by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Dr. Shirley Weber
The predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality — holding their first meeting since changing their name from the San Diego Democratic Club — overwhelmingly endorsed Occupy San Diego and the Occupy movement generally on October 27. They passed a strongly worded resolution, which the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee had also approved, not only defending Occupy San Diego’s right to protest in the Civic Center Plaza but also approving the group’s goals. The club also endorsed the recently introduced SAFE California initiative, sponsored by California Taxpayers for Justice, that would abolish the state’s death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. And they endorsed the one major Democratic candidate for Mayor of San Diego in 2012, Congressmember Bob Filner.
“The overwhelming influence of corporate interests over public policy and institutions — exacerbated by greed, mismanagement, and corruption — has caused catastrophic levels of economic inequality, financial distress, environmental harm, climate crisis denial and other injustices felt by the majority of Americans,” read the pro-Occupy resolution passed by both the county party and San Diego Democrats for Equality. “Under the current conditions of corporate-owned media and corporate financing of political campaigns, political leaders and the media have failed to address and remedy these systemic problems. … The Occupy movement on Wall Street, in San Diego, and around the world is peaceably and authentically giving a voice to millions in the 99% of the population who have not been heard.”
The resolution states that the county party and the club both stand “in solidarity with the ‘Occupy’ protesters and their call for economic and social justice; … encourage the movement’s evolution toward increased political engagement and policy reforms; support the protesters’ constitutional rights to free speech and peaceful assembly; and call on the City of San Diego and other public agencies to protect their rights fully and grant them the opportunity to occupy public spaces without intimidation or duress.” Ironically, the club passed the resolution just a few hours before the San Diego Police Department raided Occupy San Diego’s encampments at the Civic Center Plaza and Children’s Park downtown in a failed effort to end the occupation.
While the county Democratic party’s endorsement of Occupy was unanimous, the club’s vote had one dissenter, Bob Leyh. “I can’t support this,” he said. “I know we’re a liberal club, but are we really so far out there that we would endorse this movement? I just can’t figure out what they’re all about, and I don’t even know what to endorse.” Leyh challenged the resolution’s description of Occupy as “peaceable,” saying there had been riots at Occupy events in Oakland and Rome. “They don’t speak for me,” he said. “If they want to be politically engaged, [they should] come and join clubs, get involved that way.” He also accused the Occupy demonstrators of forcing the food carts in Civic Center Plaza to close — a news report other members said was not true — and disrupting the City Council meeting on October 25, two days before the club’s meeting.
“Bob, I didn’t know you were in the top 1 percent,” joked longtime club activist Cindy Green. “They speak for me. I am in the lowest of the 99 percent. I’m a retired nurse. I live on Social Security and the little bitty pension that I get. I was one of them in the 1960’s. I’m proud of them, and I want this resolution to pass.”
“I’m actually offended that there’s even a question as to whether we’re going to endorse this,” said Tres Watson, executive director of Canvass for a Cause, the marriage equality organization that has provided volunteers and logistical support to Occupy San Diego. (Many people at the occupation site can be seen wearing Canvass for a Cause’s trademark “Legalize Gay” T-shirts.) “I’d respectfully suggest you actually speak to one of the protesters before you take the drivel that comes through the filter of the media,” Watson told Leyh. “It’s been so misrepresented, you can’t even believe the reports. We’re very active in giving the Occupy movement some political muscle, and training them to go door-to-door to talk to voters about the very issues we represent.”
Candidates Clash — Or Not
The San Diego Democrats for Equality also heard from five candidates for office at the October 27 meeting. One, Assemblymember Marty Block, sailed to an easy and unanimous endorsement for the State Senate seat Christine Kehoe, longtime club favorite and the first openly Queer elected official in San Diego County, is being forced out of due to term limits. The other speakers included two candidates for Mayor of San Diego, Congressmember Bob Filner and attorney Hud Collins; and two candidates for the 79th Assembly District, San Diego State University professor and former San Diego Unified School District board member Dr. Shirley Weber, and Sid Voorakkara, on leave as San Diego program officer for the California Endowment non-profit health foundation.
The club’s rules say they can only endorse a candidate if he or she fills out a questionnaire on various issues, mostly but not exclusively centered around Queer rights. Filner, Block, Weber and Voorakkara all scored 100 percent. Collins scored 83 percent, due to his opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples, his rejection of living-wage ordinances to workers on government contracts (“minimum wage yes, free market,” he wrote), his statement that he had once supported affirmative action programs but “no longer,” his refusal to support age-appropriate education in public schools about the contributions of Queer people and awareness of sexual orientation or gender identity, his opposition to allowing women in the military to serve in combat, his refusal to support universal health care and his saying he’d allow equal treatment for Queer people in adoption, parenting and child custody only “in some instances; best interests of the child.” A third Democratic candidate for Mayor, Steven Greenwald, filled out a questionnaire but didn’t show up at the meeting.
“We need a politician who is not a politician,” said Collins, who got to give the first opening statement. “We do not need a politician to be the Mayor. I have been down at the City Council every meeting for five years and I have not seen Filner or [Republican candidates] Bonnie Dumanis or Nathan Fletcher there. Unfortunately, I see Carl DeMaio every week. Not one of the ‘top four’ has an idea on how to get the city out of its financial mess. Not one of them has an idea on how to solve the pension crisis. Filner doesn’t have a plan on the pension issue, and the other three all favor [DeMaio’s initiative for] the 401(k) for new hires. As soon as it gets on the ballot, I will be in court to knock it off.”
“I’ve been a member of this club since it was founded,” said Filner. “I attended the first Freedom Banquet as a member of the board of the San Diego Unified School District. I was the only elected official to attend.” Filner recalled that at that event he had to run a gantlet of anti-Queer protesters — and now two of the four top-tier candidates for Mayor of San Diego, DeMaio and Dumanis, are Queer Republicans (though the predominantly Queer Log Cabin Republican Club rejected both of them and endorsed straight Republican Fletcher instead).
Filner, who’s been criticized for allegedly not having a plan to deal with the city’s $2.1 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, said his plan is “to restructure the debt at a low rate of interest,” giving the city longer to pay it and thus creating less need for immediate cuts in city services. But he was stronger on attacking DeMaio’s pension solution that advancing his own. “We have to solve the pension crisis in a way that does not throw city workers under the bus,” he said, calling DeMaio’s initiative to end pensions for newly hired city workers and substitute 401(k) accounts “part of his effort to be the Scott Walker [Wisconsin’s anti-labor, anti-Queer governor] of the West.” According to Filner, the top priority of the next Mayor should be to generate new jobs for San Diegans, not bash city workers over their pensions.
“One of you [Filner] is too far to the Left to get elected in San Diego,” said Bob Leyh. “People want to hear real facts. Talk about what you’re going to do to fix the pensions.”
Filner challenged the idea that he’s too far Left to get elected, pointing out that he’s won 14 elections in San Diego County — two for the school board, two for City Council and 10 for Congress. He said his pension plan including putting a cap on the pensions for managerial positions in city government “because they’re the ones the horror stories are about,” and saying that renegotiating the city’s pension obligations at today’s low interest rates would be the equivalent of refinancing your home. “I want to free up hundreds of millions of dollars, with no new taxes,” Filner said. “I want to show that if you can solve the pension problem, maybe this will show people that government can work.”
“You have no pension idea,” Collins fired back. “You haven’t a clue.” Then Collins argued for a pension plan even more radical than the DeMaio initiative: “close the defined-benefit plan and go to a 401(k) for all employees, with hiring bonuses if you need them for police officers and firefighters.”
Asked why he thought women shouldn’t be allowed to serve in combat roles, Collins said, “I have been in two and one-half wars, and every time I’ve served with women in OCS and support units. I’m all for it. I’m old-fashioned and I do not want to see a woman in combat who might be captured and raped. I’d feel like I’d have to watch and protect her.”
“I don’t see any reason women should not be in combat,” Filner replied. “There’s only one reason: can they do the job? We went through this in 1948 with African-Americans” (when President Harry Truman integrated the military by executive order).
Former club president Gloria Johnson asked Filner about his vote for the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA), which defines marriage for federal benefit purposes as the union of one man and one woman and is being used by the military to deny spouses of Queer servicemembers access to on-base housing, health care, visitation and notification in case their partners are killed or wounded in battle. “I made a mistake,” Filner said. “I’ve never voted that way again. As much as I’d been involved with this club, I did not understand the depth of feeling [about marriage equality] until this vote came up.”
“I’ve been a civil rights attorney for a long time,” said Collins. “Thanks to a case I worked on, every person in this state who’s handicapped gets equal access. I believe in full equality, and I don’t care whether you’re Black, white, pink or blue. I’m old-fashioned, and it would be very hard for me to understand what it would be like to be in a same-sex marriage. If that were the rule of law, I would defend it.”
Filner had no trouble getting the endorsement, with 50 votes to one for no endorsement. At the end of the meeting, Bob Leyh assured the members that he had not been the one vote against endorsing Filner. “I’m still a liberal on some things,” he said.
Assembly Race: Club Can’t Decide
The club members present couldn’t decide between Sid Voorakkara and Dr. Shirley Weber for the 79th Assembly District seat, perhaps because they both scored 100 percent on the issues questionnaire and their answers to the questions from club members were also virtually identical. Their only difference was about a bill the legislature passed, but Governor Jerry Brown vetoed, which would have banned sponsors of ballot initiatives from paying people to circulate them on a per-signature basis.
“I probably wouldn’t [support that bill] because this is how people get jobs,” Dr. Weber said. “I do have a problem with people giving out wrong information. There should be a law holding initiative sponsors accountable and having them train the individuals.”
“I think a lot of the paid signature gatherers are flown in from out of state, and rich people can bring them in,” said Voorakkara. “We should end the process of having endless ballot initiatives and have a convention on what to do with the state.”
Aside from that, there were very few issue differences between the two candidates. The debate on the endorsement was largely over style rather than substance. Voorakkara won support for being a member of the board of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, but Dr. Weber was admired for standing firm for Queer rights despite the opposition of ministers and other leaders in the African-American community.
The club voted three times on the race. On the first ballot, Voorakkara got 23 votes to 10 for Dr. Weber and 20 for no endorsement. On the second — conducted by public hand votes rather than by paper ballots, and leaving out a substantial number of members who had come early, cast ballots and then left for another progressive event the same night — Voorakkara got 21 votes to 21 for no endorsement. A motion to rate both candidates acceptable — an option in the club rules when there is more than one candidate strongly supportive of Queer issues — got 24 votes in favor to 17 votes against but fell one vote short of the 60 percent supermajority the club requires for candidate endorsements and ratings.