By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
The four Democrats vying to replace Chris Ward in City Council District 3 descended on the latest Uptown Democratic Club on May 28 to share their vision for the city. Two of them, Adrian Kwiatkowski and Stephen Whitburn, had already faced each other in 2008 while running for the same seat. However, they both lost to Todd Gloria. The other two are first-time candidates: Toni Duran and Chris Olsen.
After hearing each of their pitches and answers to five questions, more than 60% of the 30 or so club members decided to endorse Whitburn in the first round of voting. He already has endorsements from several prominent San Diego politicians and groups, including state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and retired City Council member John Hartley. This latest endorsement shores up his position as frontrunner in the race with the most backing and support from traditional party mechanisms (in turn, this creates three underdogs which Americans tend to romanticize, so the race is far from over).
The following are Uptown News’ analysis of the four candidates a year before the actual vote.
AKA Regular Joe Jane
Top issues: Police reform, fixing infrastructure, homelessness crisis
Standout quote: “We have to really relook at all of this [adding housing] if we really do want to do something about our homelessness crisis, if we really want to do something about making sure people can live in the neighborhoods they want to live in. I wanted to live here in District 3. It took a lot to live here, thanks to my family.”
Interesting proposal: Increasing police pay so officers can live in and commit to the neighborhood they serve.
Toni Duran described herself as a real person running to solve real problems in her grassroots, first-time campaign. As she runs against three other white men, Duran pointed out she is the only queer woman of color running in a district that is growing more diverse. She promised to take compassionate action if elected. While she pitched herself as being one of the people, her current role is in the office the most powerful woman in the state senate — Toni Atkins — so she is not exactly a political outsider. She also has powerful backers, including Atkins, Representative Scott Peters, Calif. State Treasurer Fiona Ma and Calif. Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara.
It was clear she is running for the first time, but there is still a year to make corrections and gain momentum, especially as powerful Democrats continue to support her. In some areas, she fumbled her statements and spoke more about the problems people face than her solution to those issues. Her lack of in-depth policy proposals was concerning at some points, but one area where she stood out from the field was her holistic approach to police reform. She was the only candidate to discuss police, including marginalized communities losing trust in them, during her opening statement. In a question about San Diego Police Department’s secret use of cameras to surveil the populace, all of the candidates called for the surveillance to end. She went further than them and demonstrated her knowledge on the issue by calling for increased training and pay so SDPD officers will be the best in the region. If in later public forums she can match that insider knowledge of the issues with stronger solutions, her campaign will stand a better chance.
AKA Mega-Mayor Maker
Top issues: Instead of going into depth on policies he endorses, Kwiatkowski focused on his track record, which involves successful implementation of a clean needle exchange, veterans housing, and smoke-free beaches and parks.
Standout quote: “We have an organizational and employee crisis in the city of San Diego. San Diego is historically a cheap city. We talk a big game but don’t want to pay for things. That has been the case forever and we need leaders who are gonna go up there and make the case that we need to invest in our community.”
Interesting proposal: Cracking down on scooter companies so scooter companies will stop customers from leaving scooters on sidewalks, riding dangerously, etc.
Kwiatkowski is a lobbyist who has successfully advocated taking power away from the City Council he is now running for through his support of a strong-mayor structure of government which gave the mayor a large degree of control and responsibility once held by the City Council. He also touted his experience pushing forward controversial but effective programs like clean needle exchanges.
In a puzzling turn during the forum, he did not focus on his work at the Strong Mayor-Council Institute or on ending smoking on local beaches, but instead used situations in his more recent work as head of his neighborhood’s homeowner association (HOA) to illustrate his effectiveness as a leader. While an HOA can certainly be a microcosm of the politics of city hall, the constant allusion to what I can only guess is an inlet for the wealthier members of District 3 did little to make him seem relatable or even accessible to the everyday worries of the 150,000 people living in the growing district.
Kwiatkowski was the most moderate of the candidates. He was the only one to withhold a full endorsement of a clean election ballot measure that would involve public funding of campaigns. Instead, he said his experience has taught him politicians will always find a way to game reforms.
He did use examples to demonstrate his willingness to unswervingly ram controversial policies through. He spoke with derision of the many times housing projects are proposed in San Diego and then reduced in number of units by the time they are approved. While many candidates may endorse more progressive policies than Kwiatkowski, he could be the most capable of actually getting things done.
AKA Policy Pro
Top issues: Making City Council proactive instead of reactive in its budget adds, homelessness, housing, climate action
Standout quote: “I’m definitely running as a neighbor who wants to welcome more neighbors and that means definitely being pro-growth, but not pro-growth just for the benefit and profit of developers. Pro-growth for our climate, for bringing people closer to where they live, to where they work, to shorten commute times, and for making sure people of all different income levels have access to different pricing options of new housing we’re putting online.”
Interesting proposal: Chris Olsen has worked for the city’s Independent Budget Analyst evaluating San Diego’s budget proposals each year. Rather than making him a fiscal conservative, this role convinced him San Diego needs to increase spending in order to proactively face the top issues the city is facing.
Olsen has a stunningly detailed knowledge of policy and it’s clear that policy is the driving force of his campaign. His biggest challenge at the debate was trying to fit in major proposals into a minute. Olsen did prove himself to be a likable candidate as he shared stories about his personal life. In some cases, this did mean when he jumped into the solution for the issue, he used terms like ‘last-mile problem.’ Anyone with knowledge of public transit advocacy is familiar with this term, but the average Democrat may not be. Making his proposals accessible to everyone, not just the policy wonks, will likely be a continued concern during his City Council run.
He is also trying to overcome having less financial and formal support than some of his opponents with high-levels of community engagement. I have encountered all of the candidates at planning group meetings and Democratic party events. Olsen has attended the most of those meetings by far and has not just used his time to pitch his own campaign. Instead, he went to Uptown Planners to urge people to attend a budget town hall meeting and spoke in favor of the controversial move to add a protected bike lane on 30th Street at a heated North Park Planners meeting.
Olsen did not receive the endorsement of the club but did show Whitburn will not have an easy race to the end.
AKA Chronic Candidate
Top issues: Housing crisis, homelessness, hardworking people struggling to make ends meet
Standout quote: “You know me. You’ve seen me advancing our values for many years and you can count on me to advance our progressive values on the San Diego City Council.”
Interesting proposal: Whitburn supports adding affordable and middle-income housing but emphasized neighborhood input is needed to make sure new development is in line with the community.
Whitburn is the director of the American Cancer Society in Southern California and a former top executive at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He has also done neighborhood advocacy on the North Park Planning Committee and is a longtime member of local Democratic groups.
Of all the candidates, he was the most polished and clear. He rambled less than Kwiatkowski, who often went overtime. Plus, he struck a middle ground between the empathy-first approach of Duran and the policy-heavy proposals of Olsen. He gave clear and concise endorsements of several policies, including the clean election ballot measures, ending police surveillance, and improved transit options. Whitburn focused on making his stance clear over explaining the details of his ideas. He may not have served in a high government office before, but with his personable approach to greeting each attendee of the meeting, it was obvious this is not his first campaign.
In some ways, he has less experience in traditional government roles than his opponents. Still, his long list of endorsements show many party leaders believe he is qualified for the role after decades of community service and volunteering.
While he made calls for bold, progressive leadership, his style made clear is he is the palatable and polished sort of candidate party officials expect to win with in the blue district. If District 3 turns out to be looking for fresher and unique campaigns, then he may be in trouble.