Terra Lawson-Remer considers herself the “most qualified possible candidate” for the 3rd Board of Supervisors district.
A third generation San Diegan, Lawson-Remer dedicated herself to public service, from her first job her work on PlaNet Finance for the World Bank to a senior advisor in the Obama Administration’s Treasury Department. She told The Times-Advocate, “I’m excited to bring the depth and breadth of my experience as a community organizer, economist and environmental attorney to my own community, to help defend San Diego from the Trump agenda. To fight for action on climate, affordable housing, to protect our beaches and safeguard a good quality of life for all of us.”
She hasn’t run for public office before, which prompts the question: Why now? In the 2018 election cycle she organized the 49th Congressional District to defeat former Rep. Darrell Issa [he declined to run again.] “In many ways the Trump election was a wakeup call for me,” she said. “If we are going to have the leadership we need I can’t just help others step into the ring, I needed to step forward. I could tell I was the most qualified candidate that was possible to run for the seat and I really am concerned about the future of our country and the world. Everything from our planet to our beaches and coastlines to bread and butter issues like affordable housing. Someone needed to step forward who has the determination and vision to do the job that needs to be done. I decided if the job was going to be done I better do it myself.
Lawson-Remer’s grandfather was a U.S. Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton. Her mother grew up in Oceanside and she “grew up all over San Diego.” She has been dedicated to public service from her first job for the San Diego City Council, for councilman Juan Vargas. From there she became an organizer. “I worked on many issues to protect our communities from big banks and to achieve accountable global trade agreements. I worked with the United Farm Workers for a while, doing organizing,” she said. She was a community organizer for about seven years before deciding to work on her skills and expertise and get a law degree. “It’s not sufficient to organize people, it’s also important to use our power wisely when we win.”
She calls her Treasury Department work, “a pretty extraordinary experience. My work was on oil and mining and cutting pollution and investing in a more inclusive economic growth that could include everyone.”
She became a professor teaching public policy at The New School in New York and University of California San Diego. She taught international affairs and economics. She was also a fellow at Stanford University where she researched her book “Fulfilling Economic and Social Rights,” with two co-authors. It was awarded the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order in 2019.
How is she the “most qualified” candidate, given that one rival is a three term city council member? “We are talking about really big issues and the $6.3 billion county budget is a big number,” she said. “The budget in Escondido is $200 million.”
She adds, “I’ve spent my whole life working on global issues, with the World Bank, with the U.S. Treasury Department. The same kinds of policy we need to tackle in San Diego County on climate and infrastructure at the local level and the national level. I bring nearly 30 years as a lawyer, globalist and policy maker back to my own community.”
While having “huge respect” for the work of municipal elected officials, “If you think the challenges we face in the county are fixing potholes and making sure stop lights work, I’m probably not the person you would look to. But if you think we need to do something about climate change and get serious on these big knotty problems of affordable housing and protect our very precious ecosystem that is under assault and seek someone with experience over her lifetime to fight back against the Trump agenda—that’s where I rank.”
She can’t imagine, “a better set of experiences or a deeper set of experiences suitable for the job.” As a community organizer, “I spent time getting my hands dirty and trying to organize people to work together towards common goals. I built on that to become a lawyer. I don’t think anyone can really understand the implications of policy if you haven’t been studying how the sausage is made and understanding the legal system. And then I’m an economist. . .”
A vital function for the County is investing in communities, in infrastructure and investing government dollars to multiply their effects. “It’s not about balancing the books in an abstract way like a bookkeeper does,” she said. “It’s investing in an abstract way like an economist does. How do you invest in the right places so you get social credits back from your investments?”
She adds, “This is what I’ve helped governments do. So the idea of doing what I’ve done my whole life and bring those skills back home is really exciting.”
Her top issues are affordable housing, climate change, protecting beaches and coastlines, traffic and congestion, ending sprawl development and safeguarding open space; and homelessness. She considers them to be of roughly equal importance.
When she talks about “affordable” housing she means what the average person can afford. “It’s too expensive for developers to build affordable homes close to where people live and work. We need to reduce the cost of building affordable homes and make sure those cost reductions are passed on to those who should benefit: the middle and lower middle income.”
She explains, “Our biggest housing crunch is for average San Diegans. People who make the median income have been hit the hardest. Folks with good jobs are getting squeezed out. People with reasonable salaries can’t afford to buy a home or rent where they work.”
To address this she wants to explore the idea of a “public bank,” which could make investment capable available at lower interest rates for developers who want to build more affordable units. “A public bank can take on some of the risk of a project by being the junior partner for loans, making investment capital available at much lower interest to further reduce the cost of construction,” she said.
She cites the Bank of North Dakota, which she calls “wildly successfully” and a “great example of sound fiscal management.” A new California law allows counties and cities to charter public banks. She would combine that with County-owned land. “It is land we could make available, I would roll that into the public bank. Make that a big push to provide land and funding,” she said. A third element is cut unnecessary red tape. “It’s often well meant,” she says. “We want to protect our environment, but there’s ways to streamline the approval. You could have pre-approved plans that would make it ‘in the door and out the door.’ ”
In Lawson-Remer’s view you can’t separate affordable housing from public transit and schools. “If you have more density without a plan, you have more people using the same road. If you do up zone, changing density rules, there would be a land value capture, so you don’t end up with a windfall profit for a few landowners. That increased value would be used to invest in transit and other public goods in communities that would be affected.”
Lawson-Remer has an extensive “Climate Action Plan” that includes a Community Choice Aggregation Program (where the County would procure power on behalf of residents,) ending off-shoring of carbon offsets, charging for parking spaces at county buildings, converting county vehicles to electric or hybrid; retrofitting county buildings to run on solar power, putting a moratorium on amendments to the county General Plan, extending mass transit and building more bike and scooter lanes.
“Element one,” she said, “is to reduce urban sprawl because forty percent comes from cars idling in traffic. She wants to encourage building near work and create a county mitigation bank “so when you are mandated to mitigate climate impact you can do it in a scalable and impacted way by paying into that.”
Regarding converting County vehicles to electric or hybrid, she said “There are a lot of vehicles that as they age should be replaced with low carbon emitting and electric vehicles. Also, there is a real need to encourage employees not to drive to work. I have looked into where you essentially give people credit. If they don’t drive to work they can redeem the credits for cash. This encourages carpooling and using mass transit without mandating it.” She added, “We definitely need to invest more in our carpool lanes and SOV lanes. Where it make sense, we should look at more mass transit and public transit.”
Beaches and Coastlines
As a surfer this issue is close to Lawson-Remer heart. “One of the first things I got involved with as public service was organizing my high school Sierra Club to try to prevent dumping into storm drains,” she said. “Toxic dumping is really severe in San Diego. It’s not just a nice to have, it’s a must have.”
Clean beaches, she says, “is a quality of life issue that is also important for our economy because people come here to go to the beach. If we don’t protect our beaches and coastlines from pollution and development our economy and our jobs suffer. We have to do better in treating our storm runoff, which is one of the sources of pollution.”
Her twofold solution is more than just getting the federal government to pay for the impact from a foreign country. “I don’t think we can deal with the problem by cleaning it up, I want to prevent it from happening in the future,” she said. She would approach the World Bank, where she used to work, to provide the Mexican government the resources to invest in the infrastructure to prevent sewage flowing into the ocean. “This is very close to work that I did previously,” she said. “Nobody has tried it yet. Seems like a pretty low hanging fruit and it’s the only way to protect San Diego’s beaches from Tijuana.”
Traffic and Congestion
She dismisses choosing between mass transit and fixing the roads. “My view is we need to repair our roads,” she said. “We need to invest in public transit and we need to build communities closer to where people live and work, i.e. ‘smart growth.’ If we improve the roads we have and invest in public transit to get five or ten percent of folks out of their cars, both things make a big difference.”
It’s the last 5 or 10% who create the gridlock, she says. She has been asked whether that means she supports SANDAG’s proposal. “It’s a silly question because they don’t have a proposal yet, they have a study,” she said. “No one wants ten percent more cars on the road, I don’t care who you are. The idea that it’s either invest in roads or transit , is to me ridiculous. It’s not either or; it’s and. We have diverse communities. We can’t tackle our traffic issues if we don’t meet people where they are at. And build solutions to the way we live our lives but also look at where we will be in ten, twenty and thirty years. And build solutions that take us in that direction.”
This dichotomy, she says “is a political mirage ginned up by Kristin Gaspar [the incumbent supervisor] to try to win votes. It really isn’t one or the other.”
Ending Sprawling Development
To Lawson-Remer, ending sprawl is simple. “We have a General Plan that indicates where we should be building and what kinds of developments there should be around the county. This General Plan is produced through a complex process. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty darn good and we should just stop these amendments that allow developments in fire prone areas that don’t have adequate ingress and outgoing roads.
“I support Measure A. Leave the General Plan alone,” said the candidate. “I don’t think it’s incredibly complicated. I would like to improve the General Plan. Address areas currently being zoned dense that probably shouldn’t be and other areas that are dense and could be denser. There is room to improve it. The goal behind the General Plan was to preserve our open space and build infill development and I think that’s the right way to go.”
To address homelessness, she says, “increase investments in county mental health services. Half of our homeless suffer from mental illness issues. Our county has been severely underinvesting in mental health services. We have some emergency services but those are inadequate. We have no longer term outpatient facilities that are not for urgent cases. So if we do want to deal with homelessness, we need to invest in that.”
Next, she says, is housing. “Get them situated in a place to live and provide wraparound services so you don’t ask them to go here and there and everywhere for services they need.” The homeless are not equipped to navigate a complicated system and all the red tape. “Give them one stop shopping,” she said.
To her it’s a moral issue. “We live in one of the wealthiest communities in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The notion that in our community—that is so abundant—there would be people who don’t have a place to go to the bathroom or to sleep warm at night. It’s a human rights issue. I feel it is a moral failing.”
She argues that “shelter is such an essential part of our core basic human needs and it’s incumbent upon us as a society. If we are the people we aspire to be and hope to be, a moral community, we treat our fellows with dignity and ensure they are not freezing and on the streets at night. But it’s also a quality of life issue for all of us. If we are not providing opportunities for homeless folks to get their lives back on track it’s not good for anyone to be around them and to deal the chaos that creates.”
She believes in listening to all stakeholders. “I’m a researcher by training and one thing that teaches you is an open mind,” she said. “You don’t have all the answers to questions. Look at evidence and use the evidence to reach the best solution possible.
You can find out more about her campaign by visiting: Terralawsonremer.org