by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Bob Filner (center) from Labor Day rally, September 5, 2011
Nathan Fletcher (from Ballotpedia Web site)
Just as Sherlock Holmes famously solved one of his mysteries by realizing that a dog hadn’t barked in the nighttime when it should have, so the big news at the San Diego mayoral candidates’ forum at the Balboa Theatre downtown October 19 was the two of the top four candidates who didn’t show up. San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis ducked the event by saying she wasn’t going to attend any debates until after the filing deadline for the office in March 2012, and San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio said, in essence, that since he’s running against organized labor and its supposed power over city politics, he did not think he needed to speak at a labor-sponsored event.
And make no mistake about it: the October 19 forum was a labor-sponsored event. Though the official sponsor was a coalition called “A Better San Diego,” of the 47 organizations listed as part of the coalition, 14 were labor unions and another five were either associated with unions (like the labor-sponsored Center on Policy Initiatives) or dealt with workers’ rights. What’s more, the moderator of the debate was Lorena Gonzalez, CEO of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council. The two top-tier candidates who did show up were Democratic Congressmember Bob Filner and Republican Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher, who in the absence of fellow Republicans Dumanis and DeMaio was sometimes forced into the awkward position of having to defend his party’s policies.
The debate started with a question from retired San Diego State University professor Herb Shore about the initiative DeMaio and his supporters have qualified for the 2012 ballot, which would eliminate defined-benefit pensions for new city workers and set up 401(k) plans for them instead. Labor and other critics of the initiative have argued that, since city workers no longer receive Social Security — they voted themselves off it in the 1980’s in exchange for a promise of health coverage for life, which DeMaio’s initiative would renege on — it would leave them without any retirement coverage except for what they could get out of the stock market.
Though Fletcher tried to portray himself as a maverick Republican at times during the debate, on the DeMaio initiative he was in lock-step with his party’s position supporting it. “This will help lower annual benefit payments,” he said. But he also promised that, “as Mayor, I will interpret the initiative in a way that is fair to workers and that will include Social Security.”
“This is the biggest difference between me and the other three [major] candidates,” Filner said. “I oppose the DeMaio-Dumanis-Fletcher plan. It’s not only unfair, it throws our city workers under the bus and makes our workers dependent on the stock market.” Filner also zeroed in on one of the main criticisms being made of the initiative: while it might save the city money in the long run, it would do nothing to cover the city’s current $2.1 billion shortfall in pension funding because it wouldn’t apply to current retirees. According to Filner, putting city employees back on Social Security as an alternative to city pensions would “cost more money” because of the “transition costs” that would have to be paid under federal law.
The candidates also clashed over so-called “outsourcing” — turning city services over to private companies. A voter-passed initiative from 2006 set up a so-called “managed competition” system, in which city workers and private companies would supposedly be able to bid against each other to see who could provide services more cheaply. Supporters of “managed competition” have criticized the city for implementing the initiative too slowly, and in 2010 DeMaio tried — and failed — to get another initiative on the ballot that would have sped up the process.
Filner, not surprisingly, said he’s against outsourcing on principle. “We have to look at it very closely because the private proposals don’t include health or pension benefits,” he said. “Trying to contract out the Miramar landfill is ridiculous.” He cited DeMaio’s support of anti-labor Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whom he’s cited as a role model, and said the message of both Walker and DeMaio is “let’s break up the unions and privatize, because they say public service is evil.”
“It is!” said a heckler from the audience who was wearing a T-shirt reading, “Bloodbath.” He had first spoken up when one of the panel members asking questions had cited current Mayor Jerry Sanders’ support of marriage equality for same-sex couples, and kept up a barrage of comments through the rest of the debate.
Fletcher used up part of his time to defend his support of a public investment in a new stadium for the San Diego Chargers. When he finally got around to talking about outsourcing, he said, “I support managed competition because there are ways we can find additional savings. The city workers have won every competition [so far] by finding additional savings” — suggesting that he thinks public-sector workers need the threat of losing their jobs to the private sector to make their operations more cost-efficient.
On the stadium issue, Fletcher said, “The question should not be do you support building a ‘box’ for football that’s going to be used only eight times a year. It should be whether you support building a regional asset, not a sports and entertainment district but a sports and innovation district like the one in San Francisco. What do you do with the current Qualcomm Stadium site? You can build a stunning urban park there and an industrial training center at the current Sports Arena site.”
“I love the Chargers and football,” Filner said, “but when a billionaire [Chargers owner Alex Spanos] asks for city money, we should say, ‘What about you?’ The biggest sports teams have extorted millions of dollars in public money, and they ain’t going to be able to do that anymore in San Diego. Why don’t they give us a share of the profits, or a share of the team?”
“This is what you get in San Diego,” Fletcher replied. “You talk about a big idea, and someone twists it to make it about one family.”
Another issue on which the candidates clashed was over project labor agreements (PLA’s), which require private companies that bid on publicly funded developments to give preference to local workers and pay prevailing wages for unionized construction jobs. Conservatives have made ending such agreements a major priority, saying they make public projects cost more and don’t guarantee safe and efficient construction. Voters in San Diego County overwhelmingly passed a ban on PLA’s in November 2010, but a state law, SB 922, signed by governor Jerry Brown October 3, prevents California voters or local legislatures from banning PLA’s.
Though the person who asked the question — sheet metal worker Enrique Martinez — carefully avoided using the term “PLA,” it was obvious what he was asking about. Martinez had phrased the question by defending PLA’s as a way to save local jobs, but Fletcher said, “There are so many infrastructure projects we can get workers out on the street” without guaranteeing local hiring via a PLA. “San Diego has $1 billion in deferred maintenance. The city is sitting on $50 million in TransNet funding [a previously approved half-cent sales tax for transportation projects] that isn’t being spent because of bureaucracy. I would not support mandating local hiring. There’s enough work to put everyone in San Diego and the surrounding communities back to work.”
Filner disagreed. “Anything we can do to hire local workers, we should do,” he said. “And there isn’t enough work to go around. That’s why we have 10 percent unemployment. We never replaced the jobs in the defense industry we lost in the early 1990’s. General Dynamics had 60,000 employees and today our city’s biggest employer has 4,000.” Filner said he wants to see the Port of San Diego expanded into a “maritime center” to create more middle-class jobs, and he boasted that he had a 100 percent pro-labor voting record as a Congressmember while Fletcher’s rating on labor issues in his two years as an Assemblymember was 18 percent.
“Neither percentage is quite right,” Gonzalez said. “They’re close, but not quite right.”
The candidates did agree on a few things. Despite their differences about PLA’s, both said they want to create more middle-class jobs in San Diego. Both also want the Mayor’s office to take an active role in education but don’t want the actual control of all or some of the city schools mayors in Chicago and Los Angeles have won.
Fletcher boasted that he had worked with Democratic Assemblymember Gil Cedillo to end police impoundments of cars belonging to people without drivers’ licenses — many of whom are undocumented immigrants.
Both candidates were skeptical of seeking city tax increases. Voters have turned them down again and again, and Filner and Fletcher agreed that the reason is city government hasn’t proved to voters’ satisfaction that they can spend the money they already have efficiently and effectively, and until they do, voters won’t give them any more.
The candidates’ philosophical and historical differences came through most strongly in answer to a question about the Occupy San Diego protests and the national movement of which they are a part. “There’s a lot of frustration that’s bipartisan, and I can understand it,” Fletcher said. “[Governor] Jerry Brown and I came together on a bill for eliminating a tax loophole that only benefits large corporations that move jobs out of state, that would have brought in $1 billion, and people were shocked. We got it out of the Assembly, but it lost by a few votes in the State Senate.” Fletcher didn’t say that all the Senate Republicans closed ranks against it on the ground that closing tax loopholes constitutes a “tax increase,” thereby ensuring it fell short of the two-thirds vote in both houses needed to pass.
“I started my career in jail,” Filner said. “I was active in the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I was one of the first Freedom Riders, and when we went to the U.S. Supreme Court we changed history” by getting segregation on interstate buses declared unconstitutional. Filner also said he had personally visited the Occupy movement’s encampment in Washington, D.C. “and I came away energized at the chance that we can really change things in this nation. I look at that movement with great optimism.”
Both candidates were also asked how they would use the Mayor’s “bully pulpit” and what issue they would push more strongly, the way Mayor Sanders had done with marriage equality. This is the question that provoked the “Bloodbath” heckler to interrupt the debate, denounce Queers as “perverts” and ask Fletcher why he voted for SB 48, the bill that requires California’s public middle and high schools to teach the “role and contributions” of Queer people, people with disabilities and Pacific Islander-Americans.
As Mayor, “You are picking a direction for the city,” Fletcher answered. “The last decade has been rough. You’ve seen cutbacks and a city that can’t come together. I would hope that at the end of my tenure, I would be seen as someone who brought the city together. We spent a decade with business fighting labor fighting the environment. Imagine if we have another decade to work together for San Diego versus the neighboring regions.”
“One of my great heroes and mentors was Robert F. Kennedy,” Filner recalled, quoting Kennedy’s famous lines about how others saw the world as it was and asked why, while he saw the world as it could be and asked why not. “”Why not become a city that solves its pension problems without throwing the workers under the bus?” Filner said. “Why not be a city that actually solves homelessness? Why not have a city that celebrates its arts and culture? Why not have a city that has jobs for everyone? Why not have a city that has effective public transportation? Why not have a city with the kind of civility Nathan just talked about — and that’s something we should all aspire to? Why not have a city that does all that?”