Sunday, July 29, 2007

State Senator Kehoe Addresses Queer Democrats

Report on State Budget Crisis Highlight of Wide-Ranging Meeting


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Christine Kehoe, who in 1993 became the first openly Queer elected official in San Diego County and has since risen from the San Diego City Council to the State Asssembly and now the State Senate, made a dramatic appearance at the July 26 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club to discuss the ongoing state budget crisis. California’s constitution requires the state legislature to pass, and the governor to sign, a budget by July 1, but frequently that deadline isn’t met — and this year the legislature is almost a month behind, with no end in sight. “It could be solved by the time I get back to Sacramento,” Kehoe said, “or it could take one week, or more.”

The problem, Kehoe explained, is that California’s constitution requires a two-thirds vote of each house of the legislature to pass a budget. This requirement, which only two other states (Arkansas and Rhode Island) have, was enacted during the 1930’s, in the middle of the Great Depression, on the theory that it would make legislators more responsible about spending the state’s money. What it does now is give Republicans in the state legislature effective veto power over the budget, despite the overwhelming Democratic majority in both houses. The Democratic majority needs at least six Republican votes in the Assembly and two in the Senate to pass a budget and send it to the governor.

The Assembly actually passed its own version of the budget, though the Democrats in that house agreed to major cuts in social programs, especially those affecting senior citizens and people with disabilities, to get the six GOP crossover votes they needed. Then the Assemblymembers left town — and the budget they’d passed ran into a stone wall in the Senate. Dick Ackerman, Senate minority leader, had organized his caucus so that no Republican would vote for a budget unless a majority of the Republican members signed on to it — and, according to Kehoe, they’re using that clout to demand even more far-reaching cuts in social programs and environmental protection.

“Their latest round of cuts would decimate services to disabled people and senior citizens,” Kehoe told the San Diego Democratic Club. “We can’t vote for what they want and they won’t vote for what we want.” Kehoe explained that it’s up to the Democratic leader in the Senate, Don Perata, to do what he can to break the Republican caucus’s unity and peel off the two Republican votes needed to pass a budget. “It won’t be a good budget for Democrats,” Kehoe warned, “but it’ll be the only budget we can get.”

Kehoe said various groups are organizing grass-roots lobbying campaigns aimed at the presumably more moderate Republican Senators: Mark Wyland, Dennis Hollingsworth and George Plescia of North and East San Diego County, Abel Maldonado from Santa Barbara, Jeff Denham from Salinas. “Hollingsworth, Wyland and Plescia are our local representatives, and it wouldn’t hurt to give them a call,” Kehoe said. “Teachers are calling them, and it’s getting to be a public safety issue. Don Perata said the other day that if the Republicans want to shut down the state government, they’re getting close.”

Because of the budget impasse, Kehoe said, 2007 was the first time in 23 years that she missed San Diego’s LGBT Pride Parade. July 20, the Friday before the parade, “was the day they locked us in,” Kehoe recalled — a failed attempt by Senate Democrats to get the needed two Republican votes for the budget by closing the doors overnight. Kehoe said she looked at her watch as the lockdown continued past 7:15 a.m., the latest she could have caught a plane and arrived in San Diego in time to appear in the parade. “My hats are off to Bob Pednick, who drove an empty car with a sign saying, ‘She’s stuck in Sacramento,’” Kehoe said.

Kehoe’s dramatic appearance overshadowed the rest of the club’s meeting, which featured former club president Stephen Whitburn — whose campaign for the San Diego City Council was endorsed by the club at its previous meeting June 28 — and the president of the Stonewall Young Democrats of San Diego (the club’s youth caucus), Brandon Shawn Tate. Tate reported on a nationwide Young Democrats of America convention in Dallas from which he’d just returned, and noted with pride that the Young Democrats had elected their first openly Gay president, David Hart. According to Tate, the newly elected executive vice-president is also Gay, and the president of the California Young Democrats, Chris LaStreet, is a Lesbian — a major step forward, he explained, for an organization that has been slower to elevate Queer women to power than Queer men.

Much of Tate’s short speech was devoted to exploding the myth that young people today are more conservative than their elders. In fact, he said, the opposite is true. “In 2004, the 18-30 age group was the only one John Kerry carried in the presidential race,” Tate said. “In California, in 2006, 54 percent of young people who voted voted Democratic. If you attended the recent state convention in San Diego, they presented poll results that up to three out of every four young people who vote in California vote Democratic.”

Asked whether it was the war in Iraq that sparked young people to move away from conservative politics and vote Democratic, Tate said that was just one factor — and not the most important one — moving his generation in a more liberal direction. “A lot of us are very involved in environmental issues,” he said. “It’s a big problem that we feel we’re going to be more involved with than members of other generations. LGBT [Queer] issues are also something on which our generation is a lot more accepting. Even our generation’s conservative members are more accepting of diversity in general. The war is actually less important than these other issues. As much as we want people to be active in stopping the war, we haven’t seen that as much as we have on other issues.”

The club also considered a friendly-incumbent endorsement for San Diego Unified School District board member Sheila Jackson, which turned out to be unexpectedly controversial when veteran Latina activist Gracia Molina de Pick criticized her for voting to establish a junior ROTC program at Mission Bay High School. Molina noted that 75 percent of Mission Bay’s students are people of color, and said that for the school board to authorize an ROTC on campus is just facilitating the U.S. military’s strategy of recruiting people of color as cannon fodder for America’s current and future wars.

Jackson, who is African-American, defended the ROTC vote as a way of broadening the available programs for Mission Bay students. “Mission Bay High School recruits a lot of minority students and offers only high-end programs,” she said. “I am not a proponent of young people going into the military, but I want them to have activities and programs. A lot of students are not given the opportunity to participate in the programs they have now.” Partly on the strength of her record on Queer issues and community access for people of color in general, and partly because as yet she has no serious opposition, the club gave Jackson the benefit of the doubt and overwhelmingly endorsed her.

At the end of the meeting, former Congressional candidate Francine Busby, Lake San Marcos Democratic Club president Betty Ball and San Diego County Democratic Party staff member Ryan Hurd gave a presentation on something called the “GO Team” — “GO” standing for “grass-roots organizing.” It’s an attempt to use the principle of multi-level marketing to build a long-term political presence in San Diego County, precinct by precinct, that can develop ongoing relationships with Democratic voters and turn them out reliably. Busby said that had something like the GO Team existed during her hard-fought North County Congressional campaigns against disgraced former Congressmember Randy “Duke” Cunningham and his Republican successor, Brian Bilbray, she could have won those elections.