Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Photo: Jerry Butkiewicz

Controversies Flare at Queer Democrats’ Meeting

Labor Panel, Aguirre Appearance, Davis Endorsement Contentious


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

The August 23 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club was billed as a forum on Queers and the labor movement, featuring San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council head Jerry Butkiewicz and his political director, Lorena Gonzalez; Maru Lozano, openly Lesbian health educator in Los Angeles County and head of their chapter of the Queer labor organization Pride at Work; and Brian Polejes, Pride at Work’s national organizing chair and head of its San Diego chapter.

But two hot-button local issues involving labor — the Gaylord corporation’s development proposal for the Chula Vista bayfront and the lawsuit filed by four firefighters who claim they were ordered to drive their engine in the recent LGBT [Queer] Pride Parade against their wishes — turned the panel into an emotionally intense experience for participants and audience members alike. What’s more, the club also heard from controversial city attorney Mike Aguirre — and from a club member who denounced his record on Queers after he was no longer there to respond — and only barely endorsed incumbent Democratic Congressmember Susan Davis for re-election.

Butkiewicz, who said he’s a firm believe in Queer equality because he’s seen the discrimination and persecution faced by his Lesbian sister, grew impassioned when he talked about the Gaylord project and the way it’s been used by the San Diego Union-Tribune and Right-wing talk-hosts to propagandize against labor. The tale that’s been told in the local media is that Gaylord proposed this great project that’s going to create at least 200 jobs and bring in $300 to $400 million in tax revenues to Chula Vista and the port, and the only obstacle in the way of this wonderful deal is a handful of spoiled brats from the labor movement.

Nonsense, said Butkiewicz and Gonzalez. According to Gonzalez, the city won’t see a penny of additional taxes because Gaylord’s deal calls for the city to pay Gaylord back for the room taxes paid by tourists who stay in the development’s hotels. “The deal between Gaylord, the port and the city is a subsidy to Gaylord of $300-400 million,” she explained. Butkiewicz added that Chula Vista’s city manager has already demanded “givebacks” from the police and firefighters’ unions because of Gaylord’s subsidies, and he predicted that Gaylord will demand an extra $60 to $100 million as a sweetener to the deal — and the port and the city will gut their environmental funds to give it to them.

What’s more, Butkiewicz said, Gaylord is seeking sweetheart terms for leasing the land from the port district — “If everyone else is paying $3 per square foot, Gaylord wants to pay $2,” he explained — and there’s no guarantee the workers who build the project will come from Chula Vista, or even the United States. When Gaylord built a similar project 30 miles outside of Nashville, Butkiewicz said, instead of hiring local workers “they went to the White House and got 200 H-1-B [guest worker] visas. Then they went to Haiti and got 200 workers, bought a nearby motel and housed them there while they built Gaylord’s project for minimum wage and no benefits.

Asked by local law professor and Gay & Lesbian Times columnist Rob DeKoven about the lawsuit from the four firefighters who claim to have been ordered to participate in the Pride Parade against their personal beliefs, Butkiewicz said he’d been on vacation when the story broke. “The first I heard about it was on [anti-Queer radio host] Roger Hedgecock’s show,” he said. “These firefighters acted independently of the union and went straight to Hedgecock. These are Right-wing firefighters who just got an opportunity to attack your community.” With many people in the audience convinced that the firefighters’ lawsuit was really an attempt to force recently appointed fire chief Tracy Jarman, an open Lesbian, to resign, Butkiewicz said that firefighters’ union president Ron Saathof had stood up for Jarman and the union had supported her appointment in the first place.

The question of endorsing Susan Davis for re-election came up as part of a group of five officeholders recommended for the “friendly incumbent” endorsement. This is a club rule that allows the club to endorse incumbents based on their track record of support for Queer rights without making them go through the rigmarole of filling out questionnaires and appearing at a club meeting required for non-incumbents or candidates for open seats. The other four incumbents — Congressmember Bob Filner, State Senator Christine Kehoe and State Assemblymembers Lori Saldaña and Mary Salas — got their recommended endorsements unanimously. Davis’s was another matter.

Ironically, two years ago there was also a controversy over Davis’s endorsement because she hadn’t endorsed a bill to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy restricting the ability of Queers to serve openly in the military. Since then, Davis has embraced the club’s position on the issue, signing on to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and, as a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, calling military officials to testify about the current policy.

What almost sandbagged her endorsement this time was the war in Iraq. Though Davis voted against the initial authorization for the war in 2002 — when Senators Hillary Clinton and John Edwards both voted for it — Davis voted for the most recent appropriation to continue funding the war and supported the Republican version with no timetable for withdrawal. As club member Ted Bunce pointed out, that put Davis to the right of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, all of whom opposed the bill. There were other concerns about Davis, including her vote to give President Bush fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals — which labor people and many progressive activists think encourage corporations to ship U.S. jobs overseas — but the war was the main one.

Club member and peace activist Kelly King said that Democrats like Davis were actually letting Congressional Republicans take the lead in challenging the administration on the war. “We were asking them not to fund [the war] without conditions for withdrawal,” she said. “Recently, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee called for a withdrawal date. It’s important for people to think that when they vote for something, something happens. … Mid-September is another opportunity to talk about getting us out of the war. The Republicans are taking the lead on this. Something is not right with her stand on the war.”

But former club president Gloria Johnson defended Davis because of her firm stand on another issue important to the club: women’s right to abortion and reproductive choice. “Susan is 100 percent pro-choice,” Johnson said. “She will always be there for women. She gets 100 percent ratings from NOW [National Organization for Women], Planned Parenthood and CARAL [California Abortion Rights Action League]. Davis has also worked to stop the San Onofre toll bridge. She’s put military men on the spit over ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”

Eventually, after a motion to close debate on the endorsement passed 34 to 10, Davis won her endorsement by 28 votes in favor to 15 opposed and one abstention — two votes over the 60 percent supermajority the club requires to endorse. Davis wasn’t present, but her staff liaison to the Queer community, City Council candidate Todd Gloria, was — and a number of club members specifically asked Gloria to communicate their concerns about Davis’s record to her.

Aguirre, who spoke early in the meeting, came to address two issues: the firefighters’ controversy and marriage equality for same-sex couples. Like some club members, he saw the firefighters’ lawsuit against the city as an attempt to force out openly Lesbian fire chief Jarman, and defended the policy under which the firefighters were ordered to participate in the parade. “The universal reaction that you can’t tell someone to participate in a community event is wrong,” Aguirre said, adding that it would be discriminatory — and against California state law — to require firefighters to participate in some community events but not others. “If you order someone to march in Rancho Bernardo, you can’t say you won’t order someone to march in Hillcrest,” he stated.

On the marriage issue, Aguirre mentioned his efforts to get the San Diego City Council to authorize him to file an amicus curiae brief before the California Supreme Court in the case they’re currently considering over whether California’s definition of marriage as between one man and one woman violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution. The case arose out of the one month — mid-February to mid-March 2004 — when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered his city to marry same-sex couples. The Supreme Court later invalidated these marriages, but they reserved judgment on whether the state could constitutionally limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.

“I’ve arranged for San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera, who’s a good friend of mine, to speak to our City Council about that issue,” Aguirre said. He asked club members to attend the Council meeting when that will be discussed — which he expects will be in mid-September — and added, “In many places, including Canada, the courts have decided that there is a fundamental right to marriage equality.”

But veteran club activist Marilyn Riley, a former member of Aguirre’s staff, launched a slashing attack against him at the end of the meeting, long after he’d left. “Mike Aguirre would keep saying to me, ‘What’s with these Gays?,’” Riley said, adding that Aguirre told her that the California legislature had already created domestic partnerships for same-sex couples that gave them almost all the rights of married people under state law and therefore Queer couples didn’t need marriage equality. She also claimed that Aguirre had improperly assigned her to spy on meetings of the Deputy City Attorneys’ Association and said he’d attacked city workers by supporting Proposition C, which allows San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders to outsource their jobs to private companies.