By JEFF CLEMETSON | Mission Times Courier
By any metric, Deputy City Attorney Raul Campillo is the frontrunner candidate in the race for the San Diego City Council District 7 seat.
In the March 3 primary, Campillo won a spot in the November runoff with 35.9% of the vote. He will now face Republican businessman Noli Zosa, who received 30.5%. Votes for the other two candidates — both Democrats like Campillo — totaled 33.7%, hinting at a sizeable advantage for Campillo going into November.
Campillo was “a little surprised” he came in first place because there were three Democrats and one Republican, although he said he campaigned to get votes from Democrats, Republicans and independents alike by focusing on issues all constituents want like safer communities, a fairer justice system, and tax dollars spent well on roads and parks.
“So I reached out to every single group of voters,” he said. “Election night bore that out, otherwise I would have come in second and the three Democrats would have split the Democratic side. I think part of that is the openness to listen to everybody and go seek out everybody.”
To win in November, Campillo is banking on his experience working as a deputy city attorney and a family background that taught him empathy for the less fortunate.
Campillo grew up in the East County neighborhood of Rancho San Diego in El Cajon, where he attended public elementary and middle schools. His parents — an immigration attorney father and a bank secretary mother — saved up money to send him to University of San Diego High School in Linda Vista, where he played baseball and discovered an interest in public service through required charitable projects assigned by the school’s religious studies courses.
“My family had been involved in public service for a long time before that,” Campillo said. “My grandfather was involved in public service in Calexico and was actually an early supporter of Cesar Chavez. He was a business owner. He owned a gas station and a liquor store and when push came to shove, he stood with the farm workers and boycotted the grapes and the lettuce until they got better working conditions.”
Campillo’s father’s work as an immigration attorney also often included pro bono work for less fortunate migrants.
“My great-grandparents immigrated from Mexico so I have an innate understanding of how lucky I am to have been born in the United States. Seeing my father turn around and help people who didn’t have that stroke of luck, help them come here, just really influenced my perspective on how we need to help anybody no matter where they come from to achieve their dreams as part of being an American and part of living in our democracy,” he said.
Education, empathy and ethics
After high school, Campillo went to Harvard where he studied government and was involved in student council. After graduation, Campillo moved to Las Vegas where he earned a master’s degree in education by taking night courses at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and while teaching fifth-grade children of recent immigrants at a Title I school in the Clark County School District.
“What I noticed was that their upbringing was not all that different from my grandfather’s upbringing after his parents had immigrated here from Mexico 90 years earlier. So it was kind of shocking to see how little progress had been made,” Campillo said. “That really inspired me to become even more politically involved and really start changing the system.”
During his second year of teaching, Campillo applied to go back to Harvard for law school. At Harvard Law, he focused on becoming “a good advocate for people,” by taking courses on Title IX, civil rights and ethics for prosecutors.
“I always thought to myself that I might go down that path one day so I wanted to make sure I understood everything as it came to how to be a good prosecutor and I think that has really been useful in working at the city attorney’s office now,” he said.
Campillo graduated law school in 2014. Prior to moving back to San Diego, he worked at international law firm in Los Angeles doing corporate investigations and also doing pro bono work, including volunteering as a prosecutor for city of Redondo Beach. In 2016, Campillo left that firm for eight months to work for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in New York, vetting people’s backgrounds. After his campaign work ended, he went back to the law firm for a short time before getting hired at the city attorney’s office in San Diego, where he learned even more lessons on the value of being an ethical prosecutor.
Work motivates a political run
“Mara Elliott tells new hires, ‘You can’t look at a defendant as a person you are trying to catch’ because when you stand up and say, ‘Raul Campillo Deputy City Attorney for the people of the state of California,’ the defendant is also a person of the state of California and you have to do things that are right by them,” Campillo said. “You have to hold them accountable for their conduct but you also have to [do] what’s right, what’s fair and just.”
To Campillo, that means not racking up convictions, but seeking truth, and to not be afraid to dismiss cases or offer alternatives to punitive measure like diversion classes, etc.
“Our biggest issues facing our city are homelessness and housing. When it comes to homelessness, many of the cases that we unfortunately have to prosecute are homeless cases where the person is either breaking California penal code or San Diego municipal code by being outdoors and violating the illegal lodging laws. It’s really a sad thing to have to do that because you [know] that this person doesn’t want to be on the street.”
His experience working with SDPD and different organizations dealing with the homelessness issue was one of the major reasons Campillo began thinking about a run for City Council.
“I have a really good background in knowing what works and what doesn’t; where money should be spent and where it can be saved and the San Diego City Council has been taking up so many different tools to try to solve homelessness, and I bring the aspect of what has been going on when it comes to the overlap of law enforcement and homelessness. I think I’m the only person that has that perspective running for City Council.”
But it wasn’t just dealing with the homeless crisis at work that pushed Campillo to run.
“Six years ago, my older brother Alex passed away from an opioid overdose and when we see how many homeless individuals are suffering from meth addiction and heroin addiction, I just see every case as this is my brother, this is my sister, how can I help them,” he said. “I don’t want any more families to go through what my family went through … in having a family member pass away from such tragic circumstances and it happens on our street all the time.”
A new reality for campaign
Although homelessness and housing issues in San Diego motivated Campillo to run, the coronavirus outbreak — and the economic fallout from it — has brought a whole new set of issues to the race for the District 7 seat.
For one thing, whoever sits on the City Council in December will face huge budget shortfalls from lost sales tax, hotel occupancy tax and more.
“We really just have to wait and see where we are going to land and how long this coronavirus issue is going to hurt our economy. This [is] going to require regional, state and national funding to help workers, help businesses get back up and running,” Campillo said, adding that cities like San Diego might have to ask the state to use rainy day fund money to get out of the mess.
Campillo said his number one priority would be to maintain the city’s staffing levels.
“What we can’t do is start laying off city workers because we have a budget shortfall. Our city workers right now, especially public safety, are working to make sure our community is safe and our economy is running as much as it can,” he said, adding that then rewarding city workers with layoffs would be “awful and totally backwards.”
Instead, Campillo said the city might be able to use some of the lessons learned from the coronavirus quarantine and apply them to the city. For example, many of the city’s staff are now telecommuting to work that have never done so before. If these workers are allowed to continue to do so after the quarantine, San Diego could lease unused office space or repurpose it for housing.
“We’re going to have a lot [of] lessons learned going in to Dec. 10, 2020 when the new council comes and we’ve got to be able to respond to them quickly and maybe take bolder action given the new circumstances instead of going back to the way things once were,” Campillo said.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.