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San Diego mayoral candidates field questions at La Jolla forum

Candidates for San Diego mayor — Tasha Williamson, Scott Sherman, Todd Gloria, Rich Riel, Barbara Bry and Gita Appelbaum Singh — attend a pre-primary election forum Feb. 17, 2020 held at La Jolla Community Center and organized by La Jolla Town Council.
Candidates for San Diego mayor — Tasha Williamson, Scott Sherman, Todd Gloria, Rich Riel, Barbara Bry and Gita Appelbaum Singh — attend a pre-primary election forum Feb. 17, 2020 held at La Jolla Community Center and organized by La Jolla Town Council.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Town Counci)

About 200 people packed the La Jolla Community Center on Feb. 17 to witness a showdown between the six candidates for the March 3 San Diego mayoral primary: Barbara Bry, Todd Gloria, Rich Riel, Scott Sherman, Gita Appelbaum Singh and Tasha Williamson.

A showdown is not exactly what they got, however. A dozen questions were posed by Ann Kerr Bache, president of La Jolla Town Council (LJTC), which sponsored the 90-minute event. Then, pre-selected members of the audience got to ask a dozen more questions. Each candidate received only one minute to answer, with no opportunities to follow up or address one another head-to-head.

“This is not a debate tonight, just so you know,” Kerr Bache said. “Think about this as an interactive election pamphlet — kind of like speed-dating for mayor.”

Leading off the questions was the most important crisis facing San Diego: its growing homeless population. The candidates answered in the quasi-alphabetical order in which they were seated:

Nurse practitioner Gita Appelbaum Singh, a Democrat, proposed “tiny homes and a standard of living better than what it is now.”

District 1 City Council member Barbara Bry, a Democrat, proposed to address the root causes of homelessness, “which, for a growing number of people, are mental health and substance-abuse issues. If we don’t address those, just giving someone a place to live will not be a long-term solution.” Bry called for “closer coordination with the County, which gets money every year for health and human services, and we need to hold programs accountable for the money that they spend.”

Technology worker Rich Riel, a Republican, replied that homelessness is divided into four kinds: “1) you have a mental problem; 2) you have an addiction problem; 3) you are temporarily economically dislocated; and 4) there are what I call the scammers, the ones who will always live on the streets.” Riel said the only way to address the issue is to break homeless people into one of each of these four categories and deal with them four separate ways including, “for the scammers, we’ll need to put an area where they can put their sleeping bags.”

California State Assembly member Todd Gloria, a Democrat, replied: “No more indoor skydiving facilities purchased without an appraisal. No more criminalization of homelessness.” He said that the current City Council and mayor have outsourced this responsibility to the housing commission. “It must be brought into the Mayor’s office and communicated that it is the top priority of the City,” he said. Gloria also mentioned building more housing for the economically insecure, and enlarging the conversation to the 40 percent of unsheltered people who live outside the City.

District 7 Council member Scott Sherman, a Republican, said: “We’ve done a lot on the compassion side, but what we haven’t been doing is focusing on the enforcement side. It’s not a crime to be homeless, but crimes you commit while being homeless, they are still crimes and those need to be enforced. That helps compel people to find facilities and support that we provide for them.”

Nonprofit executive Tasha Williamson, a Democrat, responded by identifying herself as a former homeless person who has been on a Section 8 waiting list for 18 years. She asked everyone to look around the room “to see who’s not here, who you left out, who we’re talking about.” She said that people of color are disproportionately affected by homelessness. “We have been failed over and over and over again,” she said, “and that’s why I’m here, because I’m tired of being failed.”

In a similar fashion, the mayoral candidates responded to how they would solve the City’s affordable housing, short-term vacation rental (STVR) and police recruitment problems. They were asked their positions on the tax increase for the Convention Center (Measure C) and how to prevent seniors on a fixed-income from being priced out of the San Diego housing market.

The tight time restriction encouraged the candidates to distill their campaign platforms and promises into bite-sized, well-rehearsed chunks. Pot-shots were sneaked in, however — mostly by Bry, who is polling third behind Gloria and Sherman heading into a primary after which only the top two contenders will continue into the general election.

Bry asked why the labor unions, a big real estate developer and other special interests are “funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into a committee supporting Mr. Gloria” and why pro-STVR lobbyist group Share San Diego donated $120,000 to the Republican Party to help Sherman’s campaign.

The audience was chastised repeatedly for applauding by Kerr Bache, who cited time constraints. Kerr Bache banged her gavel several times at cheering attendees and stated that this was “not a campaign rally” — but not before a preference was clearly established by the audience for Bry, the only candidate who lives in La Jolla.

Appelbaum Singh peppered her speaking opportunities with most of the evening’s rare levity. At one point, she shoehorned an advertisement for her private business into a discussion of mental health. At another, during a discussion of how the cost of living is causing San Diegans to flee to other parts of the U.S., she said: “After this campaign, I may move to Nevada, too.”

By far the most uncomfortable and divisive moment occurred when Williamson, discussing how to recruit more police officers, accused the San Diego Police Department of having “a very racist culture.”

“Our men, women and children are snatched out of their vehicles,” she characterized the situation in her District (4). “I think that SDPD has a long way to go because they will not admit the racism that exists — not just in SDPD, but in City Hall and San Diego in general.”

The primary election will be held March 3, 2020. The general election, a runoff between the top two primary candidates, will be held Nov. 3. Both elections are non-partisan. Learn more from the San Diego County Registrar of Voters at sdvote.com