Sunday, April 30, 2006

Queer Democrats Endorse Wilson for School Board
Maintain Acceptable Ratings for Hunter’s Three Opponents

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

During an often contentious meeting April 27 that lasted nearly three hours, the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club endorsed Jim Wilson for the District B seat on the San Diego Unified School District board of trustees even though he breezed in at the last minute and participated only in the candidates’ closing statements. The club thus reversed its position from four years ago, when it endorsed Katherine Nakamura despite concerns from some members that she was too close to the district’s controversial superintendent, Alan Bersin — who was later fired by the board, only to be hired by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as his education adviser.

Though Bersin is gone, the wounds from his controversial tenure in the district were still a major topic during the candidates’ discussion and the club members’ own debate. “I believe the school board needs help,” Wilson said when he finally did arrive. “We need to upgrade the staff and have a board that works together.” Wilson called for a stronger program to take on bullying students and more training for principals on how to handle situations where students are being harassed for any reason, including that they are or are suspected of being Queer.

The three candidates who did show up for the club’s forum were Nakamura, Marty Marcus and Mike McSweeney. McSweeney, whose name was printed on the club’s endorsement ballot by mistake — he’s a Republican and the club is allowed to endorse only Democrats — put a lot of club members off by what they regarded as a flippant attitude to their questions. Wilson explained his failure to show up until the very end of the forum as due to confusion over when in the club’s long agenda the school board race would be called; he said he’d been told to be there by 7:45 and that’s when he appeared.

“I’m an attorney and a mom with 12- and seven-year-old children,” Nakamura said. “Last time I had the endorsement of this club in a very contentious time, and it guided me and gave me strength for the last four years. I’ve become known for student safety. I’ve talked on TV about kids bringing pellet guns to school. There are kids who are mad at others because they’re LGBT [Queer] or ‘funny’ or have odd voices. It’s important that we stand up for those kids. I’ve done anti-bullying programs.” Nakamura also joked that she’d been in the annual pride parades “so often I tend to forget it.”

“I was a ‘Mr. Mom’ before it was fashionable,” said Marcus. “I taught in the district before, during and after Alan Bersin and his ‘blueprint’” — referring to the controversial “Blueprint for Student Success” Bersin instituted during his time as superintendent, which concentrated on reading and math to the exclusion of almost everything else. Marcus called for a move away from the ideas behind the blueprint and towards a broader educational program that will help graduates find jobs when they get out of high school. He also said he would come down especially hard on so-called “social promotions,” in which eighth graders are allowed to enter high school even though they haven’t mastered their skills and in some cases can’t even read well enough to do high-school work.

Nakamura and Wilson, considered the two highest-profile Democratic candidates, both offered impressive lists of endorsers. Nakamura had the backing of State Senators DeDe Alpert and Christine Kehoe and San Diego City Councilmembers Toni Atkins and Ben Hueso. But Wilson had important organizational endorsements, including the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee, the San Diego County Young Democrats and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council. Marcus’s only prominent endorser was former school board member Frances O’Neill Zimmerman, who was especially known for her fierce resistance to Bersin and his agenda. In the end, Wilson easily won the club’s endorsement, with 51 votes to 20 for Nakamura, one for Marcus and four for no endorsement.

The club also debated a potentially even more contentious issue regarding the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican incumbent Duncan Hunter in the 52nd Congressional District. At its February 23 meeting, the club had heard from three candidates in the Democratic Primary — John Rinaldi, Derek Casady and Karen Otter — all of whom scored 100 percent on the club’s issues questionnaire. The club voted not to make an endorsement, and instead to rate all three candidates “acceptable” — a designation the club uses either to support a non-Democrat, make a lesser-of-two-evils choice or, as here, when more than one candidate appears to qualify for club support.

The club’s decision not to endorse Rinaldi was first criticized by the Gay & Lesbian Times, which published an editorial that noted that Rinaldi is openly Gay and that a Queer club, other things being equal, ought to endorse a Queer candidate over even the most Queer-friendly heterosexuals. Then a club member asked that the decision be reconsidered after he heard a comment from a party caucus member to the effect that an openly Gay candidate was not electable in Hunter’s conservative district and “the whole ticket would go down in flames” if Rinaldi were nominated.

Club president Stephen Whitburn invited Rinaldi, Casady and Otter back for what turned into another candidates’ forum. Casady admitted that one of the people making anti-Queer comments about Rinaldi was his son-in-law, but after he found out about them he took his son-in-law’s name off his list of endorsers and removed the anti-Queer comments his son-in-law had posted on his Web site. Otter suggested that if the club withdrew the acceptable ratings for Casady and herself to endorse Rinaldi, “you could be harming the reputation of your club” by appearing to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Rinaldi said the attacks on his sexuality had changed the race and, while he’d expected them from Hunter and his Republican supporters, he hadn’t thought he’d be Queer-bashed by Democratic activists.

Eventually the club voted, 46 to 21, to let the acceptable ratings for all three candidates stand. Former club president Jeri Dilno decided to vote that way after she asked Casady and Otter how they had responded to the anti-Queer attacks on Rinaldi, and was satisfied with their responses that they hadn’t had anything to do with the attacks and had criticized them as soon as they heard about them. Most of the members who supported reconsidering the ratings and endorsing Rinaldi did so for reasons similar to those in the Gay & Lesbian Times editorial: that Rinaldi was openly Gay and a Queer club should be pushing the election of openly Queer candidates when they are serious and stand a good chance of winning.

The club also endorsed Steve Padilla, the openly Gay mayor of Chula Vista, for re-election and backed Pat Moriarty, a supporter of Padilla’s ambitious redevelopment agenda, for a seat on the Chula Vista City Council. In a whirlwind consideration of the statewide elective offices, the club split on the two big ones, rating Phil Angelides and Steve Westly acceptable for governor and John Garamendi and Jackie Speier acceptable for lieutenant governor, but made endorsements for the Democratic nominations in the other offices: Deborah Bowen for secretary of state, Rocky Delgadillo for attorney general, John Chiang for controller, Cruz Bustamante for insurance commissioner and Judy Chiu for the state board of equalization.