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Local Politics 101: Who Are San Diego’s Highest Paid Politicians?

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors is shown in this photo, Jan. 10, 20...

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: The San Diego County Board of Supervisors is shown in this photo, Jan. 10, 2017.

Judges and San Diego County supervisors are the highest paid elected officials in the county.

Judges make close to $200,000 a year, while supervisors make $170,000 to $180,000 a year.

Political science professor Carl Luna joins Midday Edition Tuesday for the third installment of San Diego Politics 101. Luna answered questions about politician pay and endorsements.

The answers below have been edited for clarity and brevity. To hear the full interview listen to the Midday Edition podcast.

Local Politics 101: Who Are San Diego's Highest Paid Politicians?


Carl Luna, political science professor, San Diego Mesa College and University of San Diego


Q: John Stump of City Heights asked: Why do some elected officials receive a generous salary and benefits, more than the average family, more than $100,000 a year, while others receive less than the average family, particularly in schools. Does one generate a better set of elected leaders? Or what else is going on? Why do they do that?

A: San Diego City Council members make around $75,000 a year, the mayor about $100,000. They're running a municipal corporation, which is worth $3 billion a year. If they were in the private sector their salaries would have zeroes added on the end of it. In general, you don't go into politics to get rich. You go into it for the power. Maybe for some it's an entry-level job. But eventually you make your money when you go into consulting or lobbying. The politicians set their own salaries, that's simply the way it goes, elected bodies do that. And they have increasingly not wanted to raise their salaries, for fear the public will turn against them.

Q: Which elected officials make the most in San Diego?

A: Judges are elected, they make closer to $200,000. (San Diego) County Board of Supervisors members have given themselves a raise based on the fact that judges got a raise, and they're going to be around $170,000 to $180,000, but they're running a multi-billion dollar enterprise. School board members tend to be the lowest paid. Some are barely compensated anything. San Diego Unified School District board members are making around $18,000 to $20,000. They do get a nice health package but they always have to have another job. The theory there with school boards was they were going to be volunteer work, but they're running a billion-dollar enterprise.

Q: Back to John's question, do you get better politicians, better elected officials, if indeed the salary is higher?

A: Given the scope of difference between public sector and private sector, I'm not sure you have a good measure for that. You do know that in the city, when you want to hire a city manager, you have to be competitive to get somebody, so you have to pay in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. I would tend to think we are under-served, and no offense to the people who are serving right now, but if you offer $300,000 for a job, you're going to get a different level of people applying for it, unless they're independently wealthy, their family has other income coming in, as a number of our elected official's households do.

Q: On another topic, we’ve gotten lots of questions about endorsements. What does it mean for a candidate to have an endorsement?

A: You've got so many candidates on the ballot — local, federal, state — voters are often looking for shorthand on how to vote. For many people, in this very partisan environment, simply having an R (Republican) or a D (Democrat) by a candidate's name, is about all they need to know on how they're going to vote. Local races are non-partisan, so you look for other tells. Are they endorsed by Republican-interest groups or Democratic-interest groups? Are they endorsed by a group that you relate to? Because you expect when you vote for somebody, when they win, they will do things to benefit somebody like you.

Q: What is involved and what support does the endorsing organization or individual provide the candidate?

A: An endorsement can be as little as, like a brand endorsement, or well with dark money, as much as they want to give you.

Q: One of the main endorsements that candidates seek is the endorsement of their local political party. If there’s more than one Democrat or Republican running for an office, how do political parties choose who to endorse?

A: Carefully. Local Democratic or Republican clubs, the individual clubs, can choose to endorse or not to endorse. The party's central committees can choose to endorse or not to endorse. If it's a congressional district that crosses over a county line, typically its now for the state party at their conventions to choose to endorse or not. If you don't have somebody that is clearly the leader within the party, the tendency is to let the race play out into the primary. Primaries were originally for that purpose, you let the voters decide who the preference is and the party rallies behind their party candidate.

Q: Endorsements from the local labor unions are also a big win for candidates. How much influence do the local labor unions have here in the county?

A: Not as much as they used to, but it depends on the seat, it depends on the district. The labor union vote, just like the chamber of commerce vote, isn't enough to tip you from a blue district to a red or vice versa, but they can have a play in those 'purpling' districts that are out there. Labor unions at the county board of supervisors-level have not been very effective. They have been more effective in getting a majority of Democrats on the city council, but they haven't won the mayorship citywide yet. School boards they tend to be very effective there because they can run local candidates and bring out a lot of labor support from the school districts, which are unionized, if you are in a unionized district.

Q: You said that a lot of people look at endorsements as kind of a code for who they're going to support based on if they like the organization that is endorsing that particular candidate. Is that a good way to make a political decision?

A: It's not necessarily a bad way. I mean the best way, if you're looking at an incumbent, is look at their track record. Who have they taken money from? What are the different bills they have voted on or different resolutions? How have those turned out? But, that takes a lot of tracking, a lot of paying of attention. If you want the shorthand, if you trust a group, you like the League of Women Voters, you like the Democratic party, you like the Boy Scouts, that can give you a quick way to know and usually that will give you a correlation with how you want to vote.

Do you have a question about local politics, local elections or why the process works the way it does? If so, ask us here: San Diego Politics 101 — the KPBS Midday Edition segment where your questions get answered

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