Chula Vista candidates racing toward June election

Now through June The Star-News will feature interviews with candidates running for a variety of public offices.

Zaneta Encarnacion


Zaneta Encarnacion is running for Chula Vista mayor being vacated by Mayor Mary Casillas Salas. Encarnacion, a 48-year-old Democrat has lived in Chula Vista since 2004, born and raised in San Diego County. Encarnacion is currently the chief of staff for the superintendent/president of Southwestern College.

When Encarnacion moved from San Ysidro and began working in Chula Vista, she worked in the executive office for former mayor Steve Padilla in constituent services and community relations manager after working at UCSD for 12 years in public outreach, public and health advocacy. She said she met Padilla through the Institute of Public Strategies when it asked her to speak to the mayor about banning smoking in outdoor dining areas.

Encarnacion said she worked at Padilla’s office for his last two years, which was a challenging time.

“There was kind of a distain for politics,” she said. “I never thought I would work in politics again, let alone run for office. But I really fell in love with local policy through the lens of community. In my role there, I really got to see how communities improve, how they thrive, but only if you have an engaged citizenship, people who know what their rights are, and they know the process to get things done. And you have a city and an administration that helps, assists, and navigate community through that process.”

Encarnacion said this process is a “sweet spot” that she fell in love in creating and her love for the community. She said she left that position with the determination to use the knowledge she gained to make her community better.

Encarnacion said she realized that policy is a tool to make things better.

“People think of policy, and it is not always sexy, but if you have a policy that talks about how often you are going to fix streets, which makes life better,” she said. “So, I have been in that space, managing different policy boards. I am currently at Southwestern College as the chief of staff for the superintendent/president advocating for higher education access for students here in Chula Vista. I have stayed in that professional space, so I have more than 10 years of experience as an executive leader in two of our largest public institutions on the policy side and the public administration side. I also understand the tension that happens between policy and then implementing policy.”

Encarnacion said these skills makes her unique as a candidate with that breadth of experience in local government, along with her years of experience in community and public service doing work in this community with residents and community members.

“Even though I like to say I am a new name on the ballot, I am certainly not a new name in this community,” she said. “I am uniquely positioned out of all the candidates to actually be effective and start the job on day one because of that experience.”

Encarnacion said she thinks the biggest priorities are much the same for all candidates, and that is the balance of the city’s housing needs, and its need for economic development, bringing in high paying jobs building the city’s revenue base.

“As the city has grown, our revenue pie has not,” she said. “All the issues we have such as our fire and police are some of the lowest salaried in the region. Looking at quality of life when people spend an hour and a half commuting outside the city. How can they engage in the community when they spend that much time on the road? And what does that do to our tax revenue when they drive away for work and spend their money in different cities? We do not have the customer base to keep businesses open.”

Encarnacion said the balance in ensuring there is enough accessible and affordable housing, and at the same time not losing sight on the need for physical and community infrastructure needed to support residents, is a critical balance that she believes the city has not done a good job in doing.

“We need to have stronger partnerships with our chamber and business community,” she said. “We need to make sure that the city is leading and modeling and what that looks like. The city has a lot of opportunity, with our own public dollar, could be invigorating economic health. We can look at who are contractors are, our vendors, our small businesses. Are we purchasing from our own businesses here? I am a taxpayer. I would like to know that my taxpayer’s dollars are supporting local businesses, so they do not have to leave.”

Encarnacion said there is a synergy between all of this that you do not always get in public institutions because they are bureaucracies and small silos, and as a resident, you rely on it all working together.

“That is probably the biggest priority of mine,” she said. “Making sure we look at policy comprehensively, and to bring in the community voice into decision making. What we have here are many rich solutions housed in the community, and we have not done a good job in inviting those voices to the table. Or even bringing those decisions out to the community.”

Encarnacion said partnering with the city’s educational institutions, continuing much of her work at the college, but as the mayor. She said she believes the city should be involved in creating the pathways for local students access to higher education.

“I have been able to partner with San Diego universities to bring four-year degrees to Southwestern College,” she said. “Students do not have leave their city. We are breaking ground on a university center at the end of this year that has room on campus for up to seven university partners. Which will be extremely complimentary to the city’s efforts to activate our university and innovation park site. How it happens, if you look at CSU San Marcos, it started at a high school. But the demand grew so much it became and built a justification in the rationale for a new university.”

Encarnacion said she is excited about opportunities with the bayfront project as it will provide so much more economic contribution to the city, but she does worry about gentrification in west Chula Vista.

“I think you would be a fool not to worry about that,” she said. “We see it happen in communities all the time. Gentrification affects housing and businesses. It pushes out small businesses and brings in big chains. It pushes out current residents and brings in people that can afford much higher prices. The city can do much through policy to mitigate some of that impact, ensuring that new developments pay their fair share for our affordable housing fund. Putting restrictions on some new developments that sets aside for retail leasing for a certain percentage of our local small businesses. We also have a lot of city and public land on the west side adjacent to our transit lines, so we have the opportunity in looking at land we own in looking at affordable housing opportunities. One of my priorities is creating a pathway to home ownership, because I know the benefits of owning your own home. Not only economically, but in terms of family. I am the only homeowner in my family and because I own it, my brother was married here, we have had nephews and nieces live here to get on their feet, we host every family gathering. There is much more of a ripple effect when you own your home and have a say in what happens at that property.”
Encarnacion said her pathway is not only about middle income families that have a hard time getting into the market, but that projects should have an entry point for all types of housing from homes to studios, lofts, and looking at partnerships like community land trusts that bring in affordable housing that has low rent, but in 10 to 20 years, has low purchasing opportunities for individuals that are there.

“There are many policy tools out there that we can do address and ensure that we as a city are doing to carve out and protect the rights of tenants, the rights of existing residents so they do not get pushed out,” she said. “And the same thing for small businesses as well.”
Encarnacion said one of the reasons she loved the community so much is that it finally gave her a stability that she did not have growing up.

“I was raised by a single dad,” she said. “He was diagnosed with PTSD from being a combat war veteran in Vietnam. Troubled childhood. Lived on the streets at 13-years-old for a year and a half, dropped out of high school. But now, I am a college graduate. I have my master’s and am halfway through my doctorate program. How that journey happened, was people that came around me, supported me, saw potential in me that I did not see, and cheered me on. So, I have gone through life with a real weight of responsibility to help other people and be that person that I had for me to represent the voices that do not always get represented. Understand the perspectives and journeys that people have when they struggle.”

Encarnacion said because of that, when she moved to Chula Vista, she dove into public service, community service, joined boards and commissions, the Chula Vista Rotary past president, built the Chula Vista Community Foundation.

“When I came in there were 18 members and when I left there was over 100,” she said. “We just celebrated $850,000 raised in an endowment that serves Chula Vista causes, and residents in need.”