City Council District 3's Chris Ward: An 'Open-Minded' Progressive
Last week San Diego City Councilman Chris Ward unveiled his first major policy proposal: an ordinance aimed at guaranteeing equal pay for women and minorities among city contractors. The week before that, he convinced his colleagues to soften the edges of a temporary ban on marijuana cultivation and testing. He did so after reading from prepared remarks about the failure of the war on drugs and the "just say no" anti-drug campaign.
With a little over two months in office as the representative for District 3, Ward has quickly established himself as one of the council's most outspoken progressives. He is also one of the more highly educated council members, with degrees from Johns Hopkins University and Harvard. And while it's his first foray into elected office, he has eight years of politics and policymaking experience working as chief of staff for State Senator Marty Block.
In a recent interview in his office in city hall, Ward said entering elected office has been a relatively easy transition.
"I knew what I wanted to do in putting together, first and foremost, a team that was focused on constituent services," he said. "I think I've got a right mix of staff to be able to meet the policy interests and understand the community interests to serve my district."
Homelessness is at the top of the agenda of many city officials, Ward included. Most of the city's street homelessness is in his district, which includes Hillcrest, North Park and downtown. Last month the councilman took part in the regional homeless count, where he interviewed a few people living on the streets. Speaking at a City Council meeting the following week, he fought back tears as he recalled seeing a mother and her young daughter emerge from a tent on Market Street in the East Village.
"When you see these things happen and you have these experiences and we're able to talk to people, I think that it really does help to motivate us and guide us," he told his council colleagues.
Ward is hoping to help improve efficiencies in homeless services while serving on the governance board of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. But he acknowledges a huge part of the problem is that there’s simply not enough money to deal with homelessness. He called 2016 a "missed opportunity" for elected officials to ask voters for a tax increase to help fund homeless services and affordable housing. Several such measures passed last November in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. LA County voters will decide on another tax measure to fight homelessness in March.
"Los Angeles now is not only able to provide a local source of income for those kinds of programs, but use that as a seed money that will then attract state and federal money to match," he said. "So if we're not even willing to look for local sources, we are missing out on other opportunities that are already out there."
Ward is gay, and continues the decades-old tradition of having a gay or lesbian council member represent District 3. But he differs from his predecessors in one significant way: He's a parent. His daughter, Betty, turns three in April.
Ward said being a father is what drives a lot of his work, and that many other young families in his district are concerned about housing affordability and the prospect of being priced out of San Diego.
"They don't want to escape to the hinterlands of the county, Temecula, or the suburbs," he said. "They want to live here in a community in the urban core… and I think it's because I'm a parent of a young child that I'm so driven to maintain that perspective and act on it."
While Ward makes no secret of his liberal values, he calls his leadership style "open-minded and collaborative." He said he has built personal relationships over the years with Republicans and conservative organizations.
"We're able to have honest conversation," he said. "Sometimes I might disagree with them, but I never disrespect them."
That open-minded leadership style may soon be put to the test, as Mayor Kevin Faulconer pursues a plan to add hundreds of temporary homeless shelter beds. Some homeless advocates have blasted the plans because while temporary shelters may be easier and faster to set up, they are far less effective at ending homelessness than permanent housing linked with supporting services like mental health care and substance abuse treatment.
Asked whether he would support spending public dollars on short-term solutions to homelessness, Ward made no commitments.
"I want to receive as many different opinions as I can get for what the most effective way with our limited dollars is to produce the ultimate outcome," he said. "It's tricky."