By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown & Uptown News
The City Council Stephen Whitburn hopes to be elected to faces significantly different issues than the one he campaigned for leading up to the March primary. He will face off with Toni Duran in November to see who will represent District 3 during what is projected to be the recovery phase of a pandemic and recession.
With the possibility of a Democratic supermajority on the City Council and a guaranteed Democrat in the mayor’s office, political chatter for months has been on what progressive policies San Diego might enact that would have been impossible just a few years before. Now, the city is going to face a major budget deficit that could risk many of those policies being implemented.
Whitburn believes his background in communications and nearly 20 years of living in District 3 has prepared him for this moment.
“I think that my background prepares me well for this situation particularly (given the situation that we’re in). Having been director of the American Cancer Society in Southern California, not only was I involved in public health care, I managed a multi-million-dollar budget. Having worked with the American Red Cross in Public Affairs after 9/11, I understand what it takes to recover from a crisis situation,” Whitburn said in a phone interview.
Whitburn started his career as a radio newscaster in Wisconsin, where he grew up. He came to San Diego on vacation and decided to make a permanent move to the city when an opportunity came his way. Soon after the move, he worked in public affairs for the American Red Cross in the wake of 9/11. He stayed in the nonprofit sector after that and worked as the executive director of San Diego Pride and the director of the American Cancer Society. His stint at Pride was marred when he was terminated by the board.
Outside of his formal work in news media, communications, and nonprofit leadership, Whitburn has been heavily involved in the community. He was elected as the vice chair of the North Park Planners and has served on several boards. He was a part of the city’s medical marijuana taskforce and helped expand the city’s landmark Human Dignity Ordinance protections to include more than just gay and lesbian people.
“Our amendment coalition succeeded in also adding protections for people who are transgender. I’ve always been proud that we were able to accomplish that,” Whitburn said.
He has been on other LGBT advisory groups, including for Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Sheriff Bill Gore.
This is not Whitburn’s first run for City Council. In 2008, he lost to Todd Gloria in the general election. Whitburn said, “I was unsuccessful that time but my feelings about the issues, about wanting to support the community have never faded, they have always been there.”
A major flaw Whitburn sees in city government is the breaks in communication between officials and residents. Projects that could benefit the community face opposition because community members were not consulted in the early stages of planning.
“One of the things that I think hasn’t happened in San Diego is city government really soliciting and respecting the opinions of neighborhood residents prior to making decisions. I’ve seen that happen over and over again in the last 20 years,” he explained. “I am really committed to working very closely with District 3 residents to make sure that decisions are made collaboratively with neighborhoods. I think that will solve a lot of our problems.”
To that end, he is already trying to make himself available to community members. His personal cell phone is listed on his campaign website and many community members have already reached out to him. Advocates in Golden Hill brought him to several community meetings because of their concern about a 24-hour liquor store being added to a “troubled” intersection. Surprisingly, Whitburn said no one has misused or trolled his phone number and he intends to keep it available to the public if he is elected.
“I really am happy when people have a question or if someone wants to let me know about a concern that they have in their neighborhood,” he said.
Whitburn comes across as warm and open when he talks to people, often turning conversations to focus on the voter rather than himself. When coronavirus began to spread in the area, he helped care for a friend who tested positive for the virus. Whitburn developed flu-like symptoms of his own but was not tested because his fever went away within a few days. That he is the type of person who would care for someone without health insurance with a life-threatening virus will probably not surprise people who have interacted with him on the campaign trail.
Even with promises to communicate with neighborhoods, there will be cuts in city services due to budget shortfalls that will not please everybody. To address that, Whitburn emphasized that San Diego needs to lean on funds from the federal government at this time, although the $248 million provided to the city under the CARES Act are supposed to only go towards direct relief for the coronavirus, not budget deficits. Even whether that money can be used for efforts like housing homeless individuals in the Convention Center is still unclear. With budget cuts ahead, Whitburn believes public safety is a top priority for the city.
“We have to maintain our public safety, our police, our fire and other essential services like that,” he said. Beyond that, he agrees with the city looking into reducing hours at community centers, libraries and reducing tree trimming. “None of that is good, those are all very important, but don’t rise to the level of making sure we have public safety.”
In addition, he said addressing homelessness by connecting people to housing and services is still a top priority.
“We have always had a moral obligation to help our brothers and sisters who are suffering on the streets,” Whitburn said. “All of those priorities remain the same. The challenge of course is going to be funding them because of the loss of revenue to COVID-19. We’re gonna really lean on the federal government.”
Even when San Diego had a strong economy with low unemployment, Whitburn campaigned on bringing good jobs to the city. He noted that District 3 has more restaurants than any other part of the city, so has been harmed by the shutdown, even though it was the right thing to do for public health. Other major employers like hotels, the San Diego Zoo, the Convention Center and the airport have less revenue.
“Recovery is going to start here in District 3 and I’m ready to help lead the city through this challenging time,” Whitburn said. “I’m ready to get to work and really try to help our city recover from this.”
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.