Steve Vaus is banking that his record leading the city of Poway will convince voters on Nov. 3 that he is best to represent District 2 on the County Board of Supervisors.
The District 2 race is one of the tightest in the county. In the March 3 primary, Vaus garnered 31% of the vote, just 3.5 percentage points behind former state senator Joel Anderson — a nearly even split with the remaining votes going to Democrat-backed Kenya Taylor (26.7%) and long-shot candidate Brian Sesko (8%). Both candidates tout their conservative bona fides in the deeply red district, while promising bipartisan compromises and solutions if elected to the seat currently held by termed-out Dianne Jacob. The outcome of the race may come down to which candidate can attract Democratic voters or can peel away conservative support from the other. Vaus believes he can do both because of the work he has done as mayor of Poway — a record he said he is “most proud” of.
An unconventional road to politics
Vaus was born in Los Angeles, but moved with his family to a Black Angus cattle ranch in Oregon when he was a toddler.
“That shaped my life,” he said. “When you got to get up at the crack of dawn to feed the cattle before you go to school, you learn something about hard work. And that has served me well.”
After high school, Vaus attended Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls, New York. While he was away, his parents returned to Southern California, settling in San Diego. When he graduated, he left the cold and snowy East Coast and moved back west.
Vaus’ first job after college was working for an organization that provided residential care for troubled youth — a precursor for his future life as a public servant.
“I have a heart for that social service aspect of the job,” he said.
However, Vaus also had a heart for music and soon pursued a career as a singer and songwriter.
“That had always been a passion of mine,” he said. “I wanted to try my hand at it and ended up getting the highest awards in the industry and being reasonably successful.”
Vaus credits the work ethic he learned growing up on a ranch for propelling him in the music industry. He also credits hard work for his success in politics — a profession he found himself in after leading a recall effort of a former Poway City Council member.
“Ten years ago, I couldn’t find Poway City Hall on a map,” Vaus said, after reading about a City Council member involved in a scandal, he decided to take action.
“I was really ticked off that this person could abuse the power of her office like that and the council had no ability to get rid of her,” he said of his successful recall effort. “And so I discovered I was pretty good at this kind of stuff and two years later I ran for City Council and I won. Two years after that I ran for mayor and won and I think we’ve gotten some important things done in Poway.”
Poway and SANDAG
Vaus said the secret to his success as mayor of Poway is “being accessible.”
“I’ll never forget a couple years in, once I became mayor, I got a letter from a little girl that they needed a stop sign in her neighborhood. She was worried about her friends being safe from cars,” he said. “And I just went down and knocked on their door — the look of shock on her mother’s face that the mayor would show up at the door.
“We’re all elected to be public servants,” he continued. “But far too many people in office focus on the public part — I prefer to focus on the servant part. I had all the public acclaim back in my entertainment days, I’m here to serve the people.”
As proof of Vaus’ record of serving the people, he points to a list of Poway’s strengths as a city — raked as safest in the county; ranked best to raise a family; safe roads; and strong fiscal standing with paid-down pension obligations and significant reserves.
“Right now we’re building a brand new senior and community center. It’s been talked about for 20 years. we’re finally getting it done and we’re paying cash,” he said, adding that the city recently completed a revitalization of its downtown and also has added around 490 acres of open space.
“All together, I think that offers a great blueprint for the rest of the county,” he said. “Being a supervisor is like being a super mayor. Day in and day out I’m taking care of the people here in Poway and that’s what you got to do as supervisor.”
In addition to being mayor of Poway, Vaus is also chair of SANDAG, having been voted by fellow members unanimously in 2018.
Transportation issues are of major concern to District 2 residents, especially in the back country. Vaus said he would continue the “balanced” approach he has taken as SANDAG chair if he is elected to board of supervisors, by promoting mass transit in urban areas and funding roads in rural areas.
At SANDAG, Vaus said he has already prioritized roads projects in District 2.
“Twenty years ago SANDAG made commitment to widen road from Ramona to Lakeside to four lanes. That’s been ignored,” he said. “I was able to lead a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to reprioritize the expansion of the 67 and completion of the 94/125 interchange; improvements or expansion to the 52 and improvements or expansion to the 78.”
Vaus said the coalition has budgeted $90 million to start the work.
When it comes to urban area, Vaus said there needs to be more options, but added that he sees a challenge getting people back on mass transit because of the pandemic. One way to meet the county’s transportation goals, he said, would be to encourage telecommuting by exploring countywide broadband WiFi — a proposition he added could also solve distance learning issues for families that lack internet connection.
“We got a lot of opportunities to do big things, we just got to make sure they are the right big things,” he said.
When it comes to dealing with the pandemic, Vaus said he supports being cautious about reopening because he doesn’t want to see mandatory shutdowns again.
“What the county is doing right is they’ve been acting very fact-based. We can’t have rules and regulations that are like a light switch – on, off, on, off,” he said. “I know it’s frustrating to a lot of people, but safety has to come first.”
Vaus said Poway was one of the first in the county to offer small business long-term loans.
“That has been incredibly helpful to our small businesses,” he said, adding that Poway was also one of the first to adopt a plan to allow businesses and churches to operate in outdoor public spaces.
Poway also started program where city purchased 100 picnic tables to loan to restaurants while restrictions are in place.
“After we get through with the pandemic, all the picnic tables can go into our parks,”
With fires currently threatening homes in District 2’s back country, Vaus said it is important for the Board of Supervisors to listen to locals and especially fire departments before approving any new housing developments in the district.
“You got to listen to your community planning boards. You got to make sure something fits with the character of the community and isn’t going to present fire challenges,” he said, adding that he is against developers using the ballot initiative process to circumvent locals stopping developments in their backyards.
“I worry about when these things go to the ballot,” he said. “Should someone in San Ysidro be voting on whether or not a new project goes in Fallbrook? I don’t think that’s appropriate. Are folks going to take the time to really understand what the challenges are, what the problems are? No, that’s going to come down to an advertising war.”
Vaus said he sees housing opportunities that “make a lot more sense” along the I-15 heading north, rather than in East County.
Mental health, homelessness
One of the biggest issues facing the county — the homeless crisis — is a personal one for Vaus. When he was a teenager, his older sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
“Once she turned 18, they couldn’t keep her any longer in the treatment facility, so they just turned her out and she wasn’t ready for that,” Vaus said. “She didn’t have the ability to take care of herself. She lived a rough and tumble life in the streets at times. We can do better than that. We have to do better than that.”
Vaus said he thinks the county has taken important strides in dealing with mental health and gives credit to Supervisor Nathan Fletcher who helped start a program to fund putting homeless into hotel rooms in the unincorporated areas of the county.
“Homelessness doesn’t respect city boundaries and we need to treat it that way,” Vaus said. “Look at Lamar Park out in Spring Valley. It gets cleaned out and tons of trash and tents removed but they keep coming back because there isn’t anywhere else to go.”
Although the county program is a “glimmer of hope,” Vaus said, there is still work to be done.
“It’s a now problem and it’s a longer-term problem. Let’s get them into those hotel rooms, but we need to solve the longer-term problem of transitional housing and then permanent housing, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
One plan he said he would look at would be to repurpose county-owned buildings into homeless shelters.
Ideas like that will take building support from across the county and across the political spectrum. Vaus said he is poised to do just that and pointed to his endorsements, which include mayors and city council members past and present from both sides of the aisle, as well as fire and law enforcement associations.
“I think it’s because they all know that as supervisor I would put people before politics and I’ll get things done,” he said. “I’m driven by people, not by politics. I’m not endorsed by a political party, I’m endorsed by people.”
—Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at [email protected]