Saturday, February 04, 2006

Grass-Roots Supervisor Candidate Speaks to Queer Dems

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Though the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club had a long agenda at its January 26 meeting — including appearances by San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye (her first before the club since losing the November 2005 mayoral election to Jerry Sanders) and Lemon Grove School District board member George Gastil, whom the club endorsed for the Assembly seat currently held by Republican Shirley Horton — one highlight of the meeting was the talk by Richard Barrera. He’s running for Ron Roberts’ seat on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors as a virtual unknown, who’s never sought or held elective office before, and club members before the meeting were openly skeptical of the promises made on the campaign flyer he distributed — but Barrera’s remarks indicated not only a broad agenda for his potential constituents but knowledge and insight into how to get things done.

“The biggest question that comes up when I go door-to-door is people ask me, ‘What does the County do?’,” Barrera told the club. “The County does a lot of things, but its number one responsibility is to manage nearly all the health and human services programs funded by the federal and state governments to help people.” Barrera added that the problem with the current Board of Supervisors — all five of whom are Republicans who have been in office since 1994 or earlier — is that they really don’t believe in that mission, and therefore they don’t do a very good job at it.

“This Board has maintained the attitude that if you are struggling, it’s your own fault; you must be doing something wrong if you need help,” Barrera said. “There are 400,000 San Diego County residents without health insurance. Only nine percent of all San Diego County families can afford the median-priced house. We’ve got 100,000 senior citizens living alone with no source of services. Three out of every four working people make less than $10 an hour — less than the wage needed to support a family and meet basic needs. So how are you supposed to make it in San Diego on less than $10 an hour? And when they need some support, this Board gives them the attitude, ‘You’re a welfare case.’”

Barrera’s leaflet outlined an ambitious agenda to deal with these problems — including affordable home ownership and health care, pre-school and after-school programs and a “community-building approach” to social services for senior citizens — and left some club members scratching their heads at how he proposed to implement it and where he’d get the money to pay for it. In his presentation, Barrera claimed he knew a source for the money: resources already made available to the county by the federal and state governments, but which the current Board of Supervisors either doesn’t pursue or actively rejects.

The incident that made him decide to run for Supervisor illustrated just what Barrera was talking about. As an union organizer for in-home caregivers, who do housekeeping and personal care for senior citizens and people with disabilities and thereby enable to them to live independently at about one-tenth the cost of keeping them in nursing homes, Barrera had organized a group of caregivers to speak to the Board and demand a pay raise. According to Barrera, there was a state program the Board could have taken advantage of to raise the pay of home-care workers from $9 to $10.50 an hour; all they had to do was agree to advance one-sixth of the additional cost and the state would not only pick up the other five-sixths but would reimburse them. But the Board refused.

One of the people Barrera had recruited to speak before the Board and demand the raise for his caregiver was an 85-year-old man named Ambrosio whose home-care worker is his grandson, Ernesto. “If I didn’t have him, I would die,” Ambrosio told the Board — in Spanish, because he doesn’t speak English. “But he should be going to college, and all we’re asking for is enough of a wage increase so Ernesto can afford the books to go to school.” Ambrosio added that if Ernesto didn’t get the raise he would be tempted to let his grandson take another job to pay for school, even at the cost of his own life. Then, Barrera recalled, he got up to translate Ambrosio’s remarks — and just then the chair of the Board decided the two had talked long enough and cut him off.

“Rather than honoring Ambrosio for getting up at 6 a.m. and coming all the way there to talk to them, they cut him off,” Barrera said. “We need a different voice up there. We cannot afford to have the same five people bullying and intimidating people. We need a voice up there that regards Ambrosio and his grandson Ernesto not as welfare cases, but as heroes.”

Donna Frye’s return to the club was an even more emotional experience. “I want you to know how happy you’ve made me, how kind and generous this community has been to me,” she said. She officially announced her candidacy for re-election to the District 6 City Council seat — something she said she hadn’t yet done to any previous group she’s spoken to — and pooh-poohed the allegations by the San Diego Union-Tribune that Frye is in trouble in her district because her opponent, mayor Jerry Sanders, carried it in the runoff.

In fact, Frye and Sanders have got along surprisingly well, she said. “The second day he was in office he took me to lunch,” she said. “It is a very good working relationship despite all the nasty things he said about me during the campaign.”

The club also heard from North County Congressional candidate Jeeni Criscenzo, who’s taking on Darrell Issa in the Republican-dominated 49th district. She said that, precisely because the registration was so lopsided against her and Issa is the richest man in Congress, “I’m perfectly free to say what I want because I’ve got nothing to lose.” She lampooned the “advisors” and “consultants” who’ve come out of the woodwork as she’s done unexpectedly well in early polls to tell her to be more “moderate” and soft-pedal her opposition to the war in Iraq.

Noting that Republicans in general attack Democrats for allegedly not understanding “the severity of the threat” of terrorism after 9/11, Criscenzo said that the threat she’s most concerned about is the way the Bush administration is using terrorism as an excuse to attack Americans’ civil liberties. “We do need a Congressmember who understands the severity of the threat,” she said. “We need courage. The opposite of fear isn’t hope, it’s courage. I can’t offer you courage, but I can be a role model. We’re all tired of people who say what you want to hear during a campaign and then do what their biggest contributors want after they’re elected.”

Criscenzo boasted of her role in organizing the Thanksgiving vigil against the war in North County. “We got a lot of threats to our physical safety, but we proved we could stand silently and not respond,” she said, adding that the generally positive media coverage of the event proved that the press “got it.” She also talked about how she’d fielded questions about same-sex marriage and medical marijuana at candidates’ forums, saying that once two people — regardless of their genders — decide to make a lifetime commitment to each other “that brings us closer to God,” and citing the example of her own mother, who went through terminal cancer and used marijuana to control her own pain in the final stages. Criscenzo said she would like to ask County Supervisor Bill Horn — who’s spearheading the Board of Supervisors’ attempt to get California’s medical marijuana law thrown out by the courts — “what he would do if that was his mother.”

Another candidate who showed up for the meeting was former club board member Ted Weathers, who was appointed to the Superior Court as a judge by former governor Gray Davis and now has to stand for election to a full term. He circulated petitions to get his name on the ballot and joked that the judge he replaced was a hard-Right Republican known as “’Lysol Larry’ Stirling” — because in the 1980’s he once had his courtroom sprayed with Lysol after a person with AIDS had appeared before him.

Lorena Gonzalez, who narrowly lost the District 2 City Council seat to Republican Kevin Faulconer in a special election earlier in January, also appeared before the club and said she hadn’t yet decided to run again in the regular election for the seat, scheduled for later this year. She thanked the club for having endorsed her in the primary as well as the runoff and said, “I have never felt so welcome to a group I was new to.”

The club also heard from George Gastil, Lemon Grove school board member and candidate to replace Republican Shirley Horton in the 78th Assembly district, and chose to endorse his candidacy despite the possibility that another Democrat might run for the nomination in the primary. “This race is very important and also very close,” Gastil said, noting that it’s the only one in San Diego County that’s considered a “swing” seat that could go to either major party. In 2004, Horton squeezed out a narrow victory against Democrat Patty Davis largely, Gastil said, because Arnold Schwarzenegger came down and campaigned for her; this time, Gastil added, Schwarzenegger has fallen in popularity so much isn’t likely to be as helpful to Horton and might even cost her votes if he gets involved in the race.

Finally, the club heard from former City Councilmember John Hartley and Greg Bolian of the Clean Elections Campaign in San Diego. They are seeking a ballot initiative in the city of San Diego similar to those in Maine and Arizona, whereby candidates for office would be given the so-called “clean option.” They would qualify for public funding by obtaining signatures and $5 contributions from a minimum number of voters, and then their campaigns would be fully funded by public money provided they agreed to accept no further private contributions.

Hartley and Bolian admitted that their proposal wouldn’t control so-called “independent expenditure” campaigns by corporations, labor unions and political action committees, which legally can raise and spend as much money on an election as they want to so long as they aren’t coordinating their campaigns with the candidates or the official campaign organizations. They said their group is currently fine-tuning their proposal based on what their pollsters tell them is most likely to pass. Other questions still unanswered is where the money would come from in the city’s already shaky budget, how much each candidate would get and whether there’d be an increase — as there is in the Arizona law — in case a wealthy candidate puts a large amount of his own money into a race and thereby effectively tries to buy his or her way into office.