The campaign to replace county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher has quickly taken shape with three candidates announced, leaving little room for additional candidates.
San Diego City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe and veterans advocate Janessa Goldbeck each have support from some distinct Democratic constituencies, while potentially dividing others.
Amy Reichert, a Republican who ran against Fletcher last year, has appealed to conservative activists, particularly with her criticism of the county’s COVID-19 policies.
Those three cover a lot of political territory, making it difficult for others to find a way forward in heavily Democratic District 4, which stretches from central San Diego to East County.
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Fletcher announced in March that he will resign from his seat on May 15 after he was accused in a lawsuit of sexual assault and harassment by Grecia Figueroa, a former public relations specialist with the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System.
On Tuesday, the other four supervisors set a special election for Aug. 15 to fill the vacancy. If no candidate gets a majority, a run-off election will be held on 7 November.
San Diego City Councilman Stephen Whitburn is the only high-profile name still being circulated in political circles as a possible candidate.
But Goldbeck, a Marine veteran and former congressional candidate, may have cornered much of the LGBTQ political community, which Whitburn is expected to champion.
A split may be developing in organized labor between Goldbeck and Montgomery Steppe, although the former appears to have the early advantage among unions.
Montgomery Steppe has had strong support from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but Goldbeck is popular there as well.
More people are likely to run. But it’s hard to see where Whitburn or any other Democrat would get enough support unless they were able to shake something loose from Goldbeck and Montgomery Steppe.
The timing of the special election could be problematic for Whitburn should he lose and then turn around and seek re-election next year.
Whitburn first emerged as a potential contender for the Fletcher seat under very different circumstances.
Fletcher had announced plans to run in 2024 for the state Senate seat held by Toni Atkins, who faces term limits. He was an early favorite and, had he won, the election to replace him would have been held after Whitburn would likely have been re-elected – leaving him to focus on just one campaign.
Meanwhile, a low-turnout stand-alone election in August could work in Reichert’s favor. The rule of thumb is that Republicans are more likely to vote in low turnout elections than Democrats. It remains to be seen whether Reichert can motivate them or attract moderate Republicans.
She lost in a landslide to Fletcher last November, receiving 35.5 percent of the vote. There’s no telling whether Reichert could match or better that result, but it suggests she could advance to the runoff with the caveat that much could change the dynamics of the race before Aug. 15 — certainly if another Republican jumps in.
Even with just the three candidates, it is unlikely that anyone will win a majority. If Reichert makes it to November, however, she would be the overwhelming underdog against either of the two Democrats.
That gives Goldbeck and Montgomery Steppe – and their surrogates – incentive to try to beat each other out in the primary.
There is a perception that Goldbeck is the more business-friendly candidate and Montgomery Steppe the more progressive, but that may not be entirely true given the councilman’s support for small businesses.
Goldbeck was the first candidate to announce back in February. At the time, the seat wouldn’t officially be open until 2026, though there was a real prospect of a special election not long after a projected Fletcher state Senate victory.
When the Fletcher scandal broke, Goldbeck’s timeline moved up.
Goldbeck is executive director of the Vet Voice Foundation, a national nonprofit that advocates for veterans and military families on issues including health care, voting rights, protection of military public lands and other issues. Goldbeck also served as board chair for the San Diego LGBT Community Center and served on the San Diego County Behavioral Health Advisory Board.
Goldbeck finished fourth in a 2020 congressional primary for a seat eventually won by Democrat Sara Jacobs.
When he ran for supervisor, Goldbeck quickly accumulated a number of high-profile endorsements from local members of Congress, the state legislature, city councils, school boards and community leaders — a list that includes moderate and more liberal Democrats.
Furthermore, being a veteran is almost always a political plus in this region.
Goldbeck’s campaign is being quarterbacked by political consultant Dan Rottenstreich, who has run numerous campaigns for Democrats and labor organizations. He is married to Brigette Browning, executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, a union umbrella organization.
Many unions – politically – tend to go where the two go, but how or whether the Labor Council backs a candidate will be closely watched. SEIU Local 221, which represents more than 10,000 county workers in San Diego, appears to be leaning against Montgomery Steppe.
Montgomery Steppe, the lone black member of the City Council, was first elected in 2018 by defeating incumbent Myrtle Cole. Montgomery Steppe’s community-based grassroots campaign prevailed despite Cole’s support from business, labor and law enforcement organizations.
Montgomery Steppe has been a critic of racial disparities and the use of force in policing. The councilor pushed for changes to police procedures and supported a successful 2020 referendum calling for a stronger police oversight board.
Law enforcement groups will almost certainly campaign to defeat Montgomery Steppe. Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors currently does not have a black member, and changing that is a priority for many progressives in San Diego.
The special election for the Fletcher seat at this point cannot simply be boiled down to a struggle for power and greater representation between the LGBTQ and black communities, although there is an element of that.
But the overall aspect of the new race is that the two leading candidates are well-respected across San Diego’s Democratic establishment and, if not running against each other, would have significant crossover support.
Political parties could have worse dilemmas.