San Diego County’s 3.3 million residents make it California’s second largest county, and by happenstance, a political microcosm of the state.
San Diego’s multicultural inner-city neighborhoods and affluent coastal enclaves now vote Democratic, while the county’s inland suburbs and rural hamlets retain, albeit diminished, their conservative traits. While Democrats hold an overall 36.5 percent to 29 percent voter registration edge, in real terms the county is something of a partisan tossup.
A bitterly fought, high-dollar battle this year in the traditionally Republican 49th Congressional District along the county’s northern border (and bleeding into Orange County) symbolizes Democratic hopes of turning San Diego County bright blue.
The county’s Board of Supervisors is another partisan battleground. It galls local Democrats that they have a plurality of the county’s registered voters, but all five county supervisors are Republicans.
Supervisor Ron Roberts is retiring this year, and Democrats are mounting a major drive to flip his district, which includes La Jolla and other coastal neighborhoods.
Nathan Fletcher, a former Republican state assemblyman who ran unsuccessfully for mayor and is now a Democrat, finished first in the June primary.
Fletcher, who is married to Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, will face Republican Bonnie Dumanis, a former judge and prosecutor, in a November runoff.
On paper, it should be an easy win for Fletcher, given a 2-1 Democratic voter registration advantage, but the county’s labor unions, and therefore its Democratic Party, have been wracked by a bitter power struggle of late.
The Democrats’ next target will be Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, who will be up for reelection in 2020. And they pin their hopes on special legislation that a local Democratic assemblyman, Todd Gloria, got passed last year.
Currently, if a county supervisor candidate receives more than 50 percent of the June primary vote, he or she is elected, avoiding a November runoff. If no one gets a June majority, the top two finishers – such as Fletcher and Dumanis this year – duel in November.
Gloria’s Assembly Bill 901 allows San Diego’s county charter to require a top-two runoff in November regardless of what happens in June, not unlike the state top-two system that state Democratic leaders repeatedly denounce.
In San Diego County, though, Democrats see a top-two runoff as an advantage, since November general elections usually have higher voter turnouts. And after the Gloria bill was passed, Democrats and local unions circulated petitions to place such a charter change on next November’s ballot.
That’s when things became difficult.
Michael Vu, San Diego County’s top election official, ruled that the petitions lacked enough signatures to qualify the ballot measure, citing AB 901’s requirement for “10% of the qualified electors of the county.”
He interpreted that to mean 10 percent of the county’s 1.7 million registered voters, or 170,000 signatures, while proponents of the measure assumed it would be 10 percent of the total vote in the previous gubernatorial election, or about 67,000 names.
Democrats and unions see Vu’s ruling as a partisan political maneuver to thwart their partisan political maneuver and are now hustling to overturn it. They inserted a brief passage into one of the Legislature’s 26 budget “trailer bills” that would retroactively set the signature threshold at 10 percent of the county’s total vote in the 2014 governor’s election.
It is, of course, another misuse of the budget trailer bill process for non-budgetary purposes, and in this case partisan purposes, but it’s also symptomatic of the struggle for political control of the state’s second largest county.