Monday, April 28, 2008

ERIC BIDWELL: Zenger’s Endorses a “Revolutionary” Mayor for the Rest of Us


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

Eric Bidwell is about as different from the front-runners in the June 3 primary for Mayor of San Diego, incumbent Jerry Sanders and businessman Steve Francis, as you can get. They’re middle-aged and used to affluence; Bidwell is 25, was raised by a welfare mom and has been homeless most of his adult life. Sanders and Francis are Republicans; Bidwell is registered “decline to state” (election-speak for nonpartisan) and calls himself a “revolutionary.” Sanders and Francis have money for campaign headquarters, TV ads and polling operations — indeed, Sanders is trying to make Francis’s use of an out-of-town polling firm an issue against him — while Bidwell seems to be running his campaign from the wireless Internet connection at the Cream coffeehouse in University Heights (where he downloaded the form to apply to be a candidate, and where we did this interview).

Another aspect of Bidwell’s campaign also pays tribute to the power of the Internet. So put off by normal schooling that he dropped out of high school (though he later obtained his diploma by passing the California High School Proficiency exam) and didn’t last long at City College either, he’s used the Web as his all-purpose tutor. Indeed, at the mayoral candidates’ forum in Balboa Park on Earth Day April 20, he briefly discomfited moderator Carolyn Chase by replying to her question about the most important environmental books he’d read by saying he couldn’t remember the last time he actually read a book start-to-finish. “Maybe it’s a generational thing,” he said, explaining that everything he feels he needs to know he can find on the Internet. (Unfazed, Chase then asked him to name his favorite environmentalist Web site.)

Bidwell deliberately cultivates a scruffy appearance. He’s slightly built, wears his hair in dreadlocks and comes to candidates’ forums in a white T-shirt of his own design, bearing the slogan “San Diego: The Best Government Money Can Buy,” and much-patched black pants — itself a challenge to the idea that all male office-seekers ought to wear a suit and tie. (It’s also good advertising since selling the T-shirts is his main source of income.) But behind it all is a keen mind and a view of the issues that crosses traditional party lines and offers a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stultifying campaign. You can find out more about Eric Bidwell, the Zenger’s-endorsed candidate for Mayor of San Diego, at his Web site,

Zenger’s: You’re at the opposite end of the class scale from both Jerry Sanders and Steve Francis, who are both pushing themselves as, “We’ve been CEO’s. We’ve built businesses. We’ve made tons of money for ourselves and our stockholders, and that’s why we should be entrusted to run the half-billion dollar municipal corporation known as the city of San Diego.”

Eric Bidwell: Not only is it implied with everything they’re doing and all the things they say about it, but Steve Francis by name calls it “the corporation of San Diego” and says he wants to be the CEO. There’s something a little eerie about that. He seems to have a more limited, view of business than a lot of people have, and I don’t think he really realizes that people who aren’t part of the business class probably aren’t going to be that impressed by him saying that he wants to turn our city into a business and become the CEO. With the recent and ongoing history of corporations, CEO’s and the business class taking advantage of government, it seems a little awkward to take it to the full extreme of actually treating our government as business.

I agree I’m quite opposite, and I think that’s probably one of the things that not only makes me a little bit more palatable to the average person, but quite possibly a little more fit for making decisions that reflect and really consider the average person. It seems like [Sanders and Francis] are very experienced in running businesses and government, but they might not be so experienced at running everyday struggles. I don’t know either of their histories too intimately, but it seems like they are currently doing quite well for themselves, and I’m guessing that they don’t surround themselves with too many people who are struggling on a day-to-day level to afford rent and food.

Zenger’s: So why are you running for Mayor, and why should people vote for you?

Bidwell: I guess the first and foremost reason is to get the public involved in local politics in a categorically different way than they currently are, both through example and directly asking them San Diego fits into the general paradigm of American or worldwide politics. There’s a kind of intellectual business/government class, and then everybody else lets them do whatever they want as long as they have enough bread and circuses.

I think we’re finally getting to a point where access to information is much easier, people’s education levels are rising, and people are a lot more able and ready to take more active roles in government. I just don’t think they have been catalyzed to do so. I’m hoping to kind of catalyze the public into getting really involved in local government, getting their perspectives heard, and making sure that things aren’t just railroaded through our political system by special interests or upper-middle-class people that have the time to take days off to go and talk about their interests.

I want to get the desires and voices of people from the broader range of the public to be heard and on the table for our elected officials to choose from. I also want them to realize that at the extreme level, they can actually participate in politics by becoming an elected official. I guess what I am doing is showing how easy it really is. If anybody — if I can get onto a Mayoral race and get myself out there, pretty much anybody could. Just because things do go the way they go, there is this status quo, this paradigm of everybody being in politics wearing a suit and tie, it doesn’t really have to be that way. We really can do it in a categorically different way than we do; and, if enough people get involved, that we might really be able to change things in some really drastic ways, for the betterment of the community overall.

Zenger’s: I would say the most important issue facing San Diego right now is the meltdown in the city finances, the whole thing with the pension funds and the extent to which the city underfunded their employees’ pensions, had to borrow, went into debt for things like the Convention Center expansion and the ballpark. Especially as a young man, and therefore a member of the generation that’s going to be paying all these debts, what do you feel the city needs to do about it?

Bidwell: The city needs to do what it should have been doing all along, which is being really careful and forward-thinking about every financial decision that they make. I think we have a whole lot of room for improvement in cutting little bits of money off of a lot of places. I think it’s really obscene that in the midst of all of this, the City Council tried to give themselves a 25 percent pay raise. They’re probably already making enough to put them in the top 25 percent of people in town, and it seems like if anything they should be cutting their pay instead of raising it. Maybe if they lived a little more in the price range of the average citizen here does, they might have a little more incentive to take on some of the worries of the average citizen.

I think things like buying $25,000 to $30,000 Dodge Chargers for upper-level police officials is a bit unnecessary as well, both from the immediate cost of a really expensive vehicle, to the kind of material excess of them not really needing all the things that vehicle is capable of, to the long-term problem of the horrible gas mileage that those vehicles get. I’m not that intimately aware of everything that’s going on in the city‘s finances, but from the little I do know about there’s loads of places where we could cut corners.

I guess there are some legal limits on what we can do to correct errors of the past. There’s only so much debt we can get out of, that we shouldn’t have got into in the first place. We should probably try to get out of as much as we possibly can in places where we made mistakes. But from now on, the thing that we really need to do is make sure that we don’t accrue any more unnecessary debt, or make any more unnecessary spending expenses. There’s not one big elephant in the middle of the room that we need to deal with, but lots of little things and a general policy of excess that we need to nip in the bud and try to rein in each and every bit of money that is allotted for anything.

Zenger’s: What would you say are some of the other more specific city issues that you want to address as Mayor?

Bidwell: Another large issue is infrastructure of roads and waterways. With water lines breaking all over the city, it seems like an ounce of prevention might save us having to spend a lot of money once things go wrong. A lot of these issues are given such overtly poor “solutions” that they’re really making things worse rather than better. For example, there are a lot of people pushing for more of this purple pipe system, which is pretty ridiculous to spend money on when we have a whole bunch of pipes that are already there that just need to be repaired. It’s really to avoid the politically unpopular so-called “toilet-to-tap” water, which if done well is probably more safe than the current tap water, which is pulled from the Colorado River and reservoirs that have already had the water be sewage water 10 times over.

Potholes are really problematic. The roads in general in San Diego are really, really bad. I do see some of them get filled in here and there, but overall it seems like it’s kind of reached epidemic levels. Most people in San Diego probably drive on a daily basis, and roads are something we all use. Yet it seems like they’re one of the lowest priorities of politics lately.

I’m sure there are a lot more infrastructure issues that could be dealt with, such as power. There’ve been some times where we’ve almost had blackouts, like during the last fires and the rolling blackouts previously, and there’s probably a lot of room within that infrastructure for improvement as well.

Zenger’s: I’d like to ask you a question about another issue that plagues San Diego politics, and that is growth. On the one hand, you have environmentalists saying that we don’t urban sprawl, we don’t want to expand into the open-space areas on the outskirts of San Diego, it’s a good idea to build up in the already urbanized parts of the city. Yet when you propose a project that actually builds up in an established urban area, you get a lot of opposition from neighbors. I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to have this contradiction; they seem to think that building up instead of out is generally a good idea, but —

Bidwell: But not in my backyard! The NIMBY problem is an age-old problem of scope of community being an issue. It’s really similar to the states’-rights issues. People want things to be different in their area when it suits them, and they want it to be the same across the board when it suits them. It seems like most of the motivation is pure self-interest, and there’s a total lack of understanding of the big picture and making decisions for the community at large.

There are many, many issues where there’s something that benefits the city community at large; but the neighborhood community that would have to make a sacrifice for it says that it’s totally unjustifiable. We have to deal with each scenario on its own. There are certain sacrifices of community that probably are really better for the whole, larger community, and don’t really cost too much of the smaller community. At other times there are probably rights of the smaller community that should be protected. This is a dilemma that a lot of people want to be able to slap an easy answer, a simple dichotomy of “we should always honor the local” or “always honor the larger community,” but it really requires being looked at in each scenario.

At the same time, what’s said to be “better for the community at large” can really be what’s better for a particular special interest or developer that is trying to make it seem like it’s better for the community at large. You end up with this awkward tainting of what would otherwise be something that most people would see as a noble thing: to sacrifice smaller communities in certain situations for the sake of the community at large, with — it’s really only done for developers. It’s not always that way, but because it sometimes is, people often characterize any large development as intrinsically bad.

I really don’t think that that’s the case. As far as the general question of how to deal with a larger population, it’s not something that can really be dealt with from the top down by government officials alone, and that it really would be much more efficient and achieve its ends a lot faster if people really moved towards changing their lifestyles themselves. As unorthodox as it seems, nuclear families and people living in single-family dwellings are really not the best uses of space or the best ways to organize a community. People often isolate themselves and only worry about themselves and their immediate families, instead of their neighbors and the community they live in. And I think that we could quite probably have higher-density living and building up in cases where it’s appropriate and feasible.

A lot of problems that could be dealt with through political means are zoning issues that keep people from being able to have roommates and have more than a certain amount of people in a house. There are issues that come along with that, such as parking. When you put more than a certain amount of people in a neighborhood, parking ends up becoming a really big pain and causing a lot of people who live in the neighborhood a huge cost, psychologically and probably financially, having to pay for extra gas to roll around the block three times before you can find a spot to park. So maybe we should come up with better mass transit and car-pooling infrastructure.

Zenger’s: Recently a City Council candidate was arrested for using his truck as a bathroom.

Bidwell: Or whatever might have transpired on that lovely afternoon!

Zenger’s: My immediate thought was that what’s really at the bottom of all this is the city has very deliberately not put in a lot of public restrooms as part of what I describe as an ongoing jihad against its homeless population. They figure, “If you build the restrooms, they will come.” If you give them places to be, they will come. If you leave the lawns alone at night and don’t turn the sprinklers on, they will sleep there.

Bidwell: It’s true to a certain degree. But these people don’t have anywhere else that they can go. These people need some kinds of services; and the problem is why aren’t these services available to them. A lot of homeless people are not homeless by choice out of all possibilities. They’re homeless by choice out of the existing possibilities, and we’re not really that helpful as a community with helping people to get back on their feet, or even to function within alternate paradigms of survival.

I think some people just don’t really work well with a 9-to-5 job, and it’s really hard to get steady, decent-paying work that isn’t 9-to-5. Personally, I would rather be able to make my own schedule and work on my own time than have to work for somebody else, really steady and really constantly. I would love it if there were more businesses where you could swing by and work whenever you wanted, and for as long as you wanted, and then leave, and they’d pay you at the end of the shift.

I think living space is a really rough issue, Here in San Diego, housing is really expensive. Rent is really expensive. Lessening the prices might help out in a large degree, but I think there’s a fundamental flaw with the way that we deal with land ownership as a society, and that some people are born as landlords and some people are born as renters. If you’re a renter, you’ve got to spend your whole life working to come up with money to be able to pay the landlord. And if you’re a landlord, you just spend your whole life collecting rent and figuring out more ways to make more rent. It really is unfair and opportunistic to a pretty huge degree.

By ignoring these fundamental issues, we’re really doing ourselves a disservice and spending a lot of effort treating symptoms of something that we’re never really going to fix unless we get to the root of the problem. Things such as communally owned property and buildings could really go far to make things more accessible. Communally owned businesses, and businesses that really take their employees on as equal to the owners, could really go far with making things a lot easier for a lot more people.

A lot of people just get stuck in the specialization dilemma. You get a career, and you’re going for your career, and you start a family, and even have a wife and kids; and then all of a sudden you lose your career, whether the industry changes or you just lose that job. If you don’t get back on your feet within a couple of months, you can just have everything else start crumbling around you. A lot of people just have their lives ruined, essentially, and they’re put down to a level so low that the effort to be able to get back to the top, and the access to help to get back to the top, is really limited. The access to help is really limited.

I think that you’re absolutely right that there is this kind of war against the homeless, and there are a lot of kind of temporary fixes we can do to deal with the homeless population as it exists currently. But we also need to address the issues that cause homelessness in the first place. We’re really giving preference to development, business and tourism in ways I don’t see as that fundamentally important, at the expense of things that really are important, which are making sure that the people who live here who are down on their luck get at least some level of comfort and support.

Zenger’s: Sometimes I get the feeling that the city government and the business interests in San Diego would just like all the poor people to go away. When Susan Golding was Mayor I described her vision for the city as “Newport Beach South.”

Bidwell: I think that’s probably common with a lot of upper-class people in general: they really wish we were only there to provide cheap labor, but didn’t actually make demands for equal rights or access to the same things. It’s a shame that there’s been a large tendency for thousands of years for people to be pretty willing to give up any amount of rights for enough bread and circuses. People are really not participating and not demanding equal treatment.

That allows this perception of justified privilege to grow among the upper class. They not only feel that there is a difference between them and the lower class, but that it’s a justified and real difference. Through some sort of extremist Social Darwinism and misunderstanding of lassiez-faire markets, they really think that everybody has equal opportunity and the poor people just don’t take that opportunity. But economists have known forever that one of the linchpins of lassiez-faire economics is you have to have equal access to information and rational thought on the end of the consumer.

We don’t have that, we haven’t had that, and we’re not going to have that until we have equal access to education, and equal access to information. Information is getting a lot looser with the Internet, but we’re still lagging on equal access to education. Our education system is not so good at turning out people who are able to analyze things and use critical thinking as well as would really benefit an active role in civic responsibility. I think that the poor are poor not because they “choose” to be poor, or they have a lack of motivation, but they’ve been raised poor and they’ve been taught the habits of poor people. They’ve been raised poorly with education systems that are poorly run. You end up with people who are not just poor financially, but poor in their ability really to participate.

Zenger’s; Is this analysis we’ve just been discussing the reason why you decided to call yourself the “revolutionary candidate”?

Bidwell: I think that would be pretty fair to say. Everybody in politics is calling for change of some degree, some by name. It’s become so oft-quoted that it’s lost any real meaning. Everybody wants “change,” either in some kind of historically set-up dichotomies — “We want change towards Republican this,” or “towards Democrat that” — but it seems like all the “change” is fairly minor, a fairly partisan, and fairly isolated from bigger pictures. The next step up from that is “reform.” People want to “reform” the system, and change the form of the way things are going. I think people use that when they’re going for only a little more than typical “change.”

The change that I want, that we were just addressing, is so categorically different, and at such a larger scale, than the change that is commonly being talked about in politics that I think that it demands a better, or a different and more extreme word, to describe the type of change. I think that “revolutionary” really hits the nail on the head. The word has been used throughout history, most often probably with regime changes and entire governments being replaced by entire other governments. Because of that, it’s often been done through force, and the word has been tainted and has an implication of violence.

I don’t like that part of it, but I think that the categorical change, the paradigm shift that it really represents in history, is what I mean by “revolutionary.” Maybe we don’t need to dismantle the system, or violently overthrow it and replace it with a new one, but I think that we need to change our system so dramatically that it really goes beyond the implications of “change” or “reform,” and that the word “revolutionary” really encompasses the scope to a much better degree than either of those other words, or any others that I might have chosen.
Additional June 3 Election Endorsements


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

Zenger’s has already endorsed Mike Aguirre for re-election as city attorney. Here are some additional endorsements for the June 3 primary election we are announcing in the May 2008 edition.

U.S. Congress, 53rd District: MIKE COPASS

Incumbent Democrat Susan Davis has a mixed record on progressive issues. Sometimes she’s stabbed the progressive community in the back — like when hers was one of the deciding votes to grant President Bush “fast-track” authority to negotiate job-killing, environment-destroying “free trade” deals. Sometimes she’s been genuinely courageous, as when she voted against the resolution authorizing the war in Iraq. Sometimes she’s taken progressive stands and then failed to follow through — as when she voted for every bill to fund the war and, most recently, crossed party lines to vote with the Bush administration against the House Democrats on a bill with no restrictions on how long the war can last. And sometimes she’s had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing — the way she originally wimped out on whether to support repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning openly Queer people from serving in the U.S. military before a months-long grass-roots lobbying campaign finally brought her around.
With all her faults, Davis is still superior to anyone the Republicans are likely to put up against her — but she has a strong, progressive primary challenger in Mike Copass. Congressmember Copass will do the right thing from his instinct and his heart. Primaries should be occasions on which you stand for principle, and in this case, for a progressive Democrat principle means Mike Copass.

State Assembly, 78th District: ARLIE RICASA

There are six candidates in this race — in one of the closest districts in the state in terms of party registration — and four of them are Democrats. Two are solid progressives, Ricasa and Marty Block, and though Block has more money and a more impressive endorsement list, Ricasa is a woman, a person of color and, most important, a more grass-roots candidate. Four years ago, Lori SaldaƱa won a contested Democratic primary in the 76th District against two better-funded opponents and went on to take the seat in the general election, and we believe that if the 76th District could elect a progressive Latina, so can this one.

Mayor of San Diego: ERIC BIDWELL

Once again, the Democratic Party of San Diego is embarrassing itself by failing to offer a serious, electable candidate for Mayor. In a race dominated by two well-financed but vulnerable Republicans — incumbent Jerry Sanders and businessman Steve Francis, who’s openly trying to buy the race with his personal checkbook — the best the Democrats could come up with was Floyd Morrow, a good-hearted progressive but not exactly a scintillating leader and someone such a figure of yesterday he last held elective office five years before Eric Bidwell was born.

This hasn’t exactly been a banner year for independents, either. Perennial candidate Jim Bell and Queer activist (and Zenger’s contributor) Rocky Neptun both dropped out, Bell to endorse Morrow and Neptun in a fit of disgust with electoral politics in general. Fortunately, 25-year-old Eric Bidwell stepped into the breach and, through his self-described “revolutionary” candidacy, gave even iconoclasts far older than himself a candidate we can feel genuinely proud voting for. You can read more about him in the cover story this issue.

City Council, 3rd District: STEPHEN WHITBURN

This is really a two-person race between Whitburn, former journalist, Red Cross official and former president of the San Diego Democratic Club; and Todd Gloria, eight-year veteran of the Congressional staff of Susan Davis. Whichever one wins will become the first openly Gay male on the San Diego City Council.

Todd Gloria is a nice guy. Everybody likes him. Even the people to whom he has to deliver the bad news that Congressmember Davis isn’t supporting them on their big issue like him. But likeability is not enough of a qualification for public office. We’re convinced Whitburn will have the toughness to stand up against the San Diego city establishment, while Gloria will be its faithful servant the way he’s been for Susan Davis all these years.

City Council, 1st District: SHERRI LIGHTNER

City Council, 7th District: MARTI EMERALD

It’s a pleasure to be able to endorse two journalists for the San Diego City Council (Whitburn and Emerald) and even more of a pleasure to be able to endorse two progressives for seats currently (mis)represented by Republican-in-Democrat-drag Scott Peters and Republican-in-Republican-drag Jim Madaffer, respectively — both of whom are being forced out by term limits.

State Proposition 98 (Eminent Domain): NO

State Proposition 99 (Eminent Domain): YES

Don’t you just hate it when a ballot contains two or more competing propositions on the same subject? There’s already a law that you can’t deal with more than one subject in a single initiative; there should also be a law that there can’t be more than one proposition per ballot on the same topic — and a “sore-loser” restriction that you can’t go to the ballot again for at least five years after the voters have turned your initiative down. (Proposition 98 is a rehash of Proposition 90, which voters defeated in 2006.)

Here we have the quandary of one ballot measure that goes too far and one that doesn’t go far enough. Both are intended to control the kinds of “redevelopment” scams in which a city, county or state government forces one private owner to sell property to enrich another private owner — usually one with far fatter pockets and better political connections. The U.S. Supreme Court gave a green light to these Robin-Hood-in-reverse schemes in its notorious Kelo decision in 2005, but they’d been going on long before that — especially in San Diego, where eminent-domain “redevelopment” was used to build Petco Park and destroy a burgeoning artists’ colony in East Village to make room for tacky hotels and luxury condos.

Proposition 99 would prevent people from losing homes they own to this type of “redevelopment.” Proposition 98 would go further and protect all private property from being taken for so-called “private use.” What’s wrong with 98 is its expansive definition of what constitutes “private use” — not just “(i) transfer of ownership, occupancy or use of private property or associated property rights to any person or entity other than a public agency or a regulated public utility,” which is the common-sense definition; but “(ii) transfer … to a public agency for the consumption of natural resources or for the same or a substantially similar use as that made by the private owner; or (iii) regulation … in order to transfer an economic benefit to one or more private persons at the expense of the property owner.”

What (ii) means is that cities would no longer have the option of publicly taking over a profiteering private utility via eminent domain — as San Francisco came close to doing with Pacific Gas & Electric during the 2000-2001 energy crisis — and what (iii) means is that all rent-control laws would be invalidated, so the rental markets in San Francisco and Los Angeles would be as brutal to tenants as the one in San Diego. What’s more, (iii) comes close to the philosophy of “regulatory takings” — the idea that if government puts any restrictions at all on your use of your property (like you can’t build a noisy, polluting factory in the middle of a residential area), they have to pay you for the potential profit they could cost you.— which could gut all zoning restrictions and environmental protections.

An ideal solution to the Kelo problem would place a flat ban on government using eminent domain to take property from one private owner and give it to another. It would also abolish “tax-increment financing,” the redevelopment ripoff by which agencies like San Diego’s Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) can grab great chunks of tax money from redevelopment areas in virtual perpetuity and force the rest of us to pay higher taxes or suffer cuts in services to pay for it. Without that choice on the ballot, this time at least the reform that doesn’t go far enough is preferable to the reform that goes too far.

San Diego Proposition “A”: YES

San Diego Proposition “B”: NO

San Diego Proposition “C”: NO

Proposition “A” would exempt San Diego’s police officers and firefighters from losing their jobs to privatization. We oppose privatization completely, but it’s especially obnoxious for public-safety officials. If you’re robbed or raped or your home is burglarized, do you really want the person who answers your call to come from Blackwater? We didn’t think so.

Proposition “B” is the latest attempt by San Diego’s establishment to perpetuate their “strong-mayor” scam. A charter revision that was touted as “strong-mayor, strong-council” has in practice meant “dictatorial mayor, rubber-stamp council.” This would require that voters have the chance in 2010 to make the “strong-mayor” charter permanent and add another City Councilmember, not because the city needs one but just to make it harder for the council to override the mayor’s vetoes. The San Diego County Democratic Party and the San Diego Democratic Club endorsed this misbegotten proposal out of fear that if they didn’t, an even worse strong-mayor measure would get put on this year’s ballot in November. But, aside from being ridiculous — why should voters vote for something that tells them they’ll have to vote on it again two years later? — it’s also part of a corrupt political process that should be emphatically rejected.

So should Proposition “C,” which attempts to extend mayoral dictatorship over San Diego by allowing the mayor to appoint the city’s auditor. Aside from the “putting the fox in charge of the henhouse” aspect City Councilmember Donna Frye is expertly lampooning in her public appearances against it, it’s not exactly going to re-establish the bond market’s confidence in San Diego if its voters approve something so obviously corrupt.

Queer Democrats Endorse Morrow for Mayor

Candidate Upstaged by Frye and “Fox” Against Proposition C


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club endorsed former San Diego City Counclimember Floyd Morrow for mayor, but he was upstaged by current City Councilmember and former mayoral candidate Donna Frye. Frye not only spoke out against Proposition “C,” a measure on the June 3 ballot to allow the mayor to appoint the city auditor, but to dramatize her point that passing “C” would be “like having the fox guard the henhouse,” she brought along a volunteer in a fox costume and did a skit in front of the club.

“It’s like being told by the Internal Revenue Service that you’re going to be audited, but they’re going to let you pick the auditor,” Frye said of Proposition “C.” She said that John Turrell, who served as city auditor from 2005 to 2007, quit the job when voters approved the strong-mayor form of government and Mayor Jerry Sanders told him to “be a team player” in his work. Frye noted that the San Diego County Democratic Party, the San Diego League of Women Voters, Latino-American Political Association, Clairemont Town Council, her colleagues Brian Maienschein and Tony Young (both of whom voted against putting “C” on the ballot) and State Senator and former City Councilemember Christine Kehoe had all opposed “C.”

Morrow, who spoke before Frye, said when he was asked about Proposition “C” that he wasn’t sure what it was. When it was explained to him, he said, “That’s an easy one. You don’t appoint your own auditor.” Morrow also was unaware that current law in California does not require minor girls to notify their parents if they’re pregnant and plan to have an abortion, though he made it clear that he agreed with the club’s pro-choice position against parental notification.

Aside from that issue, Morrow’s positions on the club’s issues questionnaire agreed with the club on all points but one: he marked himself as unsure whether women in the military should be allowed to participate in combat. Morrow said that his uncertainty about that issue stemmed from his skepticism about war in general, noting that when he served in Korea “I learned war is not the answer for anything. War is outmoded. It’s ruining our country and our economy, and we should be working to abolish it rather than worry about women serving in the front lines.”

Morrow served on the San Diego City Council from 1965 to 1977 and was one of the first elected officials in San Diego to reach out to the Queer community in general and the San Diego Democratic Club in particular. That cost him his Council seat in 1977 when a coalition of evangelical Christian churches in San Diego came together to target him and another City Council candidate. Evonne Schulze, for their support of Queer rights. The churches put out a publication called The Church News and used it to turn out Christian voters against Morrow and Schulze. This successful campaign was cited as a model by the organizers of the Moral Majority three years later.

Once out of elective office, Morrow practiced law until retiring in 2000, whereupon he found a new career partnering with a friend of his from his days in Korea to build affordable homes in Mexico. He made it clear to the club that his positions on their issues have not changed since 1977. “I have fought all my life for equality,” he said, “not just in the law but in its application. I want a world where people are not judged by sex or orientation or any of the stupid ways people judge people.” He also cited Congressmember Bob Filner, former State Senator Jim Mills and author Gore Vidal among his endorsers.

The club also endorsed African-American candidate Dwayne Crenshaw for District D on the San Diego Community College District Board of Trustees after Crenshaw — a long-time club member and ally who’s had the club’s support in his previous unsuccessful runs for elective office — acknowledged that he is Gay. He joked that after his last failed try for the San Diego City Council he was “unelected, unloved and unemployed” — he’d quit his job because he expected to win the seat, and in the aftermath of his loss his boyfriend broke up with him. Asked by one club member if he’d found a new partner yet, Crenshaw said no, “but I’m having a lot of fun recruiting.”

More seriously, Crenshaw said that after his last loss he had sworn off elective politics altogether, but “I’ve been re-inspired by Barack Obama.” He talked about an organization he works with that reaches out to gang-affiliated young people and tries to help them get out, and his interest in being on the Community College Board came from the fact that the community colleges are the only place the people he’s trying to lift out of gangs can get an education. Crenshaw boasted of his endorsements by Congressmember Bob Filner, Councilmember Frye and all the current Community College Board members — including Assembly candidate Marty Block. Crenshaw also said he’s one of only two African-Americans being endorsed this year by the Victory Fund, a nationwide organization formed to encourage and support the election of openly Queer candidates to office.

In addition, the club considered the two statewide propositions and three city of San Diego propositions that will be on the June 3 ballot. The club had no trouble with the California Democratic Party’s recommendations on Propositions 98 and 99, both of which would restrict the powers of state and local government to take private property under eminent domain. Proposition 99 would keep governments from seizing people’s private homes and transferring them to private property owners, while 98 would protect all private property. But because of 98’s poison pills — it would abolish all rent controls, prevent cities from municipalizing private utilities and possibly jeopardize zoning laws and environmental regulations as well — the club joined the state party in supporting 99 and opposing 98.

The city propositions proved more controversial. The club easily opposed “C” and supported “A,” which exempts the police and fire departments from the privatization initiative voters passed in 2006. The sticking point came with “B,” a complicated initiative that requires the City Council to place on the ballot a measure making San Diego’s strong-mayor government — initially passed in 2004 on a five-year trial basis — permanent and adding a ninth City Council seat, thus increasing the number of Council votes needed to override a mayoral veto from the current five of eight to six of nine.

The club was almost ready to oppose “B” (on a motion made by this reporter) when some of the heavy hitters involved in the issue weighed in and demanded that the club follow the lead of the San Diego County Democratic Party and support it. “I’m particularly concerned that raising the veto override requirement to two-thirds will make it virtually impossible to pass progressive legislation,” said retired attorney Charlie Pratt. “The big money people would only need a few people on the City Council to give the Mayor dictatorial power.”

“We don’t want this on the ballot,” said former San Diego County Democratic Party chair Maureen Steiner. “That’s all the more reason to vote against it, because it will just confuse the voters” — a reference to the oddity of asking the voters to pass one ballot measure just so they can vote on it all over again two years later.

But labor staff member Brian Polejes said the club needed to endorse the measure in order to prevent an even worse strong-mayor proposition from going before voters this November. “This was a compromise between supporters and opponents of a strong mayor,” he said. “We are not in position to get everything we want. We have a Republican Mayor and a lot of Democrats on the City Council who don’t always vote with us on these issues.”

Jess Durfee, former club president and current chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, added to Polejes’ warning. “If ‘B’ fails, the advocates of a strong-mayor form of government are not under any obligation not to put the strong-mayor form of government on the ballot before 2010,” he said. “If ‘B’ fails, the strong-mayor proponents can hire paid signature gatherers and put it on the ballot in November 2008, and it would be shoved down our throats in a form we would not like. We could vote to oppose ‘B,’ but we would be all by ourselves.”

Former club president Doug Case added that if “B” failed, the likely result would be a permanent strong-mayor charter without the additional City Council seat — meaning that instead of it taking six of nine Council votes to override a Mayor’s veto (66.7 percent), it would take six of eight (75 percent). Eventually the club overwhelmingly went along with the compromise and voted 36 to 7, with five abstentions, to endorse “B.”

Finally, the club voted to make the Third District City Council campaign of its former president, Stephen Whitburn, and the Assembly primary campaign of Marty Block priority races, meaning candidacies where the club organizes extra volunteer and fundraising support from its members.

Earth Day Hosts Local Candidates for Mayor, Third Council District, City Attorney


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

PHOTOS: Top: Mayoral candidate Eric Bidwell and Earth Day director Carolyn Chase confront each other at the candidates' forum April 20.

Bottom: City workers are picketing every event at which San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders appears, targeting him for supporting privatization and outsourcing of city jobs — but by targeting Sanders they're helping to elect his principal opponent, Steve Francis, who's criticized Sanders for not privatizing fast enough.

One of the least attended attractions at San Diego’s Earth Day festival in Balboa Park April 20 was the series of political candidates’ debates at the Organ Pavilion. The best attended event, between mayor Jerry Sanders and four of the candidates seeking to replace him — Steve Francis, Floyd Morrow, Eric Bidwell and James Hart — only drew about 150 people. The other two events, between 3rd District City Council candidates Stephen Whitburn, Todd Gloria and Paul Broadway; and city attorney candidates Mike Aguirre, Jan Goldsmith, Brian Maienschein and Amy Lepine, drew less than 75 people each, fewer than came to the regular Sunday afternoon organ concert.

But all three events offered interesting and sometimes controversial insights and interactions from the candidates. The forums for mayor and city attorney were moderated personally by Carolyn Chase, head of the San Diego EarthWorks organization that puts on the annual Earth Day fair. She made audience members submit questions in writing and frequently ignored audience input to ask questions of her own. The city council debate, which led off the day at 11 a.m., was moderated by local realtor and community activist Bill Stanhope, who allowed attendees to come to the stage and use the microphone to query the candidates directly.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Though the e-mails announcing the 3rd District City Council event had promised that John Hartley and Stephen Whitburn would appear, only Whitburn showed up. Hartley, who served on the City Council from 1989 to 1993, gave up his seat and has run in every election since 2000 to try to win it back, got virtually the only mainstream media publicity in the race when he was arrested for lewd conduct in Kensington while urinating into a cup inside his truck. Local TV stations sent camera crews to the Earth Day debate in hopes that Hartley, who has continued his campaign but kept a low public profile since his arrest, would be there — then left when he didn’t appear.

Instead the debate was between the two acknowledged front-runners, openly Gay candidates Whitburn and Gloria; and Broadway, a libertarian running as an independent who showed up with his wife and campaign manager. The manager said before the forum that Broadway had asked a Channel 10 news editor if they intended to do any coverage of the race, and that the editor had told him, “No, not unless another one of you gets arrested.” Before the event, incumbent Councilmember Donna Frye from District 6 came out to push her campaign against Proposition “C,” a measure on the June 3 ballot which would allow the mayor to appoint the city auditor. Frye pointed out that nobody knows how much the city is spending on environmental protection, and “if Proposition ‘C’ passes, you won’t ever know.”

Broadway, the first candidate to speak, recalled the first Earth Day he attended in 1978 and said that many renewable energy technologies that were “pipe dreams” then are “proven advances” now. “San Diego has 300 days of sunshine each year; why doesn’t every building have solar panels?” he said. “New developments aren’t being required to have solar or greywater recycling. Our leadership needs to find alternative solutions to standard ways of providing water and power.” He said one such way had been blocked by the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), whose rate-setting policies allow private utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) to gouge customers who try to produce their own energy. “The San Diego Unified School District put in a $2 million solar electric system on some of their schools, and their rates actually went up.” Broadway also criticized San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) for raising bus fares and eliminating transfers, thereby discouraging people from using public transit at a a time where “we should be encouraging people to use more mass transit and get more cars off the road.”

Whitburn, up next, boasted that the local chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed him. “San Diego is a special place,” he said. “We have endangered species and abundant sunshine. Our environment has a profound influence on our quality of life. Our city government has a profound obligation not only to protect but enhance our natural environment, our urban environment and quality of life. But for too long in San Diego, our city government has failed to make our environment the priority it ought to be. We have seen decades of irresponsible development. We have seen our water fouled by water spills, sewage spills and urban runoff. We have seen our air dirtied by too much congestion. It is time for planning in this city that makes our environment the priority it ought to be.” Whitburn also mentioned his endorsements by the San Diego County Democratic Party and Councilmember Frye.

Gloria countered with another major environmental organization, the San Diego League of Conservation Voters, that has endorsed him. He called himself “a third-generation San Diegan” and said that in his eight years on the staff of Congressmember Susan Davis,, “One of the proudest moments … was working with her on legislation to stop the toll road through San Onofre State Beach.” Gloria said that as a resident of City Heights he’d realized that “we need to speak to needy communities about environmental protection” and pledged that as a Councilmember he would work to promote the “Healthy Homes” project — which sends teams into people’s houses to help the homeowners identify mold and other homegrown environmental hazards — and the “Centerlink” proposal to set aside the median on I-15 as a mass transit lane.

Questions for the candidates ranged from the domestic — Stanhope asked if they supported mandatory waste recycling and Broadway’s campaign manager asked if they recycled and composted food scraps — to broader questions like how to encourage “green” industries to locate in San Diego and how the financially strapped city can pay for all the environmental advances the candidates were pledging. Gloria joked that he didn’t know what happened to the food scraps in his home since, in his household, “I clean, he cooks.” Whitburn said that San Diego was “really behind” his former home town, Madison, Wisconsin, when it came to domestic recycling. Broadway said the issue “is not a city thing, it’s a neighborhood thing” and it should be encouraged as part of a program to set up community gardens throughout San Diego.

Asked whether the San Diego City Council should pass a resolution declaring marijuana law enforcement the absolute lowest priority for the police department — the way the Berkeley City Council did decades ago — Whitburn and Gloria both stressed their support of medical uses of marijuana but shied away from the proposal. Broadway went farther and said he’d support the legalization of marijuana for all uses. “It should be taxed and licensed like alcohol,” he said.

A director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) asked about the Mills Act, a state law named after former State Senator James Mills that allows owners of historically significant properties to save as much as 70 percent off their property tax bills if they use the money to help keep the property in shape and maintain its historic features. SOHO has opposed changes in the Mills Act program in San Diego being pushed by Mayor Jerry Sanders, especially eligibility requirements that SOHO’s Web site says “would exclude virtually all historic buildings from the program” and a cap on the total number of buildings allowed to receive the tax break.

“The greenest building is the one already built,” said Gloria. “I’m the only candidate who’s spoken out in support of the Mills Act and not adding additional barriers to people who want to preserve their homes.”

This drew a sharp response from Whitburn in what was otherwise a good-feelings debate in which virtually all the candidates agreed on everything. “The Mills Act has come up at previous forums and multiple candidates have expressed support for it, including me,” he said. “Gloria talks about his commitment to historic preservation, but he’s the one candidate who has supported the Kensington Terrace project” — which would tear down two historic bungalows in the Kensington area to make room for a multi-story condo development.

LEEDing the Mayor’s Race

By contrast with the largely noncontroversial Earth Day forum for the 3rd District City Council candidates, the mayoral forum, which took place right after the Council debate ended at noon, began with fireworks and continued with sporadic eruptions until the end. A cheering section of Sanders supporters, led by his wife Rana, occupied the front row (and asked this reporter to move over so they could all sit together), while backers of his principal opponent, businessman Steve Francis, sat elsewhere and loudly complained at the end of the forum when Francis offered to shake Sanders’ hand and Sanders refused.

The controversy began at the get-go when Eric Bidwell, 25-year-old “revolutionary” candidate, complained that he hadn’t received an official invitation to the event. Moderator Chase indignantly said she had invited him, and after they argued briefly Chase declared Bidwell’s opening statement over and tried to call the next candidate. After audience members protested and demanded that Bidwell be allowed to speak, Chase relented and let him. Bidwell said he’d been “raised in San Diego and had a lot of problems with police and schools,” and said he decided to run for mayor to “put in a few more issues instead of it just being politics as usual.”

Francis, up next, said that if he were mayor “Earth Day wouldn’t be just a day for fancy speeches but an ongoing principle for my administration. I’m financing my own campaign and I will only accept $1 per year [as salary for being mayor if elected]. I’m not running as a Republican or a Democrat [though he, like Sanders, is a Republican] and I won’t approach the environment as a partisan issue.” Francis claimed to have a “10-point plan” for environmental policy on his Web site,, The document on his site is actually called “Protecting San Diego’s Standard of Living Through Environmental Stewardship” and contains headings for climate change, green building and design, community beautification, energy use and production, green transportation, “green government” (which mainly means energy conservation at City Hall and in other city buildings), water quality and conservation, environmental incentives and rebates, environmental education and awareness, and composting and waste.

“We’ve done enough to put San Diego on the map as an environmental city,” said Sanders, up next. “I signed the city’s recycling ordinance and the construction and demolition debris ordinance. I instituted the environmental preference ordinance called EP-3 and established Cleantech to attract and develop environmentally friendly ‘green technology’ businesses in San Diego. I’m also proud of the recognition we received for the green renovation of the new police headquarters. I’ve also taken leadership in water conservation. I’ve been turning my water bills over to the public for two years and our water consumption has fallen by 50 percent. I’m very proud of what San Diego has done to become a showplace for the environment and ‘cleantech’ industries.”

Floyd Morrow, who served three terms on the San Diego City Council from 1965 to 1977 until he was successfully defeated by a religious-Right campaign targeting his pioneering support of Queer issues (the campaign, led by a coalition of local Fundamentalist churches that came together to publish a newsletter called The Church News, was a trial run for the later Moral Majority and Christian Coalition), said that “many things we’ve done today are byproducts of what we did when I was on the City Council.” He acknowledged two people as having shaped his environmental consciousness: his wife Marlene and “my environmental consultant, Jim Bell.” Bell, who for over a decade has been advancing a plan to make San Diego self-sufficient in energy and water, abandoned his own campaign for mayor and endorsed Morrow after Morrow agreed to adopt his plan.

Morrow, who retired from his law practice in 2000 and went in business with a partner to build inexpensive, environmentally benign homes in Mexico, urged the city to adopt the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) for all new construction. “There’s enough water in San Diego that we could be self-sufficient,” he said. “I’m independent of special interests and developers. I’m a Democrat, the only one on the ticket, and I want to make Green San Diego a reality and not a slogan.” Morrow also said that, in contrast to San Diego’s current financial woes, when he was on the Council “we paid our bills, we treated our employees with respect and we had a clean city.”

James Hart, the last candidate to speak, spun an environmental dream that briefly had some audience members wondering what planet he was on: “The last gas-powered car is in a museum. Solar power runs everything. Global warming is a thing of the past. Some of these statements are forward-thinking, as am I. We can’t control San Diego’s problems with water unless we work with Mexico and get immigration under control. If we stop illegal immigration, it will lower housing costs for U.S. citizens.” Hart also said several times during the debate that “I’d like to go to a four-day work week to save 20 percent on fuel costs and global warming.”

The first question moderator Chase asked was which other cities the candidates would cite as models for San Diego’s environmental policies. “I’m not sure holding a specific city as a bar for San Diego is a good thing,” said Bidwell. “We should do it as fully as we can.” Sanders said he liked Portland, Oregon and said they were doing urban redevelopment in a manner similar to the so-called “city of villages” concept he’s pushed in San Deigo. Francis and Morrow both mentioned San Francisco as a model, and Morrow added that Salt Lake City, under recently elected Democratic Mayor Rudy Anderson, was already making major environmental advances.

The candidates clashed on the same issue that had produced fireworks at the earlier forum for the 3rd District City Council race: historic preservation and the Mills Act. Referring to the proposal Sanders has made for increasing the application fees for the Mills Act subsidy, Morrow said, “We can’t charge them $30,000 to put the house in order after we’ve already charged them $30,000 to buy it. We don’t even utilize the thousands of acres of land the city owns to build affordable housing.”

“The administration wants to destroy the Mills Act, which preserves historic homes,” Francis charged. “Developers want to scrape our historic neighborhoods. They want to build a 12-story high-rise in the heart of Hillcrest” — a reference to the 301 University project at Third and University, which was approved by the City Council 7-1 (Donna Frye’s was the lone vote against it) but later blocked by a court as contrary to the city’s commitment in its general plan to preserve the character of existing neighborhoods.

“I’m not familiar with the Mills Act,” Bidwell acknowledged, “but taking a unilateral stance on this would not be good. This is a tough issue between weighing the desires of a neighborhood and the interests of the city at large.”

“San Diego has used the Mills Act more than any other city in California,” said Sanders in a rather testy response. “The money you save on property taxes, you’re supposed to use to preserve your house. Communities need to make those decisions for themselves, as the Kensington Planning Group did when they unanimously voted for the Kensington Terrace” — the project Whitburn had mentioned in the City Council debate to build a multi-story condo development on the site of two historic bungalows.

The candidates also sparred on the Sunrise Powerlink, a proposed 150-mile power line SDG&E wants to build between the Imperial Valley and San Diego. SDG&E is promoting this as a way to bring alternative energy into San Diego — indeed, if you go to their Web site it’s easier to find out how they claim it will help renewable energy than the basics of how long it is and where it will be built — but critics, including most San Diego environmentalists, say it’s really a way for SDG&E to ship in power from Mexico produces in plants that don’t meet U.S. environmental standards.

“I don’t believe making SDG&E richer by importing power and exporting jobs is the answer,” Morrow said. “We can produce power that’s environmentally safe and self-sufficient. Let’s use a little judgment and common sense.”

“It’s important not to get in front about Sunrise,” said Francis. “It’s not about producing green power. A lot of people believe Sunrise is about hooking up to polluting plants in Mexico and making shareholders richer.” He also said he thought power lines were especially dangerous and claimed the most recent wildfires in San Diego were caused by one. “Anza-Borrego is one of the most beautiful areas of our community, and you can’t put a power line through it without looking at alternatives.”

“I’d like to see as much of the resources used in San Diego produced here,” said Bidwell. “We could lower our electricity use overnight.”

“The polls said don’t take a position on Sunrise,” said Sanders, who throughout the debate accused Francis of relying on out-of-town opinion pollsters to formulate his platform. “We came within kilowatts of losing all electricity in San Diego during the fire. We need a reliable source of power in San Diego, and Sunrise is it.”

“Having power generated some place else where environmental laws are weak and shipped here kind of defeats our purpose,” said Hart. “We need to start doing business with the businesses of the future and move forwards, not backwards, to solar, wind, hydro and lots of clean sources.”

One of Chase’s questions to the candidates asked them which books they had read which had most shaped their understanding of environmental issues and which environmental groups to which they belonged. Most of the book choices were predictable — the late Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance — but Sanders picked “the poetry of Robert Frost” and Bidwell said he didn’t read entire books at all. “I spend a lot of time online; maybe it’s a generational thing,” he said. Chase, unfazed, asked him to name a favorite environmentalist Web site, and Bidwell mentioned, which isn’t specifically an environmental site but allows users to enter the name of a company and find out its record on social justice overall. Knowmore’s home page describes its purpose as “to raise awareness of corporate abuse, and to serve as a catalyst for direct action against corporate power.”

Aguirre vs. Everybody Else

The forum for city attorney candidates took place well after the others, starting at 3:30 p.m., a half-hour after the weekly organ concert. Though it was only scheduled for an hour, Chase let it run more than 20 minutes overtime even though the city attorney has little power on environmental issues. City Council President Scott Peters, one of the leading contenders in the race, didn’t show for the debate — he sent a campaign volunteer to explain that he’d been at Earth Day earlier but had had to leave to attend a school dance with his daughter — but incumbent Mike Aguirre’s other leading opponents, judge and former Assemblymember Jan Goldsmith, City Councilmember Brian Maienschein and attorney and former city attorney staff member Amy Lepine, all were present.

Like the other debates on this race, this one pitted Aguirre on one side and all the other candidates against him, and centered largely around Aguirre’s expansive conception of his office. Aguirre regards the city attorney as a San Diego equivalent of the “tribune of the people” in the ancient Roman republic, not only entitled but morally required to intervene in all manner of controversies in which he believes the interests of ordinary people are being threatened by entrenched political or economic power. His rivals have a narrower concept of the office as essentially being the attorney for the city and its government, working for the interests of the people by representing the city in court and giving legal advice to facilitate what the mayor and city council want to do.

“The city attorney’s client is the city of San Diego,” Maienschein said. “There needs to be some discernible peace from filing lawsuits. The city attorney needs to represent the mayor, the city council and the citizens. You have to have a client that can vote on whether and how a lawsuit proceeds” — a reference to the complaint of Maienschein, Peters and other Councilmembers that Aguirre has frequently filed suits in the name of the city which the council hasn’t heard about until they’re announced in the media.

“The client is the city, under the city charter, and that’s how it has to be,” said Goldsmith. “Otherwise, you have a one-half billion dollar municipal corporation without a lawyer. But we are accountable to the people. As a judge, I am elected by the people and responsible to them, but I am accountable to the law. As city attorney, I would represent the mayor or city council collectively but not individually. If they commit crimes, my responsibility is to the city.”

“The only purpose of government is to serve the public interest, and that applies to the city attorney as well,” Aguirre said. “The role is to fearlessly protect the people of San Diego and not the mayor and city council. When Jan Goldsmith was mayor of Poway, as a general-law city his city attorney was a subordinate officer of the mayor and city council. But San Diego is a charter city, and our charter provides that the city attorney is in charge of the litigation of the city, to remove the politicians from those decisions.”

Lepine, trying to take a middle position, said, “Our charter is not clear on this. The city attorney has a fiduciary duty to the people and also a responsibility to protect the mayor’s and city council’s backs. In almost four years, we haven’t seen any effort to correct the inconsistencies of the city attorney’s role in the charter. I would bring that to you, the people, so we don’t continue to have this debate.”

But even Aguirre admitted there are limits on his power, disappointing the audience on a question of whether he could file a lawsuit to block the proposed high-rise development at the Navy Broadway Complex on the downtown waterfront. “The city attorney cannot file a lawsuit against a decision of the city council,” he explained. “We advised the city council that an environmental impact statement was necessary before they could approve that project. They elected not to follow that advice.”

Asked what steps they would take as city attorney to foster a green environment, Maienschein said, “The role of the city attorney is to work with the city council and mayor and city staff to make sure the city is proceeding in an environmentally friendly manner and work in a productive fashion.”

Goldsmith added, “And also enforce the law, wherever that takes you. The city attorney’s office needs to be nonpartisan.”

Aguirre named two members of his staff who “were put on with the specific goal of putting together an environmental enforcement unit. Regarding mini-dorms, I came out in favor of a Neighborhood Bill of Rights. Regarding recycling, I wrote an opinion that we were perilously close to the 51 percent state limit [a law that sets limits on what percentage of its trash a city can dump in landfills]. I though we should negotiate a settlement with the EPA [the federal Environmental Protection Agency] for voluntary recycling [of sewer water] so we don’t have to build a secondary treatment plant at Point Loma. The city attorney represents the city before the PUC and wants an EIR before Sempra [SDG&E’s parent company] puts in liquefied natural gas.”

Lepine said she would hope to lead by example, as she’s already done with her small law firm. “The city attorney is also a major employer,” she said. “I ride my bike to work, and as city attorney I could offer incentives to my deputies and employees. We can also allow telecommuting, since we do a lot of work at our desks. I also reimburse all my employees if they want to take mass transit.”

SANDY LAREAU: Informing and Entertaining the Modern Witch


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

In every other advanced country but the U.S., May 1 is the International Labor Day — but to Pagans in the U.S. and abroad, it’s also Beltane, one of the Pagan high holidays. “May Day brings desire,” explains a Pagan Web site. “The Maiden of Spring and the growing young Sun God meet in the fields and perform the dance of life. Great bonfires are built to celebrate the warmth and the strength of the sun.”

This year’s Beltane is bringing something else: the first issue of Modern Witch magazine, described on the home page of its Web site,, as “a quarterly magazine for the Wiccan, Witch and Pagan.” Zenger’s encountered its energetic founder, Sandy Lareau, at a March 29 fundraiser in Hillcrest for the annual San Diego Pagan Pride event this September 9. She agreed to an interview two weeks later at Filter, the North Park coffeehouse at 30th and Polk formerly known as The Other Side. For subscription and other information, visit the Web site or e-mail Sandy directly at

Zenger’s: Could you tell me a little about your background, and how you got interested in Paganism and Witch topics?

Sandy Lareau: I’ve always been a Witch. When I was a little girl, I used to talk to entities, spirits that would come in my room and plop down on my bed and have a conversation. My mom would ask me, “Who are you talking to?” And to me it was perfectly obvious. I’m talking to this guy.

I’ve always been attracted to the occult, and I don’t mean dark, manipulative stuff. I always thought there was something else out there beyond what we perceive with our normal five senses. Growing up it’s awkward to be like that, because other kids who don’t necessarily pay attention to those things think you’re kind of strange.

I used to read fairy tales, sneak off to the library and read science fiction, and I’d get my hands on anything divination-wise, like tarot or palm reading. But it wasn’t until probably 1995 that I finally figured out what it was I was. A friend of mine is Wiccan. I had no idea he was Wiccan, abut everything we talked about was similar. I researched it, and found out it had a name.

Zenger’s: You said you grew up with a belief that there was something beyond our five senses. Why do you think that didn’t get channeled into a more mainstream religion?

Lareau: I grew up in the 1970’s in a very conservative family with Roman Catholic parents. I did follow my parents’ religion, actually. I was very active in the Catholic Church up until age 11, when I insisted that I wanted to be a priest and I would not be consoled with being a nun. That wasn’t good enough. I wanted to know the mysteries. I wanted to know the secrets. I wanted to know how to turn the water into wine.

So after about age 11, I drifted away from that mainstream because it wasn’t a fit for me at all. I didn’t buy it. I didn’t believe that Jesus Christ was the only way to God. I knew Jews and I knew Buddhists, and I couldn’t imagine these good people going to hell just because they weren’t Catholic. It just didn’t gel with me.

When I read some occult books after that, in my early teens and middle teens, the word “witch” terrified me. I was in denial until finally I met somebody whom I loved and respected as a person, who showed me it wasn’t such a terrible thing to just accept who you are.

Zenger’s: How much does the religion as you personally practice it have to do with attempting to research ancient models, and how much of it is basically intuitive and working out a way to do it that fits modern life?

Lareau: Ancient models are a good foundation, but they don’t necessarily fit in modern life. We can’t go around wearing robes and living in the forest. We have to live in this society, we have to live under the laws of the land, and, face it, we have to make a living. So it makes sense to embrace the world around us as it is now, but because we’re very earth-oriented people, we all are involved in recycling, earth activism and things like that. The bridge between the ancient and the modern is how we can go back and restore some of the earth’s natural beauty and health. I think that’s what a modern Pagan’s task is today.

Zenger’s: So what would you most want people to know about who you are, especially someone who — as it once was for you — the word “witch” is absolutely terrifying?

Lareau: Well, it’s understandable why people are terrified, with all the Hollywood mumbo-jumbo about eating children and having purple eyes and flying around on brooms. It’s hysterically funny if you look at the history of what a witch really is. The word “wicca” is old English for “wise.” Wiccans try to be the wise people of the community. We strive to be spiritual. We strive to be the people other people come to for advice.

We don’t sacrifice animals for blood sacrifice. It’s completely against everything we believe. We don’t believe in causing intentional harm on anyone or anything, and we believe in being responsible for our actions. We don’t believe in manipulating the will of other people. We’re actually pretty peaceful. We’re not manipulative, scary, death-eating people. We’re special-ed teachers. We’re doctors, lawyers, writers, musicians, electricians, just people who believe that the earth is sacred.

Zenger’s: How would you define the term “spell”?

Lareau: A spell is an action where you’re putting all your concentration and energy into something. Sometimes it can be a prayer, and sometimes it’s just organizing your thoughts and defining your intention. If you put all your energy towards something, you’re probably going to achieve it, no matter what it is.

Zenger’s: When you pray, whom do you pray to?

Lareau: The Lord and the Lady. Most Wiccans acknowledge a duality in nature, the masculine and the feminine: the Goddess and the God. Some Wiccans only acknowledge the Goddess. A lot of them are feminists who’ve perhaps experienced harm in the past from the male gender. But most Wiccans are a balanced people. We understand that there’s male and female in all of us, and there’s male and female in pretty much all of nature. So that’s the underlying principle of what we pray to, with the understanding that God is something you just can’t define. The best we humans can do is to polarize it into something that makes sense.

Zenger’s: What do you think of the U.S. military allowing practicing Pagans to be buried under the pentacle as their religious symbol?

Lareau: That’s been a long time coming. We’ve actually been trying to get that for 10 or 12 years now. In fact, I served in the United States Air Force for six years, and I had “Wicca” on my dog tags. When you serve, you take that oath that you will uphold the Constitution, and you’re basically willing to die for your country. I think one of the reasons so many Pagans are in the military — besides the obvious benefits — is that a country that so treasures freedom of religion is so worth fighting for. So that was an acknowledgment to us to have the pentacle finally able to be on our headstones of people who have died for the country.

Zenger’s: There seems to be a contradiction to me between saying that a central tenet of your religion is not doing harm to others and joining an organization like the military whose function it is to do precisely that.

Lareau: I hear that a lot. But the primary reason that we have a military in this country is for defense. It’s the Department of Defense, not the Department of War.

Zenger’s: Until 1947 it was the Department of War.

Lareau: That’s correct. But things evolve, and I don’t think there were a whole lot of Wiccans in the military in 1947. In fact, for my day job, I work for the defense industry now, but it’s in an industry that saves people’s lives, not takes people’s lives. Being in the military to defend our country is an honorable thing to do. You are allowed to defend yourself, as a Wiccan. You’re not allowed to go out and make war on somebody as a Wiccan.

Unfortunately — if I may be political for just a second — I don’t believe that the current administration has honored the defense part of the Department of Defense. I think that we are in an unnecessary war, and unfortunately we have all kinds of Americans — Wiccan and Christian and Buddhist and Santerias and everybody alike — over there dying for something they probably don’t agree with.

Zenger’s: Let’s talk a little about the magazine now. Why did you decide to start it?

Lareau: It was one of those “see a need, fill a need” things. Don’t get me wrong: there are some great Pagan magazines already out there. Unfortuantely, they’re mostly geared towards one type of Wiccan or Pagan, or they’re geared towards a single gender. I also saw a need for something that you couldn’t get on the Internet. Right now the Internet is full of how to do spells and how to do rituals, and how to divinate, how to read tarot cards and things like that.

But as a Pagan community, we deal with many social issues that are unique to us, and we have a lifestyle that is unique to us. I didn’t see a whole lot of that addressed in any of the magazines, or on the Internet, out there anywhere. So I decided it’s time to do a magazine that deals with those things. Green technology, for example: I want to know what products are out there I can buy that are good for Mother Earth, and I want to know what products are out there that are bad, so I don’t buy them. I think other Pagans want to know that, too.

I want to know how to teach my children to talk about their religion in a group setting that is not going to make them uncomfortable, and is not going to make other people uncomfortable. That’s why we have the “Life and Family” section of the magazine. What else? “Mind-Body-Spirit.” There are so many good-quality alternative health options out there that are just not addressed in any one place. I wanted to bring that to the community, too, because 90 percent of all Wiccans are herbalists of some form or another. It’s part of our training. You have to know what they do, what healing properties they have, and things like that. So it’s articles like this, and lifestyle things, that I wanted to bring to the community.

Zenger’s: You said you’ve already produced your first issue. What’s going to be in it?

Lareau: I have a lady who has many degrees, and one of them is in psychology. She is writing the “Life and Family” column, and the “Ask a Pagan Parent” column, which is fun. In our green technology feature, we are doing bio-friendly fabrics that the government and other entities are using.

We have a couple of other really great columns. Kenny Klein is a Pagan musician, an extremely talented man. He is writing a column about Pagan festivals, because we have festivals all over the country, all during the year, and he’s been to just about every single one of them. Some of them might not be fit for families, whereas others are very family-oriented, and those are the things you want to know before you commit to go.

We have a “Traditions” feature, where we cover a different Pagan or Wiccan tradition in each different issue, because there are so many different ones out there. Some of them are hereditary, and some of them are just made up by the High Priest or the High Priestess who founded it. Those things are interesting to us, because not everybody practices religion the same way, not even in Wicca.

Zenger’s: I would say probably especially not in Wicca, since you don’t have a central authority telling you all, “This is the way you do it.”

Lareau: Right, “This is the way to go.” There are probably as many traditions of Wicca as there are Wiccans, to a point. I did study with a couple of established covens for a while, where everybody goes along in the same direction. But if it works for you, it’s great. If it doesn’t, it’s nice to know what else is out there.

Zenger’s: How are you funding it, and who, if anybody, have you got to advertise?

Lareau: I’m funding it out of my 401(K). It’s not doing anything right now anyway, so I thougfht I’d put some of it to good use. What the heck. I have a couple of advertisers. Willow Tree Press is fantastic. They have several ads in the first issue. I have this store out of New Yor, the Awareness Shop, that’s bought the next four back pages. I’m working out a deal right now with the Pagan Radio Network. I think we’re going to do an exchange there. That way I get my name out there on the Pagan Radio Network [an Internet-based radio service at], and he gets his ad in Modern Witch magazine.

Zenger’s: How many copies are you printing of the first issue?

Lareau: 2,500. I wish I had them all sold, but I don’t. I have a lot more marketing to do. I’ve been using my lunch hour to sit in my car with my cell phone and make sales calls to stores across the nation, to see if they’ll carry the magazine.

But folks are putting their money where their mouth is. I really wasn’t expecting the overwhelming support and response from people I haven’t met, especially from the local Pagan groups. The Pagan Pride coordinators and the Village Witch have both been so loving and supportive of this project. I just can’t thank them enough.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

“Shrimper” Diane Wilson Speaks in San Diego

Tells Moving Tale of Environmental Activism in Texas


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

When she first met Diane Wilson, former Congressional candidate Jeeni Criscenzo recalled when introducing her at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church April 5, she stumbled a bit when Wilson described herself as a “shrimper.” At first, Criscenzo said, she didn’t know what that meant — and Wilson said she wasn’t the only person who didn’t understand it. When she staged a hunger strike outside Du Pont’s world headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware to protest the chemical plant the company was building in Texas, Wilson said she’d been there for a week when the local paper finally wrote a story about her, headlined, “Shrimper on Hunger Strike.” “Next day,” she recalled, “I had a carload of fellows drive by and say, ‘Where’s that stripper on a hunger strike?’”

Wilson was born and raised in Seadrift, a tiny town in Texas on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Her father and grandfather were shrimpers — boat fishermen who sought out shrimp — and she took up the trade herself. Painfully shy as a girl — she recalled that she hated going to school or doing anything that put her in the company of other people — she found shrimping a congenial lifestyle because she could do it alone on her own boat and not have to deal with other humans. “Most shrimpers will admit they go to sea as much for the silence as for the catching of shrimp,” she wrote at the beginning of her memoir, An Unreasonable Woman — written in a highly colorful Southern tale-telling style that reads more like William Faulkner than your usual activist’s autobiography — though her shyness and solitary occupation didn’t keep her from getting married and having five children: four daughters and an autistic son.

What changed this reclusive fisherwoman into a highly charged activist able to speak before hundreds of people, stage hunger strikes and chain herself to the fences of chemical plants was her dawning realization of just how polluted the bay she fished was becoming. It manifested in how much harder she had to work to find shrimp: how many more times she had to cast her net in how many more places to catch enough to make the work economically viable. Then there were the blooms of algae that covered great areas on the water. “We would have a brown algae bloom, and then a green algae bloom,” Wilson recalled. “Then we’d have a red algae bloom, and if you’re on a shrimp boat, the fumes from a red algae bloom will make you sick.”

Then the dolphins in the bay started dying. They’d float up to the surface of the water, and at first the shrimpers and other fishermen working the bay wouldn’t know what they were. “We had scientists from all over the country trying to figure out why the dolphins were dying,” she said — the first time that the plight of Seadrift, Texas attracted any attention from the outside world. To make ends meet, in addition to shrimping Wilson had taken a job at a fish house — where she and fellow shrimpers would go to sell their catches — and she’d hear stories from other shrimpers who’d taken jobs at the chemical plants in the area when they couldn’t make enough money from the sea. “They would tell stories about dumping and discharges at night,” Wilson said. “But it was all just stories.”

It became more than “just stories” when, in the wake of the disaster at a Union Carbide-based plant in Bhopal, India in 1984, Congress passed a law demanding the release of something called a Toxic Waste Inventory. Its purpose was to rank all the counties in the U.S. by the share of pollution they were discharging into the environment. When Wilson found out — through a story from the Associated Press that her hometown paper published — that her little Calhoun County, Texas (population 10,000) was “number one in the nation in toxic waste disposal.” In her book, Wilson wrote, “The article ranked Calhoun County first nationally for toxics to the land, and said we accounted for 54 percent of the state’s total of a billion pounds, and our own Alcoa was the villainous plant that landed us there. … Besides that first-place prize, Calhoun was third for shipping toxins out, sixth for sticking them down wells, then 21st for flinging them in the air.”

Eventually Wilson called an environmental lawyer in Houston named Blackburn and said she’d organize a meeting in town and invite him to speak on what the community members could do about it. What she didn’t know was that a company called Formosa Plastics, based in Taiwan and founded by a self-made Chinese multimillionaire named Wang Yung-ching, who insisted on being addressed as “The Chairman,” was about to build Calhoun County’s largest plastics factory, on top of the ones they already owned and operated there. When she called the meeting, she said, “Within two days I had the bank president at the fish house. I had never seen the man in my life, and he wanted to know, ‘Diane, are you starting a vigilante group?’ Then I had the mayor’s secretary telling me I should get counseling. I had the county commissioner and the aide to our state senator, the chamber of commerce and the economic development task force, all telling me I shouldn’t hold this meeting.”

What Wilson eventually found out was that the entire leadership of the county had staked its economic future on Formosa. “They brought the worst polluter from Taiwan, who was so bad he’d been thrown out of his home country even though in Taiwan environmental activism was then illegal,” she said. “The Chairman said he was going to bring his plant either to Texas or Louisiana, so we gave him $250 million in tax abatements — at a time when our school district was so broke they were threatening to lay off nine teachers. They didn’t ask one single environmental question. We had U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, who was running for President at the time, pushing through their permits — and the head of Region 6 of the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] was Phil Gramm’s campaign manager, and he was rubber-stamping everything.”

The activist campaign Wilson had unwittingly stumbled into would cost her big-time. Her only supporters were her close friend Donna Sue, attorney Blackburn and Rick, whom she described as “a savvy environmentalist from Houston” — and even Rick advised her that the new Formosa plant was “a done deal” and she was wasting her time opposing it. “My husband — who’s now my ex-husband — was totally against me,” Wilson recalled. (In her book she called him “Baby” and described him basically as an annoying presence hovering on the fringes of her life.) Formosa reached into its deep pockets and hired both her brother and her cousin as part of their counter-campaign against her. She lost her job at the fish house and her house was strafed by a helicopter with someone with a gun inside. Worst of all, her boat was sabotaged and, in the scene she chose to open her book, she had to fight for her life in the dead of night to get it pumped out so she wouldn’t drown.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, at the very end of her campaign, her attorney, Blackburn, cut his own deal with Formosa, went on their payroll and urged Wilson to accept the terms he’d worked out with the company. “So I decided to kill myself,” Wilson recalled. “I’d read about Marilyn Monroe and thought, ‘She killed herself with sleeping pills and wine. I can do that.’ I took the pills and figured I’d just roll off the boat and become one with the water. But I just could not go to sleep. You take that many sleeping pills and you don’t go to sleep, but your lungs slow down and you think you’re going to suffocate and feel it all as you die. But I didn’t go to sleep, and the next morning I went back to it.”

Wilson made friends, too. A large number of current and former Formosa workers sought her out and told her horror stories of dead-of-night chemical dumps into the Gulf Coast bay. Many of the workers were already suffering from cancer and other diseases possibly caused by exposure to toxic chemicals at work, and they told Wilson not only that they believed their jobs had made them deathly ill but also how the company was trying to cut off their health coverage and deny them care just to save on its bottom line. As her knowledge of environmental science and law grew, her demands focused first on getting Formosa to do an environmental impact study for their nearly completed plant, then on having it install so-called “zero discharge” technology so the water going out of it would be as clean as the water coming in.

As Wilson’s knowledge base as an activist expanded, so did her tactics. When Rick, her environmentalist friend from Houston, told her the plant was a done deal, she recalled, “I had a thought that came off the top of my head. I said I was going to do a hunger strike, and he said, ‘Only people in California do hunger strikes.’ I knew enough about human nature to know that if I gave myself time to go to bed and think about it, I’d never do it. So I immediately called the one reporter I knew and told her I was doing a hunger strike. There was no phone on the boat, so nobody knew I was doing it — except the executives of the chemical plant, who’d come on the boat. One executive said, ‘You don’t know how stupid you look.’”

When Wilson’s friend got a Houston TV station to do a story on her hunger strike — with the local papers firmly in Formosa’s pocket she had to go out of town to get any press coverage at all — the owner of the boat she was staying on “came down from Houston and threw me off his boat. I had a day to get off the boat, so I marched straight down to the chemical plant and sat down on their front lawn. I had no money, little support and almost no media attention, but I basically got what I wanted in two weeks. When you do that level of commitment and put yourself on the edge, it’s a different type of energy. Gandhi called it ‘soul power.’ It’s what the planet has and what nature has. If you can align yourself with that energy, things happen.”
“¡Aguirre Si, Labor No!”


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The first time the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club discussed this year’s race for San Diego city attorney, on January 24, I was greeted by a friend of mine, a Lesbian activist and city worker I’ve known for years. She wondered why I responded with an expression that signaled I was less than happy to see her, and asked why. “It’s your button,” I told her. The button she was wearing was a large one reading, “Mike Aguirre Must Go.” I told her I thought Aguirre, whatever his faults, was doing a good job taking on the endemic corruption in San Diego politics and was one of only two elected officials — along with City Councilmember Donna Frye — really taking the city’s financial crisis seriously. My friend said, “All I’m interested in is making sure I get to keep my pension.”

Two months later, on March 27, the San Diego Democratic Club discussed the city attorney’s race again and endorsed Aguirre’s only significant Democratic opponent, moderate City Council president Scott Peters. During the meeting I spoke up for Aguirre, and afterwards I was buttonholed by a man who asked me how I could possibly be for Aguirre when I publish such a consistently progressive magazine. He told me that, contrary to published reports that city workers in his department are going to receive pensions of $30,000 per year, his pension will “only” be $26,000. I told him that I’m a public employee myself (a home-care aid for a disabled man under the state-funded, county-administered In-Home Supportive Services program) and that $26,000 per year is exactly $26,000 per year than the pension I’m going to get.

The man went on to tell me, “It wasn’t the unions’ fault that the city workers’ pensions were underfunded. It was the fault of former Mayor Susan Golding, who diverted the money the city owed the pension funds to pay for the Convention Center expansion, the 1996 Republican Convention and Petco Park.” That’s true. It also happens to be true that when the Convention Center expansion and the initiative to build Petco Park were on the ballot, I endorsed against them and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council supported them. In my anti-ballpark editorials, I warned that the “memorandum of understanding” between the city and the San Diego Padres was such a blatant sweetheart deal in the Padres’ favor that the financing for the ballpark was likely to bankrupt the city.

What I didn’t reckon with was that the downtown business establishment which has effectively governed San Diego for decades would figure out a way, not to avoid having the city go broke paying for the ballpark and their other monuments to private-sector greed, but to pass the blame onto the city’s workers. That’s essentially what mayors Golding and Dick Murphy, and their complacent city councils (Democrats and Republicans alike), did by raiding city workers’ pension funds for the money to pay the bonds for the Convention Center expansion and the construction of Petco Park (which, in the normal run of these things, took two more years and a lot more money to build than the voters were promised). That way, when the city had to cut back on services and pay for current employees, the establishment could blame the cutbacks not on its own waste and sweetheart dealings with its corporate constituents, but on those greedy codgers in the city’s workforce obstinately clinging to their bloated pensions.

The establishment that governs San Diego isn’t a classic big-city political machine with clearly defined lines of authority and networks of favors. It’s more like a “power elite,” to use the term the late sociologist C. Wright Mills coined for the title of his 1958 best-selling book on America’s ruling class. It consists of businesspeople, media owners (particularly the publishers of the San Diego Union-Tribune), civic leaders and anyone the corporate bigwigs who run it think can be molded and shaped to support its priorities and values. Its aim is to keep San Diego friendly to land developers, financial speculators and other businesspeople — and to hold down any serious challenge to their authority. It aims to keep San Diego property values high (and thereby discourage working-class and lower-income people from living here at all), to keep profits high and labor down.

Historically, one of the San Diego’s establishment’s priorities has been to keep the city’s number one employer, the United States Navy, happy and content to base itself here. That, however, has changed as the U.S. military has pulled back from its network of bases on U.S. soil. For about two decades, San Diego’s Congressmembers managed to keep the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) from shutting down any major military base in San Diego. Ultimately, however, the San Diego establishment saw the handwriting on the wall and shifted strategy from keeping the bases open to making sure that, when they finally were closed, instead of being used for any public purposes they would be made available to land speculators and developers for windfall profits. That’s what happened to the Naval Training Center in Point Loma and it’s what’s happening to the Navy Broadway complex downtown.

The San Diego establishment’s reach is broad, encompassing most of the city’s major business owners, virtually all its elected officials (Republicans or Democrats) and much of its judiciary as well. That’s why people taking on the system in court — from former City Councilmember Bruce Henderson trying to block the construction of corporate-welfare stadiums, to the American Civil Liberties Union’s challenge to the Boy Scouts of America’s giveaway leases on 18 acres of city parkland, the late Phil Paulson’s attempt to take down the Mt. Soledad cross and Mike Aguirre’s challenges to the legality of the city’s dealings with its employees’ pension fund — usually lose at trial before San Diego judges but do better on appeal when the judges are in other cities.

One measure of the establishment’s power is what it does to elected officials who try to run against it. Sometimes they’re cheated out of office, the way Donna Frye was done out of her victory in the 2004 mayoral election by a hyper-technical ruling on just what constituted a write-in vote for her. Sometimes they’re thrown out by criminal convictions on dubious or blatantly trumped-up charges — the way Roger Hedgecock was driven from the mayoralty in 1985 and Michael Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza were thrown off the City Council in 2005. (Hedgecock and Zucchet later had their convictions thrown out, but the establishment had got what it wanted — them out of office — in the meantime, so it didn’t matter.) Sometimes they’re able to buy them off — which is how pro-environment, anti-developer, pro-Queer mayor Anakin Hedgecock became immigrant-bashing, Queer-baiting, developer-fawning radio talk-show host Darth Roger.

Historian and social critic Mike Davis has pointed out that San Francisco had a strong, historically progressive labor movement which provided a counterweight to the influence of its business establishment over its politics, while Los Angeles lacked a strong labor movement but did have a cadre of “good-government” businesspeople who stepped in when city government got too blatantly corrupt and imposed reforms to the city charter when they were needed in the 1930’s and again in the 1990’s. Lacking either activist unions or “good-government” business leaders, San Diego has soldiered on for decade after decade in the muck of political corruption. Of its mayors between the 1960’s and the 2000’s — Frank Curran, Pete Wilson, Roger Hedgecock, Maureen O’Connor, Susan Golding and Dick Murphy — Wilson and O’Connor were the only ones who didn’t leave office under a cloud of scandal.

And San Diego’s labor leadership has long been a part, albeit a relatively un-influential junior part, of the city establishment. That was vividly brought home when Jerry Butkiewicz retired as head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council — and immediately stepped into a well-paying gig with Sempra Energy, parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric. As noted above, the Labor Council supported all the establishment’s budget-busting building projects of the 1990’s, especially the Convention Center expansion and Petco Park. Labor signed onto supporting the corporate-welfare ballpark for the Padres largely because of the promise that it would be built exclusively with union labor — and ignored the fact that the permanent jobs the ballpark would create once it was built would be poor-paying non-union service jobs.

The city’s workers were badly burned when the San Diego establishment raided their pension funds to pay for the Convention Center expansion, the 1996 Republican convention and especially Petco Park — but their union leaders’ actions since have proved that the leaders remain faithful servants of the establishment and have learned precisely nothing from the disaster. First they got the labor movement as a whole to sit out Donna Frye’s second mayoral campaign against Jerry Sanders — thereby ensuring her defeat — and now they’ve joined the establishment’s lynching party against Mike Aguirre, the only person in elected office in San Diego besides Frye who has truly grasped the seriousness of the city’s financial situation and the drastic measures that are going to be needed to get us out of it.

Aguirre came into office with one simple idea about the pension crisis. The law in California is that state and local government agencies can’t legally take on obligations they can’t pay for. Therefore, any pension commitments the city made to its workers beyond what they could pay for were illegal, and the courts should set them aside. Were the rest of San Diego’s elected officials supporting his position instead of trying to undermine him at every turn, the city would likely be on its way to fiscal recovery; maybe some workers would have had to give up the promises of well-paid retirements, but at least there’d still be money to pay for current city services and avoid layoffs of city workers hired too late to get on the pension gravy trains of their predecessors.

Instead, like all too many unions today — including the United Auto Workers nationally in the 1990’s and the United Food and Commercial Workers in Southern California — San Diego’s city employees’ unions have screwed over younger workers to protect the privileges of older ones. They’ve done this by agreeing to employers’ demands for so-called “two-tier” wage structures, in which newer workers get significantly smaller wages and either few or no benefits. At the March 27 San Diego Democratic Club meeting, Scott Peters boasted that under his leadership the Council in 2005 had passed a new labor ordinance freezing city workers’ wages and cutting their pay by 6 1/2 percent. He didn’t mention that it also set up a two-tier structure by which new city hires get even lower wages, few benefits and little or no pensions.

It’s only in a city whose politics are so grossly imbalanced by the power of its business establishment and the absence of any ongoing, organized opposition to it that a City Council president who boasted of passing such an ordinance would be hailed as labor’s friend — and would get the endorsement of both the Central Labor Council and the Queer Democratic club over an incumbent city attorney who was United Farm Workers’ founder Cesar Chavez’s attorney when Chavez died. It’s a measure of how screwed up San Diego’s politics are — and how bipartisan the control of the establishment really is — that four past and present Democratic officeholders, including current City Councilmembers Toni Atkins and Ben Hueso, State Senator Christine Kehoe (who as a City Councilmember signed on to support Petco Park — as, ironically, did Mike Aguirre) and former State Senator DeDe Alpert, as well as former Council candidate Lorena Gonzalez — signed a letter endorsing Peters that was printed on slick paper in full color for distribution to San Diego Democratic Club members on March 27. And it’s a measure of how much the hate campaign against Aguirre has blinded a lot of otherwise intelligent and savvy people that the San Diego Democratic Club endorsed Peters even after Peters point-blank refused to commit to supporting Aguirre against a Republican in the November general election.

Make no mistake about it: Scott Peters is a good and faithful servant of San Diego’s corrupt establishment. He proved it in 2001 when he voted to renew the Boy Scouts’ sweetheart leases of 18 acres of city parkland — and both at the Council meeting when the lease approval was renewed and on March 27, when he offered a lame “apology” for that vote, he couldn’t talk about rights or discrimination or justice. All he could talk about was how much he’d hurt fellow Councilmember Atkins by his vote. As the only person who’s served as City Council president since San Diego went to a strong-mayor form of government, Peters has shown his loyalty not only to the establishment but to San Diego’s establishmentarian mayor, Jerry Sanders, in particular, by voting in lock-step with Sanders on a series of proposed charter amendments that will turn the strong-mayor government into a virtual mayoral dictatorship. To use a term from my friends in the Leather community, Scott Peters is Jerry Sanders’ “boy.”

The 2008 race for city attorney is a battle between good and evil: between progressive social change and business as usual. Mike Aguirre can be overly aggressive and sometimes almost unbelievably petty, but he’s on the side of right and justice. His three major opponents — Republicans Jan Goldsmith (former Assemblymember and current judge) and Brian Maienschein (Right-wing City Councilmember) and DINO (Democrat-in-name-only) Scott Peters — offer more of the same-old, same-old. If any of them are elected, the office of city attorney will go back to being what it was before Aguirre: at best a helpless handmaiden and at worst an active enabler of the city establishment’s immoral and frequently illegal schemes. Zenger’s urges its readers to ignore the hate propaganda against Mike Aguirre and proudly endorses him for re-election as San Diego city attorney.