New Chair Of San Diego County Democrats Talks About Hot Races In 2020
Democrats are gearing up for some of the most hotly contested races in San Diego County: mayor, city council and county supervisor will all be on ballots in 2020. Will Rodriguez-Kennedy was elected chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party this year. He spoke with KPBS about his election strategy.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: You are 31, you're the youngest chair of the county Democratic Party ever. You are a veteran. You were discharged under Don't Ask Don't Tell. And you were also homeless for a while, you lived out of your car. How is all of that lived experience going to inform how you approach this position?
A: My lived experience has in many ways shaped my political views. They've evolved over the years. There was a point when I was a little bit more — or a lot more — conservative than I am now. But it's important because my activism comes from a social justice standpoint, and that has led me to the Democratic Party. And so it allows me to engage on issues that previous chairs may not have engaged on because I have lived experienced with those issues, particularly on homelessness and housing.
Q: I know you've got your sights set on a Democratic majority on the County Board of Supervisors. What do you think a majority Democratic board would be able to do? What policy issues do you think they could move on?
A: We've already seen that the board has operated significantly differently with Nathan Fletcher on the board. So just imagine what we can do with a Democratic majority. But I see that we can do more on housing. I see that we can do more on mental health. I think those are important areas that we're going to have to look at because a lot of the problems that we have regionally are better served when we have better county participation in the solution to those problems. So the party is looking at basically what are the institutions which have the resources to address the challenges of our time, and the County Board of Supervisors is key to that strategy.
Q: I know SANDAG is also in your sights, the county transportation agency. Their board of directors is made up of an elected official from every city in the county. What's your strategy to get more Democrats on that board?
A: I'm probably the first party chair to talk about a strategy like the SANDAG strategy. And really in order to change those seats, we have to focus on some of the areas that we simply need to do better in. In order to change the makeup of SANDAG, we have to help take back the County Board of Supervisors, but also we have to focus on areas in North County like Vista, San Marcos, where we can flip Democratic majorities and change up the makeup of SANDAG.
It also means that we'll have to focus on cities in East County that you might not have expected otherwise, like El Cajon, where they've just moved to district elections. So it's possible for us to pick up seats there. So the SANDAG strategy, since you don't elect anyone to SANDAG, requires us to focus on the basics, which is city councils and local races that the county Democratic Party is going to increase its focus on. And that means that some races like in Vista and San Marcos and El Cajon and even National City, other places across the county, are going to get more attention from our party and more resources from our party than they might have if we were just focusing on congressional seats or something.
Q: Last November the Democrats picked up a San Diego City Council seat in District 2 with the election of Jen Campbell. A lot of the messaging in that campaign centered around Trump, that Lorie Zapf, a Republican, was in the same party as Donald Trump. How important, really, is Donald Trump to a local city council race, and how much is that going to play into your strategy in 2020?
A: The reality is that we're in a presidential year. We're going to have a very contested Democratic primary, which means turnout will be high. And the districts that we're targeting are districts in which Trump is unfavorable. So sometimes in elections where you don't have much information about the elected official or candidate that you're voting for, it helps to know what their values are. And the reality is that Trump's values do not — they're not consistent with the values of San Diegans.
My goal is to make sure that that's not the top thing that we're talking about. It's going to be one of the things we're talking about. But in reality, this Democratic Party is going to be talking about issues, which is why we're going to create the first ever county party platform, to show what our values are, what our issues are, and to lead with those values.
Q: We've also seen some races where there are two Democrats running against each other. And last November there was a case of the county Democratic Party actually putting out attack ads against one of the Democrats in a race, in City Council District 8. How are you going to handle races where the party has endorsed one Democrat over another and the two are competing against each other?
A: Well that was deeply unpopular within our party. I had supported the candidate who was attacked (Vivian Moreno). She was a member of our central committee, and I do not support that approach in that specific race. There are situations in which Democrats may have just opposed the values of the Democratic Party, in which there may be times that you have to highlight those differences. But those can be done from a policy perspective and from a more respectful perspective than the sort of "this Democrat B is the Trump Democrat" or whatever. So we're going to start looking at how we can hold our electeds accountable in a more constructive way as opposed to issuing sort of ad hominem attack ads.
Q: Earlier this month you spoke at the "YIMBY Democrats" Democratic club. This is the group that's focused on building more housing. A lot of the policies that they support are fervently opposed by Democrats — by elected Democrats and Democratic activists. How do you as the party chair manage that difference of opinion when it comes to housing politics, which is really front and center in the local political debate?
A: Well we have to communicate better. The reality is that we have to change the way we look at housing policy and we have to make sure that we're building more density, more development, along transit, transportation lines. A sustainable development. And we have to do things in order to make that more available. Otherwise we're going to have a situation in which this crisis, particularly with housing, with people not being able to afford to live here in San Diego, a beautiful place where we all want to live — but also to increase the problem of homelessness. We have to address those issues, and as a result of that, we're going to have to have some tough conversations with even people among our Democratic Party.
And the reality is if you look at the Democratic Party, it is a minority, but a vocal minority, that opposes housing. But if we're serious about solving the issue of homelessness, which is a major problem in our county, and if we're serious about addressing the issue of skyrocketing rents, we have to do something there.
Q: It sounds like you're a YIMBY. Are you?
A: I am a YIMBY.
Q: Of all of the races in 2020 in San Diego County, what is your highest priority?
A: The County Board of Supervisors is clearly our highest priority. We have three seats up. Two of them are really favorable for Democrats. One of them isn't as favorable but could be surprising. Looking at the turnout, there is some really good data that shows that our turnout models favor Democrats in both District 3 and District 1. District 3 is Kristin Gaspar, District 1 is going to be an open seat, formerly Greg Cox's seat. And in both those districts, Democratic presidential candidates prevailed over Republicans. And we have made significant gains in those districts, particularly in District 3, where we gained the majority in the Escondido City Council but and also the mayoralty there. So there's going to be a lot of focus on District 3. And District 1 is a Democratic seat, so this is our year to take it back.