Supervisorial Candidates Want To Tackle Pollution, Improve Health Care Access For South Bay
Nearly every time heavy rain fall hits the region, the Tijuana River carries sewage from Mexico's overwhelmed system to San Diego’s southern shores. Beaches are closed, trash piles up and county supervisor candidate Rafael Castellanos said residents are sick of it.
“We're getting dumped on, literally, in South San Diego County,” Castellanos said. “And this district has felt and feels — especially large groups of people in this district — that South County has been left behind.”
The real estate lawyer is among a crowded field of Democratic candidates jostling to replace termed-out Republican Sup. Greg Cox who has held a decades-long grip on the South Bay seat. A health-care advocate and a California senator join Castellanos as the leading candidates to represent the county’s first supervisorial district that includes the cities of Chula Vista, National City, Imperial Beach, Coronado, the city of San Diego neighborhoods of San Ysidro and Barrio Logan and unincorporated communities.
Castellanos said if elected, he will use reserve funds to move forward sewage control projects that officials have already identified.
"The county can just move forward with those projects and can seek reimbursement from the federal government, including in court if necessary," Castellanos said.
The state, the Port of San Diego, where Castellanos is a commissioner, and cities in the district have already sued the federal government to fix the problem. He said he'll add to that list the county, which has resisted joining the fight.
Castellanos believes legal action pushed the federal government to include $300 million to address cross-border pollution in the recent U.S. trade deal with Mexico and Canada, but he wants to keep the pressure on because it’s unclear what projects or which border that will go toward.
"We have to seek all of our available remedies in court if necessary," he said.
His opponent Nora Vargas said diplomacy is a better strategy and that efforts should be focused elsewhere.
"What we need are the basic resources that our communities need to be able to provide health care for our community," Vargas said.
South Bay communities have some of the worst health care access in the state, according to the California Healthy Places Index. Vargas said she has personal experience with the problem — more than a decade ago before the Affordable Care Act, Vargas said her mom was denied Medicaid while battling cancer.
"That feeling of hopelessness is something I don’t want anyone else to feel," she said.
The president of the Southwestern Community College District Governing Board said she would use reserve funds to better support community health groups and expand outreach services to enroll more people in public programs, including the state's Medicaid program Medi-Cal.
"I've done this work and I know that when people from our communities are out there sharing what resources are available people will make sure they have access to them," said Vargas, who was the vice president of community and government relations for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest until she left the role to run for office.
Castellanos said he, too, wants to boost enrollment for services that provide food stamps and public assistance and will use reserve funds to hire more staff.
"We need to prioritize this in the budget and that really comes down to making sure that we have the right number of people," he said.
And while Castellanos wants to prioritize addressing water pollution, Vargas said she’s looking at air quality and wants to improve public transportation access to reduce the cars on the road.
"I really do believe that everybody should be able to ride a bus for free," she said.
They’re both concerned about the housing problem that exists countywide. Castellanos shared a four-point plan that calls for cutting regulatory hurdles and approving a $1 billion bond to offset infrastructure costs. He said that drives up housing prices because developers pass that on to buyers and renters.
Vargas hadn’t proposed a formal plan but said she supports building more homes and wants to establish a county resource to help keep people in the ones they already have.
The other leading candidate is State Sen. Ben Hueso. He cancelled an interview with KPBS and did not respond to follow-up messages. He told the San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board that his priority is to address quality of life issues.
Hueso is second in the money race — he raised about $210,000 while Castellanos raised around $460,000. Vargas is third with around $160,000, but she still has a few more days before the deadline to file contribution reports.
The three were invited to a candidate forum next week hosted by the San Diego County Public Defender Youth Council, but Hueso declined, according to the county employee that manages the group. Castellanos and Vargas will be joined at the Feb. 6 forum by a fourth Democrat, Sophia Rodriguez, a county employee who has received about $7,000 in contributions.
Rodriguez said she is running for county supervisor because she has experienced homelessness and wants to bring that perspective to the board.
A Republican candidate, small business owner and veteran Alex Galicia is also in the race and received the county party's endorsement as well as nearly $2,000 from the group, but he could not provide an interview by deadline.
Voters will cast a ballot in the March 3 primary. The top two vote-getters will move on to the general election in November.