Todd Gloria will bring lots of ‘firsts’ as San Diego’s new mayor

Todd Gloria, on track to be mayor of San Diego, grabbed coffee at Heartwork Coffee in Mission Hills Thursday.
Todd Gloria, on track to be mayor of San Diego, heads to his car after grabbing coffee at Heartwork Coffee in Mission Hills on Nov. 5.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Openly gay, he will be the first mayor of color and arguably the city’s most powerful leader.

San Diego’s mayor-to-be, Todd Gloria, represents many firsts for the city, reflecting its changing demographics and its increasingly liberal electorate.

Gloria, who is Latino, Filipino and Native American, will be San Diego’s first mayor of color. He also will be the city’s first openly gay mayor.

In addition, Gloria, 42, will be arguably the most powerful mayor San Diego has ever had.

According to the San Diego County registrar of voters office, Gloria led his opponent in the Nov. 3 mayoral election, City Councilwoman Barbara Bry of La Jolla, by roughly 73,000 votes as of Nov. 8 — more than the total of 64,000 ballots remaining to be processed countywide.

Councilwoman said she plans to launch an organization to boost the power of city neighborhoods.

Except for Bob Filner’s eight-month tenure as mayor that ended in scandal seven years ago, Gloria will be the first Democrat to serve as San Diego’s mayor since the city switched to the “strong mayor” form of government in 2005.

Todd Gloria walks alongside his aide Nick Serrano as he prepares to speak to the media the day after Election Day.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Democrats have controlled the City Council during that entire 15-year period, so Gloria will have a council controlled by his own party.

And Democrats increased the number of seats they hold on the nine-member panel from six to eight in elections last week.

Further increasing his power, Gloria will be the first mayor in modern history to simultaneously have strong backing from the business community and organized labor, two groups that often are at odds.

Gloria, a member of the state Assembly since 2016, also is expected to have more clout in Sacramento than previous mayors. He is the first San Diego mayor with statehouse experience since Assemblyman Pete Wilson was elected mayor in 1971.

But Gloria also will inherit more challenges than most mayors. The COVID-19 pandemic has cratered tax revenue for the tourism-reliant city, creating a budget crisis that could rival or surpass the period after the Great Recession of 2008.

San Diego also faces one of the largest homelessness problems in the nation, a housing affordability crisis, crumbling infrastructure, calls for police reform and stark inequities between rich and poor neighborhoods.

“We are confronted by multiple crises that demand urgent attention from this city,” Gloria said.

Todd Gloria is pictured outside his apartment last week.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

While he expressed confidence that he’s up to the challenge, Gloria said it’s unfortunate that the budget crisis will make it harder. It may even require cutting some programs.

“There weren’t too many people on the campaign trail who asked for fewer library hours or less road repair,” Gloria joked to reporters.

Gloria said he may be uniquely qualified to lead San Diego through a tough budget time.

He was first elected to the City Council in 2008 as the deepest recession since the Depression was taking shape. He also served as chairman of the council’s Budget Committee from 2010 to 2016, making him familiar with the process.

“It’s a matter of priorities, and I’m a pretty frugal guy,” Gloria said. “I believe we can figure out ways to protect neighborhood services while getting the city’s finances back on track.”

Todd Gloria, alongside his partner, Adam Smith, and his parents, Phil and Linda Gloria.
Mayoral hopeful Todd Gloria, alongside his partner, Adam Smith, and his parents, Phil and Linda Gloria, casts his ballot at the San Diego County registrar of voters office on Election Day.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The future mayor said he also has experience dealing with a crisis, which could help during the pandemic. Gloria was City Council president during the Filner scandal, and he served as interim mayor for eight months between Filner’s August 2013 resignation and Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s swearing-in in March 2014.

Though Gloria said all the city’s problems are important, homelessness will be his first priority.

He is a longtime advocate for the “housing first” approach, in which the goal is getting homeless people immediately into more permanent housing than a shelter and then providing them counseling and other support.

Other priorities will be the housing crisis, which he has tried to address in Sacramento with several pieces of legislation, and the city’s Climate Action Plan, which he helped write six years ago.

Gloria praised Faulconer for making progress on the plan, but he said the city has not moved quickly enough to reduce people’s reliance on cars in favor of more environmentally friendly methods of getting around.

“I will be bringing a different point of view when it comes to our need to shift folks to forms of transit that are less consuming of carbon,” he said.

That is one area where his influence in Sacramento could help. Gloria also noted that Democrat Joe Biden’s election as president could help California and San Diego get more funding to help achieve climate goals.

“We need partners in Sacramento and Washington to help us,” he said. “I’m happy to use those relationships and connections.”

While Gloria has a different perspective and priorities than Faulconer, he said he doesn’t expect dramatic changes in city staff, at least not immediately.

He said his decisions won’t be based on whether Faulconer’s appointees are Republicans or Democrats.

“The question is more about whether they can support the vision that I laid out as a candidate that has now been endorsed by the people through their votes,” he said. “If folks are willing to help me to implement that, I suspect we’ll be able to keep a great number of people there.”

Gloria often introduces himself with pride as the son of a maid and a gardener. He is a lifelong San Diegan who graduated from Madison High School and the University of San Diego.

He said he’s aware that his election as mayor could create concern for some longtime San Diego residents more accustomed to the string of White Republican men who have led the city for many years. But he said those concerns would be unfounded.

“My goal is to make the changes that are needed to protect the quality of life that they and their fellow San Diegans cherish,” he said.

Gloria said he wants to make changes that will reduce traffic congestion and provide enough affordable housing so fewer San Diegans have to watch their children and grandchildren leave the area because of high housing costs.

Todd Gloria takes out the trash two days after the election as his partner, Adam Smith, takes their dog, Diego, for a walk.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

On Nov. 5, however, he was running some errands and preparing for a few days of relaxation before the real work of governing begins.

He stepped out of his small Mission Hills apartment — “The Mayoral Mansion,” his aide, Nick Serrano, joked — to take out trash as his partner, Adam Smith, took their dog, Diego, for a walk around the neighborhood.

His problems were a little simpler that afternoon than the huge challenges facing the city. He had to do laundry, pick up dry cleaning and drop a letter in the mail. But before any of that, he needed some coffee.

Standing in line at Heartwork Coffee, he got some inquisitive looks from people who recognized him but weren’t sure who he was, and then some congratulations from people familiar with him.

Back at his home later that day, he was on a call discussing his plans as mayor.

“I think we can do a lot of great things together,” he said.

— David Garrick writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune. U-T staff photographer Sam Hodgson and Point Loma-OB Monthly staff contributed to this report.