There has been an awful lot of handwringing and consternation regarding who should have the Democrats’ support in the 52nd District Congressional race. There are three major candidates for the newly redrawn, Central San Diego district: Democrats Scott Peters and Lori Saldaña, and incumbent Republican Brian Bilbray, formerly of the 50th Congressional District based in Coastal North San Diego County.
It doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to figure out that Democrats are not going to support Bilbray, whose most accomplished moment as a member of Congress came when he told a national TV audience that you can tell illegal immigrants by “the kind of dress you wear, there’s different type…..right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes.”
Not exactly a shining moment for San Diego. But really, what more should we expect from someone with nothing beyond a community college education? Personally I prefer my elected officials—particularly at the federal level—to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree and a clear ability to understand the consequences of the legislation he supports, but maybe that’s just me.
Which leaves us with the two Democrats in the race: Peters and Saldaña, two good, if somewhat flawed candidates (but who among us isn’t flawed?). Trust me on this: We could have done a lot worse than these two. I am convinced that either candidate would represent San Diego well in Washington, D.C., but as in the “Highlander” movies, there can be only one. In a perfect world we’d have both candidates advancing to the general election, but assuming that our presumptions are correct and that Bilbray will advance through the primary on June 5th, only one of them will be on the ballot on November 6th.
But which one? Both have solid experience in elected politics. Saldaña has the advantage of having worked in a caucus environment similar to the one she would encounter in the nation’s capitol, having served in the California State Assembly for six years. Both candidates have been in strong leadership positions in their respective legislative bodies: Saldaña having served as assistant majority whip and speaker pro-tem in the Assembly, and Peters having served as the city’s first City Council President.
Both candidates come from decidedly middle class backgrounds, and have a history of fighting for middle class values.
Lori Saldaña worked her way through school and has been a college professor both at the community college level and the University of California level. Scott Peters has amassed a good deal of personal wealth, having been a successful litigator as an environmental attorney, a fact that he has been unjustly vilified for. And it’s at this point where the campaign gets dicey for me.
As I’ve noted before, Saldaña is without a doubt the Progressive firebrand in this race. She has the support of all of the far left organizations such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, MoveOn.org, and Emily’s List. She is the candidate that most appeals to the far left wing of the Democratic base and has the most vocal and activist support. Peters is a much more moderate candidate who adheres to core Democratic principles and is without a doubt a solid Democrat. He is also the candidate who is more likely to appeal to a much broader base of voters.
It’s this last point that has sparked the most debate between supporters of the two candidates, and where Democrats run the risk of marginalizing themselves. Peters has been attacked in this race for being too rich, for being too “corporoate,” for being “a plutocrat,” a “Republicrat.” He’s not anti-big business enough; he’s not tough enough on environmental issues; he’s to chummy with the moneyed interests; in short, he’s not ideologically pure enough.
What we’re seeing is the application of a Democratic version of the ideological purity test, the same sort that led to the rise of the most extremely conservative and partisan Republicans in elected politics today. Moderates in the Republican Party are a thing of the past; they no longer exist. Democrats have been quick to condemn them for it, including myself on many, many occasions. Yet here we are in the midst of Democrats making the same mistake, becoming more overtly partisan and less likely to be able to govern effectively.
Part of being a leader is having the ability to listen to those who disagree with you, even from within your own party—especially from within your own party. Being a leader means having the courage to confront those with whom you disagree and taking the time and effort to convince them to change their mind. Scott Peters does that. Lori Saldaña does not.
Case in point: At the beginning of April, I wrote a column that was highly critical of the approach Peters said he would take in dealing with Republican members of Congress. I felt he was being naïve in his failure to acknowledge the extreme partisanship in Washington—particularly in the House of Representatives—and the fact that it’s simply not possible to negotiate with Congressional Republicans. Several weeks later I requested an interview with Peters to give him a chance to respond. In my own mind I thought it was the right thing to do.
Despite their trepidation, the Peters campaign agreed. After reading through my comments following my piece, Peters’ campaign spokesperson emailed me saying “I’m no longer convinced this is going to be a good use of Scott’s time, but we will be there,” referring to the interview we had scheduled. We sat down for almost an hour and I confronted him on a whole range of issues, including my initial criticisms. He took the time and put in the effort to change this one, insignificant reporter’s mind.
Contrast that to the way Saldaña reacted when a writer from San Diego City Beat—hardly a bastion of right wing dogma–tweeted something she didn’t like. The tweet in question: “The ability to build consensus behind the scenes is the big diff.” Now compare that one little innocuous tweet to the entire column I wrote about Scott Peters. As a result, Saldaña pulled out of a long scheduled interview with City Beat for a 2,400 word story they had planned to publish in their print version about her and her campaign based on that meeting. The resulting exchange in the comment section of a story on the weekly’s website showed a pettiness and a disdain for those who deviate in the slightest from her own ideology that should raise alarms to anyone who advocates for good governance.
It demonstrated that she is not one who works and plays well with others, regardless of party affiliation.
Scott Peters has a reputation for being a consensus builder; for being someone who can work to resolve complex differences and achieve results. Lori Saldaña has a reputation for being combative and divisive. The last thing San Diego needs in a representative in Congress is someone who will further divide this county. We already have one of those. We don’t need another.
There’s also the issue of electability. Lori Saldaña has run a magnificent grassroots campaign, and she and her staff are to be commended for it. But she is well behind in the money race, and she has not demonstrated the ability to raise enough funds to compete with the $787,000 Bilbray has sitting in the bank just waiting for the November general election. It is also unlikely that her grassroots effort will be able to overcome the media blitz that would be coming her way.
Moreover, consider this: If the Decline-to-State voters—who make up roughly one-third of the voters in the 52nd–are going to decide this election, will Saldaña be able to attract enough of them to put her over the top in November? Probably not. She will surely dominate amongst Democrats, but it is doubtful she’s the kind of candidate that is likely to appeal to middle-of-the road San Diegans who are exasperated by the bitter partisanship Saldaña will supply more of.
Scott Peters, on the other hand, is the kind of candidate who is more likely to appeal to those who have no direct ties to either political party. He might even peel off some moderate Republicans who are less than impressed with Bilbray (they do still exist in San Diego). And with $251,000 on hand compared to Saldaña’s $96,000, he will at least be able to compete on the airwaves, because whether we like it or not, the money does, and will matter.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet with both candidates face-to-face at some length. I listened to what each had to say. I’ve asked questions of them both, and I’ve examined the major criticisms of both. I’ve gotten a feel for who each candidate is. I’ve parsed through where each stands on the major issues that matter most to the local voters. I’ve also seen how each deals with their critics and with adversity.
After long and careful consideration of all of the facts in front of me, and after having initially supported Lori Saldaña, I have concluded that Scott Peters is the better choice to represent the 52nd Congressional District in San Diego.