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Political Analysis: Competition for County Supervisor


Members of the San Diego Board of Supervisors often run for reelection with little opposition. But a real political race is heating up for Ron Roberts seat on the Board. KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner explains.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors is rarely a hotbed of political speculation. There have been no new supervisors elected to the board since 1995. The members of the all-Republican board have eased through several re-election campaigns without serious challenge, but those days may be coming to an end. Two prominent Democrats have announced their intention to run next year for Supervisor Ron Roberts’ seat, and more challenges could be in the works. With me to talk about the candidates emerging for a run at the County Board of Supes is my guest, KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Oh, good morning. I like that. County Board of Supes, it sounds as though they’ve got to be good for you.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we’ll find out. First of all, Gloria, you know, it’s odd in this day and age that San Diego supervisors have these long incumbencies. And are there reasons that favor the status quo on the board?

PENNER: Well, sure. I mean, first of all, incumbents anywhere are very strong, and there has to be this critical mass of public concern for them to be ousted to lose on any level of government. That really has not happened at the county. Nothing massive has happened that draws people (sic) attention to the Board of Supervisors and said, you know, let’s get rid of them. In addition to that, there’s sort of a tradition. An appointment or an election to the Board of Supervisors can, in effect, be for a lifetime. It’s been 25 years since an incumbent supervisor has been beaten at the polls. Yes.


PENNER: And – and – Well, let’s go back to the eighties. At that time, our population was really much smaller than it is now and we had five supervisors. We still have five supervisors even though our population has grown from 1.86 million to over three million. So I’m throwing these numbers out because back then each supervisor represented 370,000 people. Today, they represent almost 600,000 people. So as the country grows, the supervisors become sort of more distant from individual voters and the challengers need to raise—this is the key—even more money to reach more voters and, of course, then supervisors are sitting elected officials, they get to raise larger sums generally. And there’s one other thing…


PENNER: …I need to mention. Each supervisor has a $2.7 million discretionary fund. They can basically grant that wherever they want, and that’s got to buy them some political clout. It’s almost like having a campaign chest of $2.7 million dollars.

CAVANAUGH: So, well, this time, though, there are a few challengers emerging in the race for the 4th District represented by Supervisor Ron Roberts. First of all, there was some question about whether Ron Roberts was going to run for reelection. Has that been resolved?

PENNER: Well, kind of. And it’s true there were rumors that he was not going to run, that he was going to retire soon, that both he and Supervisor Greg Cox were going to step down and would not run for reelection and that would allow the supervisors, potentially, to name the successor, to appoint the next person because if a supervisor steps down, you can appoint a successor and fill the expired term. You can appoint a successor until a special election or you can make no appointment. And since the County of San Diego is becoming increasingly Democratic and all supervisors are Republican, this would really give a true succession if, assumedly, the Republican supervisors would appoint a re – a Republican and give that person the power of incumbency. But that apparently isn’t going to happen because in December Ron Roberts said although he’s made no decisions about his political future, it’s two years away, let me enjoy my sanity for a little while longer. Some people believe he is going to run again. So I checked with the Registrar of Voters to see if he’s filed any papers and indeed he has, and I have a copy right here, Maureen. It’s a copy of Candidate Intention Statement. Now this isn’t filing to run but it says that he intends to do something. We’ll see what it is.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you have another paper there and that is one of his announced challengers has filed an intention to run, too. Her name is Shelia Jackson. She’s currently serving on the San Diego Unified District School Board. Tell us a little bit about her.

PENNER: Yes, her name is Shelia Jackson, although it’s spelled S-h-e-l-i-a, some people would say Sha-lee-ah but she pronounces it Shelia. She is the chair of the San Diego Unified School District so she has some name recognition at least in the district where the city schools are represented. Some people say that she’s a long shot, that she’d have a very hard time pulling voters because that’s the only area in which she has name recognition, you know, in the – And the 4th District is much, much larger. It’s going to be interesting to see this race play out over the next few months. Shelia Jackson has been making the rounds. She’s been at every local political event in the past year. The Labor Council seems enamored of her. And so it appears that, you know, she’s – she’s getting an early start. She’s going to need it to build money and to build that name recognition. Of course, it depends on who is going to run against her in the primary in addition to Ron Roberts. Remember, this is a nonpartisan race so the top two vote-getters in the primary will go into the general election unless one of them wins more than 50% of the vote.

CAVANAUGH: And that’s whether they’re Republican and Democrat or two Democrats.

PENNER: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: Well, another Democrat is termed-out Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, announced she was also running for Roberts’ seat on the board next year. Why did she say that she’s running?

PENNER: I did a phone interview with her and I’m going to play some tape from that in a minute. And she said from the perspective of being in Sacramento, she could see how other supervisors in other parts of the state did a better job than our board did. And she wants to know whether we want the same old policies at work or whether we want to work toward a smarter, forward-thinking San Diego. So basically she’s saying that group of five supervisors is kind of old-fashioned. I’m paraphrasing. I mean, she’s looking to invest in things like photovoltaic, local green infrastructure, affordable housing. She says our supervisors hasn’t signed on to end chronic homelessness. And she has us look, for example, at San Francisco, in which San Francisco put out a bond to invest in all these new green opportunities and it passed with a very large percentage of the voters. So when she sees what other counties have achieved and how San Diego has fallen behind, in her perception, she’s motivated to run.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I – Lori Saldana, as I say, is termed out of the Assembly. She was also mentioned as a candidate in other races before she announced her Board of Supervisor – or her intention to run, at least, for the Board of Supervisors seat.

PENNER: It’s true, and I did ask her about that, and this is the way she phrased it.

LORI SALDANA (California State Assemblywoman): The Board of Equalization seat is definitely off the table, and that was something I had briefly considered and when I looked at different aspects of the job and I – I decided that it wouldn’t be something I was – I was that interested in. The Senate seat is still on the table because, you know, frankly, there are no guarantees in any campaign. That’s a 2012 campaign. And – and also the nature of any political office is that it takes money for me to do things that I don’t have a budget for. For example – So I’m always raising money into a campaign account and an example of that is in September we will have a delegation going to Washington, D.C. and that’s something that my state office budget doesn’t cover, that type of travel, so the way I cover cost of travel to go to Washington to meet with Representatives to work on better communication, I pay for that out of campaign funds. So that Senate campaign account will continue to be open and I will continue raising money into it.

PENNER: I find that totally fascinating. I had no idea. I have to tell you, after covering politics for lo these many years, that you could use a campaign fund for a seat you may or may not be interested in running for to provide travel funds in a office that you currently have that has nothing to do with that seat. But apparently it’s okay or I don’t think she would have said it publicly.

CAVANAUGH: Well, there’s another interesting twist in this announcement because there’s a push to get a term limit initiative for the Board of Supervisors on the 2010 ballot. Who’s behind that and would Lori Saldana support that?

PENNER: Well, who is behind it is the SEIU Local, which represents the County employees and what they want to do is basically do what we did with the state legislature, impose term limits on the Board of Supervisors so they can’t stay in for a lifetime, and a lot of people are very enthusiastic about it and a lot of people have some doubts. And this is what Lori believes.

SALDANA: I have seen how term limits have changed Sacramento and not for the good. I think people play musical chairs up there. Their focus is not on the job they’re doing, it’s on what am I going to do next? And it’s – it can be very frustrating to work in that kind of an atmosphere. We look at our San Diego City Council and I’m afraid we have a similar thing going on. I don’t think eight years is enough time to really get into a job and do it well. I – If they insist on term limits, I would’ve suggested three terms. Give someone a decade, give twelve years. And a decade is a good amount of time to do some long term planning.

PENNER: And I think the other part of it is that she and others who are really opposed to term limits say the power now is with the staff, the staff of the Assembly or the staff of the State Senate or the lobbyists because they’re the ones who have the institutional memory and they’re the ones who know how to get things done. Howard Wayne once said to me, you spend your six years in the Assembly, the first two years learning the job, the second two years doing the job, and the third two years looking for another job. So maybe those who are opposed to term limits have something and maybe they don’t.

CAVANAUGH: Now there is another possible candidate to replace Ron Roberts, so far unannounced, but people have been speculating San Diego City Council member Donna Frye may be thinking about running. What would that do to the dynamics of the race?

PENNER: Oh, it would change the dynamics enormously because Donna Frye, if she does decide to run – She said she would let everybody know by the end of August. Her name recognition is really up there and she was able to raise considerable funds when she ran for mayor against our current mayor and really did a very good job of raising funds. So she would really probably give both Lori Saldana and Shelia Jackson some – a big run for their money. The question is, whether the kind of campaign that she ran before would work for supervisors. Both she and Lori Saldana ran grassroots campaigns. They did knocking door to door, they motivated the grassroots, and when you have 600,000 constituents, it’s kind of hard to get to every door, so that’s going to be interesting. In all these campaigns, I think that polling is going to be a key. I think that they’re going to have to spend considerable money both for campaign consultants, advertising, and polling. And the polls are really going to sort of indicate who’s going to survive and who isn’t in the primary.

CAVANAUGH: And one last question, Gloria. All three of these challenges, potential challenger, are Democrats. Anyone entering the race on the Republican side?

PENNER: So far no one. I don’t really expect anyone to. Ron Roberts has the Republican side kind of tied up and he’s got this history of four wins so far. This would be his fifth four-year term in office if he, indeed, wins. And there are those people who says he just doesn’t have the fire in his belly anymore and so it’s a possibility that he may not even run.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you’ll have to keep us up to date on this very – It’s fascinating. Thank you, Gloria.

PENNER: I will.

CAVANAUGH: And that – I’ve been speaking with Gloria Penner, KPBS political correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. You can read her weekly blog, Political Fix, on our website at Stay with us.

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