- Photo by David Rolland
On March 26, voters in the 4th City Council District will replace Tony Young, who recently resigned. It's an important election because the district represents a swing vote on the council, at least in partisan terms. This is our final candidate profile. All of them can be found here.
Bruce Williams left the Republican Party last November. A casual observer or a cynic might conclude that he did so because Republicans simply don't get elected in San Diego's City Council District 4, and it was the expedient thing to do. But if you dig deeper, you realize that there is no major political party that represents a guy like Williams.
Black Americans overwhelmingly favor Democrats, but Williams, a fiscal moderate, is socially conservative, which puts him out of sync with the Democratic Party. That's why he's been a Republican since Ronald Reagan was president.
But Williams says that when he watched his party attempt to suppress voter turnout among African-Americans and other groups that favor Democrats, he'd finally had it.
"When you look at the election coverage last year nationwide, and in states where people of my then-party were causing Florida and Ohio—these long lines of people that looked like me, that ticked me off, man," he says. "The party's got some challenges; I did not care for that."
Williams, talking to CityBeat in a conference room at the George L. Stevens Senior Center in Encanto—named for a former District 4 City Councilmember—says his social conservatism comes from his community upbringing and, in particular, his paternal grandparents, who made sure that he and his siblings went regularly to church.
Williams, 50, has long been conservative on wedge issues like abortion and gay rights. However, it's clear that he's trying hard to be—or at least appear—more broadminded. During our interview, he returned repeatedly to the theme of tolerance, at one point saying that it's the church—the very institution that shaped his hardline views on social matters—that's compelling him to be more accepting of people who are different.
"I knew that if I was going to be successful, I had to please God," he says. "So, I needed to live right. I was pretty strict—on myself and with everybody. I've since grown out of that. I'm grateful for that time, but I'm a very unbiased person.
"Just because people aren't like me doesn't mean I'm 100-percent right all the time and should shove my beliefs down anybody elseís throat," he adds. "It's taught me to, I believe, love people, regardless of who they are."
Williams' parents divorced in the early 1970s, leaving his mother to care for him and two younger siblings in Lincoln Park's Bay Vista Methodist Apartments.
"We were welfare people," he says flatly. "Mother did her best for us. We had to be on welfare. We had to have food stamps, and we had to get commodities—chopped meat, those powdered eggs, powdered milk, that government handout food—and Mom didn't like it.
"She did not like telling the state her business," he continues. "Because when you're on welfare, you gotta tell 'em your business, and that was her motivation to get off. And, eventually, she did."
Williams attended Knox Elementary School and Morse High School, serving at the latter as student-body vice president. He says his desire to serve the public dates back to the night he watched the 1968 Democratic National Convention on television. As far as the 6-year-old Williams was concerned, Hubert Humphrey was the man.
"I just kind of knew that that was where I wanted to be," he says.
He went to UCSD and earned a degree in political science, becoming the first member of his family to attend a four-year college. After he graduated, he worked days at 7-Eleven and nights doing data entry at Rees-Stealy Medical Centers, but his political career started when he scored an internship with Democratic county Supervisor Leon Williams, which eventually morphed into a full-time job.
The GOP's pull was too strong, though, and Williams' next job was with the Republican Party of San Diego County. He'd attended the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, where President Reagan was nominated for a second term, and conservative televangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell had long been influences on him.
"This was a time when folks loved to hear Jimmy Swaggart—and Iím talking in black households," he says. "People just turned it on."
Williams joined the Republican Central Committee and became its treasurer. "That's the great thing about my experience, is that I've worked with both sides of the aisle," he says. "Party is party, and Bruce is Bruce. I'm going to be me, and I may not fall into anybody's box."
But in the 1990s, he was a Republican through and through, and he added working for a conservative U.S. Congress member to his résumé.
Which one? Williams pauses and smiles, as if to ask, "Do I have to tell you?"
"Uh," he says. "Duke Cunningham."
Williams worked out of the Congress member's satellite office in College Grove for a while, but he downgraded to part-time when members of his family, led by his aunt, decided to open a beauty-supply business. Eventually, he left Cunningham's staff to devote all his time to the business and its delivery service, allowing him to network throughout southeastern San Diego.
"I met so many people that I still have relationships with, in that delivery service, going to different beauty shops, barber shops," he says. "So, I got to know this area a lot."
After the business ran its course, Williams went to Regent University, a Christian school in Virginia founded by Pat Robertson, to earn a master's degree in public policy and get back into politics. He won a fellowship in Sacramento and worked for state Assemblymember George House, a Republican from Modesto. Williams talks with pride about the one bill, out of roughly a dozen that he worked on, that passed through the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Pete Wilson—a piece of legislation that barred teachers from practicing psychology on children without certification.
Williams returned to San Diego in 1996 to take a job with Mayor Susan Golding, who was beginning her second term. He remained with her until she termed out in 2000, and stayed on in the Mayor's office, earning a promotion to director of community affairs under new Mayor Dick Murphy. While still working for Murphy in November 2004, Williams took his first shot at elected office, running in a special election for the District 4 seat after Councilmember Charles Lewis died unexpectedly—he came in fifth place in an eight-candidate field, drawing 917 votes (a little less than 7 percent).
Without a job some eight months later when Murphy stepped down amid the city's financial scandals, Williams took a position with the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils, an umbrella group of District 4 land-use advisory boards. After Republican businessman Steve Francis announced his candidacy for mayor, Williams joined the campaign, helping Francis gain support in Districts 4 and 8.
Williams ran for District 4 again in 2006, the only challenger to incumbent Tony Young and lost, 72.2 percent to 27.8 percent. Evidently, there were no hard feelings after the election—Young's chief of staff, Jimmie Slack, with whom Williams had worked for Leon Williams some 20 years prior, called up and offered a job. Williams has been working in the District 4 office ever since.
Williams had long been determined to run again when Young was termed out in 2014, but the chance came early when Young announced late last year that he would resign.
"I've lived in this district all my life," Williams says. "I've built relationships with people. Partnerships is the way to go; in the new era, it's all about partnerships, and I know how to do that."
He'd seek those partnerships to attack his issues: public safety, senior care and education. He says he'd be a fiscal conservative for the most part, but he'd work closely with Mayor Bob Filner on making neighborhoods San Diego's priority. He believes that already working in the District 4 office positions him well to hit the ground running, particularly given that the winner of the election will assume office in the midst of budget negotiations.
Becoming that winner will be an uphill battle; a recent reporting of campaign finances showed that several candidates have raised far more money than Williams. Still, he's ready for the fight.
"This district is worth it," he says. "I love this place, and, as my grandmother says, 'If it kills me, let me die.' This place is worth every ounce of sweat that I can put into it."