Sherri Lightner becomes San Diego's first female city council president
Sherri Lightner replaced Todd Gloria as San Diego City Council President on Wednesday after a contentious hearing where Gloria supporters complained the move was purely political.
Lightner, a Democrat, joined with the nine-member panel’s four Republicans to make the switch possible.
While Lightner and Gloria have similar stances on most key issues, he’s received consistent support from all of the city’s labor unions. Some of those groups have opposed Lightner or declined to support her in her most recent election.
Gloria supporters, who packed City Hall’s council chambers and waved yellow “I stand with Todd” signs, called the switch an attempt by Republicans to hurt Gloria’s ability to seek another office when his council term ends in 2016. Some Democrats have said Gloria could be a formidable opponent when Mayor Kevin Faulconer seeks re-election that year.
Before Lightner was chosen, a motion to have Gloria continue as president for a third consecutive year was defeated in a 5-4 vote. Gloria and fellow Democrats David Alvarez, Marti Emerald and Myrtle Cole voted in favor, while Lightner crossed party lines and joined with the council’s four Republicans in dissent.
When Lightner was nominated a few minutes later, the vote was 7-2 with Gloria and Alvarez opposed.
Councilman Scott Sherman, a Republican, explained his vote by saying it was time for a new leader. He also said Lightner would govern from a more bipartisan perspective, focusing on the “nuts and bolts” of city government.
Gloria has gotten attention for his work on more ambitious issues, such as climate change and efforts to raise the minimum wage — two issues that have been controversial with some Republicans.
“Councilmember Lightner is known for her independence, experience, and engineering background,” Sherman said. “Her analytical skills will help the City Council stay focused on the goal of increasing efficiencies, improving services and saving money for San Diego taxpayers.”
Generally soft spoken, Lightner doesn’t make as many major public pronouncements as some of her council colleagues.
Her ascension could temper dissension, said Republican political consultant John Dadian.
“In the past couple years we’ve seen three issues that have either gone to the ballot or almost gone to the ballot by referendum,” Dadian said. “Those issues would possibly be solved and stopped at the City Council under Sherri Lightner.”
The issues he was referring to are the minimum wage, Barrio Logan zoning changes and affordable housing fees paid by developers.
The bolstered Republican presence on the council might have more to do with that than the shift in president. In November, Democrats lost their 6-3 supermajority that allowed them to override Faulconer vetoes.
Gloria said Wednesday he was surprised when rumors surfaced recently that he would lose the president post and that he would have preferred to keep it. But he also said he wasn’t frustrated and that he remained optimistic about the future.
“It’s about politics, not my performance as council president,” said Gloria, vowing not to hold a grudge against Lightner for crossing party lines. “The issues of the city are bigger than this one vote.”
Lightner is the first woman to serve as council president, a post created when San Diego switched to a “strong mayor” form of government.
Lightner didn’t speak during Wednesday’s hearing and wasn’t available for interviews afterward.
In a prepared statement, Lightner said she was honored her colleagues chose her and that she would focus on getting things done.
“We need to improve police salaries, update our city’s charter, approve the climate action plan, address our infrastructure and water needs, and put more city services online to make city government work better for our citizens,” she said. “I’m excited to work collaboratively with all my council colleagues to tackle these challenges and many more.”
Gloria has been council president since late 2012 and also served as interim mayor for six months between Bob Filner and Kevin Faulconer.
The supporters who rallied behind him Wednesday, including labor leaders and many prominent local Democrats, said Gloria deserved another year because he did a fabulous job helping to heal the city after the Filner scandal and because he has shown strong leadership on controversial issues.
None of the speakers attacked Lightner, but a few questioned whether she would have been as effective as interim mayor.
In a statement, Faulconer expressed confidence in Lightner, who he worked with while serving on the council.
“We already have a great working relationship and I look forward to working together to create more opportunities for all San Diegans,” he said.
In her statement, Lightner praised Gloria after the vote.
“He brought stability and a calming presence to the city during a very difficult time and helped restore faith in city government,” she said. “I will always be one of his biggest fans, as he is one of the best and brightest elected officials with whom I’ve ever worked.”
Lightner is barred from running for re-election in 2016 by term limits, so the prestigious council president title could help her if she seeks another office. Gloria, who is also termed out in 2016, could have gotten the same boost.
Lightner has had uneven support from the Democratic establishment. In her 2012 campaign, she was backed by the city police, firefighter and lifeguard unions and the Sierra Club. But she did not have the support of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council AFL-CIO, which had given her an F grade on its annual report card, even though the organization spent heavily to help elect her four years earlier.
In 2012, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 135, which is sponsored by the Labor Council, spent $87,500 to oppose her.
The council chooses a president once a year. Whoever holds the post plays a key role in making committee assignments and deciding which items come before the panel and when.
Lightner, 64, is a graduate of Crawford High School and UC San Diego. Before being elected to council in 2008, she served as president of the La Jolla Town Council.
She performed Gloria’s council president duties when he served as interim mayor from August 2013 to March 2014.
Lightner’s district includes La Jolla, Carmel Valley, University City and Sorrento Valley. Gloria’s district includes downtown, Hillcrest, North Park, Old Town, Mission Hills and Normal Heights.
The council president vote was delayed from Monday to Wednesday to allow newly elected Councilman Chris Cate, who was sworn in Wednesday morning, to participate.
The inauguration of Cate and other council members re-elected this year was notable for a quiet protest of the Ferguson, Mo., shooting. Some demonstrators lay on the floor in a “die-in.”
At other times they put their hands up. A sign they carried stated "hands up, don't shoot" which has been a rallying cry at similar protests across the country.