A redrawn congressional district made more Democratic by the removal of heavily Republican areas in San Diego gave Scott Peters an opening to oust three-term GOP incumbent Brian Bilbray. Peters self-financed his campaign with more than $1 million and was one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s top “Red to Blue” candidates for picking up Republican-leaning seats.
Peters is the son of a Lutheran minister who fought against redlining in Detroit in the 1960s, when African-Americans and Jews were prevented from buying homes in some neighborhoods. After a threat against his family sparked a police chief to suggest his father take them out of town for a week, Peters went on his first plane ride—a trip to Washington—at around age 8. He was “kind of taken by it,” and got a book on the presidents and memorized their names in order, Peters said in an interview. At age 14, while the family was briefly living in Chicago, Peters had his first taste of politics campaigning for Democrat George McGovern’s unsuccessful 1972 presidential race.
He studied political science and economics at Duke. Peters, who was labeled an out-of-touch millionaire during his primary race, cited as one example of his modest roots his $2.55-an-hour college job cleaning pigeon cages for the psychology department. He went on to graduate from New York University’s law school.
His wife, Lynn Gorguze, forged a successful career in private equity, and her work brought them to San Diego in 1988. Peters had a wide-ranging, 16-year career as a lawyer in which he handled environmental regulation, corporate taxes, and litigation at various firms; served as a deputy county counsel; and opened his own private practice before being elected to the San Diego City Council in 2000.
During two back-to-back terms on the council—the last three years as president—Peters worked on issues including reducing sewage spills, completing highway projects, redeveloping neighborhoods to make them more walkable, boosting jobs with support for a downtown ballpark, and creating the city’s first ethics commission.
A self-proclaimed environmentalist, Peters has been a San Diego port commissioner since 2009, and also served as a California coastal commissioner. He was criticized during his council tenure for personal water bills that showed his household’s rate of consumption as nearly eight times the average resident’s while he publicly pushed water conservation. Peters argued that his property is large, and that he and his wife corrected the situation by consolidating the tropical plants, which require the most water, and installing a high-tech sprinkler system with moisture sensors.
Jumping into the 52nd District race, Peters endured a bruising primary battle against Lori Saldana, a former state Assembly member. She drew support from a left-leaning coalition of environmentalists and other liberal activists, but Peters snagged endorsements from a host of local Democratic officials, including outgoing 51st District Democratic Rep. Bob Filner, a liberal firebrand. Despite outspending her by 5-to-1, he eked out a victory by just 700 votes.
Running against Bilbray, Peters found himself on the defensive against GOP attacks that he underfunded public-employee pensions during his tenure on the council, something that had marred his unsuccessful race for city attorney in 2009. He responded by accusing Bilbray of talking as a moderate while voting as a conservative, and he regularly touted his desire not to be bound by ideology. “I’m just not a purist. You set goals and you have to work with everyone to figure out how to get what you can,” he said.
Stacy Kaper contributed to this article.