Odd bedfellows converge in San Diego congressional race

City Council President Georgette Gómez is backed by Justice Democrats, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and two past AIPAC presidents

In a Southern California congressional race, the pro-Israel community is largely throwing its support behind San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez, one of two Democrats vying to succeed outgoing Rep. Susan Davis in the November general election.

It’s a curious development, given that Gómez’s opponent — the Qualcomm heiress Sara Jacobs — would at first glance seem to be the obvious choice among pro-Israel advocates: Jacobs, a political centrist who worked on Hilary Clinton’s recent presidential campaign, is Jewish and has family in Israel. Gómez, on the other hand, is a grassroots activist who has been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Justice Democrats, the progressive political action committee that describes Israel as a “human rights violator.”

Yet Gómez — who makes clear that she rejects that part of the Justice Democrats platform while accepting the group’s endorsement — has emerged as the favored candidate among pro-Israel supporters in the reliably blue 53rd congressional district, which includes parts of San Diego as well as suburbs like La Mesa and Lemon Grove.

“The local pro-Israel community is very high on Gómez,” said Mark Mellman, the president of Democratic Majority for Israel who also heads up the Mellman Group, a polling and consulting firm which counts Gómez as a client. “Georgette Gómez,” he added, “will be a stronger and more effective advocate of the U.S.-Israel relationship than her opponent.”

Recent filings from the Federal Election Commission show that many outside San Diego feel similarly. Gómez has received individual contributions from pro-Israel heavyweights including philanthropist Stacy Schusterman as well as former AIPAC presidents Amy Friedkin and Mort Fridman.

It may come as a surprise that Gómez is the favored candidate at a time when progressive politicians tend to hold views that can seem dismissive of the Jewish state. But there is no reason why a candidate who leans far left shouldn’t be pro-Israel, said Jeff Mendelsohn, the founding executive director of Pro-Israel America. It just doesn’t happen that often. 

“We should not be surprised that someone who is progressive is pro-Israel,” Mendelsohn told JI. “I think we should be surprised when someone is progressive and is not pro-Israel.”

Still, as much as they seem to appreciate Gómez’s views, there are reasons to believe that her national supporters are, in fact, more motivated over concerns with her opponent’s approach to the Middle East. Jacobs calls for conditions on U.S. aid to Israel, saying the U.S. should speak out against settlement construction, and argues that the U.S. should rejoin the Iran deal. 

Gómez, who is in her early 40s, says she hadn’t given much thought to these issues until April 2019, when a gunman opened fire during Passover services at the Chabad of Poway synagogue just outside San Diego, killing one and injuring three. The shooting was a wake-up call for Gómez, a queer Latina who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. 

As she mourned with the Jewish community, Gómez came to recognize that her own membership in a marginalized group gave her a common bond with another demographic familiar with discrimination.

Since the shooting, Gómez has sought to educate herself, meeting with community members in an effort to deepen her understanding of Jewish issues and challenge her own assumptions. 

Her close bond with the local Jewish community is a testament to a career spent building grassroots relationships and advocating for marginalized groups, according to Michael Kagan, a young activist who is involved with a number of pro-Israel organizations in San Diego. 

“She stands up for marginalized people,” Kagan said. “That’s what San Diego Jews want.” 

Gómez was elected to the City Council in 2016. Before that, she served as chair of the Metropolitan Transit System as well as the associate director of the Environmental Health Coalition and as an advocate for victims of domestic and sexual abuse. 

One reason the local Jewish community has gravitated to Gómez over Jacobs, Kagan told JI, is because it is refreshing that a progressive candidate would find a pro-Israel policy approach to be not only compatible but “intrinsically connected” with a progressive mandate. “I think it’s remarkable to see,” he said. 

Georgette Gómez

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Gómez told JI that she had been planning to form an advisory committee in order to hash out some policy points regarding the Middle East, but it has been put on hold as she is now focused on the crisis. 

Still, she has managed to develop some positions on the issues while acknowledging that she is far from an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It’s been an evolving process,” she said. She supports a two-state solution, for instance, but doesn’t endorse any particular strategy for getting there because she doesn’t think it is her place to say. 

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to even state what parameters,” said Gómez. “I wouldn’t feel correct going there.” 

Gómez believes the United States should continue its foreign aid to Israel and that it should restore aid to the Palestinian Authority. She doesn’t support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, known as BDS. She also rejects President Donald Trump’s peace plan, which did not involve the Palestinians in its conception.

“I honestly think that it was a political point,” said Gómez, who has not been to Israel but said she would like to visit if elected to Congress.

Jacobs, who has been to Israel several times, is also critical of the president’s plan, endorsing a two-state solution that brings both sides to the negotiating table. 

But her views and approach differ from her opponent’s — in both tone and substance. “I think that the biggest threat to Israel’s overall security is the lack of a negotiated settlement that creates two states for two people,” she told JI. “That’s the only way we’re going to get to a place where Israelis can live in safety and security and Palestinians can live with dignity and autonomy.”

“It’s clear that there will need to be some boundary changes in order to make this logistically work,” she added, without specifying what those changes would be. “But I think all of that should be part of a negotiated settlement not done outside of that process.”

With regard to U.S. involvement in the region, Jacobs was firm. “I think that everything that the United States does in regards to the conflict needs to be done with the lens of bringing us closer to a negotiated two-state solution.” 

Jacobs hinted at the possibility that she would support conditioning U.S. aid to Israel if the country tried, for example, to annex any part of the West Bank. “That should be considered a red line that has us rethink some of the ways we engage,” Jacobs told JI.

Jacobs believes the U.S. should continue to fund the United Nations and other international organizations, specifically stressing the need for the U.S. to resume funding to U.N. agencies that serve Palestinians.  

Jacobs supports rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, telling JI that Trump’s decision to leave it was misguided. “I do believe it’s still the best way to ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon,” she said.

As for BDS, Jacobs was critical, telling JI that the movement has “strains” of antisemitism. “However,” she added, “I do support individuals’ First Amendment rights to engage in BDS if they so choose. I don’t think it makes sense to criminalize it,” she said, referring to legislation that allows states to deny contracts to organizations and companies participating in boycotts targeting Israel.

Jacobs declined to comment when asked if she agreed with the Justice Democrats’ stance on Israel. 

Gómez, meanwhile, told JI that she had been transparent about her pro-Israel views with Justice Democrats. “I was really, really clear,” she said. “I didn’t waffle or any of that, but they chose to support me.” (Justice Democrats did not respond to numerous requests for comment.) 

After the Justice Democrats endorsement, Gómez said some of her pro-Israel supporters expressed concerns over the group’s stances, so to assuage those concerns she published an essay in the San Diego Jewish World in which she publicly expressed, among other things, her support for the Jewish state.

Jacobs came out on top in the March 3 jungle primary — besting Gómez by a margin of nearly 10 percentage points — but Gómez still has a solid chance of defeating her opponent in the November election, according to Brian Adams, a political scientist at San Diego State University. 

Gómez also has institutional support, having been endorsed by the California Democratic Party, and her progressive views are in line with voters in the district, which went for Sanders by more than 10 points over Joe Biden in the presidential primary.

Sara Jacobs

Jacobs, who is 31, touts her extensive resume — which includes experience at the federal level — in justifying why voters should elect her. 

She worked for the U.N., UNICEF and the State Department before going on to serve as a policy advisor for Hilary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. She is the founder of the nonprofit organization San Diego for Every Child and now serves as a scholar in residence at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies.

According to a source — and evidenced from recent social media posts — Jacobs is currently dating Ammar Campa-Najjar, a congressional candidate in the nearby 50th district, who previously told JI he has a Jewish girlfriend. (Jacobs and Campa-Najjar have yet to confirm the relationship.)

But her previous run in another district may work against her, Adams told JI. 

Jacobs, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the nearby 49th district two years ago, is trying again in a new district. She has put more than $2.7 million of her own money into her current campaign. Her grandfather, Irwin Jacobs — the billionaire co-founder of Qualcomm — also  established a PAC, Forward California, through which he and his wife, Joan, have poured at least $1.5 million into helping their granddaughter get elected. (The PAC did not respond to a request for comment.)

It is unclear how far the money will get her. “She’s got a lot of baggage,” Adams said of Jacobs. “That background that she has is not a particularly strong background when you’re running in this district.”

Gómez, for her part, believes that a career spent working at the grassroots level gives her a personal connection with voters, and her close bond with Jewish San Diegans is no exception. 

If elected, she hopes to serve as a kind of “progressive bridge” between the activist left and the pro-Israel community, “really trying to break those barriers,” she said, “that are creating division.”

Updated: After publication, a spokesperson for Jacobs emailed JI the following statement, “Sara believes annexation should make the U.S. reconsider its approach, but would not immediately trigger freezing aid. Sara also supports the ten-year MOU, which would prevent any type of conditional aid on defense assistance for a ten-year period (2016-2026).”

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