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San Diego Council President Sherri Lightner Gets Analytical About Politics

Lightner is the first woman and the first engineer to lead the council

Video by Katie Schoolov

District 1 Councilwoman Sherri Lightner leads the City Council as the body’s first female president. But KPBS Metro Reporter Tarryn Mento says it's Lightner’s background in engineering that sets her apart on the council. 

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District 1 Councilwoman Sherri Lightner is the San Diego City Council’s first female president. But it's Lightner’s background in engineering that sets her apart on the council.

Special Feature Who's On San Diego's City Council?

KPBS is profiling the nine people who make up the San Diego City Council, and sharing details about their backgrounds and their goals. They each represent a different geographic area of the city, but their actions affect all of the people who live in America's eighth largest city.

When the Atlas Centaur rockets took off in the 1960s, a young Sherri Ann Schuler was in front of the TV for nearly every broadcast.

“Whenever the TV did work, my mother would get us up extra early to watch every single rocket launch because ‘your daddy worked on that!’” Lightner said.

Her father was a rocket scientist at General Dynamics in San Diego and he helped design the system that forced shuttles and satellites off the ground in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

"So it was pretty cool, and we got to have Tang," she said with a grin. "And that may sound kind of strange but my mother ran a pretty tight food budget, and that was a luxury in those days."

These days, Sherri Ann Schuler is San Diego City Council President Sherri Lightner, and she’s the first female to hold the position.

That high point was a little overshadowed by controversy when Lightner, a Democrat, sided with the council's four Republicans to oust then-Council President Todd Gloria. At the December vote, dozens had asked the council to keep Gloria in the role.

Besides being the first woman to lead the council, she's also the first engineer to have the title, and it's that role that she says helps shape her decisions behind the dais.

“I do have a technical background and I tend to have a more black-and-white perspective and analytical view on things, and I really am interested in getting things done," she said.

Council President Sherri Lightner

Represents: District 1, which includes Carmel Valley, Del Mar Mesa, Del Mar Heights, La Jolla, Pacific Highlands Ranch, Torrey Hills, Torrey Pines and University City

Age: 65

Family: Husband Bruce, son John, 33, and daughter Evlyn, 29

College: Master’s degree in applied mechanics and engineering from UC San Diego, bachelor’s degree in mathematics and sociology from UCSD

Hometown: Warren, Pennsylvania

Career: Worked at General Atomics for 18 years and Rohr industries for five years. Currently owns a consulting business, Lightner Engineering, with her husband

Fun fact: Lightner used to cruise on a Honda 50 motorcycle with her dog Bobbi

After years of watching her father’s work take off, Lightner followed in his scientific footsteps and pursued a career in mechanical engineering that stretched more than 20 years. Her résumé lists projects that would warm the heart of any physicist.

"I worked 18 years at General Atomics in both nuclear fission and fusion and did some of the 'Star Wars' defense initiative projects," she said.

You likely benefit every day from the kind of work she did at General Atomics. If you use a smartphone, have a plasma TV or have ever had an MRI scan, you've used technology developed from nuclear fusion research.

Back when the nuclear fusion reactor was first constructed, it was Lightner's job to discover the device's flaws before it actually broke.

Lightner says she now applies that fix-it-before-it-breaks mentality at her current gig in San Diego City Hall.

“And some of the city staff don’t like it when I say — 'Did you break it yet?' Because you don’t know — I mean that’s a big part of engineering is finding out that things break," she said. "And you need to be prepared to deal with whatever it is when it breaks, and how you’re going to detect it and repair it."

Right now, Lightner’s searching for failures in the city charter as the chairwoman of the Charter Review Committee. The council is overhauling the document after the 2013 sexual harassment scandal involving former Mayor Bob Filner. The charter didn't have clear rules on removing officials from office.

Lightner is also a sitting member of the council's Economic Development Committee, which she pushed to create back in 2011.

But all this, plus her new role leading the council, doesn’t stop her from keeping an exhaustive list of initiatives and programs she hopes to expand on this year. It includes advocating for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) education, continuing CONNECT2Careers (a program to address the gap between job skills San Diegans have and the ones they need), maritime technology and cyber security.

But wait. Lightner's interview with KPBS was interrupted by an aide to keep her on time for her next appointment.

"OK, well, apologize," she said, and then continued. "There are some other things to work on — incentives, getting jobs growing here, working with the universities in town on the old downtown library..."

And the list goes on.

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