The neighborhoods that make up San Diego’s City Council District 9 have stark differences. Low-income residents in City Heights and Southcrest share their council member with upper-middle class residents in Kensington and the College Area.
The four Democrats running in the June 7 election to represent those communities aren’t as distinctive, yet they’re working hard to set themselves apart from one another — and the establishment.
It’s unlikely any of the four will win the election outright in June by getting more than 50 percent of the vote, so the top two vote-getters will go on to the November general election.
City Council races are nonpartisan, and no Republicans are running to replace the incumbent, Democratic Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who is retiring at the end of her term.
Asked to pick a meaningful spot to meet to discuss his platform, Ricardo Flores chose Park de la Cruz in City Heights. A grassy stretch there will soon become a concrete skate park.
“It’s a proud moment to be able to say that you’re going to put a piece of infrastructure in their community,” Flores said.
Flores helped to make the skate park a reality for neighborhood youth while working as Emerald’s chief of staff.
Before he joined Emerald’s staff, he worked for Congresswoman Susan Davis, D-San Diego.
Flores’ opponents have used his résumé to call him the establishment candidate. With few ideological differences, the Democrats vying for Emerald’s seat have had to look for other ways to distinguish themselves.
“I’ll say this: The labor council didn’t go with me. That’s the political establishment. The Democratic Party, even though I’ve been a member of the Democratic Party my whole life, they didn’t go with me,” Flores said. “If they’re talking about the men and women who work at the city, I don’t think they’re establishment. I think they’re workers.”
The San Diego County Democratic Party chose to not endorse any of the District 9 candidates. Flores has the backing of the city employees union and police and firefighter associations, in addition to his former bosses and several of their colleagues.
The big-ticket labor endorsement from the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council went to candidate Sarah Saez.
Flores said it’s his track record that will win him the seat. And he said the years he’s spent finding money for streetlights and parks in the district are part of a bigger plan.
“We’ve prioritized what their interests are because, ultimately, this is about building trust with them so that we can do bigger things in the future,” Flores said.
Amenities like the skate park? He said those are carrots. A modest property tax increase and denser development are the sticks he believes are necessary to pay for infrastructure such as fire stations and to drive down housing costs.
“It’s about showing results in the community first,” Flores said. “If we can build your parks, if we can ensure you’re safe in your neighborhoods, if we can ensure that your roads are accounted for in terms of the growth that we’re projecting, I think that’s the most important piece. I don’t think people have felt that way.”
For Saez, focusing on amenities is missing the point.
“We can build parks, but if you have two to three jobs, if you’re working all day and you can’t even help your kids with homework, how are you supposed to enjoy those parks?” she said.
Saez’s campaign office is in the old labor council building in City Heights — to Saez, the heart of San Diego’s anti-establishment.
“Labor is not a monolith,” she said. “It’s working people. It’s anti-status quo.”
Down the hall from her office is United Taxi Workers of San Diego. Saez led the campaign toopen the local taxi market and pave economic inroads for immigrant cabdrivers. Flores helped his boss, Emerald, translate the cause into policy.
Saez and Flores agree on other things, too, including the need for denser development to fix the district’s housing problems. But Saez also sees the solution through a wider lens.
“Things are connected,” she said. “If people start making $15 an hour, people can raise themselves out of poverty. They’re going to be able to buy more. It’s going to boost our local economy. Our sales tax revenue is going to be going up. Sales tax revenue is one of the ways that we pay for these things.”
Saez, who said members of United Taxi Workers asked her to run, isn’t shy about her support for controversial policies, including raising the minimum wage and passing rent control.
“The platform didn’t come from me,” she said. “I’ve been a community organizer for a decade and these are things I’m hearing from people.”
Though it didn’t make it into her platform statement, candidate Georgette Gomez also sees rent control as a potential solution to the city’s housing affordability crisis.
“For me, all the tools that are available should be looked at for San Diego,” Gomez said. “And we need to look beyond what we are currently using because we still have an issue.”
That includes land banking — identifying and amassing parcels of land so they’re shovel-ready for developers willing to build affordable homes. Saez also includes land banking in her platform.
Gomez said she’s worked with developers as associate director of the Environmental Health Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for communities adversely affected by vehicle and industrial pollution. The nonprofit helped residents shape the Mercado mixed-use development in Barrio Logan.
Another solution for Gomez is shifting priorities at City Hall. She points to the City Council’s approval of a $2.1 million environmental review for the mayor’s Mission Valley stadium proposal to the NFL.
“They continue to be responsive to the things that aren’t lifting people’s quality of life,” Gomez said. “My entire life is about that, about trying to shift the focus to these communities.”
Gomez has also served on the redevelopment and planning committees in District 9. She said serving on the City Council is the next step in making sure residents have a seat at the table.
“Our district is going to get improved. The question is: Who are these improvements going to be for?” Gomez said. “I want to make sure, and I want to dedicate my all to ensuring, that those improvements are for the residents of this community.”
Family law attorney Araceli Martinez also is seeking the seat. She’s lived in the district for 18 years.
“As an attorney I have to make sure I’m out there, I’m negotiating with people and trying to get the best possible results for the people I represent. So that would translate directly into representing the people of San Diego and the people of District 9,” Martinez said.
She said her experience lobbying in Sacramento on behalf of consumers and the Autism Society San Diego —her 17-year-old daughter has autism — will help her advocate for more state and federal funds to bring housing and transit projects to the district. She said her experience helping other parents navigate San Diego Unified School District’s special education program also qualifies her to advocate for young families.
“I represent children, I represent families, and that’s the vision that I am bringing here,” Martinez said. “We want to make sure that our kids have clean, safe parks to play in. We want to make sure that our canyons are clean so if families want to go explore those areas they can go do that. We want to make sure there’s enough police officers that have good relations with the community so people can feel safe in their community and feel connected.”
Martinez lacks high-profile endorsements and donations — something she said sets her apart from the so-called establishment.
That line the candidates have been drawing — between the establishment and anti-establishment — is easy shorthand in debates. But when District 9 voters head to the ballot box, their decision is this: the candidate who can get results within a system that hasn’t always served them, or a candidate who wants to change that system.