“¡Aguirre Si, Labor No!”
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
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.