Several North County Mayors Facing Challengers In November
Voters packed the community room at the Encinitas Library recently for the city’s first-ever mayoral forum. This year, for the first time in the city’s 28-year history, five candidates are vying for the mayor’s seat.
Encinitas has always had a mayor, but until now the job simply rotated among the City Council members or the council appointed one of its own to the mayoral post.
“You know, it’s an exciting point in Encinitas’ history,” said the currently appointed mayor, Republican Kristin Gaspar. “We’ve grown up as a city.”
Encinitas is now one of seven North County cities that elects a mayor. Only two don't. But what difference does an elected mayor make?
Gaspar said having a mayor who is elected rather than appointed probably won’t change the status quo all that much.
“There will be no difference in the amount of power that the mayor has,” she said. ”We don’t have, for example, veto powers that other strong mayors have.”
Unlike Encinitas, voters in San Diego decided to make the jump to a strong mayor system of government nearly 10 years ago.
Related: KPBS's Interactive Voters Guide
Unlike a "strong mayor," who acts as a CEO, mayors in other San Diego County cities remain part of their city councils and their vote carries the same weight as the other members.
Tony Krantz, a Democratic councilman in Encinitas and one of Gaspar’s main challengers, said having citizens elect their mayor does make a difference on critical issues, such as growth and development in the city.
“I don’t think 'power' is the right word,” Krantz said. “It’s influence. The mayor will have a little more influence. The public does look to the mayor for leadership.“
Krantz said he represents the “slow growth” approach to development. Gaspar describes herself as being for “managed growth.”
In Escondido, a high-profile mayor’s race is unfolding that could redefine the community.
Olga Diaz, a Democrat, a Latina and a city councilwoman, is challenging Republican Mayor Sam Abed, who is running for his second term. Abed is part of a voting majority on the City Council, but he said the mayor’s role transcends the politics on the council.
“The mayor has a stronger influence than one vote, of course!” he said. “We set the agenda, we lead the city. We work closely with the city manager and city attorney to implement the council goals. My priorities as a mayor have been adopted by the City Council, so I created the city action plan.”
Diaz's take on the mayor’s role: “The mayor sets the tone for a city.”
She said she wants to change the tone in a city where half the population is Latino. Those residents have been made to feel unwelcome, Diaz said.
“So, as mayor, I think I'd be somebody who could help Escondido be seen as a welcoming city,” she said. “And there's a very big difference in personality, in character traits between the current mayor and myself. My approach is more collaborative, taking community feedback. Not just expecting it, but reaching out to get it.”
Twenty miles to the west of Escondido, in Oceanside, Mayor Jim Wood sounds a note of warning for aspiring new mayors.
“Basically, if you get elected to a position as a mayor on a council and you don’t have the voting majority of, let’s say three, it’s tough!” he said.
Wood, a moderate Republican, easily won a third term as Oceanside’s mayor in 2012. But, he said, the council’s more conservative majority has stripped his power.
“I won big time, so those three, they couldn’t beat me at the polls,” Wood said. “So what they did, they stripped me of all my power." He said he can still run the council meetings, but the council majority "pulled me off every committee or commission that I sat on and decided to replace themselves on those countywide committees.”
Wood no longer sits on the San Diego Association of Governments, for example, where many vital decisions are made about future spending on regional transportation. Wood’s mayoral seat is not on the ballot this year, but he is campaigning. He knows that unless he can help one of the City Council challengers win, he will continue to be sidelined.
Related: KPBS's Complete Election Coverage
That political fate, however, does not deter a young city councilman in neighboring Vista. Democrat Cody Campbell is also in the voting minority on his City Council. But at the age of 28, he is challenging Vista’s long-standing Republican mayor, Judy Ritter.
“If you look at the history of Vista, over the past 16 years that Judy Ritter has been on the council and as mayor, Vista has shown itself to be a city that lags behind our neighbors,” Campbell said.
He said Vista has taken a piecemeal approach to development and should adopt more smart growth strategies.
Ritter is fighting to stay on as mayor. Vista’s business community is flourishing under her tenure, she said, and she sees her role as less about power and more about being a figurehead.
“I don’t see pulling the city in a certain direction,” Ritter said. “I just see more being a cheerleader for the city and an ambassador for the city.”
The Nov. 4 election will show whether the mayoral races in North County bring new blood into the political mix, and if so, what difference that will make.