A CONVERSATION WITH SAN DIEGO MAYOR TODD GLORIA ‘00 AND USD PRESIDENT JAMES T. HARRIS
There’s no denying that San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria ‘00 (BA) is breaking new ground as the city’s first person of color and first openly gay person to hold the office.
An honor student who graduated summa cum laude with a dual degree in history and political science, Gloria’s career has been devoted to public service. He was first elected to the San Diego City Council in 2008, ran for re-election unopposed in 2012, and was unanimously elected to serve as council president that same year.
In 2013, Gloria became the interim mayor upon the resignation of Mayor Bob Filner, and held the office until 2014. In 2016 he was elected to California State Assembly and was re-elected in 2018. During those years he served as both assistant majority whip and majority whip. He announced his candidacy for mayor in early 2019 and was elected mayor in November 2020.
Recently, he met with University of San Diego President James T. Harris for a wide-ranging conversation.
Tell me about your childhood and growing up in San Diego. What was that like?
It was a good childhood. I come from a working-class family, so it was a childhood with limitations in terms of economic resources. I was blessed with incredible parents with great morals and values that have served me well throughout my whole life. I have to say that I won the geographic lottery by being born in San Diego. It’s hard to move here now, financially, right? Being born here gave me a running start. There were certainly challenges for a variety of reasons, but, on the whole, I was born at the right place to the right people. I’m lucky.
What did your mom and dad do for a living?
I like to refer to them as a maid and a gardener, since that’s what their professions were when I was born. They married young and they had both struggled. I think in many ways they served as life rafts for one another.
They provided a great foundation for my brother and me. Over time, my dad found his way to the defense industry, which had good paying jobs for people who didn’t have high educational attainment. Both my parents went to high school, but they didn’t go to college. And my mom did a very long series of jobs until she literally just worked herself into disability. She’s the hardest working person you’d ever meet. It’s a blessing that we still have her.
I understand that you were engaged in political activities at the age of 10. How did that get started?
I’m sure you’ve talked to students at USD who are undecided majors, who may be in their second or third year and are unsure what major they want to declare. I was never that guy. We may not have had a lot of resources, but my parents always took the newspaper. I read the paper every day as far back as I can think of. And I’d watch the news from 5:00 until 7:00 each night, both national and local. That was of interest to me, in the way that other kids were excited to go play sports or read comic books. And there were different outlets for me to express that, one was as a finalist in the Mayor for the Day contest in 1988. That was the first time I ever came to City Hall.
That was an opportunity to express what I’d learned by reading the paper and watching the news. I took what I’d learned and put it into an essay. And the thing about politics is that if you’re willing to work for free, they’ll put you to work.
So as soon as I had a bus pass and my parents were willing to let me ride by myself, I just started volunteering on campaigns. And they put me to work. I certainly wasn’t old enough to vote, but I was old enough to register people to vote. And it went from there.
That’s fantastic. Tell me, how did you make the decision to come to USD?
Three reasons. Number one is that my grandmother’s home — the home my father was raised in — is literally in USD’s backyard. While no one in our family had ever gone to college, I played at her house, and she was a good Catholic grandmother who was always saying, ‘That’s where I want you to go to school.’ I give her credit for planting the seed and making it real. I remember her saying, ‘It’s right there. It’s not abstract. You could come have lunch with me and then go to class.’
Second, when I was in high school, I was chosen for the Enterprise Fellows Program, which was where I first met Congresswoman Susan Davis. And one of the facilitators was a woman named Rosario Iannacone ‘92 (BA), who was a student at USD. She was basically a mentor in the group. And I joined her on campus, which was my first time there. Again, see it, be it, touch it, feel it, make it real.
And third, USD — to be very direct — made it financially possible. My parents didn’t save for college and I was rapidly coming up against reality. I wrote the applications, I did the essays, I took the SAT, I found the money to pay for the applications. But then I had to start figuring out how I was going to pay for this. I got into a number of schools. I was very fortunate, but USD was the only one that was going to make it financially possible.
I was happy to assume the financial burden for myself, but I didn’t want to put that burden on my parents, knowing how much they had worked to put the possibility for me to go to college in me. And I also had a notion that I wanted to do public service and I understood that you don’t go into public service to get rich. You sure as heck can’t do it with heavy student loans, plus your rent. Growing up the way I did, I understood quickly what it costs to live.
When I got the letter about getting a provost scholarship to attend USD, I know it was a massive relief to my parents who would have done anything to make it possible for me to attend. But to be able to do it without having to burden them tremendously financially … it was an iterative process, going from a little boy in my grandmother’s backyard to that letter in the mail that brought me to USD.
Do any faculty members from your time at USD stand out for you?
What’s interesting is that some of the ones I was closest to — or am still closest to today — were not people whose class I took. The relatively small size of the university and the ability to connect with folks in a very personal, direct way meant that I was close to those whose classes I took as well as those I didn’t take.
I think of Dr. Evelyn Kirkley, who was lifesaving. And Del Dickson ended up being my political-science adviser, although I never took his class. In truth, I think I was too scared to take it. But we were both political nerds and just connected. How would you have a chance to talk to them or build a relationship with them and continue talking to them 20 years later at another university? That’s possible at USD; that’s one of the things that make it special.
How was your experience on campus? Were you openly gay at that time? Or is that something that came later in your life? Was it at all difficult?
Yeah, it was. I don’t want to offend you, but it wasn’t great. At least not then. As a gay man of color in the mid-‘90s at USD, it wasn’t ideal. Maybe the sadness that you hear in my voice is in part because I went there intending to have the full experience, and having come from a public high school, where people knew who and what I was, and they weren’t particularly accommodating. I thought that college presented an opportunity for a fresh start, and it wasn’t that.
At the time, USD PRIDE had a different name. They met in secret with security and it wasn’t seen as being a safe place. But as much as I sort of mourn not necessarily having the carefree undergraduate experience that I thought I was going to have, well, it’s kind of like my parents when I was a little boy. I confess that I often was frustrated by our lack of resources or their lack of education and their inability to help me with some of my tough homework, and seeing some of my classmates who had a better hand. But in retrospect, I look at my upbringing and think, ‘I didn’t get the parents I wanted. I got the ones I needed.’ And there’s something similar about that with USD.
USD caused me to have to get out of my comfort zone and become an activist on campus and work with the administration, my fellow students and faculty members to try and drive some measure of change. And I think we were successful in doing that. And the skill sets that I learned in doing that — things that were outside of my comfort zone — are the skills I draw upon today for the work I do as an elected official.
You once said in an interview that your experience at USD helped shape your passion for civil service. Is that because of how the activist part of yourself emerged and that you found your voice here?
I was one of two students that petitioned to change the name of what it was then into USD PRIDE, and that involved me having to stand before the student body senate and file that application, and put my name to it, and then argue for it. My suspicion is that usually these sorts of things are rubber stamped: ‘You want to start a group? Fine. Here you go.’ That was not our situation. We had to argue for it. I had to be fast on my feet. And we got the vote; it was approved. It wasn’t unanimous but it was approved.
I spent eight years on the city council, four years in the state legislature and I’m now the mayor. I’m constantly having to articulate and argue on behalf of others, to try and pull a vote, to put together a majority to get something done. So, that time gave me those skill sets. It was something that I frankly didn’t think was possible. I don’t know that I left USD thinking I could be an elected official myself. In fact, I thought exactly the opposite. But I felt as though I had skills that were relevant and useful to a public sector environment. And that’s exactly what I got. I earned my diploma, walked off the stage and then went to work.
I didn’t realize that you are the first Latino mayor of San Diego as well as the first openly-gay mayor. The New York Times ran a piece that said you may be the most powerful mayor that San Diego has ever had. Do you agree with that assessment?
Well, no. The law hasn’t changed to give me any additional powers that the last group of several mayors have had. It is true that that there’s a different political alignment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean unanimity or that folks are on the same page. It’s very much part of my job to endeavor to bring us to the same page.
But I think what the New York Times may have been referring to is an attitude or a set of priorities that I bring into this job: I want to pursue a big and bold agenda. I recognize this is a temp job; at best, I get eight years, so I’ve got to make the most of it. Coming from my background, I recognize what it is to use the tools and the resources that are available, and I can use them to improve the lives of many, many other people.
Every day, I’ve got to come in and give it my best, because that might be the day that I can change the life of this person or that person. Think about Mayor O’Connor, all those years ago, deciding to host a mayor for a day contest. Then this kid from Clairemont, this nerdy kid who’s reading the newspaper, gets invited and I’m sitting in the council chambers.
And here I am, 20-something years later, as an elected official.
What’s your advice to students or those just out of college who are trying to rise to reach their dreams and pursue the kind of career that you’ve had, or in their own fields?
I have two things in terms of the secret to my success: One is mentoring. I wouldn’t be here without great mentors, the faculty members I mentioned before, Congresswoman Davis, who I met long before she was in the state legislature and Congress. There’s nothing new under the sun, so you can seek out models that you can emulate or modify to match your times, your circumstances and your skills and strengths. And I’ve tried to do that in my career.
One of the things Susan Davis taught me is to listen more than you speak; when you listen, you gain and learn a lot. And you adapt to your circumstances and learn from someone else’s success and failures. Learn from other people. The other thing is to really be passionate about what you do. I was the first to go to college in my family. And then, when I decided to be a history and political-science major, I’m sure my parents realized that it didn’t seem like the most marketable degree to pursue.
If you can see in yourself what you’re passionate about and then work toward that, I believe you can make a living. You can make a life from following your passion because you get rewards from it, and then others are attracted to it. And it will work. You may not get rich, but you’ll be able to take care of yourself.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
USD has done incredible things for me. I’m extremely grateful. I appreciate the chance to maybe pay it forward a little bit. I enjoyed having this conversation and look forward to doing that in the years to come.
Photographs courtesy of the City of San Diego. Interview questions and editing by Julene Snyder.