Editor’s Note: Starting Line columnist Doug Porter is taking a few days off. Since he’s spent the last six months flogging the importance of the County of San Diego primaries (last day to vote is June 5), we’re reprinting some of his early observations. Updated parts of these stories in red.
Originally published on January 23. Since this article was posted, the San Diego Free Press endorsed Omar Passons for District 4 Supervisor.
Former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña is running for termed-out Supervisor Ron Roberts seat, a Republican who managed to get re-elected despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans in the district 2 to 1.
She has a long progressive political pedigree and has maintained a high profile despite not currently holding office through her activism with groups advocating for the homeless, women’s rights, and environmental causes.
She is running against two high-profile Democrats in the June primary, hoping to challenge Republican Bonnie Dumanis in November. District 4 includes most of the city of San Diego, spanning La Jolla to Kearny Mesa, Encanto, downtown and Ocean Beach.
About this series: Each of these candidate profiles (Omar Passons & Nathan Fletcher are next up) is intended to be an introduction to the leading Democratic candidates seeking what I consider to be the most consequential position in local politics for 2018.
I’m of the opinion that any of the three high-profile Democrats in this race would be acceptable. There are differences in both style and substance in how each of them views the task of changing the culture at the Board of Supervisors.
This series isn’t about endorsing anybody. We’ve got plenty of time for that. And we’ll have plenty of time for talking trash and finger-pointing. For now, I just want to present the positives I saw in each candidate.
Over the past few weeks, each of these candidates has sat down with me for an hour-long conversation. While I recorded these meetings, they were not intended as Q & A interviews. I wanted to look past the words and the rhetoric; to get a sense of each of them as a human being and somehow do so in less than two thousand words.
I am posting these stories in the same order as the interviews took place, which was determined by the candidates’ availability. (Democrat Ken Malbrough did not respond to a December 4, 2017, emailed interview request.)
I have blended some basic research into these stories and attempted to follow a similar format in each. The quotes used were edited for clarity.
There are a lot of milestones in Native San Diegan Lori Saldaña’s past.
Father Frank Saldaña spent two decades as a U.S. Marine, moving on to be a respected journalist with the San Diego Evening Tribune. Her mother, Virginia Saldaña, had an early career in banking, going on to raise four daughters.
Saldaña credits the roadblocks encountered during her time as a fresh-out-of-college women’s basketball coach at City College with being the experience that pushed her into seeking her masters.
Along the way she worked as a carpenter, joining the union for what was then a bold and unconventional choice as a young woman.
Getting an advanced degree wasn’t easy and it didn’t come quick, but I could see the process led to her to become determined to do more.
Doing more included environmental activism–serving on the original board of directors for San Diego Earth Day in 1990, and having a hand in creating the hugely successful EarthFair in Balboa Park. Saldaña served as Chapter Chair of the local Sierra Club from 1995-97.
Environmental activism led to policy work, serving as a Mayoral (Maureen O’Connor) appointee with the Wetlands Advisory Board and a Presidential (Bill Clinton) appointee with the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission.
Her gainful employment along the way includes teaching at UCSD, SDSU, and Mesa College. Saldaña is currently a Professor of Business Information Technology for the San Diego Community College District.
In 2004, Lori Saldaña won an upset victory as an outsider in a race for California Assembly with a campaign based on large-scale door knocking throughout the then-District 76. “We Walk, We Win” was her campaign mantra.
She went on to serve three terms in Sacramento, serving on the Housing and Community Development Committee (Chair), Elections and Redistricting, Rules, Veterans Affairs, Judiciary, the Water, Parks & Wildlife Committees and the Assembly Ethics Committee.
She was also Chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus (2008-2010) and served as Speaker pro Tempore.
Her record as a legislator was solidly progressive by just about every metric. As a co-author of AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, Saldaña’s impact will continue to be felt for decades to come. In 2005, she was a co-author of the first marriage equality legislation in the nation.
In 2012, Saldaña ran in the primary for the 52nd Congressional District against former City Councilman Scott Peters. Again, she was the outsider running against the party’s favorite. This time she lost.
In 2016, she ran as an independent candidate for Mayor of San Diego.
That race was decided on Primary day, as incumbent Republican Kevin Faulconer received 57.2% of the vote. Saldaña’s second-place finish (23.3%) bested Democratic party favorite Ed Harris (19.4%).
For 2018, she has returned to the Democratic party. But she’s still an outsider.
As a long time advocate of progressive values, candidate Lori Saldaña’s involvement with activist causes includes women’s, homelessness, healthcare, and environmental issues.
Why are #SanDiego county residents dying of #flu at over 20X mortality rate of Orange County? #hepatitisA rate was 2X @CDCgov average.
Are Orange County and Los Angeles County Department of Health Services doing something that @SDCountyHHSA is not?
— Lori Saldaña for Supervisor (@Lori4SanDiego) January 23, 2018
It’s her view the County routinely puts up obstacles for people seeking social services, particularly when it comes to food stamps.
I tell people the county is the backstop to poverty. And they have not done their job. They’ve made it more difficult for people to get the assistance they’re eligible for, and they’ve gone all the way to the Supreme Court to demand the right to investigate them in their homes–unannounced visits–to make it more demeaning to get help. And a lot of people say ‘I don’t want to give up my right to privacy, I don’t want them knocking on my door at any hour.’
That is a waste. And that’s where Bonnie Dumanis has also been involved in this. Bonnie has led her DA’s office investigations into the poorest people and criminalized the poorest people because they took a payment they shouldn’t have taken…
How do you discourage participation in food stamps or general relief? You make it as difficult as possible and that’s what they have done.
I sat down with [former Supervisor] Dave Roberts in June before he moved out of state, and he said: ‘Lori, they routinely violate the law and refuse general relief payments on the spot. They are required to make those payments on request and they routinely deny it.
And what happens to a mentally ill/disabled person who is denied? They give up. They’re used to being beaten down, they’re used to being refused help, and they do not go back and get the follow-up care that they need. They’re the ones who are dying in the clothes donation bins.
The unanimity of the current Supes line-up makes their highest profile discretionary power–community grants– inherently a political exercise, unmoored from questions of merit or efficiency.
“I’ve seen that with the mental health services at the UCSD Medical Center. They have taken away the grant that used to go for counseling and given it to a non-profit organization that doesn’t have the capacity to train and build up the next generation of psychologists and social workers.”
The interview turned especially intense when it came to short-term rentals and using old motels to house homeless people:
“It’s insane. We’re turning hotels into housing and housing into hotels. We will never meet our housing challenges with these kinds of piecemeal, contradictory policies.”
Saldaña points out that funding for housing is sitting around unused even now:
I authorized (it) as Community Development chair to go into redevelopment funds at the county level, at Civic San Diego. It is sitting there unaccounted for, unused, unallocated and they are dribbling it out in bits and pieces when we have a catastrophe taking place around us. There is no one willing to hold them accountable. Why? Because those are the people who get them elected.
For somebody with such a well articulated progressive posture and history, Saldaña is remarkably cautious with her prescriptions for driving change in the County through the Board of Supervisors.
Her solutions revolve around building a case for change through public hearings and getting input from citizens in the community. Even as she ticked off a litany of problems with county services and policies, Saldaña always returned to public testimony and involvement as the path for solutions.
Again, speaking about housing:
We need to hold hearings on how we have gotten to this point. People say, ‘a hearing isn’t policy,’ but if you don’t have a hearing, you don’t know what the policy needs are.
How many times are we looking at homelessness now and recognizing no one’s done their homework? How many affordable housing units have been destroyed and replaced with market-rate? No one knows!
If you don’t ask the questions–you know it’s easy to give answers–…what tough is formulating good questions. And I’m the only person that has the experience with doing that at the policy level…
You shouldn’t make policy based on what everybody ‘already knows.’
Saldaña’s history with the local Democratic Party is, at best, checkered. Her assertions concerning whistleblowing on former Mayor Bob Filner’s sexism, and the defensive denials coming from party insiders(who always point out her endorsement–as if she had a choice back in those days) are an ongoing point of contention.
It’s safe to say that her supporters are constituents who believe she served them well, along with activists who feel alienated by the current leadership of the Democratic Party.
What the Mayoral campaign taught me is I have a very strong name ID. This year is going to be an ascendant year for women and people of color as well, and for truly progressive people who are saying ‘this is what we get with half-measures.’
Click Here for the complete list of SDFP endorsements.