When Dr. Jennifer Campbell beat Lorie Zapf for the second district seat on the San Diego City Council by 16 percentage points in last November’s election, the outcome bowled over a lot of people.
The City’s political establishment, consultants and media pundits were astonished that a political novice, who had never run for public office, defeated a two-term incumbent, who had just missed an outright win by less than 6 percentage points in the June primary.
Although Campbell had been campaigning hard for more than a year, the margin of victory even surprised the victor herself.
“It was 15-18-hour days; 15 months of that,” Campbell said during an early morning interview at the Starbucks on Governor Drive. “I went door to door and knocked on doors and talked to people and to various civic groups ... I thought I’d win, but I didn’t think it would be by that much.”
However, Campbell’s success was no shock to her cousin, renowned campaign advisor David Axelrod , who served as former president Barack Obama ‘s chief campaign consultant in the two elections that put Obama into office.
Raised in Colorado, Campbell said her mother instilled a passion for politics, and a commitment to service, in her children and wider family. Over the years, her inspiration stuck with Campbell, and Axelrod, she added.
Outraged by the City’s mishandling of the Hepatitis A outbreak in September 2017 — which led to 20 deaths and 421 hospitalizations — Campbell (a former family doctor in Pittsburgh), was considering a run for the Council seat. So she called her famous cousin for his advice.
“He said ‘What would your mom say? She would say look at the numbers,’ ” Campbell recalled. “So we did.”
According to Campbell, when Axelrod visited San Diego for a Democratic fundraiser in December 2017, a look around the community convinced him that Campbell would prevail in the election.
“As he left, he said ‘Well, that’s it. I can see you’re going to win, so just keep working hard,’ ” she said. “He called it and I just didn’t believe it.”
While she is still amazed by the strength of her victory months later, she isn’t at a loss to explain it.
“People were ready for a change,” Campbell argued. “They wanted someone new, and a new way of looking at things and getting things done. Constituent care had been let go for a long time and people wanted someone who would listen to them and try to help them.”
A fresh perspective
She credits her training as a physician for providing that fresh perspective. As a doctor, Campbell relies on the scientific method based on data, research and facts to make a diagnosis of a situation and then plot a course of action. She believes that time-tested approach appealed to voters, as well as the other major trait of M.D.s.
“To be a physician, you should be empathetic,” she said. “You have to understand people. You have to have a soul and a heart. I think a combination of those things make for a good public servant.”
As the representative for Pacific Beach , as well as the other six beach and coastal communities in District 2, Campbell’s priorities are, well, representative and she lists them like any other local.
“PB is having a lot of problems with homelessness, a lot of problems with petty crime, and a lot of problems with scooters and bikes that aren’t regulated,” she said. “Short-term rentals, of course, have a lot to do with that. I’d say those are the four main problems in PB.”
While residents’ concerns determine Campbell’s issues, it’s her background as a doctor that informs her direction. She worries that unregulated e-scooters will lead to safety problems and accidents. Her chief concern with short-term vacation rentals is the reduction of housing stock that adds to homelessness, which she sees as a health issue.
When Campbell speaks of morality, she refers to how it influences her conduct, not necessarily how it should guide the public.
“The thing is that being homeless is terribly unhealthy for people,” Campbell noted. “It’s very important to the City because we’ve already seen that the outcome of letting it go is to have public health crises. The other thing is, it’s completely inhumane to let our fellow humans lie on the sidewalk. That’s just not right. It’s a moral imperative that we help our brothers and sisters when they need it.”
Living in San Diego
Campbell’s journey to San Diego is typical. She said she first visited the City in the early 1980s and instantly realized she wanted to live here, even though “it took me forever, like another 25 years to get here, but I finally did it.”
She said she initially moved to University City, but bought a house in Bay Ho when it became affordable during the housing market crash of 2008-09.
That put her in proximity to Pacific Beach, a community that’s captivated her ever since. Campbell said she enjoys PB’s many dining and social offerings: “I like to hang out just about anywhere ... I mean everywhere that has good food, good drinks, good people. And the views. Of course, I love the beach the best. The Boardwalk. Crystal Pier I especially love. We’re just so blessed. We really are.”
Yet for all the features in PB, Campbell said she’s most impressed by its residents. And as the new chair of the City Council’s Environment Committee, it’s a fit that’ll make her new job a whole lot easier.
“The people in PB are very environmentally oriented,” she said. “They’re intelligent. They’re well educated. They’re really interested in what’s going on in their community and in the world. They’re good to their neighbors. They have a high standard of values. They’re wonderful people.”
Contacting Jennifer Campbell
• Office: City Administration Building, 202 “C” Street, 10th Floor
• Phone: (619) 236-6622
• E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Pacific Beach rep: Monica Eslamian, email@example.com