Battle for San Diego council president is more contentious and uncertain this year
District 2’s Campbell and District 4’s Montgomery Steppe seek the pivotal post as five new members prepare to join the council.
The battle this fall between Democrats Monica Montgomery Steppe and Dr. Jennifer Campbell to become San Diego’s next City Council president has become more uncertain, more contentious and more public than previous fights for the pivotal post.
Labor unions and community organizations have been making endorsements, a website has been created to promote Montgomery Steppe’s candidacy, and council members are sparring over how the council’s new leader will be chosen in December.
Campbell represents City Council District 2, which includes Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, Ocean Beach, Point Loma, Midway, Clairemont and Linda Vista. Montgomery Steppe represents District 4, which covers communities including Alta Vista, Chollas View, Encanto, Lincoln Park and Paradise Hills.
Council president is a powerful job created as a counterbalance when San Diego switched to a “strong mayor” form of government in 2005.
The job is open because current council President Georgette Gómez is leaving office. She ran for the 53rd Congressional District seat in the Nov. 3 election and lost.
The council president sets the council’s agenda, determines when votes are taken on proposals and projects, and doles out committee assignments and leadership posts.
This year, advocacy and lobbying are conspicuous partly because of greater uncertainty about how things will play out Dec. 10, when the new council is scheduled to choose its new president by simple majority vote.
On that day, an unprecedented five new members of the nine-member council will be sworn in, meaning a majority of those making the decision are lesser-known leaders with short public track records.
Some contentiousness was on display Nov. 17 when the current council deadlocked 4-4 three times on the question of who will lead the Dec. 10 meeting, which could have an effect on the vote for a new council president.
In each vote, Campbell broke party ranks and sided with the council’s two Republicans and one independent. The remaining Democrats on the council were on the other side. Each vote was a 4-4 deadlock because Democrat Chris Ward was absent.
Such partisanship has factored into previous battles for council president. Democrat Sherri Lightner teamed up with Republicans to take the post over fellow Democrat Todd Gloria in 2015, and Democrat Myrtle Cole did the same to edge out fellow Democrat David Alvarez in 2016.
Lightner and Cole were viewed as moderate Democrats battling against more progressive Democrats.
But Montgomery Steppe and Campbell are generally viewed as equally liberal, so this battle may be more about leadership style.
Montgomery Steppe is seen by some as more of an independent-minded maverick than Campbell, whose chief of staff, Venus Molina, is more connected at City Hall than Montgomery’s chief of staff, Henry Foster.
Race also may be factor. Montgomery Steppe is the council’s only Black member. Campbell is White.
“Black lives and Black leadership matter,” county Democratic Party Chairman Will Rodriguez Kennedy said after the party endorsed Montgomery Steppe in a 42-11 vote.
Councilwoman Barbara Bry sees the fight more as a battle between “special interests” such as labor unions and business groups, which may be lobbying behind the scenes for either Campbell or Montgomery Steppe.
“I know there is a lot of backroom stuff going on around this,” she said during the Nov. 17 council meeting.
“This is another example of the special interests leveraging what they think is their power to not act in the best interests of our city, and I’m concerned about the pressure they are putting on both my existing colleagues and the new council.”
Councilman Mark Kersey disputed that.
“No special interest is influencing me now on my way out the door,” said Kersey, who couldn’t run for re-election because of term limits.
Those who support Campbell privately describe her as more malleable and more connected to her council colleagues than Montgomery Steppe, characteristics that could help the council have a stronger voice when negotiating with Mayor-elect Gloria.
Those who support Montgomery Steppe point to her longer experience at City Hall, where she worked in the mayor’s office and for council members before getting elected, and her strong leadership on police reform issues.
The vote for council president puts the council’s five new members — all Democrats — in the awkward position of taking sides among colleagues on their first day in office.
The new members are Joe LaCava, Stephen Whitburn, Marni von Wilpert, Raul Campillo and Sean Elo-Rivera. They will join Chris Cate — who will be the council’s only Republican — Campbell, Montgomery Steppe and Democrat Vivian Moreno.
— David Garrick writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune. PB Monthly staff contributed to this report.