District 2’s Campbell, new San Diego City Council president, says she’s ‘devoted to equality for all people’

Dr. Jennifer Campbell, San Diego's new City Council president, is pictured at Kate Sessions Park in Pacific Beach in 2018.

Jennifer Campbell is vowing to fight for social equity and root out racism in the pivotal post.


Dr. Jennifer Campbell, San Diego’s new City Council president, is vowing to fight for social equity and to root out racism in the pivotal post.

Campbell, the council’s oldest member at 75, made that commitment during a seven-hour public hearing Dec. 10 when she was narrowly elected president by her colleagues in a 5-4 vote.

“I have always fought my whole life, with passion, for civil rights and equality, and I will make sure to continue on this road here in San Diego,” Campbell said. “I am devoted to equality for all people.”

Campbell represents council District 2, which includes Pacific Beach. She was elected in 2018 when she ousted incumbent Lorie Zapf.

The council’s choice of Campbell as president was controversial, with the vast majority of the roughly 300 residents who spoke at the hearing lobbying for Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe.

They said Montgomery Steppe, who is Black, would be a better leader and more effective advocate for racial justice and social equity than Campbell, who is White. Both women are Democrats.

Council members Chris Cate, Stephen Whitburn, Marni von Wilpert and Raul Campillo voted for Campbell. Council members Vivian Moreno, Joe LaCava and Sean Elo-Rivera voted for Montgomery Steppe. Campbell and Montgomery Steppe voted for themselves.

Campbell said she would focus on the prosperity of the whole city.

“My entire vision as council president is predicated on making sure each one of our council districts and their representatives can succeed at improving their communities and advancing the goals of our city,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”

Campbell said she was grateful to her colleagues for their support. She also praised Montgomery Steppe and vowed to work collaboratively with her.

Council president is a pivotal post that sets the council’s agenda and determines key assignments to powerful committees.

This battle for council president was more contentious and more public than previous fights for the job, which was created as a counterbalance when San Diego switched to a “strong mayor” form of government in 2005.

Residents lobbying for Montgomery Steppe, who represents District 4 in southeastern San Diego, said her leadership is needed at a time when the city is grappling with concerns about systemic racism and a lack of social equity experienced by communities south of Interstate 8.

They criticized council members who supported Campbell, contending they were doing so because of pressure from labor unions and other “special interests.”

Speakers who favored Campbell stated their support without providing detailed reasons.

The council president post was open because former President Georgette Gómez left office after running unsuccessfully for the 53rd Congressional District seat in the November election.

Moreno was the only council member to speak on behalf of either candidate, opting for Montgomery Steppe based on the perspective that she has a deeper understanding of equity issues.

“We’re facing a reckoning with our country’s history of racial injustice,” said Moreno, contending that poor infrastructure in the southern part of the city exemplifies that injustice. “It will take intentional policy reform to right these wrongs. Equity will not happen by itself.”

Montgomery Steppe said San Diego faces “grave inequities” and that previous advances in civil rights are in danger of being rolled back. She also touted her leadership on strengthened police oversight and related issues.

“The work I’ve done in this area really, I think, allows me to lead on this issue as council president,” she said. “The people closest to the pain are the ones that are going to help us resolve the issues we have in our city.”

Tom Coat, one of the few residents to lobby for Campbell, said it was a tough choice. But he said Campbell had shown a strong commitment to solving community issues.

“She is ideally suited to work with new Mayor Todd Gloria and the City Council to make San Diego a better place to live during a time of great challenge,” Coat said.