Before Ray Ellis dropped out of the San Diego City Council District 1 race, both parties had a keen interest in how it was unfolding.
That’s because the council majority was at play.
If Republican Ellis had won, the council would have swung to that party by a 5-to-4 margin. Republicans would have controlled the council, as well as the mayor’s office, for the next four years.
Ellis quit the race in August after realizing he had little chance of winning in November. So, Democrat Barbara Bry, who got 48 percent of the vote in the June primary, is all but assured the seat, and the Democrats will most likely control the council again.
However, that begs a significant question … Does it even matter?
Given how moderate most San Diego politicians are — including Bry and Ellis — what difference does it make which party controls the council?
Take Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s most recent budget. It passed the council. Unanimously. As usual.
Before taking office, when asked how he would govern, Faulconer said this to The Union-Tribune: “It’s about reaching across the aisle. … Most of the issues aren’t partisan issues. And that’s the way it should be. And that’s the way that I intend to govern as the next mayor of the city.”
Bry said her priorities on the council will be to improve public safety, to create more affordable housing and to help the innovation economy prosper.
“In my mind, these are all nonpartisan,” she said.
So that council majority thing?
Much ado about nothing?
Well, it depends on whom you ask.
Chris Crotty is a political campaign consultant with primarily Democratic clients. He served as a consultant to the City Council’s Rules Committee during Maureen O’Connor’s mayorship. Cotty said the impact could have been significant if a flip to a Republican majority had occurred.
Crotty said the city faces a number of issues that could have widely varying outcomes depending on which party has the majority. Though he said Faulconer is fairly moderate, Crotty expressed some concerns.
“One thing that he (Faulconer) supports is managed competition and outsourcing of city services, which progressives have fought since [former mayor] Jerry Sanders’ administration,” Crotty said.
City Councilman David Alvarez, a Democrat who holds the District 8 seat, echoed the sentiment that on hot-button issues, a majority switch would be a big deal, though he noted that on the vast majority of smaller issues facing the council, votes are typically unanimous and nonpartisan.
“I think there would be changes,” Alvarez said. “I think policies such as minimum wage — which the council approved and the mayor vetoed — would have a difficult time getting through. Sick leave, which was part of the minimum-wage ballot initiative, is also something the council had approved and the mayor vetoed. Issues like that still matter to a lot of people but would not come to the forefront.”
That mayoral veto situation can happen because San Diego city government functions in much the same way that state and national government work; there are executive, legislative and judicial branches. The council can shape and vote to approve certain policies, but the mayor has veto power.
“The mayor has the authority, just like a governor, just like a president, to veto that,” Alvarez explained. “Unless there’s a supermajority on the City Council, then you can’t override the veto of, in our case, a mayor.”
If the council majority were Republican, it’s likely that issues the mayor might have vetoed under a Democratic majority wouldn’t even make it that far. The council would craft more conservative policies.
One pundit used an earthquake analogy to explain the dynamic if a switch had occurred.
“Think of it like a 5.0 or 6.0 earthquake,” said Carl Luna, a professor at Mesa College and director of the Institute for Civil Civic Engagement at University of San Diego. “It’s not an 8.0 that’s going to level the city, and it’s not a 1.0 that you wouldn’t even really notice during the middle of the night. You’ll notice that it’ll be harder for Democrats at the council to get things done.”
Luna noted that parties can have differing philosophies about how they tackle even nuts-and-bolts issues.
“There’s an expression you hear all the time: There’s no partisan way to fill a pothole, you know, given the infrastructure issues we have,” he said. “But that’s not true. You can fill a pothole with labor union living-wage workers, or you can fill a pothole by outsourcing it to the lowest independent bid without a living wage. Even in police and fire, are you going to raise the tax base you need to be able to maintain a good police force? Or, are you even going fix the roads we need, or not? The different parties have different viewpoints.”
On the infrastructure issue, he said Democrats would likely work toward a bond issue or tax increase to raise the billions of dollars needed, while Republicans would be more opposed to those measures.
“In San Diego, we’re not as fiercely partisan a city as you might find in other parts of the state, but it’s an increasingly partisan divide,” Luna said.
Others questioned how significant the impact would have been.
“By and large, the council has moderated over the years, and that’s been a good thing,” said Carl DeMaio, a former City Council member who was known for being anything but moderate, particularly on fiscal issues.
DeMaio said he’s more focused on the individual voices leaving and entering the council, and he thinks the personality component goes a long way toward the collaborative nature of a council, or lack thereof.
Democratic campaign consultant Tom Shepard, who worked on Bry’s campaign, agreed.
“The general question of whether the partisan makeup of a council makes a difference or not, I think it has a lot more to do with individual personalities than it does with the party affiliation of individual council members,” Shepard said.
He said he’s seen the tenor of debate on the City Council change more depending on the individuals involved since the city switched to a strong mayor form of government on a trial basis in 2004, then permanently in 2010.
In four years, the issue could resurface if a Democrat becomes mayor and the party holds onto the council majority. Maintaining the council majority is likely, given that the two districts up for election — Districts 4 and 8 — traditionally elect Democrats by wide margins.