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Chula Vista Mayor’s Race Heats Up


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Voters in the county’s second-largest city placed incumbent mayor Steve Padilla in a distant second place behind Chula Vista School Board member Cheryl Cox in a June primary. Reporter Amita Sharma explores the issues affecting the race.

In politics, incumbency is a blessing if you followed through on campaign promises. Arguably, Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla did just that, but voters ignored his record and placed him in a distant second behind Chula Vista School Board member Cheryl Cox in the June primary. Some voters in the county’s second-largest city believe the setback was self-inflicted. Padilla has been at the center of a couple of scandals, and now he’s fighting to regain votes before the November runoff with Cox.


  If there’s one point, Mayor Steve Padilla and his opponent Cheryl Cox want to get across to outsiders, it’s this: “Don’t underestimate Chula Vista.”    
Steve Padilla: Chula Vista is larger than 75 percent of the state's capitals in the U.S. It's about the size of Cincinnati. It's bigger than Salt Lake City. It's not a small town.

Cheryl Cox: We have proximity to the border. We have proximity to San Diego. We have a waterfront. We have mountains.

Chula Vista also has political scandals with Mayor Padilla at the center. In the last year, Padilla paid for a bodyguard with city money and then canned him before his contract ended because of political criticism.

Cheryl Cox: You think about it: $40,000 was spent on the bodyguard to stay home in March, April, May and June. We have employees in the city of Chula Vista who don't make $40,000 in a year and they work 40 hours a week.

Padilla also obtained advances on his city hall paychecks. 

Cheryl Cox: This ability to take money in advance without paying interest was set up to help employees with the city of Chula Vista who are going through dire circumstances and this in essence was taken 10 times to settle Steven's own accounts.

And recently, one of Padilla’s aides was discovered taking pictures at a Cox fund-raiser to catch her with disgraced port commissioner David Malcolm, a family friend.

Cheryl Cox: Had the mayor come out and said these were the actions of an overzealous volunteer, it won't happen again, Mrs. Cox, it would have been a dead issue. Instead he said it's not illegal. Everybody does it and I should get used to it. Well that's politics as usual for him. It's not politics as usual for me. 

Padilla says he disciplined the aide and accused Cox herself of engaging in politics as usual by hurling personal attacks. He also defends the hiring of a bodyguard.

Steve Padilla: What's so amazing to me and I find it fascinating is the mayor of San Diego has five full-time detectives assigned around the clock that are taken away from the police department at a cost of nearly half a million dollars a year to the San Diego taxpayer 24/7. And the mayor of Chula Vista hires one private guy Monday through Friday, 8 to 5, door to door and it's a front page story.

He casts his pay advances from his mayoral salary as an honorable move and blasts Cheryl Cox and her husband County Supervisor Greg Cox for criticizing him when they borrowed $2 million from a bank 21 years ago while Greg Cox was mayor.

Steve Padilla: Don't you see the hypocrisy there that I'm supposedly a person of bad character because I took advances on my own money to refinance my house so I could pay my father back and somehow that makes me undeserving of re-election, yet the Coxes took a $2 million loan that Mrs. Cox claims she doesn't remember. Not too many Chula Vistans have real estate investments in Texas and can get $2.2 million loans.

Cox says Padilla is trying to make the campaign about Greg Cox, not her. And Padilla says Cox is focusing on him, not his record. He argues he’s made good on campaign promises to spur redevelopment, open new parks and maintain strong fiscal health.

Steve Padilla: Our budgets are balanced with a strong reserve. Our retirement funds are well managed and solvent. We're able to meet our obligations to take care of our citizens.

Padilla says one of his main accomplishments is getting the ball moving again on the Bayfront Development plans. It's the largest master-planned waterfront project on the West Coast. It includes a convention center, hotels and restaurants.

Steve Padilla: I plan on beating Cheryl Cox by showing and reminding people of the things we've done in this city.     

But his record hasn’t impressed all voters, like Sue.  

Sue, Chula Vista resident: I voted for him four years ago. I am sorry I voted for him. He has done one or two good things, but my goodness, $10,000 for a personal guard, checks that he wants in advance from the city. Does he ever pay them back?

Cox and Padilla do agree on major issues like the Bayfront Development Project and upgrading roads. But Cox says the deciding factor in the race will be who will be perceived as a more stable leader.

Cheryl Cox: I think what this election is going to be about is the confidence of the voter in who should be in that leading role.

Long-time resident Michael Mace isn’t so sure Cox fits that description because she’s married to Supervisor Greg Cox, whose constituency includes Chula Vista. 

Michael Mace: What I believe are conflicts of interest with Greg and Cheryl Cox, him being a county supervisor and her running for mayor.

Mace says he wishes he had a third candidate to choose from.

Mayor Padilla says he’s confident he will prevail in November. He says his own polling shows him beating Cox by as much as 8 percentage points.

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