Bernie Sanders Returns to San Diego: Voters Drawn to Independent Message

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders brought his presidential campaign back to San Diego, and spoke on the issues that have increased his popularity nationwide, including campaign finance reform, bridging the income gap, and opening presidential elections to all voters.

“Together we are going to create an economy that works for all of us, not just wealthy contributors. America needs a democracy that does not mean a campaign finance system in which billionaires buy elections,” Sanders said at an event in National City. 

Young voters, in particular, love Bernie. And they love independent candidates. In fact, according to a new Data Targeting survey, 91% of young voters want to see independent candidates on the ballot. In San Diego, Bernie Sanders is not the only candidate who may benefit from these numbers.

Former popular Democrat and Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña is running in a nonpartisan election for mayor as an independent against Republican incumbent Kevin Faulconer and Democrat Ed Harris. Saldaña is championing a “feel the Bern,” anti-establishment message that could attract voters showing up to vote for Sanders.

Saldaña has received the endorsement of Democracy For America (DFA), a progressive political action committee founded by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in 2004 that has also endorsed Sanders.

“Lori Saldaña has personified Democracy for America since her first upset victory to the California Legislature as one of our original Dean Dozen. Lori is undaunted by conventional wisdom, undeterred by long odds, and she’s powered by the people,” said DFA Executive Director Charles Chamberlain

As for Harris, a former marine and city council member, he told IVN San Diego that he is excited Bernie is in town.

“Bernie Sanders is a huge breath of fresh air in this deeply cynical political atmosphere. I look forward to his comments in National City, because I’ll be there standing with him,” he said.

The question is, can Harris and Saldaña surprise the pundits who have labeled the Republican mayor a shoe-in for this election? Those same pundits have said the race will be over in June as a result of the city’s “50% plus one” rule that eliminates a November election if a candidate for city office garners over 50% of the primary vote.

It is possible, but only if the Bernie supporters come out to vote in the presidential primary, and they actually vote down-ballot. The city’s current voter registration is 39% Democratic, 26% Republican, and 35% are registered outside both major parties.

Despite credentials that include serving in the State Assembly’s second highest leadership position, Saldaña’s campaign has not drawn the kind of special interest attention or financing that she might have if she had not chosen to become an independent two years earlier.

Harris and Saldaña have relentlessly pounded on Faulconer for opposing minimum wage increases and for the catastrophic collapse of the city’s 9-1-1 emergency service program. Indeed, the director of the Dispatch system hastily resigned this week.

Saldaña and Harris have not raised much money to date. But, Saldaña has a history of surprising the establishment. She won her first Assembly seat over two higher profile, better financed candidates and gave Scott Peters an unexpectedly close call in a 2012 congressional race despite being heavily outspent. Harris served the city as a council member in the wake of the Bob Filner scandal.

Keeping Republican Faulconer from winning outright in June would be a surprise to political insiders. If there is a surprise, it more than likely would have to come from Bernie Sanders’ voters.

Faulconer, who according to the LA Times is being groomed for a 2018 Republican run for governor, has carefully avoided being branded as a Republican while still holding on to Republican establishment funding.

With statewide rules in place, this would be a battle between Democrat Harris and the former Democrat-turned-independent Saldaña for the right to face the incumbent in November. But, under San Diego’s rules, both candidates are hoping Democrats and independents will vote the entire ballot in sufficient numbers to just keep the Republican mayor below the 50% threshold.

Truth is, what Sanders voters do in San Diego could have as much or more impact in the mayoral race than on the presidential outcome.