Saturday, April 19, 2014

Chicano Democrats Ask “What the Heck Happened?”

They Say Low Voter Turnout Didn’t Sink Alvarez, But Their Numbers Say It Did


Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

City Councilmember and Mayoral candidate David Alvarez

Gabriel Solmer, Carmen Lopez & Dr. Isidor Ortiz

Georgette Gomez

Richard Barrera

“What the Heck Happened?” was the title of a forum the Chicano Democratic Association (CDA) of San Diego County held April 12 at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park. The aim of the meeting was to analyze the February 2014 special election for Mayor of San Diego and determine why Latino Democrat David Alvarez lost to white Republican Kevin Faulconer — and what’s more, why he lost by a much wider margin (almost 10 percent) than the last pre-election polls said he would. The presenters praised the determined grass-roots voter contacts CDA and other organizations supporting Alvarez had made on his behalf — but their own numbers showed those efforts hadn’t been enough: Latino and Asian voter turnout in the special election still lagged 10 percent behind whites.
The meeting was kicked off by Alvarez himself, who began by thanking “the CDA and all of you who were supportive in the race. I’m proud of how much we were able to move the ball on the minimum wage, economic and environmental justice, and how the city has not invested in our communities.” Alvarez argued that his campaign was so successful at setting the agenda that “the other candidate came out for all that.” Faulconer, Alvarez argued, felt compelled to claim the same goals of neighborhood empowerment as he did.
“This campaign showed a lot of potential,” Alvarez said. “We built a coalition, including Latinos, African-Americans, old people, young people.” Acknowledging that “most people care about the Presidency and the Senate but don’t pay attention to the Mayor’s race and other local races,” Alvarez argued that the efforts of CDA and other groups supporting him “got people who’d never cared about local politics before to walk precincts, make phone calls and host fundraisers. We got people to participate through social media. We tried to reach out or call to all potential voters. We just came up a bit short.”
Alvarez admitted some of the handicaps he faced in his campaign. “It was a special election,” he said, “and they tend to bring out older voters and Republican voters.” He also had to deal with primary opposition from Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat Nathan Fletcher and fellow Latino Democrat Mike Aguirre — who endorsed Faulconer over him in the general election. Still, he said, the aggressive door-to-door campaign waged on his behalf was so effective that a Republican who sits with Alvarez on the City Council admitted to him that “the last week they were really scared.”
The opening remarks by Alvarez set the tone of the rest of the meeting. Speakers praised the intensity and effectiveness of the volunteer efforts for Alvarez and said that, even if they weren’t enough to elect him, they did point the way to electing a future mayor who’s progressive, Latino or both. “Working with David both in his city council office and on the campaign was a pleasure,” said Gabriel Solmer, Alvarez’ representative and advisor on environmental and land use policy. “We talked to a lot of voters who got five to six calls a day” — an indication of how many groups were mounting grass-roots campaigns for Alvarez, including the Democratic Party, organized labor and party clubs.
“What were our goals?” Solmer said. “To win, to build a coalition for the future, to hold fast with disenfranchised communities.” She argued that though they didn’t win, they accomplished the other two goals. “We focused on turnout south of I-8 and persuasion north of I-8,” she explained. “We were using very tested models: field, mail, TV and earned media.” “Earned media,” formerly “free media,” means getting mainstream media outlets to cover your candidate and thereby winning exposure for which you don’t have to pay for advertising. Not surprisingly, she hailed the “field” operation — the door-to-door precinct walking for Alvarez — as the most important part of the campaign.
Not that getting out potential Alvarez voters was easy. As part of her presentation Solmer showed a dizzying array of PowerPoint slides that salami-sliced the electorate not only by ethnicity but also by party registration and what political activists call “propensity.” Propensity simply means how likely the person is to vote, based on how often they’ve voted before: a “high-propensity” voter has cast a ballot in all five of the most recent elections, a “mid-propensity” voter has voted in four of the last five, a “low-propensity” voter in just one or two and a “no-propensity” voter hasn’t voted in any. A key part of the Alvarez campaign effort, Solmer explained, was getting low- and no-propensity voters to turn out and vote for him.
“We identified 83,000 supporters” in those “low-propensity” and “no-propensity” groups, Solmer said, “and 60 percent actually voted for David. That’s much higher than in most campaigns.” The key to getting these voters out, Solmer added, was repetition. “We touched these people two to four times.” Solmer showed a graph comparing the turnout in February 2014 with the general election from 2010 — chosen because it was a non-Presidential year and turnout is always lower when the presidency isn’t at stake — and noted that in the areas where they contacted voters and got them excited about the Alvarez campaign, the “drop-off” in turnout between November 2010 and February 2014 was less than it was where they didn’t have a field campaign doing multiple voter contacts.
But despite the efforts the Alvarez campaign and groups like CDA put into the effort, it still wasn’t enough to close the turnout gap between voters of color and whites. Perhaps the most important table in Solmer’s blizzard of statistics and graphs was “Turnout in 2014 by Ethnicity,” which showed that among Latinos and Asians turnout was more than 10 percent lower than among whites. (African-Americans weren’t included in Solmer’s analysis.) Here are the numbers Solmer presented, showing that despite the herculean efforts made by Alvarez’ supporters, much more needs to be done to get Latinos and Asians to turn out at the same rates as whites:

Total Registered Voters
Voted in 2014 Special Election
Turnout Ratio

Dr. Isidro Ortiz, political science professor at San Diego State University and a San Diego resident for 22 years, continued with the meeting’s main theme: that even though Alvarez didn’t win, his campaign advanced the progressive agenda for San Diego and helped the Latino community in particular. “What was this election about, and what was at stake?” he said. His answer: it was the latest step forward for the Chicano movement, which as early as 1972 committed itself to electing Latino officeholders and challenging laws that made that more difficult.
According to Dr. Ortiz, District 8 — the City Council district Alvarez represents — “was formed as part of a lawsuit by the Chicano Federation” and was “made possible by the [Latino] insurgency of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.” He also noted that the election featured two Latinos among the four major candidates: Mike Aguirre, from what Dr. Ortiz called the “Chicano generation,” and Alvarez, from what he called the “post-Chicano generation.” While various theories have been offered for why Aguirre endorsed Faulconer over Alvarez in the general — including Aguirre’s ongoing battle with the city employees’ unions, which heavily backed Alvarez and were the principal source of independent expenditures on his behalf — Dr. Ortiz suggested it was as much a generational split as anything else.
Dr. Ortiz, who said he registered as a Democrat in 1970 but quickly changed to “decline to state” — the circumlocution you have to adopt if you want to register in California without affiliating yourself with a political party — also quoted the Republicans’ explanations for why Faulconer won: “a superior candidate, a stronger team and a more inspiring message.” Though the orthodox opinion among San Diego’s media outlets has been that Alvarez lost because his potential voters didn’t turn out, Dr. Ortiz said that’s not how the Republicans explain their victory. His own view? Alvarez lost “because of the conditions that existed,” not only because it was a special election but because Faulconer and Alvarez were running to replace Bob Filner, a Democrat who had been driven from office in disgrace and had therefore tarnished the Democrats’ political brand in San Diego.
Carmen Lopez, who was hired in 2004 as an outreach coordinator for the San Diego County Registrar of Voters as part of the settlement of a lawsuit alleging violations of Latinos’ voting rights, said part of the problem is that Latinos in San Diego are “not voting correctly.” She discussed one of the most powerful pieces of data available to chart the ethnic vote: the way people register at citizenship ceremonies where they’ve just taken the naturalization oath and are thus eligible to vote for the first time.
While the percentage of new citizens who sign up to vote by mail is steadily increasing — from 70 percent in 2011 and 72 percent in 2012 and 85 percent in 2013 — Lopez said new voters who choose to vote by mail don’t always do it right. “A lot of them turn in their ballots late,” Lopez said — reflecting the common error that their votes will be count if the ballots are postmarked the date of the election. In fact, they’ll only be counted if they’re mailed far enough in advance that they’re received by election day. Another common mistake is they forget to sign their name to the outside of the ballot envelope.
“A lot of them come from countries where votes by mail and write-in votes don’t exist,” Lopez explained. “We have to educate people to get their ballots in on time.”

Barrio Logan and the Minimum Wage

The April 12 program continued with two presentations on upcoming issues San Diegans will have to vote on, which the meeting’s organizers see as the next big test for San Diego’s Latinos and the progressive community in general. Georgette Gomez of the Environmental Health Coalition told the sad tale of Barrio Logan, a neighborhood formed when a state freeway bisected it from Logan Heights. In 1978 the city created a community plan for Barrio Logan that called for turning it into a total industrial zone and forcing out all its residents. The residents protested, and over the last five years they worked with the city to create a new plan that would allow residents and industries to coexist and create enough buffer spaces so the people living there wouldn’t be poisoned by industrial pollution.
But that wasn’t good enough for the owners of the companies, especially shipyards, that operate in Barrio Logan. They circulated signatures to have the new Barrio Logan Community Plan put on the ballot to be voted on, not just by Barrio Logan’s residents but the whole city. What’s more, said Gomez, they got the signatures they needed by flat-out lying about the community plan, saying it would drive the Navy and the shipyards out of San Diego and cost the city jobs.
“All of that is untrue,” said Gomez. “The reality is these people are challenging the plan because they want to control the way the city makes policies. It’s about the Republicans wanting to control what goes on throughout the city. … We supposedly have a Democratic-majority City Council, but [the Republicans and the business interests they represent] are trying to change the dialogue and take everything to the voters.” Already, said Gomez, they were able to get the Council to cancel an increase in the fees paid by developers to fund affordable housing by circulating petitions to place it on the ballot — and instead of going ahead with the vote, as with the Barrio Logan plan, the Council wimped out and backtracked on the fee increase.
The Barrio Logan Community Plan will come before voters throughout San Diego — most of whom, Gomez said, don’t know anything about Barrio Logan — in June 2014 as Propositions B and C. Gomez asked people to vote yes on Propositions B and C to protect Barrio Logan as a mixed-use area and allow people to live there in relatively healthy conditions. If B and C lose, she warned, the 1978 plan comes back into effect and the city will have the authority to drive all Barrio Logan’s residents out.
“We ran a campaign for Mayor and came within three percent of electing David Alvarez,” said Richard Barrera, recently appointed secretary-treasurer of the San Diego/Imperial Counties Central Labor Council and an elected member of the San Diego Unified School District Board of Trustees. He was there to promote an initiative campaign, aimed at the November 2014 ballot, to increase the minimum wage in San Diego to about $13 per hour. But, in what was probably the most powerful and dramatic speech on the program, he held off on advancing that proposal and “worked the crowd” with an emotional appeal to community solidarity and advancing the overall progressive political agenda.
“We did a lot of work that is positioning us to go forward and win,” said Barrera. “We did the right thing. When Bob Filner fell apart, there were choices. We could have stayed home and capitulated — and a lot of people were arguing for it. We didn’t. We could have made a second choice, to let political expedience determine what our agenda is. We said no, because if we’d made either of those choices, none of us would be here. If we’d made either choice, Kevin Faulconer would still be Mayor, and we would have nothing to build on. Instead we made the third choice, to dig in and find extra money, extra energy, and get people involved who weren’t involved in 2012. All of us became organizers, and now we’re able to push forward on the issues that matter to our people.”
Barrera referred to the latest edition of Making Ends Meet, a report by the progressive San Diego think tank the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), which said that four out of every 10 families in San Diego can’t pay their rent and all their bills on the money they earn from working. For Latinos, according to CPI, it’s six out of 10. “This is not an issue of people not having jobs,” Barrera stressed. “It’s about people working and not making enough to make ends meet. So what’s our agenda? Working families need to be able to support themselves and create better opportunities for their kids. Many of them are children of immigrants who came to the U.S. for better opportunities.”
But Barrera’s critique of the way things are in the U.S. in general, and San Diego in particular, went far beyond that. “We continue to disinvest from public schools and reinvest in prisons,” he said. “Public schools have to be places that democratize our society.” Like Gomez, he said progressive San Diegans have an obligation to defend the Barrio Logan community plan and the health of its residents against the corporate attack at the ballot box. “The polling is pretty clear,” he said. “If voters understand the choice, they’re on the side of the Barrio Logan community. They’re going to spend a lot of money; we’re going to beat them with a lot of people.”
Then, and only then, did Barrera get to labor’s main priority in this year’s elections: a ballot measure they’re working to qualify for November which will raise the minimum wage in San Diego to $13 per hour and give workers at least five guaranteed days of paid sick leave per year. “Eighty percent of people in our restaurant industry don’t have earned sick days,” Barrera explained. He added that this forces restaurant workers with communicable diseases to come in to work, thereby exposing customers to those illnesses. As for the minimum wage increase, Barrera said the $13 figure was picked because “you have to make at least $13 per hour in San Diego to make ends meet.” He said they plan to put the initiative on the ballot in Chula Vista and National City as well.
“The other side will tell us all hell will break loose if working people can pay their bills,” Barrera said. “What we need to do going forward is to say who’s got the power, and to use our power to do right by our families and our kids.”