By JEFF CLEMETSON | Downtown & Uptown News
[Editor’s note: SDNews spoke with Sara Jacobs prior to the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed, so this profile does not include the candidate’s positions on police reforms. For more information about the Sara Jacobs campaign, visit www.sarajacobsforca.com.]
On March 3, voters in California’s 53rd congressional district made Sara Jacobs the frontrunner with 29.2% of the vote in what was a crowded field of 15 candidates. Jacobs, granddaughter of Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, credits her success to reaching out to the district’s constituents.
“I love San Diego and I’m so proud of the primary campaign we ran where we talked to everyone and listened to everyone and built a broad coalition,” she said. “That’s what I plan to do in the general election and that’s what I plan to do in office — listen to everyone, work with people from all backgrounds and really make progress.”
Now that the race is down to a contest between Jacobs and City Council president Georgette Gomez — both Democrats with similar policy positions — Jacobs wants voters to focus on her experience working in politics at the federal level as reason to cast ballots for her in November.
“[Voters need] someone who has experience making and implementing policy at the federal level who understands all the levers of power that the federal government has to really offer San Diego — someone who is not going to take time to get their sea legs, but hit the ground running on day one and make sure San Diegans gets the representation they need as these incredibly important decisions are being made.”
An early path to public service
Jacobs proudly says she is a third generation San Diegan, born and raised. When talking about her famous family, she focuses more on their early struggles than on their financial successes.
“When my great grandparents first moved to San Diego, they lived in College Area and that was one of the few areas that Jewish families had been allowed to live. Obviously a lot has changed in San Diego and in my family since then,” she said. “I was always taught about how much San Diego has given us and that it was my responsibility to do everything I could to give back and make sure that every kid in San Diego has the kind of opportunities that I was able to have.”
Unlike many other children raised in families with extreme wealth, Jacobs attended public schools growing up.
“My parents felt very strongly that they wanted us to be in public schools and getting an education that was more than just academics — that we interacted and got to have friends from all different walks of life and that was something that they felt very strongly about,” she said.
When Jacobs entered Torrey Pines High School, she expected that she would follow in both of her her grandfathers’ footsteps and become an electrical engineer. During her high school years, Jacobs was involved in community service, such as leading the youth group at her synogauge and volunteering for San Diego Youth Services to serve the homeless. In her junior year, she took part in a program bringing Israeli Jewish teens together with Israeli Arab teens that inspired her to want to work with people over working in a lab.
With that as inspiration, Jacobs studied Political Science with a focus on international issues at Columbia University.
“There are some problems where there’s a solution but we just don’t have political will to do it, and there are some problems that even if we had the political will, we wouldn’t know what to do,” she said. “And those are the kinds of problems I got really interested in in college. I spent a lot of time studying some of the smaller conflicts around the world that weren’t getting much political attention and studying peace-building interventions and peace-keeping approaches.”
Jacobs earned her Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia and then took “a little bit of time off to celebrate” before going to work at the United Nations in the Department of Peackeeping Operations, helping write policy based on research she did in grad school.
After her stint at the UN, she went to work for UNICEF’s innovation unit, then went to work in the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations during the Obama administration, where she was tasked with helping the State Department better solve conflicts.
In 2015, Jacobs went to work on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, helping the former Secretary of State draft foreign policy. For Jacobs, the Clinton campaign’s loss in 2016 still stings.
“I’m pretty much frustrated and angry every single day because I know exactly what Hillary Clinton and our team would have been doing to prevent us from getting to the position we’re in with coronavirus,” she said. “I wrote the pandemic prevention plan and actually was working with members of Congress on setting up new funding streams for preventing and rapidly responding to pandemic threats.”
A first run for office
Although Jacobs’ job for the Clinton campaign was more policy wonk than campaign strategist, she said she did learn some lessons about running for office from her time working for Team Hillary.
“I will say the thing I learned the most is that you have to find a way to let yourself be as vulnerable and authentic as possible, even when it’s really hard. I think the generation of women who ran for office before us had to be so perfect because they were held to such a standard,” she said. “When I first started running for office, I actually wrote down all the mean things I though could be said about me and I made my friends read them to me over and over again to desensitize myself to it. Forcing yourself to just continue to be as open as possible even as difficult things are being said about you, I think is very important and something I learned during 2016.”
Those lessons were put to the test in Jacobs’ first run for congress — a 2018 bid to unseat Rep. Daryll Issa in California’s 49th.
Jacobs said she never thought she would run for office, but circumstances changed in 2017 while running a nonprofit organization after the Clinton campaign ended.
“I was spending a lot of time overseas and it was kind of the perfect thing to be doing [then] because I was doing really tangible good work around the world and it had nothing to do with Donald Trump,” she said. “But eventually I started feeling while the work I was doing was really important, everything I cared about was at risk here at home.”
Jacobs recalls returning from a work trip and landing at JFK the day the Muslim ban was announced and feeling disempowered.
Also during that time, the Trump administration’s stance toward the LGBT community was affecting her youngest sibling who is transgender and her middle sibling who is gender-nonconforming. That prompted Jacobs to want to do more.
“I looked at the races here at home and saw the 49th and reached out to Emily’s List and asked if they were going to get a woman to run because I would love to support her and help her run,” she said. “They eventually called me back and told me that if I wanted there to be a woman in the race I had to run, so I did — after much heartache. They say you need to ask a woman seven times to run and I think that was pretty true for me.”
Jacobs lost the primary, coming in third behind Republican Dianne Harkey and Democrat Mike Levin who would go on to win the seat.
“One of the things I’m proud of is we ran a totally positive campaign, even in the midst of a very difficult primary,” she said, adding that after losing she spent the rest of the campaign season helping Mike Levin win, as well as lending support to other campaigns and other candidates at the local level.
After her run for the 49th, Jacobs started another nonprofit — San Diego For Every Child — because of what she learned while campaigning around the region.
“It became clear to me that here in San Diego County we have a huge issue with childhood poverty,” she said, adding that even pre-COVID, 40% of San Diego kids live in poverty.
Jacobs also joined the Kroc School of Peace at USD as a Scholar in Residence.
A second run
When Rep. Susan Davis announced she was retiring, Jacobs said there were two reasons she decided to throw her hat in the race. One, was that the 53rd was losing 20 years of government experience with Davis leaving and that her previous work in federal and international organizations would help ease the transition.
The other reason was to bring a more youthful perspective to government.
“I think it’s really important that we have a new generation of leaders,” Jacobs said. “My generation are the ones who are really going to be dealing with the consequences of the decisions we are making right now and so we should have a seat at the table.”
During her primary campaign, Jacobs focused on issues included addressing gun violence, acting with urgency to address climate change and the high cost of living in San Diego.
“Those are still incredibly important, but I really believe that the next congress will entirely be focused on rebuilding and recovering from the [COVID] crisis that we’re in right now,” she said, adding that the current legislation passed so far only amount to “stabilizing bills” and that more stimulus is needed to regrow the economy.
Jacobs sees future legislation as a chance to make some systemic changes and shape the future for “what we want it to look like” — especially when it comes to dealing with issues of climate change and protecting workers.
“We have a real opportunity here I think to do things differently,” she said. “Part of that is making sure that other priorities are imbued in any recovery and thinking about how we can make sure that we are prioritizing companies that have emissions targets in line with the Paris Agreement.
“Also, as we’re doing quantitative easing or bailouts, [we should be] thinking about what the unemployed sector really looks like,” she continued. “A lot of folks are harkening back to the programs that came out of the Great Depression which are really good models in some ways but I think we need to realize that the construction industry has become much more technical than it was then and unlike then, the vast majority of people that are out of work right now are in the service sector.”
And despite the enormous cost of rebuilding the economy after the COVID crisis passes, Jacobs still favors support for large government initiatives, including a Medicare for All plan.
“I not only believe that it will still be possible to do Medicare for All but actually it is more important than ever,” she said. “We’re seeing 20-30% unemployment and people’s healthcare is directly tied to their employment, which means we’re going to have a de facto public option when all of the people who lose their employer-sponsored health care still need care in the middle of a pandemic. And if that’s the case, we might as well do it in a strategic way.”
To deal with the costs of programs, Jacobs favors repealing the GOP tax bill “that didn’t do anything to grow the economy,” raising taxes on very wealthy people and cutting tax loopholes.
“My generation will be the one that will have to deal with the consequences of this deficit down the road,” she said, adding that despite its costs, the government needs to use the current zero Fed rate to keep states afloat and provide stimulus to jumpstart the economy.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.