(Originally posted 4/15/14)
By Frank Gormlie
Sarah Boot and I grabbed a table outside at Nati’s in OB the other day for our interview – but as the sun was playing hide and seek, we later had to move inside. Sun or no sun, Sarah is running for the District 2 City Council seat in the Primary which is coming up on June 3rd. The mail ballots go out in May.
Before we sat down outside, we met in the foyer of the iconic family cafe on Bacon Street. We shook hands, then while leading her into one of the dining rooms, I informed Sarah that Nati’s was the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Peninsula. I pointed to the oil painting hanging prominently on one of walls of Louisa – the famous server who worked at Nati’s for over 50 years – and who I met when I was a teenager when my family came during the Sixties.
Once outside, we ordered some lunch – Sarah’s a partial vegetarian – she does eat fish and cheese – and we settled in for a back-and-forth discussion over the next hour or so. And it was a discussion, for she’s good at listening and I had a whole mental cabinet full of OB and Peninsula history and issues to share with her. I also threw her questions, and I’ve integrated her responses into my story.
(Earlier I had also emailed her a number of questions – standard questions for this kind of fare, ‘what are your priorities for District 2?’ and the like, that will be laid out below.)
Sarah has been a federal prosecutor here in San Diego for three years, and she had to resign in order to run as a political candidate. But I wanted to get the story on “the real Sarah Boot” – where did she come from, and what made her go into politics, her personal history. We also found some unexpected commonality – we both swam competitively in high school. ( I swam freestyle and she swam backstroke – a particularly difficult stoke.)
Sarah was born in Evansville, Indiana, but over the course of her young life while living with her parents, Jay and Sandra, she moved 7 or 8 times around the country, she said. She has a younger sister who lives with her parents in Florida. Her dad Jay was an engineer for Whirlpool which was the reason they moved around so much. Her mother Sandra was a community college lecturer and real estate agent before she became a full time caretaker for the family.
Sarah told me she felt at home at the beach as one of the places where she grew up was also a small beach town. All during high school, she lived in St. Joseph, a small town right on Lake Michigan. During the summer months she worked as a lifeguard. And that is where she swam competitively for all 4 years of high school.
She began attending the University of Michigan and initially was striving for an engineering degree. But somewhere along the line, her horizon changed, and she switched majors. She got involved in tutoring African American and other inner city kids in Detroit, and ended up with a BS in Political Science with a Spanish language minor.
“I dabbled in history,” Boot told me in between bites. “I studied white flight, the history of Detroit.” This was a real consciousness raiser for her, she said. It awoke her to a broader view. She got involved in student government and began doing weekly tutoring and mentoring of younger Black kids, with an organization called the Detroit Partnership. I asked what she did. “Mainly hanging out with them,” she said, “helping them with their homework.”
Growing up in that small town on Lake Michigan had insulated her. “I came from a segregated community at St. Joseph,” she said. But after visiting and experiencing a nearby all-Black community, she awoke to the racism of the area – and society in general.
Her first election was for the student body president at the University. “I won by 37 votes,” she admitted. She ended up representing 45,000 students for the year – no mean feat. She got her poli-sci degree – with honors – and decided to go to law school – and was accepted by the law school right there at the University of Michigan.
Sarah and her husband Shane LaVigne have a cute story in how they met and got together. They were both politicos and were both working for one of the big name candidates during the 2003 Presidential Primary. Appearing a little sheepish, Sarah described that she worked for Joe Lieberman – while he was still a Democrat. (Lieberman was the vice-presidential running mate for Democrat Al Gore in 2000, but then switched parties to remain afloat in the Senate; he even gave the nominating speech for George W Bush at the GOP convention in 2004.)
At the same time, Shane worked for Dick Gephardt, another major Democratic candidate and Congressional leader.
Because of the Primary, they both were in New Hampshire – and that’s where and when they first met. They immediately hit it off, but after the craziness of the Primary was over, they lost touch with each other.
It wasn’t until one day, many moons later, that they had a random chance meeting in the library of a Washington DC law school. Instantly, they reconnected. And as they both had been accepted to different law schools within Michigan, they were able to keep in touch and develop their relationship.
Once they both were out of law school, they got married and began thinking of moving somewhere else in the country. They were looking at Denver, Seattle, and San Diego.
In 2006 they decided to check out our town. They moved here and Sarah got her first job as an attorney in an international law firm that represented technology and internet companies. Meanwhile, hubby Shane – a pure vegan – had a JD but didn’t work as a lawyer, and instead took on a position as a lobbyist for a company in Sacramento – where today he spends much of his time. At some point, he was the legislative director for California state Senator Juan Vargas.
Sarah and Shane first moved to PB on Turquoise Street, then they moved downtown for a few years. They finally settled down in the Midway area, near the Washington Street trolley stop, west of I-5. Sarah usually takes the trolley to work, as her office has been just a few miles south.
After 3 years of civil litigation, Sarah went to work for the US Attorney’s office here in San Diego, starting in 2010, and for the next 3 years she led prosecutions of those responsible for border crimes, drug trafficking, human sex trafficking, immigration.
Sarah talked about a couple of her outstanding cases. The most recent one was a trial that grew out of a serial bank robbery that involved the “Bite Me Bandit” because he wore a t-shirt with the expression. The main guy was convicted of 7 counts, and she had to try the get away driver, which she did and won.
Another one of her cases really stands out, Sarah told me. It involved a 14 year old woman brought on a bus to California from Texas by her pimp for prostitution. He forced her to have sex with 6 to 10 men a day; she had no money, no cellphone.
When Sarah found her, she weighed ninety pounds – and was undocumented. Sarah had to place the victim somewhere, and because she didn’t have documents, she found her a space at a federal holding area for children; it has a school, counseling, and besides room and board, the young woman received needed medical care. It was more like a campus than a jail. The girl finally realized she was the victim and ended up testifying against her pimp who plead guilty.
“I would love to see that for American girls,” Sarah said as she explained that she’d like to see programs where young women caught up in child-sex trafficking who were US citizens could have access to the same type of resources. “Not juvenile hall,” she added, “and not foster care.” According to Boot, in foster care, the pimps often still have control over the rescued girls and are able to pressure them to recruit more victims.
Her empathy belied her passion for those involved as victims in these situations.
How would this translate to what she could do on the City Council? She’d “beef up” (her words) the detectives and other resources to enable police to get on top of San Diego’s festering child-sex trafficking underworld. Working against these traffickers, she said, is very tech-heavy, very time-consuming. “Local gangs have come together,” Boot noted, “around prostitution.” “It’s an epidemic,” she said. “We’ve got to get to the schools,” she said in order to make an impact. “Lots of schools don’t acknowledge this [epidemic].”
Wanting to change the focus, I asked her why she wanted to get into politics and leave law. She’d always been interested in politics, she said. She found that she couldn’t really address the issues that she felt needed to be addressed as a prosecutor or lawyer. “I wanted to take on the child sex trafficking issue,” and fund more resources for first responders.
“I like being an advocate,” Sarah asserted. “And District 2 needs an advocate.” So, in that sense, she’ll remain a lawyer.
“I really care about this community,” she said, referring to OB. “I go to the meetings and the planning group, the town council, the Dog Beach committee.” Away from the community level, however, she finds that what she called “Big Picture Politics” is “all polarization”. And that’s why she’s interested in politics on the city level. “I can come in and solve problems,” she said. “It’s important for the District to have bi-partisanship.”
But Sarah told me:
“I saw a lot of deficiencies in my neighborhood: lack of street lights, potholes, homeless population on the rise, property crimes on the rise. So I was motivated to run so that I can make sure that our neighborhoods are getting their fair share of resources, and that we’re not just spending all our money downtown.”
One thing Sarah is proud of is that while she was president of the feminist San Diego Lawyers Club, she increased its membership from 900 to 1200 members, with men making up 20%. The group started 40 years ago to raise awareness and the profiles of women lawyers – who at the time were barred from holding prominent legal positions and were barred from certain restaurants and drinking establishments across the street from the courthouses.
Under her leadership, the group advocated for equal pay for women and documented the misrepresentation of women in the media.
Getting back to the election, one of her biggest issues is what she calls “the culture of cronyism and complacency” in San Diego government. She cites “the Balboa Park fiasco” and “the waste that still there at City Hall, with the consultants”. Another example she loves to give on the continued waste was her opponent Lorie Zapf’s continuance of her tax-payer funded car allowance – which no one else on the City Council takes – which costs $800 a month. At this point, she added, over Zapf’s 3+ years in office, taxpayers have paid the councilwoman over $30,000 for her car.
Boot has been endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters as well as by the Sierra Club. “I want to be a voice for the coast,” she said, and definitely supports a plastic bag ban.
I looked at the time on my cellphone and realized that our time was drawing to a close. I began peppering her with issues. What were the issues, I asked, from people as she went door-to-door?
“It’s the streets, the pot-holes, the conditions of the streets,” she said immediately. When she’s in OB, a big response are the complaints of the detours, how long it’s taking the City to replace the pipes, the inconveniences, the waste. Especially, she said, when the street is dug up just months after it was dug up by a different department or contractor.
Sarah proposes to upgrade the city database with new software that tracks and coordinates things such as digging up streets.
She knows homelessness is a big problem, in general for San Diego, as well as for the beach, for District 2. She has no magic answers but knows it’s tied into the lack of affordable housing and resources.
On the SeaWorld controversy, Sarah is measured. The movie and the bill on the Orcas have raised the discussion, she said, and that’s the main thing for her right now. It’s complicated, she added.
Minimum wage? People who work a full time job, she said, should be able to make ends meet.
It’s here, where I launched into other issues, such as Mission Bay pollution, the problems with dumping granite boulders over Sunset Cliffs in hopes to block erosion – a natural process, gentrification issues in Ocean Beach, how six out of every seven OBceans are renters, some history and significance of the OB Planning Board. She took plenty of notes.
How’s the campaign going, I asked her. “We’re adjusting,” she said of her and Shane’s economizing now that they’re down to one job between them. “We’ve cut cable and we’re down to one car.” I chuckled.
“I love going door to door,” she said. That’s good, because that’s what a politician has to do – during the campaign, that’s the primary task of the candidate. Not the fundraisers, not the speeches, but going door-to-door, knocking on people’s houses. Talking to people. And Sarah says she’s very well received by the people who respond.
Her campaign assembles volunteers who canvass every Saturday starting at 9 am. Her phone banks are beginning very soon. Her campaign website is here at www.sarahboot4citycouncil.com
We ended the interview, paid our bill, and went down to Newport Avenue to take some photos. Sarah was immediately stopped by a woman with a young baby who had met her during the canvassing. They both listened to each other as I took photos.
Sarah Boot and I shook hands, said our good-byes and returned to our vehicles. She has the car today. Her husband is in Sacramento. Sarah Boot is running for the District 2 City Council seat, and the Primary is this June 3rd.
Emailed Questions and Answers to and from Sarah Boot
Here below are my emailed questions and Sarah Boot’s emailed responses:
District 2 Issues:
Question: What are your five top or most important priorities or issues for District 2?
- Advocate for our neighborhoods to restore basic city services;
- Enhance our public safety by providing more resources for our police and fire departments;
- Rebuild our aging infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, storm drains, etc.) while creating jobs and economic opportunities;
- Stop the perks and privileges of city politicians (car allowances, lavish and extraneous consultant contracts, like Balboa Park);
- Create a transparent city government that does the public’s business in the open.
- Protect and maintain our public open spaces, keep our beaches and bays clean, and serve as a voice for the coast.
OB Public Facilities
Question: Are you aware of the public infrastructure needs for and of Ocean Beach?
OB was promised a new library 10 years ago, and there was a plan to build a new one using the historic original as part of the new development; property next door was purchased by the city.
OB also needs a new lifeguard station and public restrooms at the beach; there is also interest in attaching a police sub-station with the lifeguard facility. Current lifeguard station was built in the early 1980s, and the attached public restrooms are atrocious.
OB’s Recreation Center needs to be upgraded. Built in the 1950s. In comparison, Pacific Beach and La Jolla lifeguard stations and public restrooms are much newer and better.
Answer: Yes, I am aware of some of these deficiencies and it goes back to my first priority of being an advocate for our neighborhoods. We need to ensure that resources are invested in the community, and not just downtown. I want to address the disparity with the way city funds are spent.
We need to get away from the idea that the big ticket items like convention centers and ballparks are the only reason that tourists come to San Diego. They are important, but so are the public infrastructure needs of OB and other coastal communities where tourists flock and so are our beaches and bays.
The vast majority of people vacation in San Diego to enjoy the weather and sunshine and they go to our beaches and participate in water sports. These have been neglected in our budget process.
Question: What are you ideas / plans for resisting the slide toward gentrification at the beach? Are you aware that it is going on? Related to this, is – what is your vision for the San Diego Planning Department and how it relates to the community planning committees and boards?
Answer: I love the strong sense of community in Ocean Beach and the fact that we’ve been able to maintain a “beachy,” small-town vibe here against the backdrop of our nation’s 8th largest city. In order to maintain the character of this community, the City must solicit and honor the community’s input, particularly that of community planning boards, on new developments and redevelopments.
It’s also crucial that we maintain the City’s Planning Department separate and apart from the Development Services Department. If we work together in an open and transparent way, we can ensure that community priorities are upheld.
Question: Where do you stand on SeaWorld and its current controversies? Did you know that SeaWorld was the top polluter of Mission Bay?
Answer: SeaWorld is an important contributor to our local economy, but it must be held to the same standards, including environmental standards and employee safety standards, as any other business operating within San Diego.
As recently as 2012, SeaWorld, the largest discharger of water into the bay, was fined $6,000 for dumping excessive ammonia and animal waste into the Bay. SeaWorld should be monitored and held accountable, like any other business, and not be given any sort of special treatment or regulatory exemptions by the City.
Question: What is your position on San Diego’s 30-foot height limit?
Answer: I strongly support the 30-foot height limit as it has far reaching impacts. This is a critical component of preserving the character of our beach communities. Density, traffic, resident views and parking are also affected.
I have been walking door to door for months, and there is near universal agreement among the residents of District 2 on keeping the height limit in place. I plan to heed that call, and I call on my opponents who have been silent on this issue to do the same.
Question: What are your main priorities for the City of San Diego?
Answer: We need to change the focus of city hall to reflect what I call a Neighborhood First policy. We need additional resources for our police and fire so we can attract and retain the best officers and firefighters. Our roads and sidewalks are crumbling and our sewer system is aging to a point beyond repair in many places.
Moreover, our storm water system is outdated, leading to frequent beach closures due to runoff pollution. I won’t be happy until the posting of orange signs warning of toxins at our beaches are a thing of the past.
In order to have a vigorous debate about these changes in spending priorities we need to make sure we have an open and transparent city government and that the days of closed door meetings and back room deals are over. The culture at City Hall needs to fundamentally change, and we need true fiscal watchdogs that will end the perks and privileges of public office like the car allowance, and increase oversight of taxpayer dollars.
Question: Where do you stand on the living wage / raising the minimum wage issue?
Answer: Despite working full-time jobs, too many families in San Diego cannot make ends meet, even with a no-frills budget. I support raising the minimum wage so that more working families can live, self-sufficiently, above the poverty line.
No one who works full time should have to live in poverty. We have seen Republicans, Democrats and Independents agree on this issue. I plan to work in a bi-partisan way on this policy. It merits thoughtful discussion from small business owners, community members, subject matter experts, and voters.
Question: What is your position on how fast the City is moving to ban plastic bags?
Answer: I support the plastic bag ban. Single use plastic bags take decades to biodegrade, they are often discarded as litter, and are costly to pick-up if we are lucky to catch them before they drift into our oceans, where they are damaging to marine life and our marine ecosystem.
The discarding of plastic bags contributes significantly to the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, a continent-sized trash heap in the middle of the Pacific Ocean comprised of trash that doesn’t biodegrade (i.e. plastic). The insanity has to stop. The City Council member from District 2 must be a voice for the coast. As that representative, I would lead the charge on this legislation.
Question: Here is a more long-winded question: Climate Action Plan. An official Economic and Environmental Sustainability Task Force of knowledgeable citizens set up by the City of San Diego has prepared a Climate Action Plan for the City of San Diego which includes significant recommendations to take proactive enforceable steps to mitigate the development that is anticipated through the City’s General Plan in the areas of Land Use, Energy, Transportation, and Waste reduction.
Have you reviewed the draft plan posted to the City website and would you support adoption of the plan and measures recommended in that plan?
Renewable Energy. In particular, in the area of energy, the plan proposes that the City will take steps to achieve 100% renewable energy generation by 2035. One of the keys to that plan is to establish a state authorized “Community Choice Aggregation” Energy District similar to those established in Marin and Sonoma to provide increasing amounts of locally produced renewable energy as an alternative to the polluting fossil fueled power plants proposed by SDGE, the monopoly utility owned by the Sempra international energy corporation. A feasibility study is underway now to demonstrate the cost competitiveness of such a district.
Will you support the establishment of a cost competitive CCA for San Diego?
Answer: Global warming is real, and anyone seeking to be a true leader and public servant must work to combat it. As the future representative of the majority of San Diego’s coast, I plan to take action. Scientists warn that if global warming trends continue, we can expect sea levels to rise by 12-18 inches by 2050. This will have a significant impact on District 2’s beaches, homes, businesses, and hotels. San Diego must be a leader in combating global warming – there is too much at stake.
Moreover, doing so in a smart bi-partisan way will create green-collar jobs and solidify San Diego as a place with a thriving renewable energy economy. As such, I support much of the Climate Action Plan, including the key components of expanded public transit, integrated bike infrastructure and the establishment of a Community Choice Aggregation energy district (“CCA”).
I am a strong proponent of public transit. Until recently, I was a federal prosecutor working downtown. I took the trolley to work every day from my home in the Midway community. I did this because it is good for the environment, it was convenient, and it saved my family money. We need more access to fast public transit in San Diego so that many more of our residents can be similarly incentivized. This will ultimately improve our quality of life in this city – and our economy, as a strong public transit system will attract more businesses to relocate here.
Additionally building out our basic bicycle infrastructure will encourage more people to pursue this green mode of transportation. Cities that have pursued master plans that support bicycle infrastructure improvements have seen ridership increase markedly. This lowers emissions and lessens our carbon footprint as a city.
I also support the establishment of a cost competitive CCA for San Diego. Local residents and businesses should have the choice to purchase cheaper alternative energy sources. This is good for the environment and for our economy. San Diego should be a national leader in the creation of green-collar jobs, particularly in the solar industry. A CCA will help to move the ball forward and, as such, I would support it.
Question: Do you think the City has safeguards in place in terms of accountability and transparency for the continued practice of out-sourcing city services?
Answer: San Diego clearly needs better accountability of services that have been outsourced. Leadership that works in a bi-partisan way on these issues is critical to achieving this. Protecting taxpayer money should not be a Republican or a Democratic issue – it should be everyone’s concern.
A prime example of the city’s inability to hold private entities accountable is the Balboa Park Centennial Celebration debacle. From 2011 to the present, the City paid $2.8 million to the Balboa Park Celebration, Inc. to plan the centennial. This group apparently spent the money on promoters, public relations, and even a trip to Panama. Yet, now, the celebration group has disbanded, has been reticent to hand over documents related to the spending of its money, and we – the taxpayer – have absolutely nothing to show for it. My opponent currently sits on the city council serving a different district. She either knew of this and failed to act, or was asleep at the wheel. Either way, it is unacceptable.
We cannot have accountability without leadership and without transparency. There are too many closed-door meetings and back room deals. As a result, the public is skeptical of the actions of elected officials. We need people in office who will ask difficult questions and hold contractors and consultants accountable.
I will do that. I will also push to reform City policies to require more transparency from our contractors and consultants.