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Interstate 8 Divide May Lead To San Diego Political Gridlock

The final map the San Diego Redistricting Commission approved.
City of San Diego Redistricting Commission
The final map the San Diego Redistricting Commission approved.
Interstate 8 Divide

San Diego is a city of freeways. It’s hard to get anywhere outside your own neighborhood without taking one. But the roads do more than provide quick access out to the beach or up to L.A. They also carve out different parts of the city. And one acts as a political boundary as well.

Interstate 8 Divide May Lead To San Diego Political Gridlock
In San Diego, the Interstate 8 has historically acted as a dividing line for the city. But a combination of redistricting and recent elections has widened the gulf.

Interstate 8 runs west to the Pacific Ocean and east to the mountains and desert beyond. It cuts right through the heart of San Diego and, increasingly, serves as a dividing line between the north and south sides of the city.


"It didn’t intend to be a demographic divide," he said. Interstate 8 runs through Mission Valley, which Weeks said has always separated the original city and the newer suburbs to the north, said John Weeks, geography professor at San Diego State University.

"We do have this historical divide that created a demographic divide between the old part of the city where people had sort of been left behind a little bit, and the newer parts of the city, north of Interstate 8," he said.

The northern part of San Diego is generally wealthier, older and whiter than the city’s southern half. That demographic divide translates into a political divide. Neighborhoods north of the 8 trend Republican while those in the south go Democratic. That split became even more apparent after the June primary.

When newly drawn city council districts take effect all the councilmembers to the south of Interstate 8 and east of Interstate 5 freeway will be Democratic, while those to the north and west will be Republicans. One possible exception, District 1, will be decided in November. Interstate 8 was also a dividing line in the recent mayoral primary. A majority of voters in the north went for Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio and the southern part of the city went for Democratic Congressman Bob Filner. The two will face off in November.

Smack in the middle of the northern half of the city sits Donut Touch, a store brimming with glazed, chocolate and maple bacon donuts in gleaming display cases. Owner Ben Aivati has been in the donut business in San Diego for more than 30 years. He said the entire country is split along party lines, and that’s trickling into local government.


"San Diego is divided, yes I can see that, between Democrats and Republicans and all the wars going on between them," he said. "And trying to settle all the differences we have is just a big mess."

At Donut Touch I caught up with Councilmember-elect Mark Kersey. The store sits on the edge of his district in Scripps Ranch. He’s a Republican and if DeMaio is elected mayor, Kersey is expected to back his fiscally conservative agenda. But Kersey insists he doesn’t see San Diego’s politics in partisan terms.

"You know, I think in Sacramento we’ve seen that and I think in Washington we’ve seen that. But I think here at the local level, it’s not about Republican versus Democrat. It’s about reform versus status quo," he said. "And what we’ve seen over the last five years is that pretty much every significant piece of reform initiative that we’ve put to the voters has passed."

It’s true, voters have approved Republican measures calling for outsourcing some city services, prohibiting San Diego from entering into union friendly project labor agreements and eliminating pensions for most new city employees.

But go south and cross the 8 and you may get a different perspective on the recent election. Democratic Councilman Todd Gloria stands outside Giorgino’s cheesestake shop listening to the owner who’s frustrated the city removed some public trashcans.

Giorgino’s sits at the center of San Diego’s southern half in Golden Hill, an area Gloria will soon be representing. He’s concerned about the political divides in the city.

"I’m third generation San Diegan, we all know about the north, south Interstate 8 divide," he said. "But what I think is, perhaps, troubling about the current drawings though is there aren’t councilmembers that have a stake on both sides of that fence."

Gloria believes the city has done well in recent years because it’s had a moderate mayor and representatives willing to reach across the aisle. But the city’s new political geography may set San Diego up for gridlock.

Mario Rosales, who owns the cheesestake shop, said it doesn’t have to be that way.

"If you want to work with somebody, if you want to make certain things happen, you’re going to do everything in your power. Even if it means bending a little bit on what you want to try," he said.

It’s a message Rosales hopes San Diego’s lawmakers hear as they face each other across the city’s political divide.

Democracy Day is an effort that started in 2022 to draw attention to the crisis facing American democracy, provide the public with the context and information they need, and bring all types of media together to sound the alarm collectively. KPBS is a media partner in this collaborative.