Local Democrats Still Infighting Over Racist Campaign Mailers
A dust up over a confrontation between a former elected official and a current congressman over racist mailers has now led to demands for apologies and threats of expulsion from the local Democratic Party’s official body.
Former State Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, who served in the State Legislature from 2004 to 2010, has been asked to issue a public apology to Congressman Scott Peters, his local Chief of Staff MaryAnne Pintar, and local Democratic Party Chair Becca Taylor for unspecified offenses that even Saldaña can’t fully explain, and if she does not apologize, they will consider that she “self-removed” from the Party’s governing board.
“I asked Congressman Peters about campaign hit pieces supporting the candidate he endorsed in the County Supervisor’s Special Election and now I’m being bullied into silence,” Saldaña told La Prensa San Diego. “No one has told me exactly what I’m supposed to be apologizing for, but if I don't, they will try to kick me off of the Party’s Central Committee,” Saldaña said.
Congressman Scott Peters
Saldaña was elected to the Party’s Central Committee during the 2020 Primary Election where Democratic voters choose their own Party’s representatives. Saldaña received the most votes among 13 people who ran for six open positions. Elected members serve four-year terms.
The current controversy began on July 23rd when Saldaña attended a meeting of the Point Loma Democratic Club where Peters was a featured speaker.
During Peters’ presentation, Saldaña asked him to denounce political campaign mailers which attacked the Party’s endorsed candidate, San Diego City Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, one of four candidates who ran in an August 15th special election to replace disgraced County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.
Peters had endorsed Janessa Goldbeck, another Democrat challenging Montgomery Steppe.
The mailers in question were sent to voters by the San Diego Police Officers’ union and the union for County Deputy District Attorneys.
The controversial campaign mailers depicted Goldbeck in clear color pictures while showing Montgomery Steppe in grainy black and white pictures. Goldbeck is White and Montgomery Steppe is African-American.
The mailers also claimed that Montgomery Steppe supported “defunding” police, and that she lied about lower homicide rates in her Council district since she has been in office.
A July 25th La Prensa San Diego article exposed that Montgomery Steppe had been provided the accurate lower rates of homicides by a SDPD Captain and that she had voted for every City budget during her five years in office, contradicting both of the misleading hits in the mailers.
Many observers believed the mailers were racist toward Montgomery Steppe both by using the grainy grayscale pictures and by trying to connect her to the “Defund Police” movement that led to protests throughout the country after the killing of George Floyd in 2020 as a way to scare voters away from voting for her.
Montgomery Steppe not only voted for all five City budgets that have come before her during her time on the City Council, but each of those budgets included funding increases for the San Diego Police Department.
Saldaña posted a social media message after the meeting quoting Peters as saying he hadn’t seen the mail pieces, and when pushed by Saldaña that the mailers criticized her “on police reform” she quoted Peters as responding by saying, “Police reform isn’t a race issue, is it?”
Saldana's first social post
After the meeting, a complaint was filed at the Party claiming that Saldaña had misrepresented Peters’ comments. Saldaña asked for a copy of a video of the event that was taken by a Peters’ staffer, but the Party would not provide it to her.
Saldaña was later provided a transcript of the interaction, and she realized she had incorrectly paraphrased Peters’ comments, so she posted a new social media message with the exact language of the exchange.
“I’m waiting for Democrats to speak out against these ads because they really are dog whistles to racism and they portray Monica Montgomery in very unpleasant images,” Saldaña is quoted in the transcript.
Saldaña's second post
The message included a more detailed response from Peters.
“I have not seen the ads but they’re sort of, they’re accusing her of being a police defender, I guess that’s it?” Peters is quoted as saying. “That’s not racist. Being a police defender is an argument about policy I think. Isn’t it? Or am I missing something?” Peters added.
Although the quotes from Saldaña’s first post did not accurately quote Peters, she did not believe they rise to the level of being purposely false, defamatory, or damaging.
After the campaign mailers hitting Montgomery Steppe became public, the local Party passed a resolution on August 29th calling on Democrats to “to unequivocally speak out against and formally oppose racist campaign literature and messaging”, citing “that silence is consent, especially when egregious attacks on Black candidates occur in political spaces which undermine the safety of the Black community; and, The San Diego County Democratic Party and all Democratic candidates in a particular race will proactively address, confront and denounce any racist messaging targeting Black Democrat candidates.”
Read the party's formal resolution here
Peters has not issued any public statement on the mailers or denounced their content.
Montgomery Steppe lead the three other candidates in the August 15th election and finished in first place ahead of Republican Amy Reichert to force a runoff election in November among the two candidates with the highest amount of votes. Goldbeck finished in third place and was eliminated.
The Party’s By-Laws include language that members may be disciplined for violative the Party’s Code of Ethics, which include restricting members from disparaging other members by “publication or communication of false and injurious statements” or “slurs, epithets, name calling, threats or obscene gestures to or about a member or Democratic candidate.”
The complaint against Saldaña was forwarded to the Party’s Ethics Committee which forwarded the issue to the Party’s Executive Board for action this week.
Saldaña received an email this week from Ethics Committee member Lauren Bier, informing Saldaña of the Executive Board’s decision to request that she issue a written apology to Peters, Pintar, and Taylor, but that the apology would first have to be approved by the Executive Board.
“Their motion, as passed, calls for you to issue an apology publicly recanting the statements made in violation of the Code of Conduct (P&P B.3) and apologize to the parties wronged by those statements, including Chair Becca Taylor, Congressman Peters, and Mary Anne Pintar,” the email reads. “The apology should acknowledge your misconduct and be submitted for review and approval by the executive board by September 12. Upon approval from the executive board, you will be required to post the apology on all of your social media accounts.”
The email did not contain any specific examples of the violations Saldaña is accused of committing, but it did clarify that if her apology is not received she will be considered to have “self-removed” from the Party’s Central Committee.
“Should you be unable to craft an apology or should you refuse to submit one, you have the option to resign from the county Central Committee. Should the apology not be submitted within that time frame, you will be considered to have self-removed,” the email states.
The Party’s Bylaws do not include any process to “self-remove” from the body, but does outline how a member can be removed for cause.
A vote of the entire Central Committee would be required to remove a member for cause with at least two-thirds of the membership voting in favor. Reasons for removal for cause include for violating the Party’s Code of Conduct.
The Party has taken action in the past when members believed campaign literature was inaccurate, misleading, or false.
In 2020, for example, Party leaders objected to campaign mailers sent out by the campaign of Sara Jacobs when she was running for Congress. Jacobs was not the Party-endorsed candidate, but used a tag on her mailers that said she was “endorsed by California Democrats” even though she did not have the official endorsement of either the local or state Party committees. Jacobs eventually won that race over the Party’s endorsed candidate, Georgette Gomez.
Saldaña has had a complicated history on the Party’s Central Committee.
She first became a member of the Central Committee in 1998 after having served as the local Charter Chair of the Sierra Club. During the time she was an elected official from 2004 to 2010, Saldaña was automatically entitled to a seat on the Party’s governing board.
In 2011, Saldaña was one of three women who warned the local Democratic Party chair at the time, Jess Durfee, about allegations of sexual harassment by then-Congressman Bob Filner who was preparing to run for San Diego Mayor. The Party endorsed Filner and he was elected Mayor in 2012, but resigned the following year amid allegations of sexual harassment. He eventually pled guilty to charges of false imprisonment and battery charges involving three women.
Saldaña ran for her current position on the Central Committee in the 2020 Primary Election. Her term expires after the Primary Election in March 2024.
Requests for comment for this story sent to Bier on behalf of the Party, and to Pintar on her behalf and on behalf of Peters, were not answered.