by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality heard from four widely ranging speakers at their regular meeting April 25. Eric Isaacson, local attorney who has represented a wide coalition of faith-based organizations — California Council of Churches, California Faith for Equality, Unitarian-Universalist Legislative Ministry of California; Northern California/Nevada and Southern California/Nevada Conferences, United Church of Christ; Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis; and California Network of Metropolitan Community Churches — in marriage equality litigation since 2004, spoke about the recent U.S. Supreme Court hearings in the cases challenging Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA). Lorena Gonzalez, who recently stepped down after over six years as head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council to run for the 80th District seat in the California State Assembly, came to get the club’s endorsement — which she did, unanimously. The club also heard from openly Queer San Diego Unified School District board member Kevin Beiser and newly elected San Diego County Democratic Party chair Francine Busby.
“There’s a perception that all religion is against marriage equality,” Isaacson acknowledged at the opening of his presentation — which is why he rattles off the list of his faith-based clients virtually every time he speaks publicly about the issue. Put on the agenda to report on the Supreme Court hearings March 26 and 27, Isaacson’s main theme was that the conservative majority on the current Court may either throw out the case against Proposition 8 altogether or rule on the comparatively narrow ground of whether the initiative’s proponents had “Article III standing” to be in the case at all. This would, Isaacson explained, bring a progressive result — the end of Proposition 8 and the resumption of legally recognized marriages of same-sex couples in California — through legal reasoning conservatives have relied on to keep progressive cases out of the courts altogether.
“Conservative justices have come up with a lot of reasons why you can’t sue in the courts,” Isaacson explained. “The Los Angeles Police Department was pulling people over and choking them, sometimes to death, and the Supreme Court threw out a case challenging that on the ground that the person bringing it didn’t have reason to believe he personally would be pulled over and choked unconscious again. The Supreme Court has used standing to throw out cases brought by environmentalists and peace activists suing to stop drone attacks. But if you want to file suit to make President Obama show his birth certificate, that will also be thrown out.”
Standing became a major issue in both the Proposition 8 and DoMA cases because the government officials who would ordinarily defend the constitutionality of state and federal laws — the governor, the President, and the attorneys general of the U.S. and California — refused to do so. Instead Prop. 8 was defended by attorneys representing the five people who organized the campaign to put it on the ballot, and DoMA was represented by the so-called “Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group” (BLAG), formed by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to defend the law. Isaacson said there’s already a Supreme Court precedent, Arizonans for Better English, that initiative proponents do not have the right to defend their initiative against a court challenge — but, he added, in the Prop. 8 hearings “the justices who are always in favor of limiting standing — Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, Samuel Alito — had no problem with the proponents having standing, and the others had doubts.”
Isaacson also discussed the possibility that the Supreme Court may “DIG” the Prop. 8 case. “DIG” is short for “dismissed as improvidently granted,” which is basically the Court deciding they made a mistake in agreeing to hear the case at all and therefore they’re not going to rule on it one way or the other. Isaacson said that the supposed “swing” justice, Anthony Kennedy, may seize on this as a way to get rid of a case he doesn’t want to rule on either way. “He’s uncomfortable ruling there’s a nationwide constitutional right to marriage equality,” Isaacson explained, “but he’s also uncomfortable ruling the other way. … He looks for trends, and wants to be right on the trends in both public opinion and the law.” On marriage equality, which voters in state after state turned down until 2012, when the Queer community won all four marriage votes on state ballots, Kennedy may simply want the Court to wait until the trends in public opinion are more clear, Isaacson suggested.
On the DoMA case, Isaacson explained that there are two main sections to the law — Section 2, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states or countries; and Section 3, which denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Only Section 3 is at issue in the current case. “There are a couple of standing questions in DoMA,” Isaacson explained. “The Obama administration agrees that Section 3 is unconstitutional. Where is the adversity between parties? If the government doesn’t have standing, does John Boehner’s BLAG have standing? The Senate is not on board with them and therefore they’re not the ‘legislative branch.’ The standing problem is so severe the Court hired a Harvard law professor to argue there is no standing.” If the Court throws out the DoMA case for lack of standing, Isaacson said, then Edith Windsor — the Lesbian widow who filed the case to get back over $360,000 in federal estate taxes when her wife died because the federal government didn’t recognize their Canadian marriage under DoMA — “gets her money back, but you don’t get a ruling” on whether DoMA is constitutional.
Isaacson’s predictions? “I think Section 3 of DoMA will be struck down, and I think they’ll avoid a ruling on Prop. 8. But I will be surprised if Prop. 8 survives.” He pointed to the marriage equality bill that had just passed the Rhode Island legislature — and was signed into law by the state’s governor shortly after the meeting — as one more piece of evidence that, regardless of how the Supreme Court handles the current cases, the trend is towards marriage equality.
Lorena Gonzalez introduced herself as a candidate for the 80th Assembly District seat vacated by Ben Hueso, who just won a special election for the State Senate — replacing Juan Vargas, who gave up his State Senate seat to run for Congress last November after Bob Filner gave up his Congressional seat to run for (and be elected) Mayor of San Diego. Though she’s stepped down as San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council chair to run for the Assembly, she made it clear that her personal priorities as a legislator are going to be the same as they were as a labor leader. “I’m going to wake up every day and think, ‘How can I help people get good jobs and have better lives, including retirees and children?’ I want to go to Sacramento and do real change. I think it’s time to send an organizer to Sacramento.”
After reviewing her personal background — including working her way through Georgetown University and Stanford Law School; serving as senior advisor to then-Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante on environmental, labor and tribal issues; and then being hired to run the local Labor Council — Gonzalez said, “We pushed an agenda and permanently changed San Diego. We helped workers who aren’t or can’t be in unions. We’ve reached out to communities, including the LGBT [Queer] community and ethnic communities. Now it’s time to push an economic agenda. When you secure hard-working people the ability to get by and provide a better life for our generation, that’s important.”
Gonzalez didn’t mention her principal opponent, former Chula Vista City Councilmember Steve Castaneda, though she did joke that in an attempt to embarrass her politically U-T San Diego, owned by anti-labor and anti-Queer developer Doug Manchester, published her salary as head of the Central Labor Council. Longtime club member Gerry Senda mentioned Castaneda and said that, though he’s running as a Democrat now, he was registered as a Republican until 2008. The club ultimately endorsed Gonzalez unanimously.
San Diego Unified School District board member Kevin Beiser, the first openly Queer person elected to that office, came by late in the meeting and thanked the club for giving him the so-called “friendly incumbent” endorsement for his 2014 re-election bid. “It really meant a lot to me that my home club endorsed me,” Beiser said. He then listed some of the district’s accomplishments, including their environmental record: “We’ve banned styrofoam lunch trays, replaced diesel power (for school buses) with biofuels, reduced energy use and passed a resolution for safe nuclear power [i.e., to ask that the San Onofre reactors remain closed until they are certified safe]. We’ve promoted locally grown organic food in school cafeterias, and expanded school gardens.”
Beiser also boasted of the district’s “historic anti-bullying policy,” the expansion of anti-bullying programs from 20 schools to 80, and the district’s commitment to show the movie Bully to all seventh-grade students. He also pointed to progress on the bedrock issue for a school board — are our children learning? “We’ve expanded teacher monitoring and gone to standard district-wide and individual teacher observation forms so we know what learning looks like,” Beiser said. “Just a few years ago we were named an Eli and Edythe Broad finalist for academic achievement and closing the achievement gap for Black and Hispanic students. Our literacy test scores are up 30 percent, science scores are up 50 percent and we’ve made number one in the state in math. Our graduation rates are 80 percent.”
One reason Beiser was grateful for the club’s early endorsement was that he’s concerned that he might be targeted by so-called “education reformers” who advocate a more business-like approach to school governance. “I represent the most conservative district in the city,” he warned. “There are some elements that are furious that they’re being represented by a very progressive LGBT person. We want to run strong and hard.” He said he escaped a big-bucks campaign against him last time because opponents of his agenda didn’t think he had a chance. “This time, I have a big bull’s-eye on my back.” He noted that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “education reform” group already targeted a similarly progressive school board member in Los Angeles, “and I’ve heard whispers on the Republican side that they’re looking at my race.”
Ironically, Beiser said he’s helped by the structure of the school board races, in which candidates run in a district-only primary but the two top finishers run in a citywide general election. When this system was in place for the San Diego City Council, it made it excruciatingly difficult for progressives to win Council seats, so a progressive coalition organized in the 1980’s and got the City Council changed to district-only elections. But they left the school board alone for fear religious-Right “stealth” candidates might be able to take over the school board if they could run in district-only elections. “We want to guard against being third in the primary,” Beiser explained. “When we go outside the district, [the electorate] is much more Democratic.”
The meeting began with a presentation from newly elected county party chair Francine Busby, who began by lamenting the failure of legislation expanding background checks for gun buyers to pass the U.S. Senate — “It’s terrible to think the National Rifle Association is running this country,” she said — but then gave an upbeat presentation about the present and future of the San Diego County Democratic Party.
“We have the first Democratic Mayor in San Diego in over 20 years, the first Democratic-majority Congressional delegation, and the first openly Gay Democratic County Supervisor — with five kids,” Busby said. “But you may not know that 71 percent of our endorsed candidates won throughout the county. Our candidates for the Vista city council and Poway school board came in first. Solana Beach has five Democrats on the City Council, and in Encinitas we got two Democrats and an allied decline-to-state [someone who isn’t registered with a political party] and took over the majority on the city council in the city I live in. We defeated Jerome Stokes, who was the head of SANDAG (the San Diego Association of Governments), and replaced him with Bob Filner. In Escondido we defeated a charter-city amendment and Olga Diaz is running for mayor.”
Busby paid tribute to her predecessor, Jess Durfee — who served as the president of San Diego Democrats for Equality before his 8 ½-year tenure as party chair — for helping expand the party’s grass-roots activity as well as its ability to fund its candidates’ campaigns. In 2012, she boasted, “we had 1,000 GO Team volunteers reaching 100,000 voters at their doors and making another 100,000 phone calls. This last election season we had seven offices, from Fallbrook to Chula Vista to East County. We sent out 375,000 copies of 16 geographically targeted slate mailers in multiple languages. In 2004 the party had $9,000 to spend on candidates. For 2012 we had $2.5 million. A month before the election, the California Secretary of State brought on online voter registration, and we picked up 20,000 new Democratic voters.” Today, she said, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 85,000 to 90,000 in the city of San Diego, and 22,000 countywide.
Among her priorities for future progress are doing even more voter registration and “increasing communications between our party’ elected officials. She also said that a lot of “disaffected Republicans” are re-registering as Democrats because “we are the ones who stand for equality, justice, rights and opportunities for all.” She’s also hoping that younger voters and voters of color — including Latinos, who represent 30 percent of San Diego County’s population; and Asian-Americans, who are 11 percent — will continue to favor the Democratic over the Republican Party. “The trends are continuing in our favor,” Busby concluded, “and we’ll work hard to turn the city and county of San Diego into a very progressive model.”