By Ken Stone
At Lower Merion High School, Barbara Bry had all the answers — in Latin.
“I was very good at Latin, and I won all sorts of national awards,” said Bry, who graduated from the school near Philadelphia three decades before Kobe Bryant starred there. “I loved Latin because I loved what we read … the history of the Romans.”
Now she’s running to be mayor of the eighth-largest city in America after only three years on the San Diego City Council. And she still has answers.
Short-term vacation rentals. Dockless scooters. Homeless policy. An innovation hub downtown. Democrat Bry contends she appeals to a “wide political spectrum.”
But to have a chance at succeeding Kevin Faulconer and becoming the third female mayor in San Diego history — and eventually the oldest since 72-year-old Howard Bard in 1943 — the soon-to-be-71 Bry has to find an answer for Scott Sherman.
The termed-out District 7 Republican from Allied Gardens scrambled the strategy of the District 1 councilwoman from La Jolla when he entered the race in early December.
Assemblyman Todd Gloria, with county Democratic Party backing, is widely thought to be a lock for a November runoff. Until Sherman joined in early December, Gloria and Bry — both announcing in January 2019 — were expected to capture the top two spots in the March primary.
But recent polling suggests it’ll be Gloria vs. Sherman.
So what now?
Bry [pronounced BREE] retools.
Five years after trademarking “She means business” for her District 1 race against Ray Ellis (who eventually withdrew amid Donald Trump headwinds), Bry is slapping Sherman with the same label she did Gloria.
“Mr. Gloria and Mr. Sherman are really two sides of the same coin on many issues like land use, where they would promote overdevelopment,” Bry told Times of San Diego in a Jan. 17 interview. (See video above.)
But she singles out Gloria for attitude.
“At many forums (Gloria) says: ‘I was the iMayor [interim] for eight months, now I want to be mayor for eight years.’ And you know what? I think that’s a little bit arrogant,” Bry says. “The voters elect you for four years. And if they think you’re doing a good job, they will decide whether you get four more years.”
With email blasts like “They’re coming for our homes,” the Bry campaign says Gloria’s support of Senate Bill 50 will “take away single-family zoning and basically allow for a fourplex on every single-family home lot in California. … That is not the way to solve our housing crisis, and it will destroy the character of many of our neighborhoods.”
On Airbnb and similar outfits, she says: “I’m the only candidate running who on Day 1 will start enforcing our existing municipal code against short-term vacation rentals. Again, Mr. Gloria and Mr. Sherman are two sides of the same coin.”
And on transit devices like Bird, Bry says: “Scooters are symbolic of more than just an annoying flimsy electric device that goes down the sidewalk, where it’s not supposed to go.”
She says they’re symbolic of government’s inability to deal with a new technology effectively.
“As a businesswoman … I understood the business model as unsustainable,” the Harvard MBA said in an hour chat. “I understood it depended on statewide legislation to exempt riders from needing to wear a helmet. This is legislation Mr. Gloria supported. This legislation also prohibits us from being able to require a helmet. Mr. Sherman voted against my ordinance to simply ban them on the beach boardwalks, which is just common sense.”
She says voters know the differences between her and her leading rivals, “and it doesn’t matter what political party you are — if you are impacted by short-term vacation rentals and scooters, and you don’t like them, you’re going to vote for me.”
So it doesn’t matter that she’s been a lifelong Democrat, Bry said at the office of strategist Tom Shepard, who has worked for GOP and Democratic mayoral candidates, including Jerry Sanders and Bob Filner.
But what kind of Democrat is Bry?
A Hillary Clinton surrogate in 2008 (when she stumped for the former secretary of state in New Hampshire), Bry avoids taking a hard (and Republican-repelling) stand on Donald Trump’s removal from office.
“Let’s see the evidence,” Bry said as the Senate impeachment trial began. “Everybody deserves a trial, even Donald Trump deserves a trial.”
Were House committee investigations not sufficient to prove abuse of power and obstruction of Congress?
“I read the newspaper, but I wouldn’t say that’s enough information to make a totally informed decision,” she said (later noting that she gets the print San Diego Union-Tribune, Wall Street Journal and New York Times at home as well as the Los Angeles Times on Sundays and reads via online edition).
“If I’m voting on whether to impeach the president, I would want to read everything. And hear every witness, and then make my decision,” she said. “I think the major thing is to vote him out of office.”
Asked her top three picks for POTUS, Bry said: “My primary goal is to defeat Donald Trump in 2020, and I will probably make my decision at the last minute in terms of which Democratic candidate I think has the best chance of beating Donald Trump.”
Bry is open on other issues.
After at first backing Proposition B of 2012, the voter-approved pension reforms the courts eventually tossed, Bry says: “At this point, I think it makes sense for the city to work to get Prop. B out of the [city] charter — it’s inevitable.”
She won’t commit to a defined-benefit plan (pension) system for city employees or revive the 401K effort of Prop. B.
“As mayor, I will make sure that whatever plan we develop is fiscally responsible and that we pay for it every year in a fiscally responsible way,” she said. “And that’s what prior city councils did not do.”
Walking the tightrope of city workers and residents, she added: “It has to end up in a place that is financially responsible both to the employees — so they can make sure they’re going to get it when they retire, in 10, 20, 30 years — and to the taxpayers.”
A day before the interview, Voice of San Diego noted Bry’s “about-face” on combating homelessness, showing how she had evolved from a “housing first” model to a “treat mental-illness and substance-abuse” framework.
On Jan. 17, she said she’d been researching the issue for years but didn’t codify her policy until writing an essay for The San Diego Union-Tribune two months ago.
“And in that commentary, I acknowledged that housing first is not the way to deal with homelessness,” said Bry, who calls attention to her endorsement by Father Joe Carroll of Father Joe’s Villages. “We have to start by addressing the root causes. … Many people who suffer from homelessness — and it’s over half, according to almost every study that is done — have mental health or substance-abuse issues. And we need to treat the issue, the problem, before we can get them into a permanent home.”
Perhaps they should be in a shelter, she said, or “transitional housing, while we help them get better. But until they get better, they are not going to be successful in a home.”
A question about Voice of San Diego itself provoked an interesting response.
Bry was the nonprofit news site’s first editor and CEO in 2005 — lasting a year and hiring Scott Lewis — now its editor-in-chief — as a staff writer.
Her vision for the site was “more community-focused” with every neighborhood, and major and minor nonprofits, as contributors.
“I really saw it as more of a community newspaper online where different voices from around the region would have a forum to talk about what was on their mind or what was happening in their neighborhood,” she said. “I don’t think that’s what they do today.”
Has Voice treated her fairly?
“I’m not going to comment,” she said, later explaining: “I would just prefer not to.”
Been treated fairly by the U-T?
“Yes,” Bry said.
She took a similar tack when asked about City Attorney Mara Elliott, running for re-election while endorsing Todd Gloria for mayor.
Does Elliott deserve another term?
“I’m not going to comment on that,” Bry said.
Bry also wouldn’t take a firm stance on whether Police Chief Dave Nisleit should keep his job — amid regular slams by mayoral candidate Tasha Williamson.
“As mayor, there are certain things I want to accomplish in terms of public safety, and I want to start by acknowledging that there is racial disparity in policing,” Bry said. “And I want to work with the police chief who’s willing to acknowledge that and willing to take the steps necessary to make sure we have a police force that treats resident with dignity and respect.”
But how much of Williamson’s critique does Bry agree with?
“I think her allegations deserve investigation,” Bry said. “That’s as much as I’ll say.”
On the city’s 4-year-old Climate Action Plan, Bry says she’d look at it as mayor “to see if we can be more aggressive. I don’t have a position on that right now.”
Bry says she wants to look at the plan’s specific goals on mass transit and bike use, “and see if those numbers are realistic. Sometimes you want to get to the same goal, but you may change the means by which you get to that goal.”
But she’s clearer on city transparency.
“From my own personal experience at City Hall, there is no transparency and there is no accountability,” she said. “Too many things happen behind closed doors that don’t need to.”
As an example, she cites how after she was elected the Chargers announced they were leaving San Diego.
“I assumed the mayor would do an RFP — a request for proposals for the land in Mission Valley,” she said. “Instead, we found out that he’d been meeting behind closed doors with Soccer City,” whose ballot effort failed behind a San Diego State University measure that Bry pushed.
She doesn’t think more PR people equates to more transparency, however.
Does the city need 50 public-relations staffers — as the U-T recently reported?
“I don’t think the city needs 50 people,” Bry said, and wouldn’t have sought a council communications director — as council President Georgette Gómez did, hiring former CityBeat editor and Sen. Toni Atkins spokesman David Rolland for $105,000 a year.
Bry wants to save money elsewhere, too.
“I want to work with each department on finalizing what their goals are and really start from a zero-budgeting base perspective of how many people do you need to deliver that service, and how can you deliver it more effectively,” she said.
Bry backs Measure C — the March 3 ballot item that would boost the lodging tax to expand the San Diego Convention Center and fund streets and homelessness programs. She vowed, as mayor, to “make sure that that money is spent the way the voters approve it.”
At an August debate, Bry first aired concerns about Gloria having two campaign committees — one for a declared Assembly re-election and one for mayor.
She’s still troubled, she said.
“I’m running for one office …. and have one campaign committee. Scott Sherman has one campaign committee. Todd Gloria has two campaign committees. …. Is he running for Assembly? No, he’s not running,” she conceded.
But she calls the Gloria for Assembly 2020 Committee (which led to a $200 state fine) a means to harvest corporate contributions — disallowed in mayoral campaigns.
“So he can collect corporate money in his Assembly race and then he can transfer it to the Democratic Party, which can use it to fund his campaign. Is it illegal? I’m not a lawyer. Is it unethical? Yes,” Bry said. “It is a way to circumvent our campaign finance laws.”
(Two months before Gloria was endorsed, his Assembly committee gave the county Democratic Party $5,000. In November, the same committee gave the local Dems an additional $5,000. As of last week, Gloria had raised $1.73 million for his mayoral bid against Bry’s $586,000.)
Bry also addressed an ongoing Twitter debate over whether Bry backed Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s police-use-of-force bill — eventually made law — before Gloria did.
Support for #AB392 is crystal clear.@bry4sd May 14, 2019@ToddGloria May 29,2019
If sticking point is different versions,
Bry supported original language.
Gloria supported what came later.
Either way you are misrepresenting @vosdscott https://t.co/iAk3luh8OZ pic.twitter.com/nmfxfKExu2
— Kent Rodricks (@KentRodricks) January 24, 2020
Bry said: “When the council voted on a resolution to support Shirley Weber’s use of force bill, AB 392, I voted in favor. And this was before Mr. Gloria had publicly supported the measure… It’s true. He had not publicly supported it at that time. … [The council] supported a much stricter version than what was eventually passed. … And Mr, Gloria did not support it until the very end. In contrast, Lorena Gonzalez, Toni Atkins supported it early on.”
Contributions to @SDMayorsOffice race as of 1/25/2020:
Gloria – $1,723,908.48
Riel – $1,550.00
Sherman – $141,974.10
Smiechowski – $0.00
Williamson – $500.00
— Adam McLane (@mclanea) January 27, 2020
At 41, Gloria holds an edge in youth. (So does Sherman at 56.) But Bry boasts a yoga and walk routine (at least 10,000 steps, five days a week, according to her iWatch).
“I basically weigh the same as I did 25 years ago,” says early-riser Bry, who says her two daughters (34 and 38) and two stepchildren “all say I have more energy that they do.” She also never smoked, drinks moderately and is “blessed to have good genes.”
If Gloria gets the most Democratic votes in a city leaning left 2-to-1 and Sherman is the GOP pick, Bry would be the odd woman out in March. San Diego wouldn’t become the largest city in the country with a Jewish mayor.
What then? How would she spend the rest of her life?
She turned the answer into a pitch.
“I’ve been blessed that I’ve had the most amazing life. I was a journalist — Sacramento Bee, L.A. Times — I worked at the CONNECT program at UCSD for 10 years, helping start high tech and biotech companies,” she said. “I became an entrepreneur in the tech world and had some success. I have two children, two stepchildren, three grandchildren — served on many nonprofit boards.
“I’ve had a really full life. … It’s the diversity of my life experiences which differentiates me from my opponents. Right now, I’m focused on getting through the March primary, and I’m focused on winning in November 2020. … Right now, I’m focused on becoming our city’s next mayor.”
First in a series on leading mayoral candidates. Scott Sherman will be profiled next. Todd Gloria has yet to respond to requests for an in-person interview.
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