On March 26, voters in the City Council’s District 4 will choose the successor to Tony Young, who’s resigned. That decision will determine, at least on paper, the partisan slant of the supposedly nonpartisan council. Editor David Rolland has written about Dwayne Crenshaw, Myrtle Cole and Barry Pollard and will feature Bruce Williams next week. Here are the other five candidates:
Blanca Lopez-Brown, 50, biliteracy / wellness advocate, Lemon Grove school-board president: Lopez-Brown, a 30-year resident of District 4, laughs when asked if she’s the Donna Frye of the Lemon Grove school board.
“Yes, I am,” the Jamacha resident said. “I’m kind of the one challenging systems and advocating for new things and blocking the vote probably every single day I sit up there.”
The only candidate who’s actually won an election— twice, in fact, uncontested—the Latina daughter of a family-focused mom and a retired-cobbler father who made boots for Hollywood cowboy stars is running on the slogan “Diversity is our Strength.” Many students from the east side of District 4 attend school in Lemon Grove, and as a preschool teacher herself, Lopez-Brown knows the power of education—and collaboration.
“Working with the city of Lemon Grove has been amazing,” she said. “The city manager there is magnificent because he’s all about health and wellness, too. There are no layers there. The leaders there are just a phone call away.”
As a result, the mother of four has been working on adding a health element to the city’s General Plan to tackle obesity and mental-health issues while pushing creation of a square-block “wellness hub” in town that’ll provide athletic facilities, as well as a new $10-million county library.
She partnered with UCSD to bring doctors into schools, not only for free health care for families but as role models for middle-school students (a dentistry clinic arrives this fall). She also pushed heavily for a “dual immersion” program that teaches students in Spanish and English beginning in the first grade.
“Tell me those kids won’t have an advantage when they become adults,” she said.
Lopez-Brown said that, if elected, she’d continue on as a school-board member but surrender her preschool-teaching job. Her business experience—in the mid-’90s, she and her husband operated Brown’s Town and Country Market, the first black-owned grocery store in District 4—engenders sympathy less for union workers than for the small business person who often must sink life savings into the endeavor, sometimes at the risk of losing a home, as she did when the market closed.
She’d like to see more facets of business—manufacturing, distribution—land in the district, with jobs going to residents there. “If we think bringing another Walmart in is going to provide us with more jobs, that’s false.”
Monica Montgomery, 34, foreclosure-fighting attorney: A political-science grad from Atlanta’s Spellman College, Montgomery counts her blessings every day.
“Almost dying in my 20s really puts things in perspective for me,” she said. An autoimmune disease that attacked her skin and muscles laid her up for more than five years, but with family help, she was able to recover enough to earn a law degree from Cal Western and pass the bar by age 30.
She’s accepted her affliction with grace and a steely eye toward healthy living and limiting stress, a task that would seem impossible from a council seat. “I know,” she laughs, “but as I like to say, a better 4th District makes for a better San Diego.”
Montgomery says that as an attorney, she’s focused on helping “hundreds” of families in the area avoid losing their homes to foreclosure. “We had to have a lot of Kleenex in the office because this was a huge loss for many people.”
She’s running on the motto “Integrity. Innovation. Inspire.” because she thinks the race is about character. “Integrity is what’s going to allow the person who’s elected to stay the course and try to do the right thing by the people.”
She, too, believes that economic development must benefit the residents of the district and the foundations and nonprofits there that struggle to make a difference. To developers, she said, “if your mantra is you want to help, part of that would be providing jobs and training for residents here. There is no solution without the residents. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm.”
Ray L. Smith, 58, pastor: A lifelong resident of District 4, Smith chokes up when telling his compelling story. Convicted at 18 as an unsuspecting getaway driver in an armed robbery of a Bob’s Big Boy (“They’d give me $1,000, but I wasn’t clear on where I was going”), Smith spent nearly three years of a five-to-life sentence at Chino State Prison.
A mere mortal might have wilted, but as Smith, longtime pastor of the United Missionary Baptist Church, likes to say, “That judge really saved my life.” He can still recite his prison number and dorm assignment by heart because “it sticks to you. You think back at it and think, I’ll never make that same mistake again.”
While at Lincoln High, Smith was drafted by baseball’s then-California Angels. But he passed on the offer, citing the “love of a young lady” and the recent death of his father from a stroke.
But the prison stint propelled Smith and some friends to help other at-risk youth with a program they called Wings of Freedom that later became the well-regarded Triple Crown. And he’s been helping his community—sometimes putting his own life at risk—ever since.
If elected, he seems prepared to channel the persuasive powers of the late former Councilmember George Stevens. “He’d tell me, ‘If you are scared to do the work, you don’t need to be a part of this district,’ because the work is tiresome, grueling and the gratification is not there. No one writes about what life you saved, what child you rescued from the crack house.”
Smith talks at length about the neglect his district has suffered, from the number of potholes (263 by his count) and lack of transportation amenities (225 bus stops, only 15 bus benches) to the things most San Diegans take for granted (two miles of unpaved roads and a Jack in the Box on Euclid with no public restroom).
He notes that the district is home to several large corporations (FedEx, Coca-Cola, Cox Communications, KGTV Channel 10 and banks) that hire from outside the district. “We’ve got a great district, but we just need some additional help. I’m not going to take ‘no’ for an answer,” he said.
Sandy Spackman, 46, SPAWAR administrator: With her family, Spackman escaped Communist-controlled Laos when she was 10, settling into District 4 off Market Street near where a Buddhist temple now sits. “My dad actually helped start that temple,” she said proudly.
A desire to help has always been part of her DNA, she said, from the days in concentration camps when her family would share a meal of one fish and some sticky rice with anyone walking by. “Laotians in general—not to toot our horn—we love to help people,” she laughed.
Endorsed by the local GOP in a district low on Republicans, Spackman assured that she’d be an independent voice on the council. As president of the Lao American Coalition, she’s learned to work with divergent groups to bring cultural pride to the district. “The Asian community must be more civically engaged and have more of a voice in San Diego,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to make happen.”
Her involvement with the Southeastern Diamond Business District has included touring North Park to get ideas. She’d like to see businesses in other districts wooed into her district via an ambassador program.
A resident of Paradise Hills for the last 30 years, Spackman would depart her job at SPAWAR, where she wears many hats, from maintaining computers to establishing nursing rooms for employee mothers.
A mother herself, she sees the value in getting youth involved in community activities like neighborhood cleanups. “This is everyone’s responsibility.”
Tony Villafranca, 50, compulsive volunteer: A lifelong resident of Paradise Hills, Villafranca says he’s known in the district for his “countless” hours of volunteerism. In addition to district work, he’s also offered his time to help out in a host of law-enforcement agencies and Downtown courthouses. “Filipino-Americans are good community neighbors. It’s in our culture,” he said.
He said his family has known Mayor Bob Filner since Filner’s school board days and vows to be a solid soldier in the mayor’s camp.
“He is definitely well-known in the communities of the poor, disenfranchised and the under-represented,” he said.
Villafranca, who works in the real-estate field, said he’s walking the district daily. “I stop at any place where there’s a gathering of three or four people,” he explained. “I have a lot of love for my community, and there’s a lot of love in District 4. You just can’t be afraid to ask for it.”
He’s a font of ideas to improve his district, from making sure redevelopment plans respect the heritage of each community to improving traffic conditions in order to draw more businesses into the community, like a movie theater. Adding traffic-calming measures and bike lanes and improving street frontages to help seniors get to their homes safely are other priorities.
“I am definitely a fighter for my community—and I think I’m the Democrat’s Democrat!” he added.