Feb. 24 2016 12:27 AM

City council candidates joust in battle to replace Marti Emerald

D9-Sarah-Saez-KenStone5
Sarah Saez
All photos by Ken Stone

A story is circulating that Ricardo Flores, chief of staff to retiring City Councilmember Marti Emerald and the hand-picked successor in District 9, is the payoff in a deal with Latino leaders that had Emerald serving just one term in this new council district.

Sarah Saez is running against Flores. The labor activist and program director for the United Taxi Workers of San Diego talks about a “deal” made for Flores.

Flores’ candidacy was “predetermined,” said Saez, 35, of City Heights. “Marti said, ‘Let me run again, and next time I promise it’s going to be a Latino’” in the overwhelmingly Democratic district drawn to favor a Latino candidate.

The other main candidate in the District 9 race, Georgette Gómez, 40, said a group of Latino leaders, including City Councilmember David Alvarez, told Emerald before the 2012 race: “We’re not going to run anyone against you, but you promise you will only run one term. And you’re going to support the person we think should be running in District 9.”

Gómez says that person was Flores—even though Flores didn’t join Emerald’s team until after the election. (Emerald beat Mateo Camarillo 72 percent to 28 percent in the June 2012 primary.)

So Emerald, the former Channel 10 “Troubleshooter,” is on the phone joking about how she can’t keep a secret. She calls the rumor “sour grapes” from “people who aren’t able to get traction in the community...can’t get the community to back them.”

“I never made a pledge” to serve one term, she says, but suggested it wasn’t a secret that she didn’t plan to serve eight years in District 9 atop the four years she was in office as the councilmember representing District 7. “At every stump speech I gave, I told them: ‘Look, here’s my intention. And it was always to make myself obsolete. And build a staff that was so effective that I could step back and let this new generation of leadership step in.’”

Ricardo Flores

Emerald adds: “We cannot foist upon our district… inexperienced people who don’t know where to find the bathroom, yet.”

Alvarez, via representative Lisa Schmidt, said he was “absolutely not a party” to a D9 deal. “I assumed (Emerald) was going to run for re-election in 2016—as did everyone else.”

Emerald announced her decision to retire last April. Days later, she endorsed Flores, 38, as her successor. About the same time, he and his campaign manager wife, Deanneka Goodwin, moved to affluent and vote-rich Kensington, next to Talmadge. The district also includes the 16 neighborhoods of City Heights, the College Area and Rolando on the north and Mount Hope, Mountain View and Southcrest.

Flores lived in the area as a child, but his main rivals call him a carpetbagger. They note his interest in the 2010 race for District 8 (Alvarez turf ). He briefly sought a District 2 appointment in 2014.

Saez says of Flores (who also has backing from Rep. Juan Vargas, his former boss Rep. Susan Davis and councilmembers Sherri Lightner and Myrtle Cole): “All his money, all his connections, all his accomplishments he’s taking credit for are Marti’s.”

With the slogan “Making San Diego Affordable, Safe And Green,” Saez said: “You’re pretty much an incumbent if you’ve been endorsed by the establishment. Are we saying to our communities: The only people who can serve in elected office are people with connections? People with money? Are we talking about the most qualified person or the most connected person?”

Once homeless at age 16, Saez is a Bernie Sanders backer going back to her Boston youth. She contrasts herself with Flores: “I’m not on the 10th floor (of City Hall). I’m here in the trenches with these workers and with these community members.”

Gómez, born in Barrio Logan and living in Azalea Park (her home is her campaign headquarters), is backed by Alvarez and former councilmembers Donna Frye, John Hartley and Christine Kehoe. (Gómez once toured California with a Spanish-punk band. She was the singer, but mostly screamed, she said.)

“Aligned with both” Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Gómez boasts 20-plus years working for social justice, especially via the Environmental Health Coalition. She brought a Farmers Market to City Heights and $20 million for biking and walking routes.

At the end of 2015, Flores led the money race, raising $108,000 to Gómez’s $50,000 and Saez’s $21,000. Trailing are South Sudan-born Rebecca Paida, 27 ($9,000); Eritreanborn African advocate Sam Bedwell, 45 ($5,000); and three others who didn’t respond to interview requests—Vietnamborn Tami Murillo, 60; L.A.-born lawyer Araceli Martinez, 36; and “Fight for 15” leader Sandra Galindo, 49.

Georgette Gómez

Flores—whose donors include longtime power brokers Steve Cushman, David Malcolm and ex-City Manager Jack McGrory—says Saez was told to register as a Democrat to get labor endorsement. (She got the backing.) “In fact, she wanted to run as a Socialist.”

He says Gómez hasn’t always been a Democrat either, and “I’m not going to leave [the party] because I’m indifferent to one of their issues. Are you willing to stick it out for something even when things are difficult?”

Flores has voted in 18 of 23 local elections since 1996, according to the Registrar of Voters Office. Gómez, once a Green Party member, voted in 20 of 28 elections since 1994 (including some as No Party Preference). And Saez voted in all seven of her eligible elections since 2010—but as NPP in the 2012 presidential primary.

Not taking his front-runner status for granted, Flores says: “I’m literally in a mini-war right now.”

Asked to look ahead, the former Hollywood worker (he photographed and filed thousands of pencil drawings for Shrek 2) is open to even higher office, but says: “I really don’t think about (later races). If there are people out there who say, ‘You sound great, you sound like you have a great future,’ then that’s wonderful. Then support me now.”

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