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A San Diego Refugee And Real Estate Professional Talk Politics


Megan Burks | KPBS

Mariam Ali recalls trying to rent an apartment when she arrived in San Diego 25 years ago after fleeing Somalia. She was receiving public housing assistance.

"The white guy came and he was like, 'Do you work?' I said, 'No, I'm not working. I receive government assistance.' And he was like, 'Oh, no, I should not be talking to you,'" Ali said. "My English was not good at that time, and I just ran from that neighborhood. I never went (back)."

That neighborhood was Kensington, where Peter Dennehy lives. It's an upper-middle class community filled with historic homes. Residents make, on average, $90,565 a year.

"I'm sorry that happened," Dennehy said to Ali.

We brought the two together at KPBS to talk politics. They come from starkly different neighborhoods and backgrounds, but both will see the same ballot June 7. Dennehy and Ali live in the same City Council district, which will elect a new representative this year, and both plan to vote in the Democratic presidential primary.

"He didn't know if he was going to get the money or not," Ali said, picking up the conversation about the landlord who wouldn’t rent to her. "In a way, I understand."

Ali ended up finding a place less than two miles away in Teralta. Her neighbors there make an average of $21,698 a year.

In the last general election, only 27 percent of the registered voters in her neighborhood cast ballots. Ali, on the other hand, never misses an election. In that way, she’s more like those living in Kensington, where 62 percent of the registered voters turned out in 2014.

When Ali and Dennehy sit down together at KPBS, he’s in a gray suit, having just come from work. She just dropped off her children for tutoring and is wearing a royal blue headscarf.

As they talk, they find common ground in politics, as do many of their neighbors. Residents in the district vote overwhelming Democratic — just not always for the same reasons.

Presidential politics

"Well, I'm not voting for Donald Trump," said Dennehy, who identifies as a moderate independent. "I'm going to vote for Hillary Clinton. I voted for her eight years ago. I'm the parent of a 13-year-old daughter."

"She has the education. She has the qualification," Ali chimed in. "And I want to see a woman president in the United States, too."

"I think it's time," Dennehy said.

"Yeah, it's time to do the change," Ali said.

Both said they appreciate that Clinton hasn't been as divisive on the campaign trail as the GOP candidates. They're particularly concerned with Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump's rhetoric on immigration.

For Ali, who is Muslim and became a U.S. citizen in 2003, Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country stoked fear she might be separated from her U.S.-born children.

"When I hear something like that I was like, 'Oh, maybe they're coming next month to take us,'" Ali said.

Dennehy said Trump's proposals betray the nation's past of welcoming immigrants like Ali. He then added this:

"I don't know as many immigrants from other places, but I know a lot of people who are doing business on both sides of the border and really see the kind of language that we have as not good for business," Dennehy said. "We're a border region that's growing and looking to expand the opportunities of connection, not to wall ourselves off from each other."

Local issues

Dennehy and Ali also agree on a proposed San Diego ballot initiative to build a football stadium for the Chargers.

"They are the light our kids watch. They want to become one of them," Ali said. "We want the Chargers to be in San Diego County."

This surprised Dennehy.

"You're a strong Chargers fan!" he said. "I support the stadium in concept, and I don't even mind paying for it, to a degree."

But other local issues, such as infrastructure and housing, highlight their differences. They agree on the same outcome, but their backgrounds inspire different ways to get there.

For instance, Dennehy is in real estate development and said he believes ramping up housing production and increasing density along transit corridors — those are on Ali's side of the district — will make homes more affordable.

Ali said she welcomes denser development near her home but said she would like to see some kind of rent control to help her refugee neighbors who are on disability, or Supplemental Security Income.

"(Elected officials) can talk to the people who own the houses or apartments to lower the rent down," Ali suggested. "It's very high. A one bedroom with one small bathroom (is) $900, and the person is only receiving $800 from SSI. That doesn't go together."

The diverse Democratic base

Former Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins is a Democrat who represented Kensington and Teralta in City Heights as a San Diego councilwoman from 2000 to 2008. Her Assembly District also includes the neighborhoods, and she’s running for the state Senate seat that includes them.

"Both communities need access to quality, decent, affordable housing," Atkins said, "The definitions of what is affordable and what that vision is might be a little different."

Atkins said because of these nuances, consensus at the ballot box doesn't mean elected officials won't have to work to build consensus on policy. Her advice to the area’s next City Council representative: go where the people are and listen hard.

"For some parts of the community, it's the community planning committee or the town council or the business association," Atkins said. "And for some parts of the community, particularly City Heights, it's going to be their community room at (their housing complex)."

Francine Busby, chairwoman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, said the party’s leaders will increasingly have to consider that the region is becoming more diverse and that not all Democrats share the same views. Since 2008, a majority of the registered voters in the county are Democrats.

"I think the biggest boost that we're getting, which is over 1,000 more Democrats than Republicans registering each month, are your new voters and the new citizen ceremonies," said Busby, referring to local voter registration.

Democrats only have a slight lead in San Diego County, where 35 percent of registered voters are Democrats, 33 percent are Republicans, with most the rest decline to state.

Paying attention to the region’s growing diversity is something politicians may want to consider as they campaign, particularly those vying to represent Ali and Dennehy and their Kensington and Teralta neighbors on the San Diego City Council.

Dennehy said Kensington residents are already getting door hangers from the campaigns. Ali said that's not happening yet on her largely immigrant block in Teralta. Even so, she plans to vote on June 7.

KPBS reporter Claire Trageser contributed to this story.

Copyright 2016 KPBS. To see more election coverage, visit http://www.KPBS.org/.