some familiarity with her. That was already overstated, since the 53rd Congressional District included only a sliver of the Council’s District 9.

But even in the precincts within that small overlap, Jacobs took between 50 percent and 58 percent of the vote, according to a precinct-level analysis by Vince Vasquez, an independent elections analyst.

“Typically, what you’d see is, it would pop out on a map, ‘Oh, that’s the area the member represents currently,’” Vasquez said. “You do not see that here.”

It’s surprising, he said, because Jacobs – who won big in other parts of the district more likely to have older voters – also won the more diverse and younger precincts in the College West, College East, Rolando Park and Redwoods areas.

“You would have thought those voters were closer to the message and political base for (Gómez),” he said.

The only part of CA-53 in which Gómez did well is in Council District 3, which she did not represent, but is home to “the under 50, White, college-educated, progressive urbanist” community, Vasquez said.

While those results might be surprising, there were warnings. In three pre-election polls, non-White voters favored Jacobs. The last of those showed Jacobs with a 17-point edge among Hispanic voters.

An Unproductive Council

How did it go so wrong?

For one, Gómez didn’t have much to show for her own stated priorities when she accumulated so much power. In early 2019, for instance, she published a “work plan” for the new City Council. The Council took some steps on some of the issues, but nothing resembling a significant shift on any of them, which are still among the most significant facing the city – homelessness, housing costs, economic development in low-income areas, “reforming and transforming public safety.”

Gómez’s biggest policy push from the Council president’s office came on the so-called inclusionary housing policy, in which she attempted to force developers to provide more low-income housing as part of their new, market-rate projects. Early on, she moderated her proposal from what progressives hoped to accomplish with their veto-proof majority. When even that wasn’t enough to get support, she pushed forward anyway, yet lacked the votes to overcome a mayoral veto. She eventually got the Council to approve an even more scaled-back proposal.

That was her top Council priority. But in 2019, she also told me her top priority in the 2020 election was “hands down” a sales tax increase to fund transit improvements, then headed to this year’s ballot. That was about a month before Rep. Susan Davis announced she wouldn’t seek re-election. Gómez announced her congressional run about 10 days later, and just a month after that she stepped down from her role as MTS chair, leaving that top priority in the hands of County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who succeeded her on the board. The COVID-19 pandemic ultimately killed the measure before the agency had a chance to put it before voters.

Not everyone on the left is harshly critical of Gómez’s Council president tenure.

It was under Gómez, for instance, that the Council (and mayor) finally took the leap to create San Diego Community Power, a so-called community choice agency that will buy power for city residents, rather than San Diego Gas and Electric, in hopes of expediting the city’s shift to 100 percent renewable energy. Doing so accounts for roughly half of the emissions reductions in the city’s touted Climate Action Plan.

But even after the big change, which was in the works for years, Nicole Capretz, director of the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, said the last two years have been a mixed bag on progress for climate-oriented policies. On building bike lanes and making way for the type of new development that will let the city hit other key climate goals, the Council hasn’t done much.

“On community choice, the mayor and Council deserve credit – that’s almost half of the climate plan,” she said. “But on transportation and land use, we’ve seen very little progress. There’s been incremental support for more infill development. There’s been some progress, but it’s not even close to what we need. It’s baby steps when we need leaps.”

Capretz hopes the next mayor and Council will lay out concrete steps the city can take to break the city’s marriage to car commuting.

Others are more critical. Andrea Guerrero, executive director of the grassroots organizing group Alliance San Diego, hasn’t forgotten Gómez’s decision to let the Council put a measure on the March ballot to raise hotel taxes to expand the Convention Center and raise money for homeless programs. In 2016, Alliance was a lead group behind Measure L, which sought to put citizens initiatives on general election ballots, when turnout is highest. The measure allowed the Council to put them on primary ballots instead, but Alliance and progressive groups argued the allowance was for emergency circumstances only.

Guerrero said Gómez’s use of “the loophole” contravened the will of the voters.

“Although she stated that she would take action to close the loophole that she used to undermine Measure L – after she used the loophole – her words were empty promises,” Guerrero said. “She never followed up. Unfortunately, these were defining moments that shaped her tenure on the City Council. These can also be learning moments that could shape her future. How she uses these moments will be up to her.”

Gómez declined an interview request for this story.

The course of the campaign itself wasn’t great for Gómez either. One of her ex-staffers, Kelvin Barrios, had to drop out of his campaign to replace her on the City Council, after the district attorney’s office launched an investigation into his handling of finances for Democratic political clubs and he acknowledged getting paid by a private labor union while he was still working in Gómez’s office (a job he took shortly after working with that union on a major city project as a Gómez aide). Gómez also failed to report $100,000 of her own income on her taxes, as the Union-Tribune reported.

And she was Council president this summer, when, during the height of police misconduct protests following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, dozens of activists demanded the Council reallocate $100 million from SDPD’s budget. The Council ignored those demands. Days later, Gómez said she didn’t have the votes to do that, either.

Protesters gather in downtown San Diego to speak out against police brutality. Some held signs voicing their disappointment with local leaders, including Council President Georgette Gómez, after the Council passed a budget that increased police funding. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Genevieve Jones-Wright, a criminal justice reform advocate who ran for district attorney in 2018 and who last week was minted president of the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association, said she came to see Gómez as a defender of the status quo, despite her start as a grassroots community organizer.

“A lot of people were surprised by my endorsement (of Jacobs),” Jones-Wright said. “But I look at values, and at political courage. It doesn’t come down to wealth or a certain lens – it comes down to values.”

But Gómez isn’t the first candidate to lose a race, or the first one to lose after assembling a lot of political power.

Rep. Scott Peters ran unsuccessfully for city attorney before landing in Congress. Fletcher lost two mayoral races before working his way into county government. If Gómez wants to get back into government, she’ll have her chances, and she might not have to wait very long.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, for instance, has already declared her run for Secretary of State in 2022. That could create a vacancy for the 80th District Assembly seat.

Gonzalez supported Gómez’s congressional run, but said shortly after she announced that she had always kind of hoped that Gómez would succeed her in the Assembly. Maybe she still can.

It wouldn’t be the first time she rebounded. On the morning of Election Day in 2014, I saw Gómez, alone, on a street corner in Barrio Logan trying, desperately, to get drivers’ attention as she waived signs urging them to vote for the community plan that would separate homes from industrial businesses. The measure was getting outspent 10-to-1 at the time, and the shipbuilding industry ultimately prevailed by over 15 points. In 2016, she ran for Council and watched as labor groups supported one of her opponents, and the Chamber of Commerce supported another. She made it through the primary, and was outspent 3-to-1 in the general.

She won, and within two years had become the most powerful Democrat in San Diego.

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