Progressive San Diego Hosts Post-Election Forum
Focuses More on San Diego, California Failures than Nationwide Successes
By MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The reception and program Progressive San Diego hosted November 17 in the 19th floor conference room of the Lerach, Coughlin, Stoia, Geller, Rudman and Robbins law firm downtown was called “Looking Back, Looking Forward: Election ‘Lessons Learned’ Forum.” It featured a stellar group of panelists, including three people who had run for office (and lost) in the 2006 elections: Francine Busby, who ran surprisingly close races against Republican Brian Bilbray in the 50th Congressional District; Richard Barrera, union activist who was swamped by Republican incumbent Ron Roberts for the County Board of Supervisors in the 4th District; and Lorena Gonzalez, who was beaten handily by establishment Democrat Ben Hueso for the 8th District seat on the San Diego City Council and is now political director for the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council.
Also on the panel were San Diego Democratic County Central Committee chair and former San Diego Democratic Club president Jess Durfee; Laura Hunter, Clean Bay Campaign director of the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC); and Scott Lewis, political reporter for the Voice of San Diego news Web site and the token Republican on the panel — a status he and the other panelists joked about frequently. The moderator was David Rolland, editor of the San Diego CityBeat. But despite an enthusiastic preamble by Rolland ridiculing the idea that the Democratic Party’s takeover of both houses of Congress was “just a slight shift” of the electorate on the Iraq war and Congressional corruption, most of the program focused on the progressive community’s defeats in California — particularly on the statewide propositions — and locally in San Diego.
Durfee recalled doing media interviews on the floor of Golden Hall on election night — and having Busby’s 10-point loss to Congressmember Brian Bilbray, the Republican who had beaten her in the June 6 special election to fill out the rest of Cunningham’s term, thrown in his face by the reporters. “Typically the media don’t ask about local stuff, but on election night they kept asking about Francine and why the Democrats couldn’t pick up a seat here,” he said. He pointed to the 14 percentage point advantage the Republicans had over the Democrats in the district — far greater, he said, than the registration difference in the seats the Democrats did win in other states to give them the House majority — and said Busby’s race was a partial victory for Democrats because “the $5-6 million the Republicans spent on [defeating] Francine was money they couldn’t spend somewhere else.”
Busby herself said she was proud of having come so close, losing to Bilbray by only five points in the special election in June and then by 10 points in November. “When you look across the state, most races are divided by 30 to 40 points,” she said. “I came within 10 points and exploded the myth that this is a monolithic district.” She said that she raised $3 million for the November election, and $2.5 million was local money she raised herself (in contrast to the June election, where she had help from the Democratic National Congressional Committee). According to Busby, thanks to the efforts of her campaign the Democrats have “an organization of 6,000 people in the district ready now to start working for 2008. This is [Democratic national chair] Howard Dean’s model: if you write off districts as ‘unwinnable’ you can’t win them even when they become winnable.”
Durfee said he was proud of the fact that three Democratic candidates for state offices — Bill Lockyer for treasurer, John Chiang for controller and Jerry Brown for attorney general — carried San Diego County. “This county is slowly shifting to a more progressive county,” he said. “Personalities had something to do with it, but four years ago Lockyer was running for re-election as attorney general and he lost San Diego County. This year, he ran for a different office and won. A lot has to do with the ground organization and the momentum from the inspiration for Francine’s efforts. Outside the city of San Diego we were disappointed in the local nonpartisan races” — Democratic incumbent Steve Padilla lost the Chula Vista mayoralty to Republican Cheryl Cox, wife of county supervisor Bill Cox; and National City’s mayor’s office fell out of Democratic hands for the first time in 24 years — “and we need to do a better job of identifying and supporting candidates.”
Gonzalez said the key difference between the races the Democrats won in San Diego County and those they lost was whether they had the support of the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Lockyer and Chiang were endorsed by the Union-Tribune,” she explained. “They did not endorse Lockyer last time.” She also said that the Republicans are doing a better job than the Democrats of making nominally “nonpartisan” races for local offices like mayor, city councilmember and county supervisor tests of party loyalty. According to Gonzalez, Democrats were able to get Katherine Nakamura re-elected to the San Diego Unified School District board by making her race against a very partisan Republican opponent — Mike McSweeney, vice-chair of the San Diego County Republican Central Committee — a test of party loyalty. Padilla lost the mayor’s office in Chula Vista, she added, because “we were late in running it as a partisan race.”
Perhaps the bitterest part of the November 7 election, the panelists seemed to agree, was the 2 to 1 margin by which Proposition C, Mayor Jerry Sanders’ proposal to privatize city services, passed in the city of San Diego. According to Lewis, the main reason it won so easily was that here, as on so many other issues, the Republicans did their homework and strategized long-term — and the Democrats didn’t. “The C supporters started their campaign months ago,” he said. “One thing Tom Shepard [the Republican consultant who ran the Yes on C campaign] does is chase absentee ballots, and then send people mailings telling them how to vote right after they receive their ballots in the mail. When money finally came in from the unions against C, it was late and had a muddled message. Had it been seen the way some of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s initiatives were [in 2005], it would have been closer.”
“Proposition C was over before the campaign began because of Jerry Sanders, the money, the organizational strength of the proponents and also because conservatives are dominating the storyline in San Diego,” Barrera added. “The middle class is eroding all over the country and especially in San Diego. Half of all San Diego households can’t afford the basics, and yet the conventional wisdom about local government is all about how the unions blew a hole in the city budget. When we underfiunded the city’s pension obligations, we didn’t spend the money on working families; we spent it to expand the Convention Center and to bring the Republican national convention to San Diego.”
Barrera also said that instead of relying on a dubious argument that Proposition C would jeopardize public safety — which ended up in a pointless debate over whether front-line police and fire services could be contracted out under the proposition (nothing in its language said they couldn’t be, but Mayor Sanders, a former police chief, assured voters that wouldn’t happen and they believed him) — the issue should have been framed as, “Are we going to take jobs that now provide health care and outsource them to the private sector, so the same people will be doing them but without health care? We didn’t articulate that during the campaign, and now we have to raise the question of at least setting standards so that the jobs that are outsourced at least have health benefits.”
Lewis agreed that the passage of Proposition C was aided by the mistakes made by its opponents — “they made a mistake in saying your house was going to burn down” if it passed, he said — but he thought the victory for C was more than just an anti-union backlash. “It’s a mistake for progressives to let the unions take the fall for the city’s pension crisis,” Lewis explained. “Republicans have been in control of this city for years, and yet they’ve been able to cast the blame for the city’s problems on the unions. There has to be a way for you guys to find that higher ground and capture the voters’ outrage the way they have.”
Asked by Rolland if progressive campaigns in San Diego generally are as sophisticated as they could be, Durfee said, “Absolutely not. The Republicans in San Diego have, by comparison, virtually unlimited resources. There’s so much money coming from the business community to Republican candidates and consultants. We have very few consultants, and not all of them are exclusively Democratic. Lorena’s campaign consultant was from Sacramento, and it was a completely new experience for me to work with a fully professional consultant. We’ve got to be more sophisticated on our campaigns, working with and recruiting and training candidates.”
Gonzalez again pointed to the power of the Union-Tribune as one reason the Democrats in San Diego have such difficulty getting candidates to run for office. “We have a local newspaper that will set out to destroy any Democrat who runs in a competitive district. We’re trying to find candidates to run for City Council in District 7 [eastern San Diego and the College area, currently represented by Republican Jim Madaffer] and District 1 [La Jolla and northern San Diego, currently represented by moderate Democrat Scott Peters]. When you start talking to people who would be good candidates, they say, ‘Why would I want to put myself through that?’” She noted that the Union-Tribune endorsed Katherine Nakamura for school board the first time she ran, against a labor-backed Democrat; but this year, since her opponent was a Republican, “they wrote about how crazy she was.”
According to Gonzalez, at her own meeting with the Union-Tribune editorial board when they were deciding whom to endorse in District 8, “they asked me my position on illegal immigration and on late-term abortions. You can tell that the most fair the Union-Tribune will ever be to a competitive Democrat is, ‘She’s bright and articulate, but she’ll be a tool of Big Labor.”
“I would question whether the Union-Tribune editorial board has that much power,” Lewis replied. “I would doubt that somebody who knows enough about a City Council race to read an editorial like that would be swayed by it.”
“When we’re trying to find candidates, we have to convince people that they’ll have the resources and organization they need to run a campaign they can be proud of,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes we have good candidates who have no idea of what it takes to be competitive. We have to be professional and do polling to find messages that work. That’s what the other side does.” She cited the example of independent businesswoman Olga Diaz, who ran unsuccessfully for city council in Escondido at least in part as a protest against the ordinance the current council passed making it illegal for landlords to rent to undocumented immigrants. “We need to take someone like that and give her the background and organization to run a race in a district in which she could actually win,” Gonzalez said.
Part of the discussion turned on the fate of three progressive propositions on the statewide ballot: 86, which would have increased the tax on cigarettes to fund health care; 87, which would have taxed oil companies to fund research on alternative energy; and 89, which would have established a so-called “clean elections” alternative for candidates to run in public funding similar to currently existing programs in Maine and Arizona. Propositions 86 and 87 were swamped by ad campaigns funded by the industries that would have been affected, but 89, even without a similarly intense corporate-funded campaign against it, was defeated by a 3 to 1 margin: the latest in a long series of statewide votes in which Californians have decisively rejected any proposals to fund political campaigns with tax money.
Of all the progressive losses on the statewide propositions, the overwhelming defeat of Proposition 89 clearly rankled the Progressive San Diego panelists and audience more than any other. “Clean campaigns is really important,” Barrera said. “The battle is the ad they can always run against us that ‘the taxpayers are paying for campaigns.’” Barrera said that while still looking for ways to pass clean elections, progressives need to recognize that the current system of financing elections through big-money private donors is going to be the status quo in California for the foreseeable future, and they need to learn to play the game and “figure out how to raise money and build our institutions.”
For an example, Barrera returned to the Proposition C campaign in San Diego and noted, “One thing I thought interesting was that the mayor and the campaign for C ran a message that was anti-labor but pro-worker. They understand there’s a need for a pro-worker message. We’ve got a challenge to build our local labor movement so it can compete with big business in funding campaigns. We do have an ability to raise money at the grass-roots level. We just have to do it consistently and figure out ways to get people to give money to the Democratic Party. In his Presidential campaign Howard Dean worked out a way to get people to give small individual donations through the Internet. I don’t think we should wave the white flag.”
Though disappointed at the outcome of the Chula Vista mayor’s race — particularly since it removed an important pro-environment voice from the California Coastal Commission, on which Padilla sat — Hunter said her group has had successes organizing residents of Barrio Logan, National City and Chula Vista around the problems caused by high-polluting industries in their neighborhoods. Though somewhat hampered by her group’s 501 ( c ) (3) status, which makes it impossible for them to endorse specific candidates, she said her group has been good at “linking issues with politics … and also improving voting habits among the people most impacted in this debate. We realized years ago that we really need to educate our people about the issues and their own self-interest. We need to do grass-roots outreach and really connect with people. We have to start the conversations earlier and make them ongoing.”