“I want this mayor to have a fight,” she told Spin Cycle, “and that’s exactly what I’m looking for.”
The usual pundits will no doubt have a field day dissecting the chances of a former Democrat now aligned with no party against the polished, smiling Republican Faulconer whose campaign coffers overfloweth. But with the local Democratic Party so far fielding no legitimate contender, it should also not surprise anyone that Saldaña decided to seize the moment.
The decision came while returning from her annual trek down to the lagoons of Baja California to visit gray whales, a species whose predecessors date back 30 million years, she told a gathering of about 60 people at a home nestled in Maple Canyon.
“There’s something about being in these very isolated areas far from development, far from the high-rises, that gives me perspective,” she said. “If you want a sense of how limited our time is on this planet to make a difference and be committed to what we believe in, go pet a baby whale and think about how long they’ve been doing this migration.”
She said she’d been urged to run for “many months,” but the death of her father last year—a larger-than-life retired journalist Spin Cycle had the pleasure to work beside back in the halcyon days of the San Diego Evening Tribune—occupied her psyche. “It takes time to adjust to a big change like that and your circumstances,” she told the gathering.
But when the names of potential known challengers emerged and subsequently fell by the wayside, Saldaña said she couldn’t just sit idly by and watch Faulconer’s anticipated re-election coronation.
“The current mayor is clearly not representing the broader community, and you can see that by how much money he’s raised and how few people he’s raised it from,” she said. “There’s just a few industries that are filling his campaign coffers, and those are those special interests that want to turn San Diego into a high-rise, high-cost city with people paying the lowest wages that they can get away with.”
Faulconer’s opposition to a local minimum-wage hike last year—now set for the same June ballot—and his successful efforts to crush Barrio Logan’s first community plan made Saldaña wonder, “Who’s next?”
“First you start with the lowest-wage workers who can’t fight back, then you take the same money and strategies against some of our lowest-income neighborhoods that just want a chance to plan for the future so their children aren’t growing up next to polluting industries...But this mayor is not concerned about that kind of ground-up approach to planning.”
Communities need a bigger say in how their neighborhoods develop, she said, but “not just grow like a cancer cell. Unlimited growth and high-rises and more people—that’s the philosophy of a cancer cell. Eventually the host dies from those cancer cells.”
While Faulconer relies on ribbon-cuttings and scripted press events, Saldaña plans to visit with as many community groups, planning boards and town councils as she can cram into her schedule. She also intends to reprise an event she held while chairing the state Assembly’s Housing and Community Development Committee: a gathering of the leaders of all of the city’s town councils.
“We’ll talk about things they have in common, from some of the oldest, most established areas like Clairemont [where she grew up] that have been around for 50 years to some of the newest neighborhoods that are just getting started,” she said. “If we don’t work together, our right as a neighborhood to define where we want to go, what we want to save, what we want to develop, our rights will be ignored and overturned by the planning commission and the mayor’s office and City Hall.”
Perhaps to demonstrate her ability to work across partisan lines, Saldaña praised Republican Councilmember Mark Kersey’s proposed infrastructure funding plan that some Democrats have criticized as “ballot-box” budgeting. But she also landed hard on the conservative-led pension-reform efforts, which she said in talking to city officials “is actually costing us more over time than saving money.”
Not only are those reforms creating rifts among young and closer-to-retirement employees, it has hurt San Diego’s ability to retain skilled workers. And Kersey’s plan “likely won’t have funds available” because while “employment costs are going down…for the people who are retiring, they’re going up for the people who have come in.”
Meanwhile, Saldaña said, the current mayor seems focused on big-ticket items, like a new NFL stadium. “The high-profile things he wants to talk about—the Chargers, hey they’re coming back! Yeah, for a year—that’s all we get to hear about and read about. I’m not going to throw good money after bad,” she said. “I will invest it in a public stadium that we all own, but I’m not going to throw money after the Chargers. They’re a big company and part of the biggest monopoly in the country.”
Saldaña has generated some buzz by signing a pledge to serve a full four-year term as mayor. Faulconer’s campaign strategist, Jason Roe, told the Union-Tribune the mayor “never signs pledges and he’s not going to start today.” Saldaña said she’s heard state Republican leaders believe Faulconer is the “Great White Hope for California,” a suggestion that the mayor is pondering a run for governor in 2018.
“He’s the accidental mayor,” she said, explaining that Faulconer has benefited from low-voter-turnout special elections. “This city deserves somebody who is focused and whose eyes are on San Diego. Not like Dean Spanos looking at the next media market. We need somebody who is… working for San Diego, not for the people who want to move him to the governor’s office.”