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Roundtable: Analyzing key races and measures in San Diego County

 November 4, 2022 at 10:00 AM PDT

S1: The midterm elections are nearly here. And we're taking one last look at a few key San Diego races. I'm Matt Hoffman and this is KPBS roundtable. The balance of Congress could be hanging in the hands of San Diego voters. With the election just around the corner , President Joe Biden is stumping here in San Diego. He's hoping to boost Democratic Congressman Mike Levin. He's in a tight race against Republican Brian Marriot for California's 49th District. Here's some of what the president had to say on Thursday.

S2: This is a choice between , you know , everybody talks about a referendum. It's not a referendum. Is a choice a choice between two fundamentally different.

S1: Versions of America. This week on roundtable , we're taking one final look at the midterm elections just before voting ends on Tuesday. From the possibility of a red wave to a new share for the county , as well as some of the local measures that all voters are being asked to weigh in on. Joining us this week are Michael Smolens. He's a columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune. Pre-history there is here. She's a political reporter and host of NBC's Sevens Politically Speaking. And KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen is back with us. I want to thank you all so much for being here. Want to get some quick first impressions from you all. President Joe Biden is here stumping for Congressman Mike Levin. That's in the race against Republican Brian Marriott. But what does the president's visit signal to you all ? You know , not just about this race , but with the election at large. And Priya , we'll start with you here. Yeah.

S3: Yeah. So , I mean , this is a really critical 2022 midterm election. As you mentioned , the balance of power is up for grabs in Congress. And , I mean , the fact that we're seeing , you know , just days away from actual Election Day , some of the big heavy hitters from former Vice President Mike Pence to former President Barack Obama to current President Joe Biden , crisscrossing the country , trying to make appearances in some of those battleground districts. And the fact that we have one right here in our own backyard I think is pretty crazy. In California. You wouldn't expect a president having to come in and try to help the Democratic incumbent defend his seat. But of course , this is one of 35 toss up seats. And so I think they're not taking any district for granted.


S2: It's interesting because , you know , I think early in the year there was thinking that it was going to be competitive , but Levin should be in good shape. Clearly , they're concerned. I mean , you don't bring the president in if somebody is in good shape. You know , that seems to be sort of a trend we're seeing across the country. Certainly , Democrats are feeling that way because they're already turning on each other , blaming the messaging and so forth. So they're not feeling very good going into this final stretch. And remember , it's only a five seat net gain that Republicans need to flip the House. So , you know , every election is critical. But certainly , you know , these couple of few dozen across the state of the country , excuse me , and particularly , you know , here in California.


S4: One thing I am wondering is , is , you know , how much good can the president actually do for Mike Levin ? Biden's approval ratings aren't exactly stellar right now. And so , you know , it certainly might give a little bit of a boost in terms of earned media and , you know , attention for Levin that the president is here visiting him and supporting him. But I have to imagine that there are a lot of folks who are in that district who might be supporting Levin but are not the biggest Biden fans.

S2: Well , I think it's interesting and just what you know , complementing what Andrew said , that the presence here in San Diego , the San Diego County portion of the district , not Orange County. Now , Biden carried both counties in 2020 , but he was much heavily favored in San Diego County for what that's worth.

S1: And you guys all talked about how this race has been tightening. And recently , the Cook Political Report , they changed the 49th District from a lean Democrat to Democrat tossup. And I know you've moderated some debates with Levin and Marriott.

S3: You know , I got a chance to speak with Brian Marriott ahead of President Biden's visit here. And he , you know , actually thought that it was going to be to his advantage to have the president campaigning with Mike Levin , because his message has really been , if you want more of the same , if you are okay with the fact that , you know , inflation is at record high , then vote for Mike Love and vote for the incumbent. But he's really trying to point out that , you know , things are not in good shape right now. And if you want a change , you should vote for him. So I think he's trying to sort of spin the president's visit to his advantage. Mike , let's. And of course , as most incumbents do , is trying to stand on his record. And , you know , he's been very active with the Veterans Affairs Committee. So the president's going to be stopping by a company in Carlsbad that's hired a lot of military veterans to also sort of highlight some of Mike Levin's work in the district with military veterans. So he's trying to stand on his record and Brian Marriott's trying to stand on being completely different to President Biden and the current administration.

S1: And we do have some recent polling here from the Union-Tribune. It found 49% of likely voters support Levin , while 43% support Marriott. And there's 8% of those who are undecided. Michael , what do you make of how close this race appears to be down the stretch here ? I mean , is there any indication that Marriott's benefiting from this supposed red wave of a. Sure.

S2: Sure. And as we've seen , the red wave sort of has kind of ebbed and flowed a little bit earlier in the year , was very strong. People were expecting a blowout. The Roe v Wade overturning by the Supreme Court sort of changed the dynamics. But just for a bit , it seems like it's kind of come back to a pretty heavy Republican push right now. But even under different circumstances , this is always going to be a swing district. Democrats have a less than 3% voter registration advantage. So it's always going to be a pretty tough battleground regardless. But , you know , I don't think there's any question that that the circumstances right now are favoring Republicans. We'll see what happens on Tuesday. But in the end , I think we thought it was going to be a contested race. Whether it's as threatening to Mike Levin or not , I don't think we thought so earlier on , as Andrew said.

S1: And it sounds like voters may not know the results of this one on election night , maybe a few days after. But another top race , this one with county wide implications is the contest for San Diego sheriff. And this race features current Undersheriff Kelly Martinez. She's squaring off against former prosecutor and police officer John Hamelin.

S4: You mentioned Martinez. You know , she's a long time veteran with the sheriff's department. She's been there since 1985. She was a Republican for a while and only recently switched parties to become a Democrat. HAMMER Ling , you mentioned , is is a veteran. He's a former police officer , just most recently a deputy city attorney who prosecuted misdemeanors in the city of San Diego. And he also had a relatively recent switch of parties. He was an independent and only recently became a Republican. So the party dynamics in this race are a little bit interesting , although I don't think that you can really draw a clear distinction between them based on their party affiliation. And of course , this is a locally elected office , so there's no D. R next to either of the candidates names. But as in terms of endorsements , I think Martinez probably has the edge there. She's got she's backed by most of the major interest groups that have a stake in this fight. The city city of San Diego's Police Officers Association , sheriff's deputies union endorsed her , the district attorneys and several elected officials. Jon Hambleton recently got the endorsement of the Union-Tribune editorial board and a lot of Republican elected officials there. So it's hard to see exactly where the chips will fall on this one.

S1: And we know that we've had a record number of jail deaths this year.

S4: I think both of them acknowledge that the number of deaths in San Diego jails is too high. And both would also probably admit that it's not an easy problem to fix and not one that it has very simple policy solutions. Martinez , the undersheriff , says she is working on implementing recommendations from a state audit that was very critical of the sheriff's department and how they handle jail deaths. John Kimberlin paints Martinez as sort of a continuation of the status quo. And you need an outsider to really shake things up and make bigger changes. But , you know , as I said , I think it's pretty hard to pin down some real differences in terms of policy positions on the issue of jail deaths , because it's not just a question of policies or training. It's often a question of culture in the department and how , you know , sheriff's deputies actually see the inmates in jails and how much care they're giving to them versus , you know , how they might treat them just being a criminal who's there to be locked up.

S1: You're listening to KPBS roundtable. I'm your host , Matt Hoffman. And our guests this week are Michael Smolens from the San Diego Union-Tribune , Abc7's Priya Schraeder and KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen. Let's get into some of the measures that San Diegans are being asked to vote on this week. Andrew , one that all county voters will see is the cannabis business tax. That's measure A it would allow the Board of Supervisors to tax recreational and medicinal operations only in the unincorporated county , though , although all voters will see it. And Andrew , this sounds similar to what some other cities have already done , right ? Yeah.

S4: So the city of San Diego in 2016 , the same year that we approved Proposition 64 , which legalized adult use cannabis across the state , that same election , the city of San Diego voters adopted a cannabis business tax. It was called Measure N , and that's levied on both retail outlets and production facilities that grow and manufacture and distribute cannabis products. And these local taxes are really just efforts from local governments to capture some of the value that's being created by the growth in the legal , legitimate cannabis industry. Cannabis is pretty heavily taxed in California already at the state level. There's a cultivation tax , there's a excise tax on all the businesses. This is actually , I think , one of the problems with the cannabis industry , at least a lot of folks who know a lot about this stuff say it's a problem , is that the tax burden is very high and it doesn't really create a lot of opportunities for folks who are operating in the black market to achieve compliance with the state regulations. There's not a lot of a whole lot of incentive for them to actually participate in the legal market right now , because they could probably make a whole lot more money and have a much easier time doing business by staying in the black market. So , you know , I think that it's not necessarily something that measure A would have a dramatic impact on as far as , you know , the real tax burden on cannabis businesses. But it is something that would let the county keep a little bit of money from this growing industry. And and it wouldn't be sent off to Sacramento and then trickling back to the local jurisdictions.

S1: Let's switch gears and go down to Measure B , just moving on down the ballot. Voters in the city of San Diego , they're going to be weighing in on whether single family homeowners should have to pay for trash pickup and PREA. This one's going to you.

S3: And that has to do with the new state law that requires the disposal of organic waste. So essentially , you know , the city is saying that it can't really keep up with the cost of picking up trash for everyone. And , you know , if people were paying into that service , that money could be spent for the general fund. So , you know , just like what Andrew was talking about with Measure A , the fund that goes to fund everything from parks to infrastructure to services and and social programs and things like that. So , you know , this has been an ordinance that was on the books as of 1919 , so over 100 years old. And it's been attempted to be repealed several times. But it has it hasn't , in fact , gone anywhere. So I think , you know , City Council President Shawn YULO Rivera , who's really been a champion of attempting to repeal this , is hoping that voters will understand that he believes that it's not very sustainable to essentially continue to pay for these services. On the other hand , you know , the San Diego County Taxpayers Association , they support the idea of repealing the people's ordinance , but they want to make sure that independent contractors can bid on who essentially does those trash collection services. The city or SHAUNI La Rivera , I should say , the city council president wants it to be a service that's done by city workers. The San Diego Taxpayers Association says that's fine if they present the most competitive bid. But let's open it up to the marketplace and see if there are private companies who might do a better job of it. So that's sort of both sides of the argument there.

S1: And Michael , you have a recent column about Measure B , and part of it says that proponents argue it's all about fairness.

S2: That's sort of the bottom line for a lot of proponents. But , yes , I mean , it is really remarkable that the the municipal trust system financing structure is really based on an ordinance that's more than a century old that was designed to go. What kind of waste went where and whether waste could be sold to pig farms. I mean , that's that's how antiquated this is. The city of San Diego is the only city or the only major city , I believe , in California that doesn't have a separate trash fee for single family homes. You know , you mentioned the apartment owners and condo owners. Those buildings and businesses have to pay private haulers. So that's where people see the inequity. The single family homeowners that don't like the idea of a new fee argue that , look , we're already paying our taxes for this service into the general fund. Well , those other folks are , too. But it's a it'll be a difficult task. I think , you know , you're asking people to tax themselves for a service they're getting without paying that tax. And that's going to be a big hurdle.

S1: Go ahead , Andrew.

S4: I just have to add that I think it's you know , I'm really , really excited to see what the results are of Measure B because for such a long time in San Diego , this issue of free trash pickup for folks in single family homes has been really seen as a third rail and local politics. You do not take on the homeowners. You do not ask them to pay for the services that everybody else has to pay for. You just have to keep things the way they are and don't mess with , you know , with the status quo. Well , Shani , La Rivera has really taken on that that issue and decided , well , as Priya noted , this has been this has been talked about as a as a just a not a great system of governance or trash collection. For a really long time. It's been called out in audit reports. And , you know , the city is required to pay for free trash pickup for Airbnbs as long as those Airbnbs are in single family homes. So there are all these sorts of problems that are created by offering a very special service only to a certain group of people. And , you know , I think we'll see on on Tuesday whether this was actually true that this is an issue that nobody wanted to change or if , in fact , folks do see the benefit in having a fairer system where everybody has to pay their share.

S1: And not to get too in the weeds here , but. Michael , you also write that unions could help ultimately decide the fate of measures like this one.

S2: They have money. They have a lot of people they can put out in the field. And in a lot of cases , they're organized , so to speak , politically. Now , we've seen there's a lot of fissures and a lot of disagreements that they have as as , you know , business community dues as the Republican Democratic Party do. But , you know , they're force to be reckoned with. And let's remember that this does bring more money into the general fund that's going to go to a lot of things , but it also can bolster salaries. And that's something that the San Diego Municipal Employees Association really would like to see , as we've all written and seen , that San Diego is a tough time attracting and retaining people because the pension system is still a mess , for one thing , and , you know , undetermined. But that's a setback. But also their pay scale is below competing cities and smaller cities. So that's what they're trying to change by doing this along with this whole fairness issue.

S1: All right. Now let's move on to Measure C , Andrew , you've been following this for a while. The midway height limits story and the story behind it goes far beyond the confines of this just particular election.

S4: We the city did vote on a measure called Measure E in 2020. That was exactly the same question. Should the Midway district be exempt from the 30 foot coastal height limit in San Diego ? And what happened was a group sued the city and argued that the they did not conduct a proper or adequate environmental analysis of of the impacts of allowing taller buildings in this particular area. And a judge sided with those plaintiffs. The city is now appealing that decision. But in the interim , it also has sort of a backup plan , which is they did this extra environmental analysis. They determined , sure , taller buildings in Midway might might block some views or it might change some neighborhood character , which are actual things that are considered environmental impacts under state law. And but you know that the opportunity to build more housing in Midway , the opportunity to revitalize this very blighted neighborhood with new development , new businesses , new public spaces , far outweigh those concerns about views and vistas. And so that's why we're voting on it again , is essentially that , you know , the city had to go through this extra process because of a state environmental law that that requires very , very strict analyses of pretty much anything a government does. And so , you know , it would be put to the voters for a second time. And the first time , by the way , it passed with more than 56% of the vote.

S1: Let's talk about what's driving people to the polls. If you look at headlines , there's a lot of talk , you know , that's voters top of mind inflation , high gas prices , reproductive rights , even the ongoing war in Ukraine.

S3: Like you mentioned , I think people are very concerned with the price of goods , unemployment , things of that nature , the high interest rates for , you know , buying houses. Public safety also seems to be a big topic of discussion , something that the Republicans are really trying to zero in on , saying that crime rates have spiked across the country and that Democrats aren't doing enough to be tough on crime. And then , yeah , I think the reversal of Roe versus Wade over the summer is a major rallying cry for Democrats to get , you know , Democratic voters to come out to the polls. You know , they're trying to play on the fear that if there is a Republican majority in Congress that they could potentially pass some sort of legislation that would make abortion illegal across the United States. So I think , you know , you're seeing a lot of factors at play. The number one thing is people's livelihoods and making sure they can balance their own checkbook. But then I think the Supreme Court has had a very interesting weight on people's concerns moving forward as well.

S1: And Michael , talking about turnout , you know , this is not a presidential election. Newsom is on the ballots. And we know as of Thursday , the registrar's office says they've got about 410,000 ballots , expecting turnout around 60 , 65%.

S2: I think we were talking earlier about that might compare with 2018 , which was a big midterm turnout where the Democrats really surged in those races. You know , as we've seen in midterm elections , the party out of power , out of the White House tends to do well in Congress. And as I mentioned earlier , you know , flipping five seats or a net gain of five seats for Republicans , it really shouldn't be that big of a problem , even under better circumstances for Democrats. The Democrats are facing tough circumstances. So it would really be a surprise if Republicans did not take the House. As for California , you know , you mentioned abortion. And while that has faded a little bit as the key issue as the economy seems to overwhelm just about everything. We do have Proposition one on the California ballot now that would that would enshrine abortion protections in the state constitution. That will drive a lot of people out to elections , to the polls , rather. But one sort of drawback on the turnout front is that we don't have a contested really much of a contested governor's race. Newsom is going to be a shoo in and having not really much of a race at the top of the ticket , I think there's a little interest.

S1: And finally , in the short amount of time we have left , we want to throw this one to all of you. But 32nd answers , please. Are there any other races on the ballot that you feel are not getting the attention that they deserve ? And Andrew , we'll start with you here.

S4: Well , the two races that I'm watching locally the most are city council districts , two and six. Two In District two , we have an incumbent who is a Democrat running against a Republican. I think that'll shed some light on what level of tolerance city voters have for the Republican brand in 2022. And then District six is a pretty clear there's a pretty clear distinction between the two candidates over the issue of housing. One is is taking more of a moderate approach , saying we need to embrace this idea of building more housing while the other one's a whole lot more skeptical of that that direction that the city is headed in. So those are , I would say , the two that I'm watching very closely.


S3: And Andrew pointed out some of the interesting ones locally. But I would say on the state level , ones that I'm watching really closely are Propositions 26 and 27 , which could bring sports betting to California. And that , you know , is a huge millions and millions of dollar market. And so we could see either a sports betting happening here in California on online platforms or at horse racetracks and casinos. And so I think that's something that people are watching really closely even across the country , because California is such a big market. And I mean , we're seeing record spending on those campaign ads. So I'm really excited to see what happens with both of those.


S2: But school board races are interesting. They're interesting here and across the country in San Diego County , I think that you've got a loose coalition of conservative candidates who , you know , they sort of kind of got energized during the pandemic and were up. Set up , schools were closed and the various restrictions , masks and things like that , but also that they've really attacked , you know , programs and directions and school districts to embrace racial understanding and LGBTQ sympathy and understanding. So those folks have really been energized and they could reshape some school boards. But again , those are almost like micro local elections that are hard to gauge in that region wide perspective.

S1: And we're going to have to end it there for this week's edition of KPBS roundtable. I want to thank our guests , Michael Smolens , pre-history there , and Andrew Bowen. Be sure to stream our show any time as a podcast. And don't forget the place to be for all the election coverage is the KPBS online Voter Hub. Roundtable is produced by Andrew Bracken. Our technical director is Rebecca Cecconi. And I'm your host , Matt Hoffman. Thanks so much for being here with us. And have a great weekend.

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President Joe Biden takes the stage at Mira Costa College in Oceanside to campaign for Mike Levin on Nov. 3, 2022.
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President Joe Biden takes the stage at Mira Costa College in Oceanside to campaign for Mike Levin on Nov. 3, 2022.
The President stumps in San Diego in a key congressional race, voters to choose a new sheriff for the county, and a look at local measures in the run up to the 2022 midterm election.

Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion on what President Joe Biden's visit to San Diego means for the 49th Congressional District race and for the control of congress. Also, one last look at the race for San Diego County Sheriff. And, analysis of some of the most contentious ballot measures facing San Diego voters. Guests include The San Diego Union-Tribune Columnist Michael Smolens, NBC 7 San Diego Political Reporter Priya Sridhar, and KPBS Metro Reporter Andrew Bowen.