Campbell selected new San Diego council president in 5-4 vote over Montgomery Steppe

Monica Montgomery Steppe and Dr. Jennifer Campbell were vying to be City Council president
Monica Montgomery Steppe and Dr. Jennifer Campbell were vying to be City Council president
(SDUT File/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Pivotal job that sets council’s agenda, committee assignments


Dr. Jennifer Campbell was elected San Diego’s new City Council president Thursday night, Dec. 10, in a narrow 5-4 vote after nearly seven hours of public testimony.

The vast majority of the roughly 300 residents who spoke at the meeting lobbied council members to choose Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe as council president instead of Campbell.

They said Montgomery Steppe, who is Black, would be a better leader and a more effective advocate for racial justice and social equity than Campbell, who is White. Both women are Democrats.

Council members voting for Campbell were Chris Cate, Stephen Whitburn, Marni von Wilpert and Raul Campillo. Council members voting for Montgomery Steppe were Vivian Moreno, Joe LaCava and Sean Elo-Rivera. Both Campbell and Montgomery Steppe voted for themselves.

Campbell said she would focus on the prosperity of the whole city as council president.

“My entire vision as council president is predicated on making sure each one of our council districts and their representatives can succeed at improving their communities and advancing the goals of our city,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”

Campbell said she was grateful to her colleagues for their support. She also praised Montgomery Steppe and vowed to work collaboratively with her.

Council president is a pivotal post that sets the council’s agenda and determines key assignments to powerful committees.

This year’s battle for council president has been more contentious and more public than previous fights for the job, which was created as a counterbalance when San Diego switched to a “strong mayor” form of government in 2005.

Residents lobbying for Montgomery Steppe said her leadership is needed at a time when the city is grappling with concerns about systemic racism and the lack of social equity experienced by communities south of Interstate 8.

They criticized council members who support Campbell, contending they were doing so because of pressure from labor unions and other “special interests.”

The speakers who favored Campbell simply stated their support for her without providing detailed reasons.

The council president post is open because former council President Georgette Gómez left office Thursday, Dec. 10. She ran for the 53rd Congressional District seat in the November election and lost.

Moreno was the only council member Thursday, Dec. 10, to speak on behalf of either candidate, opting for Montgomery Steppe based on the perspective that she has a deeper understanding of equity issues.

“We’re facing a reckoning with our country’s history of racial injustice,” said Moreno, contending that poor infrastructure in the southern part of the city exemplifies that injustice. “It will take intentional policy reform to right these wrongs. Equity will not happen by itself.”

Moreno was on the short end of a preliminary vote to determine who would lead the council president debate. Campbell had wanted Cate to lead the debate, while Montgomery Steppe lobbied for Moreno.

Campbell told her colleagues she would be as much of an advocate for racial justice as Montgomery Steppe.

“I have always fought my whole life, with passion, for civil rights and equality, and I will make sure to continue on this road here in San Diego,” Campbell said. “I am devoted to equality for all people.”

Montgomery Steppe said San Diego faces “grave inequities” and that previous advances on civil rights are in danger of being rolled back. She also touted her leadership on strengthened police oversight and related issues.

“The work I’ve done in this area really, I think, allows me to lead on this issue as council president,” she said. “The people closest to the pain are the ones that are going to help us resolve the issues we have in our city.”

Many residents echoed Montgomery Steppe’s position that she would be a better leader on equity issues.

“Councilmember Campbell, please step aside and check your White privilege,” said Marisa Hirsch. “Monica Montgomery Steppe is the leader who has the vision, empathy and determination needed to lead the City Council in addressing critical, intersectional issues.”

Resident Kathy Archibald, who lives in Campbell’s district, said she appreciated Campbell’s service and supports her role on the council, but that Montgomery Steppe is the right choice for council president.

“She has proven best able to voice concerns of all San Diegans with transparency, hard-working leadership, and great communication,” Archibald said.

Tom Coat, one of the few residents to lobby for Campbell, said it was a tough choice. But he said Campbell had shown a strong commitment to solving community issues.

“She is ideally suited to work with new mayor Todd Gloria and the City Council to make San Diego a better place to live during a time of great challenge,” Coat said.

—David Garrick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune