Saturday, September 28, 2013

Democrats for Equality Endorse Alvarez for Mayor

Close-Fought Meeting Features Mayors Past, Present and Possibly Future


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Todd Gloria

David Alvarez

Mike Aguirre

Nathan Fletcher

Bruce Coons

At their regular meeting September 26, the predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality gave District Eight City Councilmember David Alvarez their endorsement for Mayor of San Diego in the November 19 special election to replace Bob Filner, the progressive Democrat who left office August 30 after being accused of sexual harassment of women. Alvarez fell one vote short of the 60 percent threshold for an endorsement on the first ballot and won on the second, after a contentious but polite meeting lasting 2 ½ hours that featured mayors past, present and — at least the club’s members hope — future.
The past mayor was Filner; the present mayor — acting mayor, anyway — was District Three City Councilmember Todd Gloria. He’d actually been invited to speak at the club’s September meeting last May, at which time neither Gloria nor the club’s board had any idea he’d be holding any office other than the ones he held when they invited him: Councilmember and City Council president. But Filner’s resignation put Gloria in the position of acting mayor, in which he will serve until March, when the winner of the special election will take office.
Filner came up early in Gloria’s speech when he thanked the club for calling for Filner’s resignation in July, two weeks after the sexual harassment allegations against him first surfaced. “I know that that was incredibly difficult to do,” he said. “I know that for those of us who worked incredibly hard to elect Bob Filner Mayor, it was hard to come forward and speak that truth. But it was the right thing to do to make sure that our movement, our effort to make San Diego a more progressive place, did not die with the man, but that we could move it forward together.”
Gloria said that rather than “put the city in neutral” until the next duly elected mayor takes office, he would seek to “get things done.” One of the accomplishments he pointed to was the City Council’s recent approval of a new plan for Barrio Logan “that respected both industry and neighborhoods.” He also cited Councilmember Sherri Lightner’s proposed ban on plastic grocery bags, and an affordable-housing proposal that would restore the city’s so-called “linkage fee” — a charge to developers of market-rate and high-end housing developments that was supposed to go into a Housing Trust Fund to build affordable housing, but instead since the 1990’s has been regularly raided by the city to close the gaps in its general budget.
Among the other initiatives Gloria promoted are a city response to climate change, the opening of the new central library, and a plan for the expansion of San Diego’s convention center which the California Coastal Commission will consider October 10. “It’s an important project, supported by business and labor,” Gloria said — but most of the questions Gloria got from the audience looked skeptically at this project. Gloria said the expansion will be funded partly by the city, partly by the port, and partly by a so-called “assessment district” to which hotel owners will contribute based on their proximity to the center: one, two or three cents per dollar in additional occupancy taxes on their guests’ bills depending on how close they are to downtown.
But the assessment district has already been challenged in court, and, asked if Gloria has a Plan B in case it’s ruled illegal, all Gloria could say was, “There may be other options. We believe the legal process coincides nicely with our development process, and we are confident we will finish construction by 2018.
Gloria also got quite a few questions about when city services will be expanded — when sidewalks and streets will be fixed, the bathrooms at Mission Bay opened again, and hours at branch libraries extended after they were cut years ago. He blamed all these problems on the city’s major budget deficits, which confronted him and the other Councilmembers who took office in 2009.
“When you run for office, you tell the voters about all the wonderful things you want to do, but when Sherri (Lightner), Marti (Emerald) and I got on the Council we immediately had to cut $170 million from the city budget.” Gloria explained. “That’s why the bathrooms were locked up. We have to maintain the fiscal discipline to restore what we cut, and since the city’s employees stood with us in the sacrifices, they should share in the restorations.”

The Candidates Speak — In Shifts

The original plan for the meeting had been to present all four major Democratic candidates for mayor — Alvarez, former Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher, former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre and businessman and historical preservationist Bruce Coons — at once and have them answer written questions. But the San Diego Voice and Viewpoint, an African-American community newspaper, also scheduled a forum for mayoral candidates September 26, and the four candidates juggled their schedules differently to accommodate both events. Fletcher and Coons arrived at 7:45 and had their portion of the forum, including opening and closing statements as well as opportunities to answer five questions Carla Kirkwood, the club’s vice-president for political action, had written based on those submitted by the audience.
Alvarez and Aguirre came to the club’s meeting almost an hour later, and former San Diego County Democratic Party chair Maureen Steiner made a motion to allow them to answer the same five questions Kirkwood had earlier put to Fletcher and Coons. A few club members actually opposed this. Former club president Stephen Whitburn basically said all four candidates had had their chance to speak to the club, and two had taken advantage of it while the other two apparently felt it was more important to speak to another organization. But the club voted overwhelmingly to allow Alvarez and Aguirre to answer the questions, though they weren’t allowed to make opening and closing statements and were given less time to speak to each question than Fletcher and Coons.
Fletcher, who ran for Mayor in 2012, started his campaign as a Republican, then re-registered without a party affiliation after the County Republican Party endorsed Carl DeMaio over him, and subsequently re-registered Democratic after he lost in the primary to DeMaio and Filner, recalled the issue that started his break with the Republican Party. In 2010, two years after he won his Assembly seat as a Republican, “there was a resolution on the floor to ask Congress to repeal the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy” which kept Queer people from serving openly in the military.
“That was an issue I knew well,” Fletcher, a former Marine, said. “When I served in peacetime, it was dumb; when I served in wartime, it was dumb; and when I served in the Assembly, it was dumb. So I shared with my fellow Republicans that I would give a speech on the matter, but it would not be the speech they expected or wanted. That was the beginning of the end of my seven-year failed relationship with the GOP.”
“Only one month ago, I wasn’t thinking of running for Mayor,” said Coons. “But I didn’t see anyone who would carry Bob [Filner]’s progressive agenda forward, and I still don’t. There are three questions the Mayor should be asking: what do the residents say, what do the community groups say, and most importantly, what does it do for the quality of life for all residents of San Diego, no matter where they live?”
Because he’s best known as the head of Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO), aimed at preserving the city’s historic buildings, many commentators on the race have written off Coons as a one-issue candidate. So he stressed his business background — “I’ve built a company from zero to $30 million in five years” — as qualification for the managerial responsibilities of the office under San Diego’s relatively new strong-mayor charter.
Kirkwood’s questions for the candidates were: 1) What had they personally done for Queer equality, specifically to defeat California’s anti-marriage equality initiative Proposition 8? 2) What is their vision of the city’s need for housing growth, including helping homeless people and possibly instituting rent control? 3) Would any of them support amending the City Charter to allow Irwin Jacobs’ Balboa Park bypass plan, including a paid parking garage in the park, to go through after the courts invalidated it? 4) What would they do about the city’s estimated $1 billion worth of infrastructure needs? 5) Should California pursue big-box stores as a means of development and job creation?
Since all four candidates had scored 100 percent on the club’s issues questionnaire — Coons even joked it had been one of the easiest of any organization’s for him to answer — their answers had more to do with their personal styles and commitments than anything else. Coons reminded the audience that SOHO had been founded by the late Gay artist Robert Miles Parker. Fletcher talked about his support for SB 48, the bill passed by the California legislature that requires public schools to teach about the achievements of Queer people, and called Queer rights “the civil-rights issue of our time.”
Aguirre said that as city attorney he had prepared the legal opinion, later approved by the City Council, that put the city officially on record against Proposition 8 when it was challenged in the courts. He also pointed to his successful defense of the city in a lawsuit filed by four firefighters who claimed their civil rights had been violated when they were ordered to appear in a Pride parade and said they were sexually harassed by attendees. Alvarez said he had personally contributed money to keep the San Diego LGBT Community Center open after the Center was ruled ineligible for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding from the city.
On the housing question, all four candidates ducked the part about rent control. Some emphasized the issue of residential growth in general and others focused on the part of the question about how to deal with homeless people. “We have to get serious about our housing needs,” said Fletcher. “We’re 52 unique neighborhoods and we need to develop them in their own ways. I was the first mayoral candidate who put out a bike plan. We need to make it possible for people to live, work and shop in their neighborhoods.” He said he’d first encountered the homelessness issue working with homeless veterans and was happy to see the city set up a year-round shelter — an accomplishment Gloria had also hailed.
Coons cited the high rents in San Diego — “over $2,000 for a two-bedroom apartment” — and said he hoped to solve the affordable-housing problem by going after federal grants to convert historic buildings into low-cost housing.
“I voted to restore the linkage fee, cut in 1996, to have a bigger amount of money in the Housing Trust Fund,” said Alvarez. “I was homeless for a few months when I was a senior in high school. I supported the year-round shelter, even in my backyard, because I believe it’s the right thing to do.”
“As city attorney, I issued a legal opinion that we would not prosecute people for being homeless unless there was available shelter for them,” said Aguirre. “We have to catch people falling out of jobs and focus on temporary or short-term homeless (people). The obvious solution is providing jobs. The city should be the employer of last resort.”
On the question of the Balboa Park bypass, Coons reminded the group that SOHO had filed the lawsuit that led to the project’s demise. He said “you couldn’t even have walked through Balboa Park” if the Jacobs project had been built. “We fought the Mayor and Irwin (Jacobs) and we won. They said they were going to crush us and get my friends fired. Later on, at the end, they said, ‘You fought the good fight. We’ll give you a seat at the big boys’ table.’ But they found out I can’t be bought.”
“I don’t see anyone bringing this back,” said Fletcher, who supported the project the last time he ran for Mayor in 2012. Aguirre said he’d opposed it from the get-go. Alvarez acknowledged he’d voted to approve the Jacobs plan as a Councilmember but, like Fletcher, admitted the issue was over — especially since the much simpler alternative Mayor Filner pushed through to get cars out of the Plaza de Panama worked.
Regarding the city’s estimated $1 billion infrastructure needs, Fletcher said it’s probably higher than that estimate. “We have to consider all the financing options,” he said. “We have to figure out how much we owe, how we can do it, and then put together a financing plan. … Bob [Filner] rightly talked about investing in neighborhoods and communities that have been left behind. It’s going in and rebuilding our city.”
Coons said San Diego should follow the example of Phoenix, which got their voters to fund infrastructure repairs by slicing the financing into three separate bond measures and not asking voters to approve the next one in sequence until the work on the previous one had been completed. “We have to make new developments pay their fair share and not use the money for something else,” he said. “We also have to continue finding ways to save money at the city.”
“My priorities are to start the San Diego Water Project (an attempt to make the city’s water supply independent of the Metropolitan Water District, which is dominated by Los Angeles), repair sidewalks and bridges, and get libraries open,” said Aguirre. He boasted of his success in helping reduce the city’s pension costs and said that’s where the savings would come from that could be invested in infrastructure.
Like Fletcher, Alvarez said the city’s real infrastructure needs are probably higher than the $1 billion estimate, which he said reflected only “deferred” — that is, fixing roads, sidewalks and other existing infrastructure that has been allowed to deteriorate. He said there’s probably about an additional $2 billion in infrastructure the city needs but doesn’t have at all. But he warned that the city will have to regain the trust of voters before it can hope to get them to pass multi-billion dollar bond measures for infrastructure.
On the big-box store issue — Walmart in particular — Fletcher said the current management of Walmart has betrayed the original vision of founder Sam Walton, who paid his workers relatively high wages and sold only products made in the U.S. “I think we need to do a full economic-impact study on these big-box stores,” he said. “Don’t ban them across the board but ask the questions about their economic impacts.”
The San Diego City Council actually passed an ordinance that would have done just that, but then rescinded it after Walmart supporters, bankrolled by the company, got enough signatures to force a public vote — and a similar bill was passed by the state legislature but vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. Aguirre said that as city attorney he had written the local version of this bill — and criticized former City Councilmember Donna Frye for having cast the deciding vote to rescind it.
“I fought with the people in Barrio Logan against the Walmart there,” said Coons. “I think it’s a tragedy and another blot on the American system when one of our most profitable employers has most of their employees on the dole.”
“It depends on which big-box stores,” said Alvarez. “If you’re talking about (ones that pay) poverty-level wages, no. If we don’t give people good jobs, it’s not a development policy; it’s a corporate giveaway. We need to develop our neighborhoods with good jobs.”

The Club’s Debate: Who’s Electable?

The debate over the endorsement turned less on any differences between the candidates and more on some sharp disagreements between members on which candidate would have the best chance of beating City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, who was anointed the sole major Republican candidate at a secret meeting of 36 power brokers on August 31. (See the article by Los Angeles Times San Diego County bureau chief Tony Perry at,0,1310610.story.)
Club member David Warmoth put his finger on the problem facing Democrats in the race: “Republicans outvote Democrats in primary elections and special elections, and this one is both.” He said he favored Alvarez partly because he “is the closest thing to me in my beliefs,” but also because he thought the prospect of electing San Diego’s first Latino mayor since California was still part of Mexico would help excite the Democratic base.
Matt Corrales, speaking for Fletcher, said, “We’re not going to elect someone who’s the strongest liberal. We need someone who can pull Republicans and independents. We need to support a strong Democrat. That man is Nathan Fletcher.”
Though she had been reported in CityBeat magazine as supporting Alvarez, former San Diego Democratic chair Maureen Steiner made a surprise plea for the club not to endorse in the race at all. “If you knew nothing about the candidates other than what you heard tonight, you’d have a hard time making a choice,” she explained. “So I’d rather do no endorsement and go home.”
The club took two votes on the race. On the first ballot, Alvarez got 39 votes to 24 for Fletcher, one for Coons and two for no endorsement — leaving Alvarez with 59.5 percent, one vote shy of the 60 percent needed to endorse. On the second ballot, Alvarez got 36 votes to 18 for Fletcher, giving him the endorsement.

Labor-Backed Think Tank Honors City Planner Fulton

Local Unions, ACLU, Veteran Activist Also Saluted at Gala Dinner


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Bill Fulton

Tom Lemmon

San Diego Unified School District board members Kevin Beiser, Richard Barrera and John Lee Evans

ACLU’s contingent at the CPI awards

Assemblymember Toni Atkins and Mickey Kasparian

Charles Nelson

Marta Blancarte (right) and her daughter

San Diego’s planning and land use laws remain stuck in an “outdated suburban model” from the 1950’s, recently hired city planner Bill Fulton told a packed crowd of over 300 people at the 13th annual Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI) gala dinner at the Wyndham Bayfront hotel Thursday, September 19. Fulton, a former mayor and city councilmember in Ventura, was hired by ex-Mayor Bob Filner to head San Diego’s recently revived Planning and Neighborhood Restoration Department after former mayor Jerry Sanders decided the city didn’t need a planning department at all — just a “Development Services” department, which implied it was the city’s job to service developers rather than the other way around.
Fulton, a veteran of 30 years in the urban planning field and author of Guide to California Planning, the standard textbook on the subject, as well as other books and hundreds of articles, began his talk by describing the struggle of residents near the Euclid Avenue trolley station to bring a pharmacy to their area. He explained that so far they’ve failed because all those 1950’s planning laws are standing in their way. Fulton explained that the city’s rules assume that San Diego will expand outward into currently undeveloped areas and developers will pay assessments to allow the city to provide services to these new communities. The city’s current challenge, he said, is to do what’s called “infill development” — expanding both housing and job opportunities in already developed areas.
“The built environment and land use drive so many things, including what services people have, how they get around, and where they lay their heads down at night,” Fulton explained. “I arrived here for the first time on July 7 and I’m supposed to have a grand vision for San Diego? I’m supposed to help you implement the ‘city of villages.’ San Diego will have small neighborhoods around cores and urban places.”
“City of villages” was a buzzword phrase popular among San Diego officials during the Sanders administration, but it’s still not clear precisely what it means, Fulton admitted. To Fulton, the “city of villages” is the opposite of the way San Diego has generally grown, with residential development in certain parts of the city, big retail shopping malls elsewhere, industrial and commercial districts outlying them, and a freeway system linking them all — which means that people have to own their own cars and do a lot of driving to get from their homes to their jobs to the stores they need.
Under the “city of villages,” at least as Fulton describes it, San Diegans’ lives will be quite different. “Our job is to make sure everything people need on a daily basis” — a home, a job, goods and services — “is right there in their neighborhoods,” he explained. “It cuts down transportation costs, frees people’s time and has environmental benefits.” Because the “city of villages” runs so much against the grain of San Diego’s historic pattern, Fulton conceded, “it’s going to be even harder” for private developers and nonprofit agencies to build projects, especially affordable housing projects. But he’s convinced the struggle will be worth it.
“The point of planning has to shift from how to build affluent suburban neighborhoods to how do we make sure every neighborhood gets what its people need,” Fulton said. “We have to step up to the plate on neighborhood infrastructure. We also need to rethink how we do things, and spend less time on abstract analysis and more time on how we help real people solve real problems in real neighborhoods. We have a lot of state laws and tribal customs that make that hard, but making sure people in neighborhoods have what they need will be my promise to you.”
Fulton was the keynote speaker of an event entitled, “Prosperity for Our Communities: We Are All Pieces of the Future.” The program featured a front cover showing a neighborhood being put together out of jigsaw-puzzle pieces labeled “Education,” “Good Jobs,” “Affordable Housing,” “Access to Health Care,” “Equal Rights,” “Environment,” and “Transportation and Infrastructure.” Befitting CPI’s association with the labor movement, two of the big honorees were either local unions or union leaders: Tom Lemmon, business manager of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO; and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 135, which represents workers at unionized grocery chains Ralph’s, Vons and Albertson’s in the San Diego area.
Though CPI is a nonprofit corporation under U.S. Internal Revenue Code section 501 ( c ) (3), which means it can’t affiliate with a political party or endorse candidates in elections, it was clear throughout the evening which of the major parties is in line with CPI’s goals. A number of elected officials attended the event and were introduced from the podium by co-MC’s Rabbi Laurie Coskey and Johanna Primo Hester, but all of them were Democrats. Also, the honorees were presented with official proclamations by Congressmembers, state legislators and city councilmembers, but only from Democratic ones. Acting mayor Todd Gloria, a Democrat, introduced Fulton and commended CPI for giving him and other elected officials “good information based on great data” that helps them make decisions.
Lemmon opened his speech with a claim that, despite the setback from the bipartisan campaign that drove progressive Democratic Mayor Bob Filner from office over his alleged treatment of women, “we’re so close to being a progressive city, a city that leads in good jobs and affordable housing.” Then he recalled his own childhood in an affordable housing development in National City — one he didn’t find out until years later was built and owned by the Building Trades department of the local AFL-CIO, the organization he now runs.
According to the citation in the event program, Lemmon was being honored for helping local governments enact “policies guaranteeing that construction projects require payments of good wages, access to health care coverage, and retirement savings, hiring of local workers, and employment of apprentices.” The technical name for such policies is Project Labor Agreements (PLA’s), and they’ve been successfully demonized by the Right. Voters in San Diego County overwhelmingly approved an initiative banning PLA’s on county projects, and measures to ban PLA’s in other San Diego County jurisdictions have also generally been successful.
But Lemmon says PLA’s are working as intended in the San Diego Unified School District and other agencies where voters haven’t shut them down. Through PLA’s, he explained, San Diego’s current union leaders “have opened decades-old barriers, reached into San Diego’s poorest neighborhoods and built opportunities to enter construction jobs.”
Greg Akili, recently returned to San Diego (having apparently shed his first name in the process, since he was introduced just as “Akili”), acceped the special recognition award on behalf of the absent Gracia Molina de Pick. “She is a soldier, an activist on the front lines,” Akili said of Molina de Pick. “Gracia has been a lifelong advocate for women’s equality, Chicano civil rights, education reform, labor reform, and the rights of indigenous communities and immigrants. In San Diego, she was a powerful advocate for education and helped found the Chicano Studies departments at SDSU and Mesa College. She was a charter founder of Third College, now Thurgood Marshall College, at UCSD, and recently donated a community room to the Logan Heights Library and establishing the Gracia Molina de Pick Chicano Studies Endowment Fund at Mesa College. For 15 years she’s been an invaluable CPI board member.”
The special award to the San Diego-Imperial Counties chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was presented by its newly appointed executive director, Norma Chavez-Peterson — apparently the first Latino or Latina ever appointed to head an ACLU chapter. “The ACLU of San Diego is on the move, and we are unchanging,” she said. Chavez-Peterson introduced a group of young volunteers, not-so-young volunteers and staff members who participated in Nuestro Voto, Nuestro Futuro, last year’s voter registration campaign in Escondido that upped participation in local elections to 4,905 voters, 80 percent of whom were Latino, in November 2012.
“We also have some of our partners around our criminal justice work, and some of our young leaders that are part of a new program we have just launched called Inspire San Diego,” Chavez-Peterson said. “We’re committed to inspiring young people across seven high schools throughout the county not only to become high-school leaders and register their peers and their families to vote, but to register their neighbors and to partner with some of our allied organizations here that do voter engagement.”
Chavez-Peterson said one of her goals for the San Diego-Imperial Counties ACLU branch is to get it to pass an “economic justice agenda” similar to the one passed by the Southern California branch in 1983. (The ACLU has three regions in California: Northern, based around the San Francisco Bay Area; Southern, based around Los Angeles; and San Diego/Imperial Counties.) She said that the issues of wealth, income, employment and redistribution are “inextricably linked to civil rights” even though American law has traditionally treated them separately and attached much less importance to economic justice than to legal and rights equality.
“I am committed to work with my partners at CPI, the Labor Council, and all of you to make sure that our own ACLU passes our own policy framework around an economic justice agenda,” Chavez-Peterson said. Quoting the Southern California chapter’s statement, she added, “The recognition that all persons are entitled to basic economic rights is an essential prerequisite for the full and fair functioning of democracy in the United States, and for the development of civil liberties. A nation like ours, which has accumulated wealth, has an obligation to ensure that basic human needs are provided for all economic levels of society. Unless all persons have the opportunity to work at jobs that pay a fair, living wage, and are assured of adequate food, housing and health care, regardless of their ability to pay, a society cannot truthfully claim to provide liberty and justice for all.”
Introduced by Richard Barrera, San Diego Unified School District board member and newly appointed head of the San Diego/Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, CPI executive director Claire Crawford continued with the theme of economic inequality. “Every year, our research team computes data to determine how many people in San Diego County are living in poverty,” Crawford explained. “San Diego’s score on the Gini index, which measures income inequality, keeps going up. The gap between rich and poor is growing wider.” According to Crawford, that’s bad news not only for the people who are falling behind but for the economy as a whole. The reason: the less income people in the lower and middle classes have, the fewer goods and services they buy. Therefore, employers hire fewer people, the economy produces less, and growth slows or stops completely.
“In order for our region’s economy to do well,” Crawford explained, “we must narrow this gap. Increasing wages is important, but it’s not all. One woman worked as a janitor in Torrey Pines on the night shift and she had to walk home three miles from work because the buses stopped running by the time she got off of one of her jobs. We have to address not only wages and working conditions but also transit, parks and much more.” She praised San Diego City Councilmember and Mayoral candidate David Alvarez and Local 127 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) for pushing the Council to pass the Local Property Values Protection Ordinance, which requires banks to maintain houses and other residential properties they foreclose on, so the properties don’t fall apart due to neglect the way they have in other cities.
The final award of the evening was given to Local 135 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the local union representing grocery workers at Vons, Albertson’s and Ralph’s chain stores. Mickey Kasparian, veteran head of Local 135, announced that he and his wife were celebrating their 30th anniversary that night and introduced her and their two children. Then he focused on his big issue for the evening, the difference in wages and benefits between his union’s members and people doing similar jobs at non-union stores. “Most retail jobs in San Diego are poverty-level,” Kasparian said. “Our food clerks are making $20 per hour and have a comprehensive health care package and a pension — not a 401(k) but a defined-benefit pension. A non-union grocery worker’s wage is $8.83 per hour, without health care.”
Kasparian took a side swipe at San Diego city voters for passing Proposition B, which abolished the city workers’ pension system for new hires, then set his sights on the labor movement’s public enemy number one: Walmart. Though Walmart claims they offer their workers a health plan, Kasparian said, “70 percent of their workers don’t qualify for it and another 20 percent can’t afford it.” Kasparian echoed Crawford’s point that without a well-paid middle class, the American economy can’t grow because there aren’t enough high-paid workers to afford to buy the goods and services it produces. “We don’t need ‘jobs,’ we need good jobs,” Kasparian said.
“Next month will be the 10-year anniversary of the longest strike in retail in the U.S.,” he recalled — referring to the seven-month dispute between his unions and Albertson’s, Vons and Ralph’s management. At the end of this strike, widely regarded at the time as a defeat for labor, Local 135 was forced to accept a so-called “two-tier” contract that allows the stores to pay less to people hired after 2004 than they did to workers who got their jobs before that. Ironically, among the people on the wrong side of the “two-tier” system was Charles Nelson (this reporter’s husband), who was presented at the gala as a typical Local 135 member and made a short speech. Kasparian closed his speech by urging people to shop at the stores where his members work and not at Walmart, Target, Whole Foods and other non-union grocery outlets.
The final speaker was Marta Blancarte, representing “Our Walmart,” an organization of Walmart workers that has organized outside the labor movement to pressure Walmart to improve the wages, working conditions and job assignments of its workers. Speaking in Spanish, with her daughter as interpreter, Blancarte said, “I’ve worked at Walmart for almost nine years. … I’ve had all kinds of humiliations, threats and favoritism for anything and everything. For years I was in the pharmacy department. Then one day management changed my schedule to nights without consulting me. My medical excuse from my doctor, saying I was taking medication at night, was not considered valid.
“They changed my schedule anyway, and I had to move to another department where my salary was lower,” Blancarte continued. “They told me I could either move and take the pay cut, or walk out the door forever. Why did this happen? Because the person who took my position was a friend of the assistant manager. My experience in that department and my good work were not respected. … This is just one of the many stories that are happening in this monstrous store known as Walmart. … Walmart must change. Now is the time to respect us and treat us as people, not as numbers; to recognize the great work we do, stop playing with our schedules, and let us live normal lives.”

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Anti-Keystone Pipeline Action Draws 250 in San Diego

Activists Divided on How Much Society Has to Change to Save the Climate


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Simon Mayeski (left) and banner

Eve Simmons


Lori Saldaña

Mike Cappiello

Rev. Dr. Beth Johnson

Group shot from the rally

Line of march

The pipeline sign

“Keystone hates Bambi”

“Obama, take a stand”

Lone counter-protester who drove his truck around the block during the action

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that our failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
— President Barack Obama

Those words were featured prominently at a demonstration against construction of the Keystone XL pipeline at the Federal Building in downtown San Diego September 21. They were carried on a sign held by one of the protesters as the nearly 250 people marched around the building, and they were quoted by Eve Simmons of the San Diego Energy and Climate Reality Project and San Diego’s branch of the anti-global warming group when she MC’d a rally that followed the march. The action was part of a nationwide campaign, including similar protests in almost 200 other cities demanding that the Obama administration “draw the line” and stop the Keystone XL pipeline as a sign that they’re serious about stopping human-caused climate change.
Five days earlier, on September 16, Simmons and fellow San Diego founder Simon Mayeski had spoken to Activist San Diego (ASD) at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest. Simmons’ talk there drew on some of the same materials as Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning movie, An Inconvenient Truth, updated to show how much more human-caused climate change has happened in the five years since the film and how the indicators of global warming, including melting icecaps and glaciers and ocean acidification, have got worse. Mayeski briefed the audience on how the anti-Keystone movement got started and what can be done to stop climate change in general and the pipeline in particular.
Both the ASD meeting and the downtown demonstration revealed a divide within the environmentalist movement that’s been apparent at least since the late 1970’s, when Amory Lovins published Soft Energy Paths, which argued that humans were facing an environmental catastrophe but it could be stopped without ending the capitalist economic system. Barry Commoner, a scientist who was active in both the environmental and socialist movements (and eventually ran as an alternative Presidential candidate in 1980), argued that the sweeping changes needed to achieve an environmentally stable and sustainable society couldn’t be achieved under capitalism. The divide was summed up by a man who stood in front of the September 21 march videotaping it, who said he was disappointed with the action’s focus on lobbying President Obama to kill the pipeline. “Obama can’t be trusted,” he said. “He isn’t going to do anything to stop it.”

What Is Keystone XL?

The Keystone XL pipeline is actually the middle leg in a series of three pipelines designed to carry oil produced from Canadian tar sands to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S. The first and third legs are already being built, but because the middle one crosses the U.S.-Canada border, the U.S. State Department has to certify the project before construction can begin. Earlier this year the State Department issued a report saying they didn’t think Keystone XL would have a measurable effect on the U.S. environment — but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued their own report, which said the pipeline should not be built.
Obama has delayed his decision whether to allow the pipeline to go forward several times, and environmentalist activists seized on the delays to mount a major push to get Obama to kill the project. More recently, the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has threatened to allow the federal government to shut down and block renewal of the U.S.’s debt ceiling unless funding is stripped from Obama’s Affordable Care Act (commonly known as “Obamacare”) and Keystone XL is approved.
At the ASD meeting, Simmons explained the significance of Keystone XL both for its supporters and its opponents. “Peak oil is running out,” she said, “so we’re going after ‘tight oil.’” This means oil — and also natural gas — that is increasingly difficult to extract from the ground. One process for extracting “tight oil” is hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for short, which involves injecting water and toxic chemicals into the ground in order to break it up and get it to release oil or gas. Another is heating tar sands in order to release the so-called “dirty oil” within them — which, as a pair of pictures Simmons and Mayeski showed at their ASD appearance dramatically showed, turns pristine wilderness full of carbon dioxide-absorbing trees into mud flats full of toxic residues.
“Beneath the Canadian boreal forest — which provides twice as much oxygen (from plant photosynthesis) as all of Latin America — lies the dirtiest fuel in the world,” Simmons told ASD. “We’re turning the world’s biggest carbon sink into the world’s biggest carbon bomb.” At the rally, she was even more dire: “The Keystone XL pipeline would bring to market more than twice the amount of oil burned throughout human history.” Though Canadian companies can extract this oil even without the pipeline, Keystone opponents say that without the pipeline it would be prohibitively expensive for them to market it.
The case against Keystone can be summed up in four points: 1) The Canadian tar sands oil itself will add so much carbon dioxide to the earth’s atmosphere that global warming will become irreversible. As pioneering climate-change researcher Dr. James Hansen has said, building Keystone would be “game over for the climate.” 2) The process of extracting it is itself energy-intensive as well as highly polluting. 3) The pipeline runs alongside or under major U.S. aquifers and therefore directly threatens the drinking water needed by millions of people. 4) It’s an elaborate multi-million dollar economic commitment to continued reliance on fossil fuels at a time when we need to be moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.
Part of the program at the September 21 rally was an invitation for people to write on signs and express their own reasons for opposing the pipeline. Concerns ranged from the future effects of climate change on human survival — one woman simply put on her sign that she was against Keystone because “I love humanity!” — to the Native American sacred sites that would be destroyed by the pipeline’s construction. “I just turned 10 and I may not be able to vote or drive,” said a young girl identified only as Siena, “but I’ve been an environmental activist since I was five.” She pleaded with Obama to live up to his words about our responsibility to protect the environment for future generations, and kill the pipeline so she and her fellow 10-year-olds can have an environmentally sane and sustainable future.

Embracing Civil Disobedience

Former California Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, currently head of the San Diego branch of the Sierra Club, announced that the implications of building Keystone are so dire that the Sierra Club’s nationwide leadership agreed to support civil disobedience campaigns to stop it. “The Sierra Club never endorsed civil disobedience until Keystone,” she said. “Our national officers were arrested in front of the White House protesting Keystone. These volunteer opportunities never go away. We always have these battles to fight. This is the future: clean energy. Keep your voices loud and keep going.”
One way Saldaña said people could stay involved is by attending meetings of city councils, the County Board of Supervisors and the state legislature and speaking out on critical environmental and energy issues. “I know both sides,” she said — alluding to her long career as an activist, her six years in the Assembly and her return to activism after she was termed out of office. “I know how tough it is to stand before elected representatives and tell them what the people need done. But testifying in person and writing letters and postcards are among the tools you have.”
Matt Cappiello, a medical student at UCSD, recalled being arrested as part of the anti-Keystone demonstration in front of the White House two years ago to which Saldaña had referred. “Pretty much the entire economy is driven by fossil-fuel consumption,” he said. “We have multinational corporations who encourage us to use more fuels and who out-lobby us 150 to 1. There’s a knowledge gap between environmentalists and the ordinary American public that doesn’t know the dirty details of tar-sands extraction. In San Diego a lot of people are more concerned about going to the beach or clubbing. We need wake-up calls, and that’s why we need civil disobedience.”
Though Cappiello said the people organizing civil-disobedience campaigns against Keystone are doctors, teachers and other people with professional careers — not “your typical granola-crunching hippies” — he identified the anti-Keystone campaign with the Occupy movement. Cappiello said three factors had delayed Obama from approving Keystone: the anti-Keystone rally in Washington, D.C. (“the largest environmental demonstration in U.S. history,” he called it), Occupy and the need for Obama to galvanize his progressive base to get re-elected in 2012. He boasted that the pressure of their campaign opened the mainstream media to coverage on the negative impacts of Keystone and got founder Bill McKibben on national television.
But the most radical perspective at the September 21 rally came from a surprising source: Reverend Doctor Beth Johnson, pastor of the First Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship at Palomar in North County. “We are not alone in our commitment to the earth,” she said. “We will not let this outrageous pipeline proceed. The pipeline is a visible, outward sign of greed and ignorance of the inconvenient truth. Stopping the pipeline is a moral issue. We hold the President accountable. … We’re drawing the line at fear, ignorance, greed, coercion and the Keystone XL pipeline, the outward sign of a cancerous capitalist economy.”

Liberals vs. Radicals at ASD

Rev. Dr. Johnson would have felt right at home if she’d attended the Activist San Diego meeting on Keystone and climate change five nights earlier. The featured speakers, Eve Simmons and fellow San Diego founder Simon Mayeski, took what might be called a liberal approach to climate change. Simmons gave a rather apologetic defense of large-scale solar and wind projects which might have been less apologetic if she hadn’t noticed ASD board member Jorge Glackman’s comment in his introduction that such projects “are very wasteful ways to exploit climate change.” She also said “some” climate scientists endorse “small fourth-generation” nuclear reactors as a necessary part of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Later she told this reporter that she’d been part of anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 1970’s but avoided saying whether she now personally supports nukes.
Mayeski quarreled with Simmons’ apparent endorsement of nuclear power (though she had been careful to avoid saying whether she supported it herself). “We tried nuclear power, and it hasn’t worked,” he said. “It may have worked at the beginning, but as the climate has got worse, many places where the plants are have become more prone to accidents. It’s possible the flooding at Fukushima was caused at least in part by climate change. We need to stop nuclear power as soon as possible.”
In the parts of their talks that addressed what people could do, Simmons and Mayeski acknowledged the need for political activism but put more stress on individual solutions. Simmons pointed out that 40 percent of San Diego’s energy use is for transportation and another 40 percent for heating and lighting buildings. “The Empire State Building was just retrofitted, and its owner is saving $4.4 million per year,” she said. “The sun and wind have no borders. Every country has them. If you own your own home or business, or have some say in your HOA (homeowners’ association, the governing board for condo complexes), install rooftop solar panels, warm your home with sunlight, create new energy jobs, and if you own an electric car that’s your gas station,”
Simmons also advised her audience “never to buy a fossil-fuel car again. Go electric. They are getting cheaper and cheaper.” She also called on people to use more public transit and to divest themselves of their investments in energy companies and other enterprises that rely on fossil fuels. Another recommendation Simmons made was to buy fewer things made of plastic. “Peak oil” researcher Richard Ledford has pointed out that only 50 percent of the oil produced in the world is burned for energy; the other 50 percent is used to make plastic. As far as political activism goes, Simmons said people should “call your political representatives and demand an end to subsidies for fossil fuels. Demand a price on carbon emissions.”
Mayeski’s presentation took a similar tack, emphasizing personal responsibility and liberal political action. “Each of us has the ability to fight climate change by reducing our own carbon footprint,” he said. “We can ride a bus or trolley, ride a bicycle or walk. Conserving water is important because it takes a lot of energy to process and store water. We can work on increasing our home’s efficiency, including changing lightbulbs, using more efficient machinery or installing solar energy.” He also recommended that people become vegetarians — even though he admitted “I’m not there yet” — because it’s a lot more energy-efficient to consume protein and other nutrients directly from plants rather than having them processed through animals first.
His political strategy focused more on outreach to friends, neighbors, family members and co-workers than on directly confronting elected officials or pursuing civil disobedience. Mayeski promoted the “SIM center” downtown — a computer center with space for up to 20 people, and their laptops, at a time — where “we’ve had ‘climate chats’ that are a San Diego invention. … We do a lot of public outreach. This is a day in a long campaign.” Mayeski also showed slides of more traditional protests his group has been involved with, including one outside the San Diego Gas & Electric visitors’ center right after it opened, where they displayed a multi-segment sign painted to look like a pipeline. The same sign, with a slogan denouncing Keystone, was used in the September 21 demonstration.
When the ASD meeting was opened to questions and comments from the audience, it quickly became clear that many of the people attending were more radical than the speakers. The first question asked how you can combat climate change when manufacturers, especially in high-tech, pursue a policy of planned obsolescence so people have to keep buying new gadgets whose production produces carbon emissions and wastes scarce resources.
“There’s not enough time to talk about every issue,” Simmons conceded. “The U.S. produces 30 percent of the world’s waste. One thing we can do is a revenue-neutral carbon tax on the oil companies, as other countries have done. When a pack of cigarettes went up in price, a lot of people stopped smoking. If we can make it more logical and more profitable for people to make better choices, they will.”
ASD founder and acting executive director Martin Eder said he wanted to hear the speakers say more about the role of corporations in climate change. “You can’t stop climate change without system change,” he said. “The profit motive is the reason climate change and the destruction of ecosystems are happening. Unless we take a global look at social organization, corporations will sell us the very air we breathe and be happy with the situation.”
Jorge Glackman said that while the U.S. debates whether to use tax policy to address climate change, “the workers in developing countries are suffering. We have a class system in this country and we have to talk about the ways we relate to each other and to the earth.” Glackman particularly denounced the “REDD+” program — short for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” — as a “mechanism by which corporations buy carbon credits from developing countries. This is having a damaging effect on the indigenous people. Sometimes the ‘positive’ solutions have bad effects.” (For more information and a defense of REDD+, visit
Former San Diego City Councilmember Floyd Morrow summed up the concerns of many of the audience members when he called for the U.S. to establish a “declaration of interdependence” with the rest of the world. He also said we need to get rid of policies based on so-called “supply-side economics” and in particular the Laffer curve, which purported to show that government would get more revenue, not less, if it drastically cut taxes on the rich. “It’s important to protect our forests around the world, because we are interdependent,” Morrow said. “Each living thing must be respected. The oceans and the air are the most important things we have. It bothers me that there’s no overview of the human condition.”