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Election 2020: Local races aren’t immune from partisan influence

REGION — While the state constitution says local offices — county, city, school, judicial — “shall be nonpartisan,” in reality partisan influence bears directly on local races.

The constitution defines nonpartisanship simply to mean parties can’t nominate local candidates and local ballots can’t list candidates’ party preferences. But parties endorse candidates and contribute to their campaigns, whether materially or with logistical support.

For November’s election, The Coast News has tracked 122 candidates in 21 local legislative races in North County. Of those, the San Diego County Democratic Party endorsed 41, or 34%. Its Republican counterpart endorsed 32, or 26%. That leaves only 40% of local legislative candidates unclaimed.

In their bylaws, both parties expressly aim to support candidates for local offices. In a few cases, local candidates, including incumbents, sit on their parties’ central committees.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of how party-endorsed local legislative candidates responded to questionnaires The Coast News administered. Some patterns are discernible and unsurprising — Republicans generally want less land use regulation over private property, Democrats generally don’t want more charter schools. But on other issues, candidates of the same partisan persuasion gave pretty diverse responses. Graphic by Dan Brendel

In 1986, Proposition 49 sought stricter limits, such that “no political party or party central committee may endorse, support or oppose a candidate for nonpartisan elective office.”

Voters passed it as a constitutional amendment by a margin of 12 percentage points. But in 1996, a district court ruled the proposition violated political parties’ 1st Amendment and 14th Amendment rights.

The Coast News asked North County municipal and school board candidates what they think being endorsed at the local level means, versus the state and federal levels (PDF version of the above graphic).

Some drew direct connections, explicitly or implicitly, between partisan labels at the national and local levels.

Terra Lawson-Remer, a Democrat who’s running against Republican incumbent Kristian Gaspar in County Board District 3, asserted Gaspar “has advanced Trump’s agenda locally,” drawing numerous parallels. (Though her statement to The Coast News that Gaspar “join[ed] Trump in calling immigrants ‘animals,’” based on a 2018 Fox News video clip, is not accurate.)

“There are values championed by the Democratic party, including a woman’s right to choose, access to affordable healthcare and a thriving middle class, that I’m proud to stand for at the local level,” said Kellie Hinze, who’s running for Encinitas City Council.

Asked what power a local legislature has to influence these issues meaningfully, she didn’t respond.

Conversely, Christopher Rodriguez, the Republican endorsee for Oceanside mayor, said: “The national political discussion has almost no connection to the challenges we face at the local level.”

Dave Druker, a Democratic endorsee for Del Mar City Council, said municipal races used to occur in April, ahead of general elections. Since then, “political parties have inserted themselves into local elections.”

“When I ran in 2016, I was courted by the S.D. County Democrats to seek their endorsement. While I do agree with many Democratic Party principles, most of them have little relevance to the main issues facing Del Mar,” he said.

Others suggested party labels usefully communicate basic values, even if relevant issues perhaps differ between levels of government.

Party identities “help identify core political values and beliefs albeit with a very broad stroke,” said Don Greene, a Democratic for Escondido City Council.

“The Democratic Party and I both believe in equity, access to quality public education for all, and fully funding our schools,” said Vista Unified School Board candidate Julie Kelly.

Whereas Republicans “give more deference to parents in regards to their children,” said Matthew Simpson, another Vista Unified candidate.

Still, others suggested partisan alignment means relatively little at the local level, or else emphasized logistical or other utilitarian benefits.

“I don’t think it means too much as I truly believe that local elections really are, and should be, nonpartisan,” said Matt Wheeler, a Republican endorsee for Encinitas Union School Board.

Sarah Ahmad (a Democrat for San Marcos Unified) and Phil Urbina (a Republican for Carlsbad City Council) both said they’ve attracted bipartisan supporters and campaign teams.

“Our children’s education is of importance across party lines,” Ahmad said.

“After all, there is no Republican or Democrat way to fill a pothole,” Urbina said.

“There really are no partisan issues in cities,” said Lesa Heebner, a Democrat for Solana Beach mayor. “Where it does matter is … when we are soliciting benefits and money from our state and federal representatives.”

“If I had my druthers I would run as an independent,” said Lela Panagides, a Democratic endorsee for Carlsbad City Council. But “you’re almost forced” to find party backing, as parties provide certain otherwise cost-prohibitive logistical support, such as slate mailers and door hangers.

1 comment

concerned October 22, 2020 at 8:03 pm

Unfortunately, California is now a one party state which has morphed into the same in cities and agencies.

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