Lawyers With Different Stances On City Issues Battle For San Diego District 5 Council Seat
Joe Leventhal and Marni Von Wilpert are both lawyers running for San Diego’s District 5 City Council seat. But that’s pretty much where their similarities end. Leventhal is a Republican and partner at a law firm and Von Wilpert, a Democrat, is a San Diego deputy city attorney.
They have staked out different positions on some of the city’s most pressing issues, including the city’s COVID response; relief for small businesses; police reform and the role of the city attorney’s office.
The outcome of the race could impact the balance of power on the City Council. The seat is currently held by the termed-out Mark Kersey, who was elected as a Republican but has since become a no party preference voter. So the race will help determine whether the council’s Democratic majority grows or shrinks.
Von Wilpert came in slightly ahead of Leventhal in the March primary, with 39.8% of the vote to Leventhal's 36.9%. The third-place finisher was Democrat Isaac Wang.
The district is relatively balanced, with 36% percent of voters registered as Democrats, 31% as Republicans and 28.1% with no party preference. It covers northern San Diego neighborhoods including Black Mountain Ranch, Scripps Ranch, Rancho Bernardo, and Rancho Peñasquitos.
Leventhal, 43, grew up in the Los Angeles area and earned his undergraduate degree from UC San Diego. He earned his law degree from Georgetown University. He founded his own firm eight years ago and has served on the San Diego Ethics Commission.
Von Wilpert, 37, grew up in Scripps Ranch and earned her undergrad from U.C. Berkeley. Her law degree is from Fordham University. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana and also founded a legal clinic with the Mississippi Center for Justice before moving back to San Diego.
As a deputy city attorney, Von Wilpert said she's been on the front lines of enforcing San Diego County's public health orders during the pandemic.
"I've actually helped enforce some of the face covering requirements at some of our local grocery stores where we had hot spots in Pacific Beach," she said. "A lot of the reason is to protect the employees and our grocery store workers who are just trying to do their jobs and make sure that our families are fed at night."
She said the county's mask rule should be enforced with education and then citations if necessary.
Leventhal disagrees, saying "education is more important than citations." But, he said, when violations are egregious, citations are appropriate.
Both candidates do not believe schools should reopen countywide at this moment.
"Schools should if they can afford to do so in a safe way," Leventhal said. But, he said, in some parts of the county, schools may not have the funding to open safely. His children attend Poway Unified School District schools and are preparing to go back to in-person learning soon.
Von Wilpert also said schools should not open until "our school boards, our teachers, our public health experts and our parents" are on board.
She added the city could help by opening libraries and fields for extra classroom space.
Neither candidate supports defunding police, but both said there are areas where the San Diego Police Department could make reforms.
"Every institution needs to be looking at how to improve," Leventhal said.
He suggested that the police department work on training to remove implicit bias and "not have police officers be the first responders to certain calls," instead using social workers and mental health counselors.
Von Wilpert said she supports Measure B to establish a stronger community review board on police practices and also wants to increase mental health counselors so police aren't responding to calls for mental health issues.
"The only response to homeless individuals should not be a 911 call with police officers," she said.
Von Wilpert also supports a measure to set up a privacy commission to review surveillance technology before it is used by city departments. Leventhal questions why such a commission is needed.
"It depends on how it’s constituted," he said. "There’s a reason we elect city council members and the mayor and City Council should exercise proper oversight."
It is likely that the pandemic will force the next City Council to make more budget cuts in the 2021-22 fiscal year. Both candidates have ideas regarding where the cuts should be made.
Leventhal said he would look for cuts by making city services more efficient. He points to data showing that the number of general employees in the city has grown by 20% over the past decade, while the police and fire departments have grown by 6%.
"I would really want to maintain our current service levels in our police and fire," he said. "It may mean that we are saving money by trying to reduce overtime, which frankly might mean hiring additional police and firefighters."
He said he wouldn't want to make across the board cuts to any department, but would look for efficiencies in areas such as permitting and licensing.
Von Wilpert also said she would not cut from police or fire departments, but would look to cut outside vendors.
"We spend $200 million a year on outside services that we really could bring in house such as new legal services or architects surveying planning issues," she said.
Help for businesses
Leventhal said he did not support using the city’s general fund to expand the emergency pool of money to help small businesses hurt by the pandemic.
"The fund was supported, in part, by private contributions," he said. "It should certainly be expanded by private dollars or federal or state grants if available. If not, I prefer broader based relief that could help all businesses more equitably."
Von Wilpert said she does support expanding the fund because just 600 out of 90,000 small businesses in San Diego were awarded money.
She also likes to see the relaxing of rules for things like outdoor dining in parking spaces to help businesses, and would consider allowing that to continue after the pandemic in some neighborhoods.
Leventhal said he's okay with dining in parking spaces temporarily, but not in the long term because "it takes up necessary parking and sidewalks when restaurants and retail are back at full capacity."
He also does not support extending the city's eviction moratorium.
"The city should focus on improving the local economy so people are employed and can afford their rent," he said. "For those that cannot, the San Diego Housing Commission has numerous programs that can help."
Von Wilpert does support continuing a rental assistance program that goes directly to landlords.
"But also we need to set up a robust mediation program with attorneys and renters so that our courts are not inundated with unlawful detainer evictions and landlords can actually work out payment plans and tenants can stay in their properties without amassing huge credit liability or debt," she said.
Leventhal does not favor allowing duplexes on single family zone lots, while Von Wilpert said she does. However, she is not in favor of allowing quadplexes and said there needs to be adequate planning when increasing housing density.
Leventhal does support a measure to reduce the power of the City Attorney's office that would split the office, with an elected attorney prosecuting misdemeanors while an appointed attorney would take over the rest of the role.
"We’ve seen historically and recently that, depending on who occupies the office of City Attorney, the office can become too political," he said. "I believe the proposal mirrors how the county handles the role with an elected District Attorney and an appointed county counsel."
Von Wilpert does not support the idea.
"I think the city attorney is doing a great job making sure that our communities are protected," she said. “So, before we have a major conversation of splitting an office in half, we need to make sure we do it right."
So far, Leventhal is leading in the race for campaign cash. As of Sept. 19, the most recent reporting date, he had raised $236,413 and had $208,394 in the bank. Von Wilpert had raised $171,380 and had $82,406 in the bank.
Marni von Wilpert
Family: Parents, brothers and their wives live in San Diego, plus a 100-year-old grandfather in Denver.
College: U.C. Berkeley undergraduate degree; Fordham University Law School
Hometown: San Diego
Career: Deputy City Attorney, San Diego City Attorney's Office
Other Interests: Swimming, water polo and yoga.
Personal Fact: She speaks Setswana, a language she learned as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana.
Family: Wife and three kids, ages 12, 10, and 8
College: UC San Diego
Hometown: San Diego
Career: Attorney and business owner
Other Interests: Family Time, Running, Hiking, Reading
Personal Fact: "On the day I reconnected with my wife after college, I told her we were going to get married. We've now been married over 15 years."