San Diego County’s 3.3 million residents make it California’s second largest county, and 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, 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 for 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, 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 is now a Democrat, finished first in the June primary. He’ll face Republican Bonnie Dumanis, a former judge and prosecutor, in November.
It should be an easy win for Fletcher, given a 2-1 Democratic voter advantage. But the county’s labor unions and Democratic Party are involved in a bitter power struggle. The Democrats’ next target will be Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, who will be up for reelection in 2020. They’re pinning 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, If no one gets a June majority, the top two finishers 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 – just like the state top-two system that state Democratic leaders repeatedly denounce. But in San Diego County, Democrats see a top-two November runoff as an advantage, since November elections draw higher voter turnouts.
After the Gloria bill passed, Democrats circulated petitions to ask voters to change the county charter next November and got 103,328 signatures. But Michael Vu, San Diego County’s top election official, ruled that wasn’t enough, citing AB 901’s requirement for “10 percent 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; measure proponents assumed it would be 10 percent of the total voter turnout in 2014 (about 67,000 names) as is the case for statewide initiatives.
Democrats see Vu’s ruling as a partisan political maneuver to thwart their partisan political maneuver. They inserted a passage into one of the Legislature’s 26 budget “trailer bills” to retroactively set the signature threshold at 10 percent.
It is, of course, another misuse of the budget trailer bill process for partisan purposes. It’s also symptomatic of the struggle for political control of the state’s second largest county.
Dan Walters is a columnist for CALmatters, a public-interest journalism organization. Reach him at email@example.com.