The congressional candidate and former San Diego city councilman speaks up
La Jolla Light
recently met with Scott Peters to discuss his candidacy and plans for the 52nd District. Interviews with the other Congressional candidates — Republicans Brian Bilbray, John Stahl and Wayne Iverson, and Democrat Lori Saldaña — will follow.
By Pat Sherman
Longtime La Jollan Scott Peters, who represented his seaside community during two terms on the San Diego City Council, (2000-2008) hopes to once again represent La Jolla as representative of the newly redrawn 52nd congressional district, which spans from Poway and Scripps Ranch southwest through Mira Mesa, Clairemont, University City, La Jolla, Pacific Beach, part of downtown San Diego and Coronado.
Peters, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for city attorney in 2008 and who currently serves as chair of the San Diego Port District’s Board of Commissioners, has received the endorsement of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, former Congresswoman Lynn Schenk, former state Senator Dede Alpert, state Assembly members Toni Atkins, Mary Block and Ben Hueso, and San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria.
A lawyer by profession who served as the city council’s first president, Peters worked as an economist for the Environmental Protection Agency before receiving his juris doctorate from New York University. In the early 1990s, he got his first government job in the county counsel’s office, then joined the San Diego City Council in 2000. He lives in La Jolla with Lynn, his wife of 25 years, and his two children.
Peters’ chief opponent in the race is Congressman Brian Bilbray, a Republican, currently serving in the 50th District. In the first of California’s open primary elections on June 5 — during which independents or “Decline to State” voters may cast their ballot for a candidate from any party — the race is bound to be close. The candidates will surely be working hard to court their share of the district’s one-third of undeclared voters.
La Jolla Light: What do you think your crowning achievements in La Jolla were during your two terms as a San Diego councilmember?
The reconfiguration of “The Throat” (the once precarious and highly congested intersection of Torrey Pines Road and La Jolla Parkway). The community put up with a whole year of construction through 2003 to see that whole area made more rational and prettier.
The Bird Rock neighborhood revitalization has become a national model for walkability and the thing I’m proudest about there is that the neighbors designed it. It wasn’t a solution out of city hall. Ours would have been much more modest, but they were very bold in what they did, and they gave us a plan that we turned into a reality … and how to pay for it.
We had an idea that maybe philanthropy could help redo Fire Station 13 and we enlisted Sunrise Rotary and they took that project on. Ahead of that is a reduction of sewer spills by 80 percent, beach closure days by 80 percent … through cleaning the pipes, putting in the pipes that need the repair the most and watching our canyons. In my district, La Jolla was the one that was having problems, and it was obviously not very helpful to tourism. We had a sewer spill a day when I was elected in 2000.
Now, I’m really proud of being on the La Jolla Community Foundation. We’ve started with the murals, which I think are really great. We’re going to finish the redecorating of The Throat, I think. We’ve got people who want to pitch in to help beautify the interests of La Jolla and we’ll keep working on things like that.
LL: As a member of Congress, how would you use your position for the benefit of your La Jolla constituents?
I think La Jollans are like everybody else, and they see what’s going on in Washington. We watched this whole debt crisis take shape and we look at a Congress that doesn’t seem to be able to solve the basic problem. They waited so long to deal with the debt ceiling that they kicked it off to a committee that’s not doing anything, but they waited so long that we got the first downgrade of our credit in our country’s history. So, I think La Jollans, like everyone, want to see a Congress that works—and they see a congress that’s not working.
LL: Are there any projects in La Jolla you feel were unfinished when you left the city council that you’d be able to complete or continue in Washington?
The one project that was unfinished — the lifeguard towers — came a long, long way through my council term and two of them are actually being finished now, the Shores and the Cove. When Jan Goldsmith took office, he signed the resolution that we passed for funding, so that’s going to actually happen now.
I do think, in general, we can have a better relationship between San Diego and our congressional delegation on things like transportation. One of the big federal projects we’re working on now is the trolley line up to UCSD and UTC. We want to make sure that that kind of thing stays on track. I worked on the TransNet (half-cent sales tax) extension in 2004 that helped provide the local money for that, but now we need the federal money to match it.
LL: Do you stand by the effort you initiated as a council member to create shared use of the Children’s Pool between humans and seals? Do you think shared use is still working?
I don’t think it’s that complicated of an issue. I think Sherri’s (Lightner’s) doing the right thing right now trying to accommodate the seals primarily in pupping season and trying to accommodate the swimmers primarily in the times when there’s not seals out there. That’s a reasonable approach. And I think mostly the misbehavior comes from people versus people, rather than anything having to do with the seals. I just think it takes a lot more energy than it needs to.
LL: Why are you bypassing a run for a state-level office to seek a position in Congress?
My opponent (Congressman Brian Bilbray) went from the County Board of Supervisors to Congress, so I’m not sure that it’s a ladder. The opportunity came to me with the redrawing of the district. It’s a moderate district, that includes my council district, and at a time when a problem-solving approach is probably what people are looking for — which is what I am intending to bring — we have a lot of passion in Washington. We just don’t have any progress. So, that’s why I think the opportunity is here for me. I think it’s a good match to have someone like me … represent San Diego in a way that’s a little less stridently partisan than we see in Washington.
LL: Some have championed you as a can-do politician who has accomplished much as a city council member and as chair of the port commission, while others have criticized your methods of getting things done as heavy-handed or not in step with the wishes of the greater public. How do you view your style and what have you learned from your experiences in office?
I am only in this to get stuff done. The only reason I would ever do public service is to make positive change. I’m proud of the changes that we’ve brought at the city and at the Port, in La Jolla and the other communities that I’ve represented. I always listen to what people have to say for input, and there comes a time then when we have to take action, and I’ve always taken action. Sometimes when people don’t get every single thing that they want, they say there should have been more public input, but I will tell you that I’ve always said: you can learn so much from public input, and then there’s a certain point (where) you realize you’re hearing the same things, you’ve learned what you’re going to learn and there’s a time to take action and (come up with) a solution and that’s what I do. … I suspect that the approach that we’ve taken here in San Diego to listen, work with people, listen for solutions and make progress is the same approach I’d take in Washington. I don’t do it for parties; I don’t do it for a title. I’m not interested in flying six hours across the country, twice a week. We leave San Diego to make this country better.
LL: How do you plan to differentiate yourself as a candidate in the 52nd congressional district? How will you appeal to the one-third of undeclared voters?
The most obvious thing about Congress is it’s not getting anything done. There are people on the right, people on the left, who are not talking to each other. We can do better. We can bring the approach we’ve brought in San Diego, which is known for being collaborative, known for being problem solving. … What people are craving are solutions, not arguments.
LL: We’ve seen partisan gridlock in Washington (and in California) for a long time. How can one member of Congress begin to find consensus?
My wife said, ‘Can you really make a difference?’ I think you can’t make a difference if you don’t go. … I’m not going to suggest to you that I think that’s going to be easy in Washington, but people all over this country are having the same discussion. People all over this country are fed up with politicians who are arguing, and not solving problems, and I suspect there’s going to be more than just me going to Washington with the mindset of getting something done.
I think that certainly the mood of the country is demanding answers and that means we’re at a time when listening and compromise and crafting solutions is going to be more politically popular and possible.
LL: As a Democrat, are there any members of Congress on the other side of the aisle who you think might be allies to building that bridge?
I haven’t made my trip to Washington yet. I’m really focused on San Diego. I’ll look forward to meeting them. I’ll work with anybody. I hear there’s a group of about 10 or 12 members of Congress of different parties who eat lunch together once a week. Obviously that number is pathetically low, out of 435. But those are the kinds of bridges I’d like to build.
LL: You’ve been characterized as both a moderate Democrat and a centrist? Do you agree with the labels?
I actually hate labels, because on any particular issue I would like to be viewed on the merit of my position. What happens is if you have a (D) next to your name and you don’t go left wing every time? People start to think, well, you’re a centrist.
I really try to find where the answer is. I have a history of working with real estate developers to make neighborhoods better. Real estate developers are certainly a very core part of the Republican constituency, but if they’ll help me to achieve my goal, I’ll work with them. And if that means I’m labeled as a centrist, then so be it.
LL: What do you view as your opponents’ primary deficiencies and how would your tack be different?
Brian has been in Congress, he’s had 12 years of seniority. He’s not become a leader. Whatever you think of Darrell Issa — he’s personally too conservative for my tastes — he’s become a leader, and we’ve had congressional leaders and Brian’s just not exercising the kind of leadership in Congress that we’d like. He’s been particularly partisan. He’s taken pledges to special interest groups and he’s taken positions that are out of touch with where our district is. He’s been more of the strident political kind of person we’ve had in Congress, and not the problem solver, so I would take different approaches. I don’t criticize his service. I just think we can do better.
LL: Two of your priorities in the race are creating jobs in the region and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. What is your experience in these areas and how would you achieve these goals as a member of Congress?
As chair of the Port, we were responsible for, directly and indirectly, about 42,000 jobs. The jobs we have at the waterfront are, on average, paying $10,000 more than the average job in San Diego. We’re an important part of the economy.
In that role, we’ve worked with our tenants and our stakeholders to make sure that we’re continuing to drive the economy, whether it’s protecting the jobs at Solar Turbines or helping our tenants down their rent during the recession.
… It’s about jobs and job creation, and even the things we do to make the waterfront pretty, like the North Embarcadero plan we’re about to start, are also ways to drive tourism and help our local hotels and businesses. …
In terms of the federal government, it will be a lot of that kind of listening to the business community about what’s important, but I do know what’s important — getting the federal budget in balance, and as long as we have that continuing debt, that’s going to be a drain on all of us. … I intend to be a part of that conversation and help to drive us to a solution.
I’m really involved pretty heavily in a lot of things having to do with reducing the need for energy consumption. Most recently, I’ve been the chair of the Climate Initiative at the San Diego Foundation, which is trying to help us prevent and deal with the impacts of climate change in the region.
Part of that is supporting SANDAG’s effort to create a sustainable community strategy that will plan for carbon reduction, lower vehicle miles traveled as we grow, because we’re going to add another million people in the next 20 to 30 years. So, we want to make sure that that they get around without using as much energy — and also that we pay attention to retrofitting homes so that they use less energy.
Also I’ve been involved as a member of the board of directors of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute that is focused on trying to build out communities. Bird Rock is an example they used in their national organization in a way that promotes walkability and bicycling, which is healthier and also uses less oil and gas.
LL: As long as you’re talking about conservation, we want to address something you were criticized for while on the city council — water usage on your own property (which some considered excessive at a time when the city was raising water rates and asking San Diegans to conserve.)
I will just say that I was compared to some people who live with their mothers, people who lived on small lots. We have a big lot in La Jolla and one of the issues we had was in the landscaping. We’ve done a lot to reduce our water consumption. We have done what I encourage everyone to do — take a look at your plants and make sure they’re drought tolerant, so we changed out a lot of the plants.
My wife loves the ornamental plants that take a lot of water. We’ve clustered them in smaller areas so that they don’t require as much water.
We redid our sprinkling system and put in these weather- sensitive sprinklers. They read the weather, so if it’s wet outside and cloudy, they know that the grass doesn’t have to be watered, so they don’t water it. Then if it’s raining, it turns off automatically. The effect of that stuff we’ve done is to reduce our water use by about 40 to 50 percent.
LL: You’ve had to answer questions about your 2002 vote to underfund the city’s pension plan in this race and when you ran for city attorney. What have you learned from that experience that you could use to be a more effective Congressional representative?
The experience we’ve had here in San Diego is going to be lessons we can take to Washington that are really going to be useful. We did make mistakes early in my term, with respect to the pension, did these same kinds of things that the city had been doing for decades, then realized that they were mistakes, acknowledge that, and then set about to fix them. We paneled a pension reform commission to give us recommendations. We hired two outside experts, big firms, to give us recommendations on what to do to fix it. We followed those recommendations, and at the end of all that, I can go into all the different steps we took, but the SEC’s (Security and Exchange Commission’s) own monitor said that San Diego was a model for other cities to use for financial reform.
In Washington you’ve got a lot of problems with benefits and entitlements where people have been doing these things, people have found themselves in a little bit of a hole, but they don’t want to acknowledge it. And what we found in San Diego is that the longer you wait, the worse it gets. You acknowledge the problem and then sit around a table honestly and figure out a way to deal with it. That’s the experience that San Diego’s had that other cities and states are just starting to deal with, because this is a nationwide issue, pension funding, but Washington hasn’t started to deal with this issue, so maybe we could help.
LL: Any final reflections on your life in La Jolla and why you feel you are the best candidate for the job?
The worst thing about going to Washington is having to leave here. It really is an unbelievably idyllic place to live and people who don’t live here don’t understand the attraction of it, the beauty of it, the comfort of it, and so I really have grown to love it. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else. My kids are natives and it’s a great place that I care about. I will take San Diego with me to Washington in my heart and that’s what I really think I’m working for. I’m going to make sure that I’ll always be working for San Diego while I’m there. While I’m talking to everybody, I’ll remember why I came.
In the Know
Length of congressional term:
House of Representatives base salary:
(cost-of-living-adjustment increases take effect annually unless Congress votes not to accept them)
Congressional retirement is funded via taxes and the participants’ contributions. Congress members are eligible for a pension when they reach age 50, but only if they’ve completed 20 years of service. Members are eligible at any age after completing 25 years or after they reach age 62. Congress members must serve at least five years to receive a pension.