Two Establishment Democrats, A Republican And An Outsider Vying For San Diego Mayor
There’s a chance that for the first time in at least a half century, voters in the city of San Diego will only have Democrats to choose from when they vote for mayor in the November election.
That's because the top two vote-getters in the March primary will advance to the November general election, and three of the four candidates are Democrats.
As of the beginning of January, there were 42.6 percent registered Democrats in the city, 21.2 percent registered Republicans and 30.1 percent not affiliated with any party.
All of the candidates have long histories in San Diego, and three of them are current or past San Diego City Council members: Todd Gloria and Barbara Bry, both Democrats, and Scott Sherman, a Republican. Community activist Tasha Williamson is also in the race — she’s never held elected office.
State Assemblyman Todd Gloria spent eight years on the City Council and also served as interim mayor when Mayor Bob Filner stepped down amid a sexual harassment scandal. During his time in the city, he focused on infrastructure issues, including streets and sidewalks.
"I was once accused of liking infrastructure too much," Gloria said at the ribbon cutting of a rainbow-painted crosswalk in Hillcrest last week. "You know, I say there's nothing sexier than a freshly paved street."
Beyond his work on infrastructure, Gloria, who is openly gay, said he's proud to have passed laws protecting the LGBTQ community and increasing access to treatment for HIV.
"This is the kind of perspective that lived experience becomes really important for," he said in an interview with KPBS. "And those are the kinds of things that make me think if I wasn’t there maybe those issues wouldn’t have been brought up, maybe there wouldn’t be a champion for that."
Gloria touts his successful effort to raise the city's minimum wage as a boon for thousands of low-income workers. He said he's proud to have pushed for more state funding to combat homelessness, and has criticized current Mayor Kevin Faulconer's use of law enforcement to manage the homelessness crisis.
"Arresting people, giving them tickets, giving them fines and fees that they can't afford is just a surefire way to keep people in poverty," he said.
If elected mayor, he would push San Diego to address its affordable housing crisis and would work to win over skeptics of new development.
"I recognize that there are a lot of people who are suffering, and they want a mayor who sees and hears them and is going to act on their behalf," Gloria said. "But importantly, who's going to go out and explain to other people that (more housing) is not bad for you. This can actually help make your community better, this can make your quality of life better."
Gloria has built a coalition of supporters that rarely get behind the same candidate. Among others, he's been endorsed by the San Diego County Democratic Party and the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council, as well as the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, which historically backs Republicans.
Barbara Bry won her election to the City Council in 2016 with strong backing from the county's Democratic establishment, which feared her District 1 seat could be lost to a Republican. However, given Gloria’s strong institutional backing, she is now painting herself as a more independent, grassroots candidate. She is building her platform on a more restrained approach to housing development, as well as opposition to electric scooters and short-term home rental platforms like AirBnb.
"There is no accountability and no transparency at City Hall," Bry told attendees to the event. "The decision on the bike lanes was made without adequate data and without adequate communication with the residents and the business owners who are going to be most impacted."
Bry had a long career as an entrepreneur and businesswoman before her election. During her time on the council, Bry said her proudest accomplishment is her work to oppose Soccer City, the failed 2018 ballot measure that would have sold the city's Mission Valley stadium property to private investors for development.
"At the beginning I was out there all by myself, and Soccer City spent tens of thousands of dollars on social media criticizing my position and alleging that I was a corrupt politician," Bry told KPBS. "But I never wavered. I knew it was a terrible deal for the taxpayers, for the residents of this city, for the long term.”
Bry puts homelessness among her top priorities and said she supports building more housing. However, she said much of the responsibility for the homelessness crisis in San Diego lies with county officials, who oversee public health and social welfare programs.
"Some people need housing, some people need access to a diversion program, some people need enforcement," she said. "My homeless strategy acknowledges that we have to treat each person individually and meet them where they are to help them get off the street."
Bry has also attacked the "Yes in My Backyard" or YIMBY movement, which pushes for cities to build more housing, saying the group of mostly younger activists are pawns of Wall Street investors looking to corporatize San Diego neighborhoods. She said that includes the YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County, a Democratic club that endorsed Gloria.
"I think they are backed by Wall Street whether they know it or not," Bry said.
Sherman has long been known for his disdain for public office. He had a countdown clock on his desk marking the days until the end of his term and frequently said he wasn't a politician.
But he’s having trouble saying that these days.
"I'm getting close to graduating to being a politician officially," he said. "Twenty five years in the business world, I still think like a businessman, but seven years in this, I think by definition I'm getting to be a politician now."
If elected, Sherman's biggest issue would be housing.
"Specifically middle-market housing," he said. "What happens is you have people in subsidized housing and they start doing better and moving their way up the economic ladder, and there's no place for them to go."
He'd build more housing by adding density bonuses and changing zoning, like he did in Grantville in his district.
He also said the city needs to be tougher on homelessness.
"We're doing a bunch on compassion, we're starting to not do as much on the enforcement side,” he said. ”And a lot of times compassion without enforcement just becomes enabling."
Sherman also wants to reduce labor unions' power at city hall using collective bargaining. And he's not a fan of bike lanes.
"The majority of us have to have a vehicle to do our daily function," he said. "Even at council, you see council members talking about the need to bike to work, the need for mass transit, and then you walk out in the parking lot and there's nine parking spaces for every council district, and every one's filled up with a car."
The most unconventional candidate for mayor this year is community activist Tasha Williamson. She made a name for herself by leading protests against city leaders, but now wants to be elected as one of them.
But the road to even qualify for the ballot was a challenging one for Williamson. She remembers feeling a sense of dread when she received a call from the San Diego City Clerk's Office.
"Then she says, 'This is a good call I'm making,'" Williamson recalled. "She said, 'I want to let you know that you met the 200 signature requirement.' I just started screaming."
Williamson is not a seasoned politician—she doesn’t even have a working website. And she doesn’t have deep-pocketed supporters — as of the end of June, her campaign had raised just $675.
But Williamson does have a voice in the community, organizing protests after Earl McNeil died in National City Police custody.
She said there was no one who looked like her in the mayor's race and no one who cared about her community of Southeast San Diego, so she jumped in.
"There's some people who have been so erased from politics, they've not been given the opportunity to have successes, to have all the things they need," Williamson said. "They've de-invested in communities like the one we are sitting in."
Williamson spoke with KPBS at the Willie Henderson Park in the Lincoln Park neighborhood and said its cracked sidewalks and homeless population show her community has been ignored. If elected, she would focus on diverting money to every neighborhood, with a goal of increasing home ownership and diverse business ownership, healthy food choices, jobs, civic engagement and quality schools.
"I'm bringing a whole new tone to this political landscape," she said. "I'm doing things that have never been done before. We're going to be giving back to the people, investing in people first. And nobody's talking about that."