Tuesday, June 29, 2010

San Diego Democratic Club Hosts Post-Election Forum


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Panelists Jennifer Tierney, David Rolland and Jess Durfee discuss the June 8 primary election results at the San Diego Democratic Club meeting June 24.

• Departing San Diego Democratic Club vice-president Alex Sachs (center) receives a proclamation from City Councilmember Todd Gloria (right) while club president Larry Baza (left) looks on.

• 36th District State Senate candidate Paul Clay

• Center political action coordinator Carlos Marquez

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club hosted a forum on the results of the June 8 California primary election at its regular meeting June 24. Pat Sherman, former editor of the Gay & Lesbian Times and current editor of the recently launched Gay San Diego, moderated the event and the speakers included San Diego County Democratic Party chair and former San Diego Democratic Club president Jess Durfee; San Diego CityBeat editor David Rolland; and political consultant Jennifer Tierney, who managed former Assemblymember Howard Wayne’s campaign for the District 6 seat on the San Diego City Council.

Though most of the topics discussed were about the San Diego County results — Wayne’s second-place finish to Republican Lorie Zapf in District 6; the passage of Proposition D, making San Diego’s strong-mayor government permanent and adding a ninth City Council seat; and the imposition of term limits on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors — Sherman’s first question to the panelists was about what Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown will have to do to overcome the enormous deep pockets of his Republican opponent, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. “I prepared all my thoughts about local races!” Rolland joked in a tone of mock panic.

Durfee questioned the assumption he thought Sherman had made in his question that Whitman and Republican U.S. Senate nominee Carly Fiorina will be able to run together as a team the way incumbent Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were in 1992. Durfee said that Boxer, Fiorina’s opponent, “will take care” of her. “There’s certainly going to be an uphill battle to match the magnitude of money on the GOP side,” Durfee conceded, referring to the willingness of Whitman and Fiorina to spend millions of dollars of their own money to bankroll their campaigns. But he also argued that the spectacle of two standard-bearers essentially trying to buy public office with their personal fortunes might backfire against the Republicans in general.

“Jerry Brown needs to stay on the tack he’s been on in the last few years,” Rolland said. “He needs to continue behaving like a maverick and taking a page out of the tea party handbook — not adopting their ideas, but playing up a progressive populism. He needs to distance himself from organized labor as much as he can, while at the same time using the rhetoric of labor in talking about working people and their families.”

Tierney, who didn’t answer the question about Jerry Brown, took the lead in responding to the next one: about the likely effect the term limits initiative will have on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. “It’s going to be a huge change,” she said. “It’ll take us years to find out what that means. At least it gives us a place to start the fight so we can at least say we’re in it.”

“I’m personally not in favor of term limits,” said Rolland. “They haven’t made the city of San Diego or the state of California better run, other than that there has been more representation of groups that have lacked representation in the past. There have been more women and ethnic minorities elected” due to term limits, Rolland said — and, he could have added, more Queers as well; openly Queer candidates were elected to the California state legislature and San Diego City Council only after term limits were imposed on those offices. But Rolland said that on balance he’s against term limits because “they limit your choice,” and as an example he said he’d like to have seen Donna Frye able to run for re-election to her District 6 seat on the San Diego City Council — especially since Right-wing Republican Lorie Zapf led the primary to replace her and, Rolland feels, has a good chance of winning the seat in the November election.

Durfee said that the presence of a term-limits initiative on the June ballot helped the insurgent challenges that kept the two Supervisors up for re-election this year — Ron Roberts in District 4 and Bill Horn in District 5 — from winning the outright majorities that would have eliminated the need for them to face challengers in November runoffs. Though both Roberts and Horn came close to the 50 percent plus one needed for outright victory — Roberts got 47,.8 percent of the vote and Horn got 47.5 percent — “putting term limits on the ballot as a concept set the tone” that allowed a majority of voters in each district to consider alternatives to the incumbents.

The first question from the audience was about Proposition D, which made San Diego’s strong-mayor form of government permanent and made the mayor’s power even stronger by adding a ninth City Council seat and increasing the threshold for sustaining a mayor’s veto of City Council legislation from five out of eight to six out of nine. The panelists assumed that the new Council seat will come from an increase in the number of Council districts from eight to nine in the next redistricting process after the 2010 census — even though some proponents of Proposition D were talking during the campaign about keeping the number of Council districts at eight and electing the ninth Councilmember citywide.

“If you look at the numbers in the city, the Ninth District will come mostly out of [Gay Republican] Carl DeMaio’s district and [Democrat] Sherri Lightner’s district, and it will probably lean Republican,” Tierney said. “I think strong-mayor is an opportunity for the public to be bullied, and now we’ve got to live with it.”

“My position on strong-mayor is that it’s really executive-mayor, which is what we have at the federal and state levels and in most of our largest cities,” Rolland said. He mentioned the heat he took for CityBeat’s endorsement of Proposition D and said he couldn’t understand the “lot of hair-pulling” in San Diego’s progressive community over its passage. He pointed out that the federal and California constitutions both set the threshold for a legislative override of an executive veto at two-thirds, so he didn’t think that was such a big deal at the city.

Rolland also cited a piece his paper had published by political writer John Lamb, linking the ninth City Council seat to the desire of San Diego’s Asian-Pacific Islander community for a district they can dominate the way African-Americans have in District 4 and Latinos in District 8. (Ironically, both Rolland’s comment and Lamb’s article ignored the fact that San Diego already has an Asian-Pacific Islander Councilmember — District 3 representative Todd Gloria, whose ancestry is Filipino.)

Durfee said that San Diego’s Democrats need to stop bitching about the power of the mayor and instead get behind an electable candidate so the strong mayor will be a Democrat. He pointed out that during the last City Council redistricting, “District 5 was already the largest and was projected to grow, and District 1 was the second largest,” so if the new Council seat comes mostly from those two districts it’s likely to be Republican — but the result will also make the current Districts 1 and 7 more Democratic, “so it’s somewhat of a trade-off.” He also said that the problem in creating an Asian-Pacific Islander district is those populations are not geographically concentrated in one area the way the city’s African-Americans and Latinos are.

Asked by the club’s outgoing vice-president for political action, Alex Sachs, why Lorie Zapf was able to win the District 6 primary by 12 percentage points despite seemingly devastating reporting in CityBeat about her and her husband’s finances, including delinquent taxes and mortgage defaults, Rolland said, “We were flabbergasted that she beat Howard [Wayne] by 12 points. One of my reporters exposed Zapf as a religious zealot who doesn’t think Gay people are fit for public office and should not be close to any kind of decision-making.” He defended his paper’s stories about the personal finances of Zapf and her husband, saying they raised legitimate questions about whether she could deliver on her campaign promise to bring “sound financial management” to the city when she and her husband didn’t seem able to do that personally. “We reported that she and her husband were delinquent on their mortgage and three times delinquent on their taxes, while they were contributing to political campaigns,” Rolland recalled.

“I want to compliment CityBeat on bringing that information forward,” said Durfee. “I loved seeing the Union-Tribune a few days behind — and probably holding their noses as they picked up CityBeat’s stories. It’s too bad CityBeat doesn’t have a bigger readership.” Durfee also examined the role of the Lincoln Club, the private Republican organization that took advantage of a court decision invalidating San Diego’s campaign finance regulations to pour large amounts of money into supporting Zapf. He said that Democrats need to stay committed to the race and not fall for the idea that the seat is lost since more people in the primary voted for Republicans than Democrats. “We always do better in November than in June,” Durfee said, “and we will do better in this district in November as long as we do our work.”

Tierney, who managed Wayne’s campaign, said, “District 6 has a good Democratic edge — but they’re not liberal Democrats. It may not win us any votes to repeat Lorie’s comments about Gays.” Like Durfee, she pointed out that between them, Zapf and the Lincoln Club sent out 11 direct-mail pieces, all negative attacks on Wayne rather than positive pieces on Zapf, whereas Wayne and his supporters sent out just five mail pieces and most of them were positive. “The Republicans will come into that district with guns blazing because that’s the only Council seat they can realistically pick up,” Tierney said. “We have to want it more than they do.”

Former club president Craig Roberts asked a follow-up question about lifting the money restrictions and whether that’s going to help Republicans long-term. “The window for unlimited contributions closed last week,” Tierney said. “You won’t see any more $20,000 contributions to Zapf’s campaign. Now the limit is $1,000 per person,” though she added that individuals and businesses can still give unlimited amounts to the Republican or Democratic parties for “member communications” — that is, mail pieces, e-mails and other targeted messages that go only to people registered with the party that’s sending them out.

Both Durfee and Rolland warned that the new restrictions on campaign contributions may also get thrown out by the courts, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case earlier this year signaled an inclination to throw out previous precedents and increase the ability of corporations to give unlimited amounts to political campaigns. “It’s a shame that the courts continue to equate money with speech,” Rolland said. “I’d like to see the courts realize that that gives rich people more power.”

Arizona Immigration Law

A surprise bit of business for the club at its June 24 meeting was a resolution, pushed by club president Larry Baza, to go on record opposing SB 1070, the law recently passed in Arizona requiring police officers with a “reasonable suspicion” that the person they have stopped for any reason is an undocumented immigrant to ask that person’s immigration status and arrest them if they cannot provide proof that they are U.S. citizens or legal residents. It also makes being an undocumented immigrant in Arizona a state, as well as a federal, crime. Though the law contains a pro forma statement that police are not supposed to use it as an excuse to do racial profiling against Latinos, the law’s opponents, both inside and outside Arizona, argue that in practice Latinos will face police harassment, and possibly even wrongful deportation, because of it.

Baza felt so strongly about this issue that he temporarily relinquished the chair so he could present the resolution directly. He argued that Queer people have a direct interest in the immigration issue because “we have LGBT [Queer] immigrants who are married. We have an immigrant policy that doesn’t work. Latino-American people are a workforce that drives agribusiness and contracting. The [federal] government needs to fix it. I believe Arizona is fixing it the wrong way. This is scapegoating. It is [racial] profiling.” Baza argued that California’s anti-marriage equality initiative Proposition 8 passed by a wider margin among Latinos and African-Americans “because we did not do our job. The Latino community is going to want to know where we stand on this issue.”

Since the issue was being presented without notice having been given to the members previously, it first required a two-thirds vote of the members present to waive the notice rules. City worker and union activist Michelle Krug supported the motion, saying that time was of the essence, especially since the law is supposed to go into effect in Arizona at the end of July. “In all of the communities I bridge,” she said, “there is the issue of people not understanding each other’s issues. This is a no-brainer.”

The resolution as drafted urged local governments in San Diego County to pass their own resolutions opposing SB 1070, “call[ed] on the entire LGBT community to stand with the Latino and progressive communities” against the bill, endorsed the demand for so-called “comprehensive immigration reform” including the Uniting American Families Act (a bill that would allow U.S. citizens in bi-national relationships with foreigners of the same gender to sponsor their partners for immigration the way U.S. citizens in opposite-gender marriages with foreigners can now) and supported the call for a boycott of Arizona until the law is repealed.

The boycott call was the one controversial part of the resolution. Club member and union staffer Brian Polejes asked if immigration rights activists in Arizona supported boycotting their own state the way Black civil-rights activists in apartheid-era South Africa had supported the international boycott of their country. Former club president Andrea Villa said she didn’t know, but that some members of the Arizona state legislature who had opposed SB 1070 had joined the call for a boycott of Arizona. Eventually, with one minor change — adding a clause urging the California state legislature not to pass a similar bill — the resolution to oppose SB 1070 passed with just one vote in opposition.

The meeting also heard from Carlos Marquez, political action coordinator of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, on plans for rallies on the so-called “Day of Decision” when federal judge Vaughan Walker issues his decision on the constitutionality of Proposition 8; and Paul Clay, candidate for State Senate in the 36th District against Republican Joel Anderson, who said he thinks he stands a good chance of winning because many Republican voters dislike Anderson enough to cross over. The club voted to endorse three Democratic nominees for statewide office, one — Attorney General candidate Kamala Harris — in an office they hadn’t endorsed in for the June 8 primary, and two others — Lieutenant Governor candidate Gavin Newsom and Insurance Commissioner candidate Dave Jones — for whom they’d endorsed their primary opponents.

The club also heard a presentation from San Diego State University professor Marti Hatrack about AB 2072, a bill currently before the California State Senate that would affect the options made available to parents of deaf newborns about the communication options available to them. Hatrack, speaking in American Sign Language (ASL) with a volunteer interpreter translating for the audience, explained that the deaf community had opposed this bill largely because it promotes the interests of audiologists and hearing-aid manufacturers rather than the deaf community. What specifically upset her was that in the eight-page brochure that would be given to parents of deaf newborns under the bill, the emphasis was on teaching deaf children verbal English rather than ASL. “We’re promoting ASL and English in a bilingual approach,” she said.

Hatrack said the Senate Health Committee agreed to a compromise amendment in which a brochure will be developed by a committee of 10 — five representatives of the ASL community and five supporting aural language instruction. “We have no problem with that,” she said. “The speech development community loves this as well, because they know you cannot develop speech without a language first. But [hearing aid manufacturers] have a big problem with allowing ASL into the family. We had a victory yesterday [at the Senate Health Committee hearing] but we didn’t win the battle.”

Finally, the club said goodbye to Alex Sachs, vice-president for political action, who is moving to Iowa — where, ironically, one of the key political issues facing the Queer community is preserving a court decision allowing marriage equality for same-sex couples in the face of a campaign to repeal it at the ballot box, the way California voters did by passing Proposition 8. Larry Baza said a heartfelt personal goodbye, and City Councilmember Todd Gloria presented Sachs with a city proclamation. One club member joked that Sachs had done so much for the club “it’ll take 16 people to replace him.”

San Diego City Council Committee Approves Restrictions on Wal-Mart

But Mayor’s Opposition Probably Means Giant Retailer Will Win in the End


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: City Councilmember Todd Gloria at the San Diego Democratic Club June 24, one day after he chaired the Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee’s consideration of a bill to require economic impact statements for giant “supercenter” stores.

San Diego residents in the Third City Council District — Hillcrest, North Park, South Park and City Heights — received an unusual piece of mail from Wal-Mart on Monday, June 21. It announced that a committee of the San Diego City Council was about to consider an ordinance that would make it virtually impossible for Wal-Mart to build giant “supercenters” — huge stores that sell groceries as well as other items — and asked readers to contact Third District Councilmember Todd Gloria to get him to cancel his sponsorship of that ordinance. It also contained a detachable postcard, addressed to a local Wal-Mart office, allowing recipients of the mail piece to express their support for Wal-Mart and go on record with a document they could presumably present to the City Council in the future, and it asked people to attend the hearing of the Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee, which Gloria chairs, on Wednesday afternoon, June 23.

As it turned out, Wal-Mart was making a pre-emptive strike against a proposed ordinance that didn’t yet exist. Gloria wasn’t asking his committee to approve an ordinance and sent it to the full City Council for an up-or-down vote, but simply to authorize him to ask the city attorney to write such a proposal and the city’s independent budget analyst to study its likely impact. Nor did what he was asking for ban supercenters outright — as a proposed ordinance in 2007, passed by the City Council but vetoed by Mayor Jerry Sanders under the city’s new strong-mayor form of government. Rather, it required that anyone seeking to build a supercenter — rather awkwardly defined as a store over 90,000 square feet in size, of which 10 percent of its space is used to sell groceries and other items that aren’t subject to state sales tax — seek an economic impact statement which the city’s planning department could review before the City Council allowed such a store to be built. The current rules already require such a report for stores larger than 100,000 square feet.

Nonetheless, Wal-Mart came out with both barrels blazing. Their own presentation against the proposal was split between two speakers: Aaron Rios, Wal-Mart’s senior vice-president for public affairs and public relations in Southern California; and Tom Turner, managing partner with Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves and Savitch. The presence of a high-ranking attorney with a powerful and influential law firm on Wal-Mart’ side was an obvious threat that even if any such ordinance makes it through the City Council and survives Mayor Sanders’ likely veto, Wal-Mart will sue to have it thrown out in court.

Rios’s presentation attempted to establish an image of Wal-Mart as a good corporate citizen that, far from driving existing retailers and other independent enterprises out of business, actually boosts the economy of the regions in which it operates and encourages new businesses to open up near Wal-Marts. He also claimed that, “despite the negative, misleading and false claims, Wal-Mart provides good-paying jobs. The average pay of Wal-Mart associates [Wal-Mart’s euphemism for its workers, a term now used by many other large employers as well] in California is 50 percent higher than the California minimum wage.”

One of Rios’s arguments was that, by making products available at lower prices than other retailers, Wal-Mart helps consumers. “We’ve reduced prescription drug prices and our competitors have followed suit,” he said, “so consumers benefit whether they shop at Wal-Mart or not.” Rios said the city’s effort to regulate supercenters “is aimed at appeasing a small minority of special interests” — meaning organized labor, which has targeted the relentlessly anti-union Wal-Mart and used all legal means at their disposal to restrict Wal-Mart’s expansion. “This is not a minor or passive issue for us or our customers,” Rios concluded.

Turner argued that “there is no valid purpose for this ordinance,” given that the city’s current laws and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) already require “consideration of social impacts, including blight and deforestation” in deciding whether large new superstores should be allowed to open. “It comes with a cost to the city and the applicants,” Turner said. “Applicants [Wal-Mart and other large retailers] will be likely to pursue their projects just outside the [San Diego] city limits,” meaning that San Diego will suffer the economic and environmental impacts of supercenters without getting any tax money from them. Turner argued that the ordinance as currently drafted could be extended to stores smaller than 90,000 square feet, and said it would be “vulnerable to a successful legal challenge on the ground of vagueness.”

Wal-Mart had a valuable ally in its presentation: Costco, its principal competitor in San Diego and a company usually hailed by labor and other progressives as a positive alternative since it pays better and allows its workers to organize. Costco sent two letters to the City Council opposing the ordinance — one from vice-president and regional operations manager Mario Omoss and one from attorney Matthew Peterson — and Peterson spoke to the Council committee as well. “I’ve stood before you many times against these ordinances,” Peterson said. “We will never endorse a measure that is anti-consumer, anti-competitive and will restrict consumer choices.”

Other speakers against the proposal included John Ziebarth from the city’s department of development services, who called it “duplicative” and said it “doesn’t accomplish anything”; David Almeida of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation; and a few grass-roots citizens. Abdul Mohammed said that if the city passed the ordinance it would have international repercussions and send out the message, not only nationwide but worldwide, that San Diego is not a business-friendly city. Matt Adams said the city was having so much trouble balancing its own budget it shouldn’t be “influencing the regional economy” with the kind of legislation Gloria was proposing.

Speakers in favor of the ordinance to regulate supercenters included Mark Robbo, president of the Neighborhood Market Association; Ben Nichols of the Hillcrest Business Association; and Amy Colbert of the North Park Main Street group, all of whom said their members would suffer if Wal-Mart were allowed to open supercenters without their groups having any chance to challenge the process. Mickey Kasparian, president of the San Diego local of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) — which lost a bitter strike against Ralph’s, Vons and Albertson’s in 2003-2004 when those stores insisted on major cuts in pay and benefits to their employees merely due to the threat of having to compete with Wal-Mart and the British-owned Tesco chain (which operates in California as “Fresh ’n’ Easy”) — spoke, but surprisingly not as the UFCW’s representative but on his own.

“The idea behind this ordinance is to protect small and neighborhood businesses,” Kasparian said. “If a big-box retailer can comply, they can operate. If an employer is taking out ads and doing direct mail [against the ordinance], it’s a good sign that they won’t be able to comply.”

One of Kasparian’s union’s members, Shirley Mansfield, made the case for the proposal more effectively than he did. Introducing herself as a resident of east Chula Vista for 35 years and a 32-year veteran of the grocery industry, she vividly described what happened to her current employer, a Vons in Otay Ranch, when a Wal-Mart supercenter opened just four miles away. “My store’s sales are down 18 to 20 percent,” Mansfield said. “We have gone down from over 80 employees to 59. Our in-store pharmacy recently had to close because it was losing over $2,000 a week” — an ironic reflection of Rios’s claim that Wal-Mart had benefited consumers by forcing its competitors to lower prescription drug prices.

Mansfield said that Wal-Mart had hurt not only her store but overall business at the shopping mall it’s in. “Our center is less than 50 percent occupied, and even the optometrist and nail salon in our mall are struggling,” she said. “Supercenters hurt small businesses and have a negative effect on the local economy” — a point echoed by the next speaker, Ricardo Gomez, a former small-business owner in Oceanside who was driven out of business nine months ago due to competition from Wal-Mart.

The official UFCW spokesperson, Marti Feinberg, said she was “surprised” at the legal threats from Wal-Mart because similar ordinances passed by Los Angeles in 2004, Inglewood in 2005 and Alameda in 2006 have so far survived without court challenges. “I believe this ordinance will help and is a very important tool for this city to examine the economic impact of supercenters,” she said.

“The only special interest here is Wal-Mart,” said Artie Schoenberg. “The question is, do we have the freedom to regulate our own communities and control blight? Wal-Mart does not create jobs; it just moves jobs around and takes jobs that people have been working for 30 to 40 years and makes them into part-time jobs. It pays less wages and leaches off social services in the public sector instead of providing its employees adequate benefits” — the last a reference to one of Wal-Mart’s most controversial policies: encouraging their workers to sign up for food stamps and other public benefits, and even giving them information packets on how to apply (a practice the company says it has discontinued).

Former City Council candidate Lorena Gonzalez said she supported the ordinance because it would force Wal-Mart to document its claims that it provides good-paying jobs with benefits and helps, not hurts, its small-business neighbors. “If any supercenter provides jobs, let them prove it,” she said. ”Let’s protect small businesses and good jobs.”

“This is not a ban [on supercenters], nor does it target just one retailer,” said Councilmember Gloria, kicking off the committee’s debate. “That is not something I would support. We’re talking about providing additional information. We already have an environmental impact process and we’re talking about asking for economic impact information as well. The retailers’ claims that they create jobs and provide good wages, health care and stock-sharing plans are information we should have on the record, along with the prices they charge. We also should have information from small businesses on how they would be affected.”

Gloria also addressed the objection that restrictions on supercenters take away consumer choice, arguing that by addressing the impacts on small businesses regulations like his proposal actually protect consumer choice. “I would wish that my constituents who want to shop at a supercenter could have that choice,” he said. “But I would also want my constituents who want to shop at neighborhood stores to have that choice as well, and we have a very strong concern that the particular land use a supercenter provides means that choice is no longer afforded to the consumers of San Diego.” Gloria also pointed out that the city has spent $1,265,000 this year to promote small businesses and small-business districts, and “we need to ask why we’re spending that money — if we’re working at cross-purposes” by spending money to help small businesses and simultaneously encouraging supercenters that may drive them out of business.

“I did not support the previous legislation in 2007, so it should not come as a surprise that I don’t support this,” said Second District Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, the only Republican Councilmember at the June 23 hearing. “We should be spending our time incentivizing and encouraging business opportunities. I believe this proposal will impede those opportunities. We should encourage as many consumer choices as possible, and I think that [this proposal] makes that more difficult. I believe this is the wrong way to go. It is anti-competitive and anti-consumer.”

Faulconer’s comments were seconded point by point by Scott Casey, representing Mayor Sanders —who under San Diego’s strong-mayor system, recently approved by voters as a permanent change in the city charter, has the power to kill the ordinance the way he did a similar but more drastic one in 2007. Casey’s comments made it clear that even if the City Council passes the ordinance, the mayor will just veto it again — and the supporters will need six of the eight Councilmembers to agree to override the veto.

“Mayor Sanders opposes this proposal as misleading and anti-competitive,” Casey said. “By limiting access to lower-cost products, this measure simply puts people living at the margins at a further disadvantage, especially if they don’t have transportation” — an odd objection, considering that most big-box retail outlets are either difficult or impossible to get to without a car, while the neighborhood stores they allegedly threaten are much easier to get to by bus. “Instead of enjoying the benefits of the free market,” Casey continued, “these San Diegans will be forced to pay much more for their goods or be forced to do without, while those with resources will continue to be able to shop where they please.”

Eventually the committee passed the proposal on a party-line vote, with Republican Faulconer the lone opponent and the three Democrats — Gloria, Sherri Lightner and Tony Young — in favor. Young asked that the ordinance be ready to go before the full City Council in 30 days, but the representative of the city attorney’s office at the meeting said they’d need much more time than that to research and draft an ordinance embodying Gloria’s proposal.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Maurice Martin Speaks at First Unitarian-Universalist Church

Homeless Veteran and Activist Tells His Combat Stories … and Their Aftermath


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
[sweet and becoming it is to die for your country].

— Wilfred Owen

It wasn’t Maurice Martin’s idea to join the army. Nor was it the government’s; he was drafted not by Uncle Sam but by his parents. In a presentation about his life and activism at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in San Diego June 11, Martin said that when he was a child, “I was a good kid but I was angry about being adopted, and I took it out on bullies.” According to his own sometimes confusing and self-contradictory account, he had a good time in a childhood that was pure hell; he played school sports and even lettered, but “found it hard to get along with other students.” Expelled from two schools and shot three times, Martin managed to graduate from middle school but got arrested for stealing pecans. “The white kids got probation and I got sent to a reformatory,” he said.

When he got into high school and started getting into more trouble, Martin’s parents decided they had had enough. So, without telling him, they signed him up for the army. “My dad said there would be tests, but it had all been arranged, that I would travel and get job training.” He went in the service in March 1973, carrying with him a glamorous fantasy of war he’d picked up from John Wayne’s movies and the TV shows Combat and The Rat Patrol. “On March 4, 1973, the day after my 17th birthday, I took an oath and a promise was made between me and my government — a promise which on their end would not be kept,” Martin recalled. “The service would try to erase my sense of who I was.”

Martin vividly remembers the only words the sergeant who would be in charge of his basic training said to him when he arrived: “Welcome to the great adventure.” He recalled that his day began with a wake-up call at 4 a.m. and then marching formations and drills, which reminded him of football practice in school. “I was changed from single man to group man, from civilian to fighting man,” he said. After basic he was sent to Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) — where he became an expert in the use of firearms, particularly the M-16 rifle and .38 calibre pistol — and then was sent to “jump school” at Fort Benning, Georgia to learn to be a paratrooper.

Even through all that’s happened to him since — 30 years’ dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental illness, homelessness and a string of broken relationships — Martin still carries a sense of pride from making it through the paratrooper course. “The experience of that guy putting wings on my chest was the most important experience of my life, along with getting married and having children,” he recalled. “I began to know why I was really there: to learn killing, self-defense and war. The next phase of my training was the mission.”

Martin was surprised at where the army sent him: El Salvador. So were many of the members of his audience, including veterans of the Central American solidarity movements of the 1980’s who remembered staging protests and letter-writing campaigns in opposition to the Reagan administration’s support of Right-wing parties in El Salvador and Nicaragua but hadn’t realized U.S. forces had been involved in combat in El Salvador as early as 1973. (Martin served in El Salvador from April 1974 to September 1975.) “In El Salvador,” Martin said, “I learned that making mistakes would mean the difference between life and death.”

According to Martin, his departure for El Salvador was as big a surprise to him as his enlistment had been, “They ordered us into formation on a plane and didn’t tell us anything,” he recalled. “In the plane, they said, ‘You’re going south.’” Martin thought that meant Fort Hood, Texas, where his unit — Assault Team 2 of Charlie Company, 801st Airborne Division (“I never saw Assault Team 1,” he said) — had previously played and won war games against Marines. Instead the plane flew him and the rest of his team to El Salvador, where on landing they were greeted by a master sergeant who announced, “Welcome to El Salvador. The untrained and careless do not last long here.”

“Our job was to search and retrieve U.S. property and hunt for people and stuff that had been dropped out of planes,” Martin said. “Usually, there were ambushes and people who had our stuff didn’t want to give it back.” Martin said he also worked with the Pathfinders, the ground troops of the U.S. Air Force (didn’t know the Air Force had ground troops? Martin didn’t either until he started serving with them) who were supposed to be training the Salvadoran army. El Salvador’s military situation was very different in the mid-1970’s from what it was in the 1980’s, when the civil war between the Salvadoran military, Right-wing paramilitary “death squads” and Left-wing guerrillas broke out, Martin explained: “When we were there, they were fighting the U.S.”

According to Martin, when he served in El Salvador “the Right-wing paramilitary groups did some very serious damage, but we did most of the killing.” Midway through his tour, he explained, “we stopped working with the Salvadoran military and started going out on our own. We were constantly under attack from Nicaragua and Guatemala. We spent a lot of time fighting both with and against the Salvadoran army. War is crazy. We were swimming in chaos. I found the decisions I made there would change me and cause me a great deal of pain. All a fighter wants to do is come back alive and with all the body parts we left with.”

Martin’s point was that much of the cruelty of war — including many actions considered war crimes under international law — stem simply from that basic drive of self-preservation: to finish your tour alive and with all the body parts you had when it started. “Any opposition we came in touch with had no chance to get old,” he said with a chilling matter-of-factness that hammered home his point. “For us, there was no other way. We had had bad experiences when compassion had been detrimental to us. After one of the firefights we were stacking the dead when one of the ‘dead’ awoke and stabbed a team member.” Needless to say, the “dead” man who dared stab a U.S. servicemember quickly ended up dead for real.

“We came upon a village where the enemy had cut off all the young boys’ private parts,” Martin recalled. “They were lying there on the ground, like sausages. I can almost hear the voices crying now. It took us two days to catch them, and the things we did to them were just as bad. War breeds frustration and revenge.” He added that, unable to keep enemy prisoners in custody, members of his unit simply tossed them out of helicopters. Ostensibly this was an interrogation technique to get them to talk, but, Martin said, “Sometimes we did it before questions were even asked, or when we asked the questions and they answered correctly. Sometimes they’d clutch at the helicopter doorway and we’d have to pry off their fingers.”

Those weren’t the only atrocities — on both sides — Martin shared with his shocked listeners at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church. “One time I found our man literally boiled to death,” he said. “At another point we were asking questions of captives and I stood up and walked over to one, bent the person’s head back, pushed a stick into his nose and felt his eye pop out. I tapped the stick in with the butt of my rifle. War is a bad place. I don’t claim what I did was right, but to those waiting for me it was right. I learned that war is not like [it’s depicted on] TV, and you don’t know who you are until you can act with complete abandon. War is, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘a poor chisel with which to carve peace.’ For me, war meant losing my mind. It was a life-changing experience for me.”

Martin’s account of his life since he was mustered out of the service and arrived back in the U.S. — in Chicago, to be exact — on September 21, 1975 was a tale of accomplishments and relationships laboriously built and then undone by the lingering traumas of his combat experience. For a decade after he left the service he lived in Chicago doing stunt work for movies, building and running a security business and later creating a thriving business supporting musicians. Then he was traumatized all over again — this time by the AIDS epidemic, which killed off a lot of his friends and clients.

“Then the nightmares — they call them ‘flashbacks’ — started,” Martin recalled. “It took me 10 years to get sick. I destroyed my marriage to a woman I’d started going out with in the fifth grade. I spent all my time burning every bridge I could so I could die in peace. My ex-wife and two ex-girlfriends would go into drug houses and jails to get me out. It took me 10 years to get sick and another six years to get to the Veterans’ Administration [VA], and the last straw was when I found myself hiding in the bushes in the park, naked, with a knife, ready to jump on people and stab them the way I had done in the service.”

Though he was rejected for treatment the first time he sought it at the VA, Martin ultimately got help and stabilized somewhat — but he still can’t keep a home or a normal job. “My condition is episodic,” he said. “Sometimes I stand in front of the trolley, thinking about throwing myself under it. … I can’t go back. I can’t get my ex-wife and my children back, but that’s my story and the story of 3,000 homeless veterans. I drank and turned to drugs — cocaine, acid, anything I could get my hands on — and it was another struggle to get off of that. The suffering gets very confused. My life is very confused.”

What’s kept him going, Martin said, and led him to become an activist working on helping homeless veterans, is the lesson he learned in the service: not to leave any comrades behind. “Many veterans feel they deserve to be out in the streets, suffering” he explained. “That may be me next week — drinking, shooting up, smoking crack. … [But] I’m here because people loved me and forgave me. I have a long way to go.” His journey has taken him to a homeless service group called the CARE Campaign, a prison ministry that does outreach to the Donovan state prison and Bailey county jail in San Diego County, a place on the Re-Entry Round Table sponsored by the San Diego County sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices to help released prisoners make a successful transition to law-abiding life outside, and perhaps his most important activist credential: Veterans for Peace.

“I see a lot of my brothers and sisters from Veterans for Peace here,” Martin said. “I’ve been fortunate to work with Veterans for Peace and especially with homeless populations. In San Diego it’s estimated that we have between 7,800 to 10,000 homeless people. There are an estimated 680,000 homeless veterans in the U.S., of whom 3,000 are here. Veterans for Peace have begun to take on this problem and also to work to stop the deportations of non-citizens who have served this country in its military. We cannot expect people to serve this country for three or four years and then, once they make a mistake, get rid of them and their families. To me it’s a promise made and not kept.”

After holding his audience shocked and spellbound for an hour and a half, Martin croaked out a final goodbye and said, “People are too tired to have questions.” Most everybody in the room realized what that meant: that Martin himself was too tired to take questions.