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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

Gay Politicians Present A New Image Of San Diego

The 2012 race for mayor in San Diego is shaping up to be one of the most interesting city elections in recent memory. We've seen high-profile local politicians like Congressman Bob Filner and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher start lining up as announced candidates for the position. Several of the strong contenders in the race are gay, which seems to change San Diego's politically conservative image - or does it?

The 2012 race for mayor in San Diego is shaping up to be one of the most interesting city elections in recent memory. We've seen high-profile local politicians like Congressman Bob Filner and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher start lining up as announced candidates for the position. Several of the strong contenders in the race are gay, which seems to change San Diego's politically conservative image -or does it?

GUEST: KPBS Metro reporter Katie Orr

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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.

CAVANAUGH: The 2012 race for mayor in San Diego is shaping up to be one of the most interesting city elections in recent memory. We've seen high profile politicians like Congressman Bob Filner and Nathan Fletcher lining up as announced candidates for the position. Several of the strong contenders in the race are gay, which seems to change San Diego's politically conservative image. Or does it? Joining me is KPBS metro reporter, Katie Orr. She recently did a series on how San Diego's mayoral election is shaping up. Hi Katie.

ORR: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: What are the factors you found that are making this an interesting election?

ORR: There's a lot going on in this election this year. There's no incumbent. Mayor Jerry Sanders is termed out of office, which leaves the seat open for others. I spoke with a political scientist. If you run for seat when there is an incumbent running, you're either stupid or you know you're gonna lose. Also the next mayor will be the first truly strong mayor that San Diego has seen in a long time. Mayor Jerry Sanders was technically a strong mayor. The city was trying out that position. And last spring I believe the voters voted to keep that election, that position permanent. Our mayor is now a permanent strong mayor. What that means is he or she will be the executive of the city. They will not be just a figurehead. They will be making the calls, managing the city, as opposed to the city manager council form of government that we had. What will make it different from what we have now with Jerry Sanders is that the mayor will have more veto power. In 2012, we're also adding a ninth council district. With that additional council district comes changes to the mayoral override. Right now it takes five votes to pass something in the council and five votes to override a mayoral veto. If the mayor doesn't like something, the same five people who passed the issue vote for it again and it passes. Coming up, it will take six votes to override a mayoral veto. Getting that sixth vote, if it's a potentially controversial issue might not be that easy which gives the mayor a lot more power with his veto. That is something to consider. And also a lot of people have used this office in the past as a launching pad for their political career. Pete Wilson is the poster boy for that. Not many people have gone on to higher office since him. But they've certainly tried to do that. A lot of the candidates this time around could be aiming for some higher political office in the future as well.

CAVANAUGH: Pete Wilson, former mayor of San Diego who went on to be governor of California. Do these factors explain the number of high profile candidates that are announcing their intention to run?

ORR: I think so. It is an important office for the reasons that we just named. Sometimes San Diego may be seen as more of a big town than a big city. However, it is the eighth largest city in the country, the second largest city in California. It presents a number of challenges to people. I spoke with a number of political scientists for my series. They were saying the person who can turn San Diego's ship around or at least be at the helm of that ship when it turns around, they will get a lot of credit for bringing San Diego, the famously once called Enron by the sea, out of that course of action and turn it around to be a prospering city again. People will argue that the city is already on that track and the next mayor will just take over as it's rebounding. And there are people who say no, we still have a lot of work to do. They will get a lot of credit for being in charge if the city does make a financial turn around.

CAVANAUGH: One of the things that you've talked about is that three of the announced and possible candidates for mayor are gay. Who are they?

SHELLENBERGER: Well, city councilman Carl DeMaio, and district attorney Bonnie Dumanis. They are both openly gay politicians and formally announced and are actively campaigning for mayor. State senator Christine Kehoe, who was actually the first openly gay elected official in San Diego when she was elected to City Council in the 1990s. She's filed the necessary paperwork but hasn't announced yet. The endorsements are already being rolled out, including some Democrats who made endorsements for Bonnie Dumanis. So if Christine Kehoe wants those, perhaps she better, you know, get her name out there and jump on those because some of them are going the other way. In fact, the mayor's office in San Diego is a notoriously Republican office. I spoke to UCSD political scientist, Vladimir Kogan, and he told me that this may be the 50 chance in a long time the Democrats have actually had a shot at the office. He says they're facing a number of hurdles.

NEW SPEAKER: One challenge is getting all of the registered Democrats to turn out. That's a larger challenge for Democrats than Republicans. Two, in general, historically and certainly at the local level, Democrats are less loyal than Republicans. They're more willing to crossover and vote for the candidate of the other party.

SHELLENBERGER: Technically the mayor's race is a nonpartisan race. Meaning it's just a matter of the top two -- if no one wins the primary outright, then the top two vote getters go on. It's not necessarily Republican versus Democrat. That's typically how people break down these races, what party. And a lot of the political scientists I spoke to were talking about how the county parties are a nonfactor in this race. You don't really see the San Diego County Republican party or Democratic Party coming out and having a big voice in these races. It's more the individual candidates who are spearheading things.

CAVANAUGH: San Diego has the representation as a conservative city. In fact about 20†years ago, I think even attending a gay pride parade was risky for a politician.

ORR: Yeah, and I thought this was really interesting when I was doing my reporting. Today, it's not a big keel. The annual gay rights parade attracts thousands of people. It's seen as a fun event. City politicians, counsel members, the mayor, state lawmakers all take part. I spoke with Jack McGrory who was the former city manager, he started the job in 91, and he told me a story that he was asked to march in the parade in 92, and he said he was just bombasted in the media for marching. Today, as I mentioned, it's seen the thing to do if you're in office. San Diego is a military town, but I think it's more typically associated with being fiscally conservative these days rather than socially conservative.

CAVANAUGH: What changed though in the attitude of politicians and the voting public when it comes to gay politicians or politicians supporting gay rights?

ORR: I think it was just a lot of hard work by the gay community. Councilman Todd Gloria, who is openly gay, and a Democrat, he said the first official gay pride parade in San Diego was held in the '80s. Then as I mentioned, Christine Kehoe was elected to City Council in the 90s. That's 20†years of work before a candidate was ultimately elected. Even from then there has been that process of acceptance. But as it was explained to me, the gay lesbian bi transgender, LGBT community, is relatively cohesive and recognized early on that politics mattered. And Vlad Kogan says it's paid off for them.

NEW SPEAKER: The gay community is very well organized and has been for a long time, reflected by its ability to win the gay district in the last round of redistricting. It's very concentrated geographically, it's politically active. And I think that is historically true of the black community. The challenge there had been certainly the small numbers of black in San Diego relative to other cities.

ORR: Certainly being able to get that district has given that community a voice. And they are seen as I community to be reckoned with in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Maybe seen as progressive for a city to have gay candidates, but it doesn't mean the candidates themselves are progressive or liberal, does it?

ORR: No. Certainly the type is that the gay community is liberal. But as we all know, two of the three gay or lesbian candidates in the mayor's race are Republicans. Bonnie Dumanis and Carl DeMaio. Both of them are seen as among the top competitors. Dare I say, Dumanis, the top competitor in the race for mayor. And Todd Gloria was telling me from the inside of the community, there are certainly a lot of people who are Republican. They're people just like everybody else. And those I think it's safe to say that if Christine Kehoe, I Democrat, did formally announce her candidacy and begin actively campaigning, she certainly would get a huge amount of support from the gay community.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering what impact mayor Jerry Sanders and his emotional, very public turnaround on gay marriage had on politics and the politics of the LGBT community in San Diego.

ORR: Well, in 2007, Sanders held a press conference famously announcing his support for gay marriage after learning that his daughter and several of his staff members were gay. He was a traditional Republican candidate. And I think it really broke the mold of what a Republican politician was typically associated with at the time in terms of their support for LGBT civil rights. Now he's popular with the gay community. As I said, he's a presence in annual gay pride parades along with his daughter. And it still certainly is his message today that it just brings home that regardless of your political ideology, you likely know somebody who is gay or lesbian and it doesn't, you know, his message is that they should have the same civil rights as everybody else regardless of your political ideology.

CAVANAUGH: I've read that many people feel it sort of humanized the question for San Diego, put a face on it.

ORR: I think so. And he garnered national attention with that press conference. I think it absolutely did. It gave the issue as you said, a human face.

CAVANAUGH: Here's a question. As we've been saying, several of the candidates for mayor are from the LGBT community which is a minority community. But no candidates from the larger minority, Hispanic community, at least not announced so far. Why would that be?

ORR: I thought that was an interesting question too. I asked several people about it. The Hispanic Latino community makes up about roughly 25†percent of the City of San Diego's population. Buts you mentioned, we haven't seen a mayoral candidate this time around from that group. And the group is generally not regarded as politically active as the LGBT community. That's certainly not to say there aren't people within that community who are working hard to have a bigger voice. But in general, from what I learned from my reporting, Hispanics are, one, less likely to be registered to vote, whether they're not eligible or they're too young so they're not eligible that way. And if they are registered to vote, they are a lot less likely to actually turn out to vote. A lot of people were making a big deal of for the 50 time there are more Democrats turned out to vote in the city. But Democrats are not as likely to turn out to vote. I was speaking to Vladimir Kogan, and he was saying they're less loyal than Republicans in turning out to vote. When there is a strong Hispanic candidate running, it really does mobilize the group, and they turn out. But it makes more than just one person to do it. And we're starting to see a lot more of that here in San Diego. The Hispanic community is involved in some local unions. There has been talk about trying to create that ninth district, having it be a second Hispanic district. District eight is largely Hispanic. But that's not a foregone progress. A lot of groups want the community to be focused around them, like the Asian community.

CAVANAUGH: If San Diego does elect a mayor that happens to be gay, we'll have done that before San Francisco, which is surprising.

ORR: It is surprising based on the nation's perceptions of the two cities. San Francisco is seen as a very progressive gay friendly town. Again, San Diego nationally might have that more conservative military town representation. But from what I've heard, San Diego is actually in a better position to elect a gay mayor than San Francisco. They do have one candidate up in San Francisco. But from I heard he is not as strong of a candidate as the three candidates we have down here in San Diego. And I thought this was a funny quick story. I pitched this story to NPR to see if they wanted to do a national version on San Diego breaking ground having she's candidates. The editor said, up, we've done the gay mayor story because it's not -- well, it's groundbreaking for us, and groundbreaking to California, this has happened in other cities. Houston, the forth largest city in the country, in Texas, has a lesbian mayor. We're part of a trend. So I think the gay community would see that as a good thing, that there are so many major cities with gay or lesbian mayors that it's a nonissue.

CAVANAUGH: Does being gay seem to matter in San Diego politics anymore?

ORR: I really don't think it does. Of the story I did was sort of how it is a nonstory. I really don't think it's an issue for people. All the people I talked to, no one said this isn't right, we shouldn't do this. It's just okay, that's fine. What are you gonna do about my pension? Let's deal with these pensions. It's not gay or straight or anything like that.

CAVANAUGH: Moving onto important issues right?

ORR: Absolutely. The pension, the pension.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with KPBS metro reporter, Katie Orr. Thank you very much Katie.

ORR: Thank you.

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