Talking to CityBeat last Friday in her office at City Hall, Sherri Lightner answered questions about municipal policy in meticulous detail. She clearly knew what she was talking about. She seemed at home and at ease, comfortable and confident. But when a question that forced her to discuss how she might be affected politically by her policy choices, she seemed to freeze up. She'd stare back at her interviewer for a moment and then look to her communications director, Jennifer Davies, as if she was looking for help or thinking, What on Earth could be the purpose of such a question?
Lightner, a mechanical engineer by trade, had been active on various advisory planning groups and committees but had never been a politician when she rode the Obama wave and got elected to a vacant seat on the San Diego City Council in November 2008, representing District 1, which includes a politically engaged populace in La Jolla.
From the outside, Lightner has appeared enigmatic, a Democrat unafraid of angering the Democratic base. Her 2008 campaign benefited to a degree from the support of unions and environmental groups, some leaders of which are now scratching their heads, unsure what to make of Lightner's votes and largely disappointed in her tenure so far.
When Lightner runs for reelection in 2012, it's likely that she'll be the favored candidate among the environmental and labor communities, considering that her opposition so far is a Republican, Ray Ellis, a businessman and president of the San Diego City Employees Retirement System. But whether those folks become actively engaged on behalf of her campaign remains to be seen.
For Lorena Gonzalez, secretary/treasurer and CEO of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, an assessment of Lightner comes down mostly to a couple of key issues—big-box super-centers and managed competition. Lightner voted against requiring companies like Walmart to conduct economic-impact studies when they propose new super-centers, and, last week, she voted in favor of opening up certain operations at the Miramar Landfill to competitive bidding among private companies and the city workers who currently run the landfill. She also voted against allowing city lifeguards to leave the Municipal Employees Association (MEA), which represents mostly white-collar workers and isn't under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO-affiliated Labor Council, and join the Teamsters.
“There were times when she'd vote against us, but it didn't feel like a vote against us,” Gonzalez said. “It's always kind of like she says the right things, and then votes against you. It's been a little odd.”
Lightner is “consistently perplexing,” Gonzalez said. “Do I think that Sherri Lightner wants to destroy unions? Absolutely not. When I have a conversation with her, does she seem to share our values still? She does. Has that resulted in voting her values? It doesn't seem to, but maybe I'm missing something.”
Two public-safety unions, the San Diego Police Officers Association and international Association of Fire Fighters Local 145, continue to support Lightner. The MEA is still supportive despite being unhappy with Lightner's landfill vote.
For environmentalists, the big issue is water recycling. In July 2010, Lightner cast two votes against a demonstration project for turning sewage into potable water, long a major goal for environmentalists looking to reduce demand on water. Also, Lightner voted this past spring against requiring sponsors of fireworks shows, which some environmentalists say harm ocean-water quality, to obtain special permits. Previously, she voted against giving Children's Beach over to a colony of harbor seals. And environmentalists share labor's disappointment in Lightner's vote on the Miramar Landfill.
“When environmentalists, especially the League of Conservation Voters [LCV], endorsed her in the previous election,” said Livia Borak, the new president of LCV's San Diego chapter, “we were expecting her to be one of our go-to votes, another Donna Frye that we could depend on when it came to environmental issues, and she failed us in that regard.”
Nicole Capretz, associate director of the Environmental Health Coalition, which focuses on environmental justice in low-income communities, is slightly less critical, noting that Lightner has been “great on green energy issues and transit” but adding to the chorus of disappointment on the council member's votes on the landfill and water recycling.
“Sherri is a friend with an inconsistent record,” Capretz said. “I think there is mutual respect, and she regularly seeks out our opinion and listens to our perspective, but we don't always land on the same side.”
If anything, Lightner seems proud that she's not always in lockstep with environmental and labor advocates. “I make fact-based decisions,” she said, adding that in her view, the critics are selective in their assessments.
Take, for instance, a report card for 2010 issued in April by a coalition of environmental organizations, she said. Lightner was given a C+, better only than Councilmember Carl DeMaio's D and worse than all other members and Mayor Jerry Sanders. Lightner said the grade was based on a few votes on items that came before the City Council and ignored her efforts to push pro-environmental policies behind the scenes.
For example, Lightner said she got no credit for waging a successful grassroots campaign to convince the regional transportation agency SANDAG to abandon a Mid- Coast Corridor Transit Project route through the sensitive Rose Canyon, which is in Lightner's district. Indeed, Friends of Rose Canyon is one citizens group that's thrilled with Lightner.
On the seals and the fireworks, Lightner simply disagrees with the advocates. She believes in shared use of the beach between harbor seals and humans, with a rope barrier in place during pupping season, and she believes fireworks pose no harm to water quality.
On water recycling, Lightner said she thought the demonstration project was a waste of money given that it's a proven technology—though, the demo was required by the state Department of Public Health in order for recycling to move forward—but she also said she's not convinced that current safety standards are up to date, particularly when it comes to filtering out prescription drugs that pass through people and wind up in the wastewater. That was a big concern that she heard from constituents when she was campaigning in 2008, she said.
On the big-box ordinance, she didn't like that it bypassed certain citizens advisory panels before reaching the City Council, and she didn't think the way it was written was the best way to fight super-centers.
“I don't shop at Walmart. I lived in a community that had a Walmart. I'd go back and visit in the summertime, and I saw what they did,” she said. “If a super-center proposal were to reach the City Council, she said, “it would be an interesting discussion, I'm sure.”
On the landfill, Lightner noted that voters said they want managed competition, overwhelmingly so in her district. When the matter was still at the council's Rules Committee, she voted against sending it to the full council because she wasn't satisfied with the details. Once it got there, however, she decided to load it up with a dozen amendments rather than send it back to the committee. “I wanted to put as many stringent requirements on it as I could,” she said.
“I know that [city-run] operation out there is award-winning,” she said. “I know they do a good job. I am confident that [city employees] will win that contract.”
The Labor Council's Gonzalez said unions will have plenty of options for spending money come 2012. Contributing to a City Council incumbent—particularly one who hasn't come through for them like they'd hoped— may not be as high a priority as, say, the mayor's race or state legislative races.
Borak said that if Lightner comes calling for LCV's endorsement, she'd better come with answers. “We want some explanation as to why she wasn't on board with some of the key environmental issues,” she said.
Lightner was reticent to discuss campaign matters in her council office, citing a recent warning memo from the Ethics Commission, perhaps partially explaining her apparent difficulty with politics questions. As for reconciling her belief that she's pro-environment and pro-worker with the animosity from the activists, she said it's simple enough:
“We have the same goals; we just have different ways of getting there.”