by Miller Saltzman
Last semester I took one of my favorite classes, Bicycle Revolution with Paul Steinberg at Harvey Mudd. We rode our bikes to local cities every Friday and met with city councilmembers and bike advocates and discussed what they were doing to make their city a safe place to ride a bike. It was during this class that I realized I wanted to see how city politics works. So this summer I worked for the office of Councilmember Marti Emerald in my hometown of San Diego. I went in very excited and eager to learn more about city politics, expecting to soon return and run for city council. I expected city politics to be clean. I expected the city to get things done. I thought that the most local level of government would not play partisan games. All of these assumptions where wrong.
I will admit, there are exciting aspects to city council. Just imagine seeing your mayor and city councilmembers every day in the hallways and in the elevator. I spoke on the phone with constituents who had problems and I solved them. That’s the best feeling you can have. One man needed to cut down some brush in the canyon bordering his house for fire safety, but couldn’t because his land bordered a protective area. He actually lived just a few blocks from me. I found an answer to his problem and called him back with the good news that he could start clearing brush in a couple weeks once the gnatcatcher breading season was over. He told me I restored his faith in city government. I hung up that call with a big smile on my face.
But about a third of the calls we received were from crazy people. And I’m not exaggerating. I once had to hang up on a 79-year-old woman because she wouldn’t stop complaining about her disdain for American politics. Another man complained to me about how the break-ins in his neighborhood were caused by the Democrats who “kept letting people out of prison too early” and weren’t sending back the “illegals” in “big trucks stacked on top of each other.” I had to hang up on him too after he used the radically uncreative f-word.
But my experience at city hall was worth it. Marti, the councilmember and my boss, is such a sweet and wonderful soul. She really cares about her constituents. A couple years ago she beat breast cancer after receiving treatment for it all during her time in office. Right before I met her this summer she had gone through invasive neck surgery. But none of this stopped her from doing everything in her ability to make San Diego a better place.
She is retiring after her term ends at the end of this year. Ricardo Flores, her chief-of-staff, is running for her seat with her full support. I also volunteered for his campaign on the side. For several weeks at the beginning of the summer I walked neighborhoods in the district with Ricardo. We’d split up and knock on doors telling people why they should vote for him. This was a really important experience too. I realized that there are some really poor neighborhoods really close to my neighborhood. I felt guilty for not knowing about these areas before canvasing them. One scorching hot day I was walking in one of these neighborhoods. I saw a man buy a Popsicle from a vendor and walk towards me. “I want you to have this,” he said to me in Spanish. “I can’t vote yet, but I really appreciate the work you’re doing.” This had a profound impact on me. He probably didn’t have a lot of money but he just wanted to help a guy who was in the heat doing an important job.
Thinking about people like him, it really disappointed me to see how partisan city hall is. The people in the city need the mayor and city council to help them. In fact, city council races and mayoral races are non-partisan. But our elected officials don’t always represent our interest but rather vote on party lines. While I was working in Marti’s office she disclosed to the media that Mayor Faulconer’s office had asked her to vote swap. She had been working hard for a couple years on a $205 million firehouse bond that would have built 18 fire stations across San Diego, paid for by a small increase in property taxes. This was the only option. There was not enough funding elsewhere for this important fire safety infrastructure. Another measure that was presented to the council would change San Diego election laws. Right now, if a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the June primary they win outright. But the general election has a very different voter demographic than the primary because it brings out about three times as many young people and minorities. The change would make it so that the top two vote-getters in the primary would move to the general no matter if one of them received more than fifty percent.
The mayor’s office told her if she voted against the election item Lori Zapf, a Republican city councilmember, would vote for her fire bond. This is outrageous to me. Councilmembers should determine whether or not to vote for something based on whether it will help their constituents, not whether it will help them politically. “The people of San Diego are the losers here because they’re less safe, and because there’s no other plan even envisioned that would build the fire stations that we need to address today’s needs, much less those of the future,” Marti told KPBS.
The City also moved at an incredibly slow pace. It takes a long time for an idea to become an item and for that item to go to council. The councilmembers’ staff do most of the heavy lifting. They meet with people on both sides of the issue and write the item. Although, while I was working with Marti, the City passed several important items including a plastic bag ban, paid sick leave, and increased the minimum wage. These issues will affect every San Diegan for years to come. I’m delighted that I had the experience at the City because it shows that real positive change is possible, it just may not be to the extent you expect.