Peters battles for the 52nd

by Leonardo Castaneda


This elections season, San Diego is experiencing a rare moment in modern U.S. politics: a closely contested congressional race. Historically, congressional elections favor incumbents. In 2010, more than 94 percent of congressional incumbents won their reelection bids. This has made the campaign for the 52nd District between incumbent congressman Brian Bilbray and Scott Peters one of the most closely watched races in the nation.

For years, the 50th Congressional District was a reliably Republican seat. Republican Randall “Duke” Cunningham held it until he was forced out by corruption charges. In 2006 Bilbray, a Republican, won the seat in a special election and has held the position ever since.

However, following the 2010 census, the district was redrawn and renamed the 52nd. This new district doesn’t have the clear Republican voter registration advantage the 50th did. Registered voters are split roughly one-third Democrat and one-third Republican. However, more than 27 percent of registered voters with no party affliation could hand Peters an upset victory.

Peters is a rare candidate in a rare election. He is a proven moderate with clear progressive ideas and bipartisan credentials.

Peters was born in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Mich. to a minister who formed a partnership with Martin Luther King Sr. to end housing segregation in Detroit. With just a minister’s salary, Peters’ parents were determined to get him and his three sisters through college.

“They did what families did back then,” Peters said. “They saved their money, they borrowed against the house (and) my mom took a part-time job.”

Peters attended Duke University for his undergraduate degree and then New York University School of Law. He practiced law for several years before becoming involved in San Diego politics.

In 2000, he became the first Democrat elected to District 1’s City Council seat. He quickly became an influential member of the council and in 2005 he was selected as the first City Council President following a government restructuring.

During his time on the city council, Peters made a name for himself as a moderate willing to craft bipartisan deals.

“When he was in the City Council he was not a partisan flamethrower like, for example, (Carl) DeMaio,” San Diego State political science professor Brian E. Adams said.

However, Adams points to how Peters’ bipartisan record could hurt his election chances.

“Because he was a moderate, he went along with the various sorts of things that at the time (San Diego Mayor) Dick Murphy was pushing about underfunding the pension system,” Adams said. “He may not have been the person proposing it, but he did vote for it. You can’t run away from that history.”

Early in his career in City Council, Peters voted in 2002 for a plan allowing the city to underfund the pension while increasing benefits to some retirees. The ensuing fallout forced Murphy’s resignation and a restructuring of the pension system. Peters told David Rolland from San Diego CityBeat the experience shows he’s willing to acknowledge mistakes and work toward correcting them, a quality sorely lacking in Congress.

In 2008, Peters left the City Council and became a port commissioner. Last year he was selected as the commission’s chairman, once again taking on an influential position.

Peters decided to take on Bilbray for the Congressional seat partly because, he says, “I had a chance to get an education and make a life because America invested in me, and I’m concerned that middle-class kids like me, like I was, are losing that chance.”

Despite receiving some financial support from his parents to pay for college, Peters applied for grants and low interest loans.

He also worked, recalling how, “back then the university paid $2.65 an hour for me to clean the pigeon cages in the psychology department.”

He was able to afford a private university education thanks to significant personal efforts and because at the time, tuition was less expensive. He remembers his first year’s tuition being $5,500. Today, average tuition and fees for a semester at Duke is more than $43,600. Peters draws a clear distinction with Bilbray on how each would deal with college affordability.

“I think there is a role for providing tuition support,” Peters said. “Congress under my opponent is trying to cut Pell Grants, and double the cost of financial aid.”

“Federal-issued loans are appropriate,” Peters said. “Particularly to support kids in science, technology, engineering and math.”

Peters’ active stance toward college affordability has lead to support from college students. He is also sometimes perceived as more “in touch” with college students and the San Diego community.

“Because of his own personal life and his affiliations in San Diego he still has a touch to the citizens,” integrated marketing communications senior Niki Cvitkovich said. “Bilbray has kind of lost that.”

Cvitkovich volunteered for Peters’ campaign about four months before the beginning of the fall semester.

Cvitkovich said she felt Peters was more attuned to the need of college students because of “his youth and the fact that he has children that are in my age range.”

Cvitkovich believes Peters should focus on education and in spurring the economy. She also hopes that if elected, Peters will maintain his political integrity and the connections with San Diego, which attracted her to his campaign in the first place.

“I’d like to see (Peters) not take special interest money the way Bilbray does,” Cvitkovich said. “Having a personal connection with his constituency would definitely be the biggest difference that would be noticeable to me compared to Bilbray.”

This hotly contested campaign awash in super political action committee money—$4.4 million for both candidates as of Oct. 12, more than in the mayoral race—will likely come down to a few voters. If college students vote on Election Day, they can send a progressive with bipartisan credential to Congress.