Noli Zosa
Noli Zosa. Campaign photo

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil is noted for declaring that “all politics is local.” The upcoming election for the contested seat in the San Diego’s City Council District 7 will put O’Neil’s political dictum to the test.

In this most intriguing of local political races, a lone Republican candidate—Noli Zosa—is attempting to win over registered Democratic voters and those registered as independents or members of small parties in a council district where Republican voters no longer make up a majority.

If he wins, Zosa will succeed in bucking a recent trend that finds most local Republican campaign efforts being blunted by a change in electoral demographics and, more indirectly, the consequences of President Donald Trump’s penchant for divisiveness.

In the upcoming March 2020 primary, Zosa will oppose Democrats Raul Campillo, Sharon Larios, Monty McIntyre and Wendy Wheatcroft. This local race is taking place in a time of national political acrimony, where bipartisanship seems like a quaint tradition from a bygone era, and where the controversial Trump aura seems to loom large over nearly every aspect of politics.

Against this backdrop, Zosa—who has never run for office—will aim to nimbly maneuver his campaign in a way that convinces a hefty majority of District 7 non-Republican voters to put aside Trumpism and all its associated political baggage and vote for the person most capable of addressing San Diego-specific issues.

The District 7 seat, currently held by Scott Sherman, is comprised of such neighborhoods as Mission Valley, Linda Vista, Tierrasanta and San Carlos. However, the 2020 race does not have an incumbent candidate due to term limitations.

Sherman has been part of the city council’s dwindling Republican voting bloc, along with Chris Cate. First elected in 2012, he has seen the demographics of the district change during his time in office. What was once a Republican majority has shifted to one in which Republicans now find themselves behind both Democrats and a growing number of voters identifying as independents.

According to the latest statistics, there are 34,871 registered Democratic voters in District 7, and only 23,478 registered Republicans. Reflecting a growing trend, there are now 30,690 registered voters who identify themselves as independents or members of smaller parties. Winning a seat under such circumstances might seem like too steep of a climb for any Republican candidate, and yet, Zosa believes such a feat is well within the realm of possibility.

Zosa, a partner in the ownership of the popular San Diego restaurant chain Dirty Birds and a community activist, talks about bringing “balance” to the City Council.

“I am a long-term advocate at the grass roots level for working families and people who have not benefited from today’s economy. As a small business owner who creates jobs, I will bring a balance to the City Council,” he says. “My interest is in making the decisions that are best for San Diego, not any one interest group. That’s the kind of candidate people are looking for.”

If elected, Zosa will be that rare political bird—a local Republican candidate in the Trump era successfully running for office in a district with a minority of registered Republican voters. His quest stands in contrast to the recent plight of Republicans in other council districts.

For example, former District 2 Councilmember Lauri Zapf lost her re-election bid in 2018; there are no Republican candidates in the upcoming District 3 race; and two-term District 5 Councilmember Mark Kersey recently changed his party affiliation from Republican to independent. Councilmember Chris Cate in District 6 is the only Republican to succeed in the Trump era, getting reelected in 2018.

Although San Diego City Council races are officially non-partisan (party affiliations are not listed on the ballot), endorsements and money line up along party lines. Using these factors as measures of support, Zosa has demonstrated the potential to be a strong contender, having received political endorsements from Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Sheriff Bill Gore, former police chief Shelly Zimmerman, and Father Joe Carroll.

Most importantly, he has raised well over $100,000 in campaign contributions, outdistancing all of his Democratic competitors. His endorsements reflect, in large part, a Republican party’s urgent concern for maintaining the seat. But the growing monetary support may also reflect a broader acknowledgement that Zosa’s strong local ties (long-time Linda Vista resident, University of San Diego and USD Law School grad) give him the insight to get the job done.

Fortunately for Zosa, the issues that allow Trump to fire up his political base—immigration, tax breaks, trade imbalances, and a distrust of intellectual elites—are not expected to play a role in this council race. Voters expect candidates to address local issues like homelessness, infrastructure, housing, public safety, and jobs.

Zosa does indeed maintain a traditional Republican sensibility for entrepreneurship and establishing a pro-business climate, which may appeal to those all-important independents and moderate Democratic voters who balk at government over-regulation and the pro-union bias of most Democratic candidates. Peeling off enough of these voters—what amounts to the district swing vote—is what Zosa needs to win the election.

Mayor Faulconer has successfully governed against the backdrop of Trump by navigating an alternative Republican route, avoiding any appeals to Trumpism, effectively keeping the focus on local issues while working with a majority of Democratic council members in a decidedly Democratic town.

How effectively Zosa manages to appeal to all voters, while at the same time subtly encouraging non-Republican voters to disregard Trump’s divisiveness in favor of focusing on San Diego issues, will be key to his campaign. This race should be interesting to watch, especially if Zosa’s campaign continues to gain traction.

Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista. He served with Zosa on the Linda Vista Recreation Advisory Board.