Dec. 15 2014 05:07 PM

Assessing the Republicans’ ouster of the San Diego City Council president

Sherri Lightner
Photo by David Rolland

Two weeks ago, we published an editorial urging San Diego City Councilmember Sherri Lightner to "stand down" amid a Republican scheme to install her as council president and end the reign of Todd Gloria. From what we could tell, many progressives liked what we had to say, but there were some who seemed offended that we'd be telling Lightner what to do: Doesn't she have the right to pursue her desire to lead? It was also suggested that we were being at least unintentionally sexist by telling a woman to step aside so that a man could continue to lead.

Those who thought we were sexist must have not been paying attention every time we said that Donna Frye should be mayor of San Diego. By their logic, favoring a man over a woman for a leadership position at any time is sexist and unacceptable. That's all it was: We favored Gloria over Lightner. It's insulting to even have to say that gender had nothing to do with it.

And, yes, of course Lightner had the right to accept the offer of leadership that was handed to her. She had more support among council members than Gloria did. She won, fair and square. 

But it's overly simplistic and, frankly, naïve to conclude that because Lightner drew more support, the council believed that she'd be a better leader than Gloria. Let's be clear: Lightner, a Democrat, is council president because the interests who back Republican political leadership in San Diego moving forward wanted Gloria out, and, with five Democrats and four Republicans on the council, there was no path leading to a Republican council president. Lightner was the least objectionable Democrat for the Republican establishment, and she decided to go along with their plot. That's why she's now the president.

As we said two weeks ago, there was no risk to Republicans in boosting Lightner's political profile: She has no plans to run for any other office when she's termed out after 2016. And she sometimes votes for their policies, like pitting private companies against city workers for government service contracts, for example.

On the other hand, Gloria was leading down an unambiguously progressive road. But, we suspect more importantly, he only stands to gain by being in a high-profile leadership position. Though he and Mayor Kevin Faulconer are ideologically at odds, Gloria has smartly struck a tone of amicable partnership with the mayor. He's not constantly lobbing grenades at the Mayor's office, and that's attractive to most San Diegans. Gloria is widely credited for restoring order to City Hall as interim mayor after Bob Filner blew the place up and might run against Faulconer in 2016. The Republicans know he's popular; removing him from leadership (which means eliminating him from many solo and joint photo ops and press conferences with the mayor) takes him down a peg. The only other Democrat in San Diego who stands a chance of beating Faulconer is state Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins. (By the way, Atkins would be a great choice—how's that for sexism?)

Two days after the vote making Lightner the council president, she told U-T San Diego that she didn't lobby for votes, thereby confirming that the position was offered to her by the Republicans. We know from talking to sources inside City Hall that at least two council Republicans were iffy on Lightner and high on Gloria, strongly suggesting that the impetus didn't originate with the four elected council Republicans. It'd be a safe bet that it was some combination of Faulconer, Republican political consultant Jason Roe, City Councilmember Scott Sherman and possibly an outside conservative group like the Lincoln Club.

We're told that the council members who were on the fence were finally convinced to go with Lightner a day or two before the vote. The deal was done. The only open questions were: Would the council Democrats abandon the sinking U.S.S. Gloria? Would Gloria himself, having been beaten, vote for Lightner in a display of unanimity and togetherness. 

That day was fascinating to watch. Dozens of citizens spoke passionately and (for the most part) eloquently; all wanted Gloria to remain president. Not a single speaker favored Lightner. Democrat David Alvarez nominated Gloria, and his nomination failed, as expected, but all of the Democrats, except Lightner, voted for Gloria. Then, Democrat Marti Emerald nominated Lightner. That vote ended 7-2, with Emerald and fellow Democrat Myrtle Cole joining Lightner and the Republicans in the winner's circle. Alvarez and Gloria cast defiant votes against Lightner. (We surely do like that Alvarez guy!) For her part, Lightner never said a word about her desire to lead—not to the media in the run-up to the vote (she refused to return phone calls) and not at the council meeting before or after the vote. 

We'd have preferred if Emerald and Cole had stuck with Gloria, but we're not going to make a federal case of it. Getting in line behind the inevitable leader is at least understandable. What irritates us is that it was Emerald who nominated Lightner. She should have forced a Republican to do it, since this was their game. So, not only were they able to successfully engineer a coup to replace Gloria with their choice; Emerald allowed it to look like they were innocent bystanders. Interestingly, Sherman was the only Republican to say a word on Lightner's behalf; Mark Kersey, Lorie Zapf and newcomer Chris Cate remained completely silent. Typically, council members can't wait to heap praise on an incoming president, especially those whom they support.

In response to our editorial two weeks ago, one of the more vociferous Lightner defenders, Linda Perine, president of the San Diego County Democratic Woman's Club, said that there's not much of a difference between Lightner and Gloria. Lightner backed that up with her first set of moves as president. One of the most important ways council presidents exert their power is by assigning colleagues to influential committee posts; committee chairs, in particular, wield considerable power. On Friday, Lightner made her recommendations, and they didn't deviate in any meaningful way from the status quo under Gloria. So, so far, we're still waiting to find out why she felt the need to oust Gloria.

Gloria was—and is—an outstanding leader. In public, he's positive, confident and forthright. He connects with people in an easy, natural way because he's genuine. He's real. He's also funny, charismatic and charming. Sure, those are superficial qualities and not terribly consequential when it comes to making public policy, but they are incredibly important when it comes to leadership and the power of persuasion. Gloria gained a tremendous amount of respect from folks of all political stripes in the way he led in the wake of the Filner mess, and he maintained it by being amiable, courteous and civilized.

More importantly for us at CityBeat—and many other progressives in town—he charted a progressive policy course last January and stayed true to it all year. He led the campaign to raise the minimum wage. He fought hard for increased funding for affordable housing for working people and housing and services for homeless folks. He stood strong by the residents of Barrio Logan. He saved a plan to dramatically reduce San Diego's contribution to climate change that was buried in the Filner rubble.

We've not always been completely sold on Gloria, but we are right now. To say he deserved another term as council president is an understatement. Lightner indeed has a tough act to follow.

What do you think? Write to