Democrats Barbara Bry, Todd Gloria and Tasha Williamson took part in the first mayoral debate of the season.
Barbara Bry, Todd Gloria and Tasha Williamson took the stage eight months ahead of the March 2020 primary. Photo by Chris Stone

In the final moments of Friday night’s San Diego mayoral debate, Barbara Bry ambushed rival Todd Gloria.

She said: “After declaring for mayor, Mr. Gloria opened a 2020 Gloria for Assembly Committee … and has raised money into it. Mr. Gloria, I want to know what office you are running for.”

Seconds later, Chairman Will Rodriguez-Kennedy of the sponsoring San Diego County Democratic Party said: “That concludes our forum for today.”

Todd Gloria’s “Assembly 2020” committee financial report for the first half of 2019. (PDF)

Gloria couldn’t respond.

Opening a new front in the fight to succeed Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the District 1 councilwoman said her campaign was “astonished” to recently discover state filings of a “Todd Gloria for Assembly 2020” recipient committee.

Mathew Kostrinsky, her campaign manager, said Gloria raising and spending money “on his Assembly race” at the same time as a mayoral campaign was “concerning.”

“If he’s running for mayor, then why is that not the direct thing?” Kostrinsky asked. He called on reporters to look into “what’s going on.”

Gloria’s explanation: As the Assembly majority whip, he has responsibilities to his party caucus. That includes setting up ways to support fellow Democratic candidates.

“By the way,” he said, “those funds have been used in the past to assist Ms. Bry. But at this point my leadership position affords me the opportunity to make sure we can defend and protect and potentially grow our Democratic majority — both in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C., and here locally.”

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“That’s what that’s committee is about,” he said as a nearly full Saville Theatre audience at San Diego City College melted away. “I am absolutely running for mayor of San Diego. And Ms. Bry knows that.”

Sparks and ideas flew in a nearly 2-hour debate with three Democrats dueling over how to reduce homelessness, grow affordable housing, improve public transit, control dockless scooters and combat climate change.

First-time candidate Tasha Williamson, 47 — raising her voice to the 150-member crowd’s delight — pledged to fire Police Chief David Nisleit. She accused the San Diego Police Department of harboring white nationalists.

Without using his name, the community advocate denounced Manuel Guaderrama, security director of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, as a “rogue officer” from the SDPD. To force change, she favored a boycott of MTS.

She repeatedly called on her rivals to “keep it real.” She said: “I don’t know how many people can afford affordable” housing.

Gloria, 41, scolded Bry for “politicizing someone’s tragedy” — an electric scooter injury — “to win a mayoral race.” He said he’d establish a “middle-class housing trust fund” that employers would pay into. He called solving the homelessness crisis his “top priority as your mayor.”

Labeling himself “the guy who wrote the Climate Action Plan,” the former acting mayor said he’d push for transit and housing solutions that yield a “reverse commute” — where granny flats and row houses (but not skyscrapers) let people live where they work.

Boasting she knew how to “build industries and build companies,” Bry vowed to replace City Hall and Golden Hall with a technology center. She said “full STEAM ahead” about her plan for an “innovation economy” that aimed to “train homegrown talent.”

Bry, 69, said she wouldn’t “govern by press conference.” She’d be out in the community and accessible instead of “hiding on the 11th floor of City Hall.” She decried the “wild, wild West” of street scooters. She said she’d plant trees in every council district.

But mostly she sought to plant seeds of doubt about Gloria — hectoring him about Statehouse efforts she considered overbearing. “San Diegans, not Sacramento, [will] stay in control of what happens in our city,” she said.

So what about that Assembly 2020 fundraising committee?

According to state records, Gloria launched it Feb. 19 — about six weeks after he set up “Todd Gloria for Mayor 2020.” In the first six months of 2019, it had raised $25,000 and spent $44,000 — leaving $275,000 in the bank. Much of its money came from a March 19 transfer of $293,000 from the now terminated “Todd Gloria for Assembly 2018” committee.

California Secretary of State records show Todd Gloria with two active fundraising committees — one for his 2020 mayoral bid and one named for his Assembly activities.

The new fund has already cut checks to 78th District Assembly candidate Councilman Chris Ward ($4,700), 76th District Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath ($4,700), the county Democratic Party ($5,000) and Kamala Harris’ presidential committee ($1,000).

But Gloria hasn’t filed for re-election to Assembly. The state lists four candidates in his 78th District — Democrats Ward, Sarah K. Davis, Micah Jeremy Perlin and Nicole A. Ueno.

Rodriguez-Kennedy, who shared questioning chores with Charles T. Clark of The San Diego Union-Tribune, acknowledged the debate had “a couple of jabs.”

“I think it’s generally lighthearted,” he said. “As the [March 2020] election gets closer, you won’t see as much of that. It’s possible … things could get a little heated.”

He was happy with the candidates’ answers.

“You see Tasha talking from a very emotional disadvantaged background — that gives a lot of passion,” said Rodriguez-Kennedy, himself once homeless. “You see Todd [with] that oratory he’s had over the years. And you see Barbara who comes out of the business background. Just shows we have these different lenses.

“But they’re all Democrats.”