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How San Diego politicians make national issues local flashpoints

There’s the old adage that “all politics is local.” But increasingly the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and local city councils are holding votes on national issues. KPBS reporter Claire Trageser explains how they reflect our intensely partisan times.

There’s the old adage that “all politics is local,” but increasingly the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and local city councils are holding votes on national issues that don’t always have a direct impact on local governance.

In the past year, the supervisors voted on issues including supporting reproductive freedom, supporting state and federal gun control legislation and supporting a ban on offshore oil drilling — votes that generated more than 10 hours of often contentious public comment.

The San Diego City Council has also in previous years taken nationally-focused votes, including supporting a transgender student from Virginia’s right to use the men’s bathroom at school, and to support California’s so-called sanctuary state law after the Trump administration filed a lawsuit against it.


Meanwhile, the Chula Vista City Council voted on a resolution condemning family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, and supporting gun control measures.

Thad Kousser, a politics professor at UC San Diego, said these moves are made by board and council majorities with an eye on future elections.

“They are designed to set up campaign mailers and TV ads in the next election, and part of the job as a politician is being able to take a stand and explain that stand to your constituents,” Kousser said. “And when these votes are focused on issues that are really at the top of the mind of voters, that gives voters the information they need to know to map their values onto their vote.”

On the Supervisors’ vote on declaring San Diego County a "champion of reproductive freedom," Republican Jim Desmond voted no and Republican Joel Anderson was absent. On the vote to support state and federal gun control legislation, both Republicans voted no. But the board voted unanimously to support a ban on offshore drilling, with the Republicans calling it a bipartisan issue.

An old practice

These types of votes are nothing new — the city of Berkeley once voted on nuclear disarmament and in support of human rights in Myanmar — but in San Diego politics, the issues have grown more contentious, especially at Board of Supervisor meetings.


Yet, Kousser doesn’t see that contention as a problem. In fact, he said these meetings increase engagement in local politics.

“What we often worry about is a democratic deficit where county supervisors, city council members, school board members, people don't know who they are, don't know what positions they're taking and don't know whether they reflect their values, and so having issues that crystallize the public interest, that get media attention to get us talking about it is in some ways of overcoming that democratic deficit,” Kousser said.

The only issue is if the votes happen so often that they interfere with the other business of the board or council, he said.

Republican San Diego Councilman Chris Cate says that’s exactly what happened. At first, Cate thought votes on national issues could be important and spent a lot of time working on a resolution about immigration reform. But then it got out of hand, he said.

“I just said I was not elected to do this, I don't have time to read and see all the debates regarding Senate bills or court cases and the nuances of them all,” Cate recalled. “And so ... I'm just not going to vote on them, whether I would support it or not ... I don't have the time nor the wherewithal to understand all those things that happen at a federal level as well as what I'm doing here locally.”

Cate said some of the votes are examples of his Democratic colleagues playing politics to a local crowd and don't matter in Washington, D.C., where the decisions on these issues are actually made.

“I don't think anyone ever called us and said, ‘boy, the city of San Diego's letter on this issue really moved the needle on this topic being debated in DC,’’ he said. “I've never gotten that phone call.”

Calls to action

But Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, said local leaders should take a stand on national issues because voting rights, LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights are under attack.

“It's important that people in Democratic states or just plain states that respect human and civil rights do things to counterbalance that national narrative,” he said. “I mean, if we all just are quiet while Republicans are rolling back reproductive health care rights and voting rights, then the conversation nationally is only one-sided.”

Plus, Rodriguez-Kennedy pointed out, some of the contentious issues have local impact. A vote on declaring COVID-19 misinformation a public health crisis attracted more than seven hours of public comment — after which, both Republicans voted no.

“So Jim Desmond voting against saying that medical misinformation is a health crisis is something that affects all people's understanding of Jim Desmond because the county is one of the principal organs of government by which policy interacts on health care,” he said. “So if he doesn't believe that medical information is a health crisis, then why should he be making decisions at the county?”

Desmond and Anderson declined to be interviewed for this story.

Rodriguez-Kennedy said even if Washington isn't paying attention, the views of local leaders on leading national issues matter to voters.

“The public should know who's in power and what their ideology and their values are, and if their values do not match with their own personal values, the values of families throughout San Diego, what they discuss at the kitchen table, then they should not elect them,” he said.

Cate said that has not been his experience.

“So for me, my two elections I've dealt with, that has never come up, it has never been a priority for residents where someone went out of their way to ask me, ‘What's your position on this federal issue that I hear about on Fox News or MSNBC,’” he said. “It's, ‘When are we going to fix my street? Why is my water bill so high?’”