By JEFF CLEMETSON
The race for California’s 53rd Congressional District seat, vacated by retiring Rep. Susan Davis, has gained some national press attention for its similarities to other Democrat vs. Democrat races.
On one end there is Sara Jacobs, granddaughter to Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and a former policy wonk in the Obama Administration’s State Department. On the other end is San Diego City Council President Georgette Gomez, daughter of undocumented immigrants and a progressive with the endorsement of leftist presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.
In the March 3 primary, Jacobs came out on top with 29.1% of the vote, compared to Gomez’ 20% — a result Gomez chalked up to the race’s crowded field of 14 candidates and being heavily outspent by the Jacobs campaign and a SuperPac that supports her.
“We always knew that Sara was going to come in first and us in second just because the nature of the spending,” Gomez said. Gomez added that she wasn’t disappointed with the primary results and that she expects to win in November because her “message is really stronger.”
That message includes a humble-beginnings backstory and policy positions that focus on income inequality, poverty and the environment.
“As a true blue progressive — and I mean that with sincerity in terms of that my life experience has guided me in everything that I do — it really is a motivator for me to transform government to address some of these serious issues that people are facing.”
Gomez is a San Diego native and first generation Mexican-American who was born in Barrio Logan and lived south of Interstate 8 her entire life.
“I grew up very humble but at the same time, my parents did everything they could to provide a better path for all three of their children,” she said.
Gomez’ parents were undocumented and worked multiple jobs that paid minimum wage. “Jobs that took advantage of them because they were undocumented,” she said “They kept their heads down and did their work.”
Gomez said her family moved around the South Bay a lot while growing up. At one point, they didn’t have a home of their own and lived in the living room of another family’s house.
“So, you can imagine growing up in somebody else’s space. That leaves a strong imprint on a child,” she said. “For me growing up, that was my experience: having housing insecurity, at times food insecurity. But I also felt that my parents worked to make it through and provide for their children.”
Gomez credits her parents’ sacrifices as a motivating factor for her to work hard in school. In middle school and high school, Gomez woke up every morning at 5 a.m. to take public transportation to San Carlos and then Tierrasanta because her mother knew that wealthier communities had better schools and “access to success.”
“That was really an eye-opener for me because growing up I knew that we were struggling but I just thought that was the reality for everybody,” she said. “I noticed how different my community was from the community where my school was. There were grocery stores and parks.”
In her senior year at Serra High School, Gomez said she became politically active.
“That was the year that Pete Wilson introduced Prop 187 targeting immigrant [communities],” she said, adding that her older brother brought her along to help with voter outreach to defeat the proposition. It passed but was later ruled unconstitutional by the courts.
Gomez continued her activism at SDSU where she studied urban planning with an “environmental and cultural lens.”
“Growing up in Barrio Logan, I knew there was no question that my community was treated completely different than other communities. You could taste it in the pollution in the air,” she said. “My intention of going to college was to try and understand how do you influence the development of communities and how do you do it in a way that is healthy and is reflective of the community members.”
At SDSU Gomez got involved with an environmental justice club where she was introduced to the Environmental Health Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group that she went to work for after graduation. As a community organizer at EHC, Gomez lead a campaign to stop an old power plant from reopening; organized to shut down a peak power plant proposed for a location near an elementary school; influenced community developments in Barrio Logan and National City to create better jobs, affordable housing, and better mobility; and helped create the statewide California Environmental Justice Alliance to influence state policy. The latter resulted in her working on the national Sustainable Communities Program started by the Obama Administration which worked to transform underserved neighborhoods by making them greener — she worked on the pilot program in National City.
Also during this time, Gomez worked on helping get fellow Democrats elected, which is what eventually lead her to run for the San Diego City Council District 9 seat.
A local official
“I thought, ‘Okay, I know how to do policy. I know how to bring people together. I’ve been involved in other people’s campaigns. I challenged myself to think of myself differently,” Gomez said.
“When I decided to run for local election, it wasn’t something that I felt comfortable with, so I really struggled with that because I thought that was something that somebody else does. But because I was so committed, I just felt like, ‘okay I know that I can bring something to the table. I know that.’”
Gomez credits a strong grass roots campaign for her election to the District 9 seat — a race she was outspent by her opponent 3 to 1 and “wasn’t supposed to win.”
Since her election to the City Council, Gomez said she has maintained a strong agenda to help underserved communities — like the ones she grew up in. Her decision to serve on the MTS board was influenced by her high school years riding the bus to school almost every day.. Gomez eventually ran to be chair of MTS and was elected by her colleagues from 10 different cities in San Diego County.
“My goal was to highlight the importance of transit in our region,” she said. “If you look at the history of transit here in our region, it has never been a priority for electeds. But these last couple of years we’ve built a strong voice on the importance of it and we’re going to continue pushing.”
In addition to being elected by her colleagues to lead the MTS board, Gomez was elected twice by her fellow City Council members — unanimously by Democrats and Republicans — to be Council President. Gomez credits her transparency as the reason for gaining the trust of the Council members from both sides of the aisle.
A run for Congress
As the elected representative of District 9, Gomez said she has always worked to be supportive of the district’s large immigrant community. When Rep. Susan Davis announced she would be stepping down from her CA-53 seat at the end of this year, Gomez decided to run for congress with the idea that she could be a voice for immigration reform in the U.S.
“My values really are about justice, about making sure government is more inclusive about who we are and recognizes that,” she said. “Everything really stems from that. Everything that I’ve done as a community organizer, as public policy advocate has been to really try and transform the system to be more reflective of who we are.”
Since launching her campaign, Gomez has racked up support from a wide range of groups and people, including labor unions, teachers, the Sierra Club, and politicians like presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders all the way to La Mesa Mayor Mark Aropostathis, who now considers himself an independent but originally ran as a Republican.
Although she expects to be outspent by the Jacobs campaign, Gomez sees her strong message, experience and local roots as key to winning in November — even as the COVID crisis has taken away door-to-door canvassing, one of the main tools of grassroots campaigns.
“The COVID just creates more creativity in how to reach out to voters. As a grassroots campaign you have to be creative. It’s not going to slow us down at all,” she said.
Like many other campaigns, Gomez said her team recently focused on phone banking wellness checks for seniors in CA-53 and also built a resource page to share with any constituents that might need it.
“It wasn’t about, ‘Can we count on your support?’ It was about an ‘Are you okay, do you need any support, how can we assist?’ type of message and just leave it at that,” she said.
Still, Gomez said she is ready to get back to campaigning on her message of support for policies like universal single-payer healthcare and a Green New Deal.
“If you look at my background as public policy advocate on addressing environmental racism, the Green New Deal gets to that, so that is something I’ll continue pushing,” she said.
With the COVID crisis pushing spending to its limits, Gomez said she is working on formulating some plans for addressing the deficit.
“I don’t think we’re maximizing taxation on the wealthy and we have created a system where we are taxing more on the middle class and people living in poverty than the 1%,” she said, adding that corporate taxation and reforming military spending would be in her plan to fund more domestic spending to put people to work — a necessity to create a more diverse economy in San Diego beyond serving the tourism industry which has been decimated by the COVID crisis.
“Being one of the leaders getting us through the COVID crisis has given me more energy to work hard and earn the votes of the residents of the 53rd and get to D.C. and get to work for our region,” she said. “We need to get more resources to address our income inequality, to address our huge infrastructure deficits that we have here in San Diego region, to address our housing affordability crisis.
“I understand what we need as a region. I have that experience and I’m ready to lead and really fight hard to ensure we’re moving the country in a more inclusive, more equitable way to advance on these major issues that have not been a priority – and I’m going to do that when I get to D.C.”
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.