By Larry Remer
If it hadn’t already been apparent, the Mayoral Primary clearly demonstrated seismic shifts that have taken place in recent years on the local political landscape.
San Diego is now a very solidly Blue City and Democrat David Alvarez is well positioned to compete strongly in the February Mayoral runoff.
Just look at how stunningly strong the Democratic vote was last week. Despite an abysmally low voter turnout of barely 36%, more than 55% of the vote went to 3 clearly identified Democratic candidates (Alvarez, Fletcher and Aguirre). Republican Kevin Faulconer finished with less than 43%. In other words, the combined vote of the Democrats in the low turnout primary handily beat the anointed Republican candidate by more than 12 points.
This is consistent with the 14 point registration edge the Dems hold over the Reps in the city; and this result is clearly not a transient phenomenon. When San Diego went for Obama 2008 and 2012 and for Filner in 2012, most of the punditry ascribed it to the high voter turnouts (70%-plus) that accompany Presidential elections. After Filner resigned, the “conventional wisdom” was that Republicans are more likely to vote in off year elections and GOP dominance would emerge in a low-turnout Mayoral special election.
Except that the “conventional wisdom” was dead wrong.
The election was dominated by Democratic candidates, Democratic policies (everyone, a la Filner, campaigned on a promise to empower neighborhoods at the expense of downtown), and even by one candidate (Fletcher) insisting over and over that he really is a Democrat. Now if, as expected, turnout increases in the runoff, Democrats will comprise an even larger share of that vote – an obvious advantage for Democrat David Alvarez.
Now this same “conventional wisdom” is questioning whether Alvarez can capture enough of the so-called “Fletcher vote” to gain a majority. Their argument is that Fletcher voters are concentrated north of I-8 in Anglo areas that are not fertile territory for a Latino candidate; that these voters are supposedly “moderates” who are reluctant vote for an avowed pro-union, liberal Democrat; and that Kevin Faulconer has an image as a bland moderate who doesn’t incite the ire of Democrats the way Carl DeMaio does.
And once again, I suspect, this “conventional wisdom” will be proven wrong.
Let’s take the traditional formulation of Democrat versus Republican or liberal versus conservative. These passions and beliefs haven’t gone away and will play an important role in the ultimate vote. But ideology-driven voters are not “on the table” in February. They’ve already made up their minds.
Faulconer’s 42% is the conservative/Republican “baseline” vote. That is his starting point.
On the Democratic side, it seems appropriate, if not a little conservative, to give Alvarez half of Fletcher’s vote to start with. Yes, Faulconer will get “some” of the “Fletcher vote”, but to assume that this is a “moderate vote” that somehow “splits down the middle” is a fallacy. These voters rejected a chance to vote for a moderate-sounding Republican who was not attacked or challenged on his record or credentials. Instead, they voted for Fletcher, who ran as a Democratic, had support from major Democratic elected officials, and pitched himself as the “most electable” Democrat.
These votes went for Fletcher, not Faulconer, for good reason. In recent years, Democratic “defections” have dropped sharply, largely because of the far right agenda (pro-wealthy; anti-woman; anti-environment) the Republicans have been pursuing.
So, if you take Alvarez’s 27%, add Aguirre’s 4.5% and half of Fletcher’s 24% (or 12%) and you have Alvarez starting with about 43 or 44%.
So that means about 15% of the vote is the non-ideological vote and is up for grabs.
Poll after poll and election after election demonstrate that DTS (decline-to-state) or NPP (no-party-preference) or whatever appellation you want to give voters who are not strongly committed to either party tend to be non-ideological or even anti-ideological. These voters are sick and tired of politics-as-usual from both parties. They want government that is not beholden to what they see as special interests (and they are hardly monolithic: some see the special interests as the corporations; others as the unions). They want a “White Knight”.
For these voters, character is what counts. I’ve sat through many, many hours of Focus Groups seeking those occasional kernels of insight into how voters think and one vignette has stuck with me for years: A middle aged women explained very clearly why she supported candidate X with the simple declaration that, “He will make me proud when he’s up there representing me.”
Now we can look at the Alvarez-Faulconer matchup in a different light. Whose “bio” will resonate more strongly with the voters? Whose leadership will seem more authentic and trustworthy? Trust, especially in light of the Bob Filner debacle, is an extremely powerful subliminal issue in this election. Which candidate do you trust to tell the truth? Which candidate do you trust to look out for me? For our neighborhoods? For all of us?
Let’s start with David Alvarez whose up-from-the-barrio bio is the 21st Century rendition of the American Dream: the first in his family to graduate college; stayed in the community to work with young people and the needy; elected to the City Council where he amassed a record of fighting to get toxics out of his neighborhood, holding the Big Banks accountable for the foreclosure crisis they created, and voting for better wages and rights for working people. The only knock on Alvarez is that he’s young, in his mid-30s – a criticism that mostly comes from people who conveniently forget that Pete Wilson was a very boyish 38 when he became Mayor of San Diego.
Contrast that with Kevin Faulconer, who spent millions in the Primary polishing a moderate, pro-community image. But Faulconer is a lobbyist-turned-politician who voted more than 90% of the time in support of Carl DeMaio’s Tea Party agenda. Faulconer has gotten a free ride thus far, but I suspect the General Election will witness intense scrutiny of his 7 years on the City Council, including massive developer contributions, support for pension cuts, and various give-aways to big business.
Looking closely again at the 15% that is up for grabs, which candidate do you think will resonate more strongly?
Not that the runoff will not be a “gimme” for Alvarez. The money wing of the GOP is strong, unprincipled and ruthless. They will hammer Alvarez for sins real, imagined and created out of whole cloth. They will likely hit Alvarez hard for his ties to labor unions which, unfortunately, plays well with some segments of the electorate. Meanwhile, Kevin Faulconer, will try to create as much daylight as possible between his very Republican voting record and the views of the electorate.
Yes, San Diego is a Blue City, but not as Deep Blue as San Francisco. The Mayoral runoff is likely to be hotly contested, extremely contentious, expensive and very close.
It would be a mistake to underestimate David Alvarez. Just ask Nathan Fletcher. David’s personal qualities, his deep grass roots commitment, his record of fighting for those who have been “left out” , and the very idea of an Alvarez candidacy as a symbol of San Diego’s multi-ethnic future formed the basis for the political force that propelled him through the primary.
Well before Labor spent ten cents, David gathered 150 people in his back yard on a Saturday morning and sent them out to walk door to door. As the campaign progressed, David clearly emerged as the candidate with the deepest community roots, the most compelling personal story and the strongest moral rudder. He stuck with his Message of “real” neighborhood empowerment. As the campaign progressed, David got stronger. That’s how he raised nearly $300 thousand and put hundreds of precinct walkers onto the streets.
Across the city, grass roots Democrats rallied behind David: Donna Frye. Toni Atkins. Lori Saldaña. Myrtle Cole. An impressive, strong endorsement vote (60%+) from the Democratic Party despite intense opposition from the Fletcher forces. All of these forces, and more, got behind David because, during his tenure on the Council, he never wavered, never faltered, never shirked from leading the charge for neighborhoods, for working people, for the environment, and for Democrats.
To be sure, David benefited greatly from the Independent Expenditure (IE) of approximately $1.4 million the Labor Council ran on his behalf. But likewise Nathan Fletcher and Kevin Falconer benefited from multi-million dollar IE’s and campaign spending.
Which brings us a second seismic shift in local politics: the emergence of Labor and affiliated grass roots progressive groups as a force that can go toe-to-toe with the Republican Big Money that had dominated San Diego politics for more than 50 years.
Much will and should be said about the money raised by Labor for TV and Mail on David’s behalf. Even more impressive, in my book, is the “Ground Game” that Labor and affiliated progressive groups have developed. During the 4-day run-up to the election (Sat. through Tue.), more than 600 volunteers were dispatched into the neighborhoods by the Labor Council while scores more staffed phone banks. Despite the defection of a handful of unions who supported Fletcher, this is essentially the same force that put Bob Filner over the top last year – a grass roots “army” to walk the heavily Democratic precincts in the southern part of the city, Hillcrest, North Park and Mid-City, knocking on doors to educate voters about who the “Democratic choice” is and then turning out the vote.
Looking at the General, this “Ground Game” should prove crucial at mobilizing Latino turnout for Alvarez who is will be, if elected, the first Latino Mayor in San Diego history.
The bottom line: There is a structure and a focus to the “Democratic wing” of the local Democratic Party. It may not be as efficient and disciplined as the top down corporate Republicans. It may be a little rowdy and raucous, debating innumerable ideas (some great; some lacking in thought). But it will act on behalf of working people, neighborhoods, the environment and other traditionally “left out” constituencies to demand a seat at the table when decisions about how San Diego is run are made. And it is clearly powerful enough to defeat the “Money Democrats” when they try to foist a candidate (i.e. Nathan Fletcher) on the city.
I would be remiss if I ignored the role played by Republican money through the Lincoln Club with their attacks that pointed out Fletcher’s strong pro-Bush, Republican past. Predictably, Democrats deserted Fletcher in droves. The Fletcher folks cried, Foul, and accused the Republicans of trying to “pick their opponent” by eliminating from the General Election the challenger (Fletcher) they claimed would be stronger.
But this wholly misses the point. It wasn’t clear to the voters (for the same reason it wasn’t clear to the “Democratic wing” of the Democratic Party) that Nathan Fletcher stands for anything other than getting Nathan Fletcher elected. The Lincoln Club attacks may have been harsh. They may have been sharp. But they were on the money. There’s absolutely no way that Fletcher, had he squeaked through the primary, could have won the General.
Back to the present.
Right after New Year’s the election will start in earnest. Both sides will have ample money to get a Message out and enough support to make the race close. Both sides will have to define their vision for the city while hoping their allies attack their opponent. There will be debates where the personal qualities of each candidate will be on view for all to see. And there will be enough excitement for all of San Diego’s political junkies to feast on.
To me, the race is about a very simple choice – a choice between San Diego’s Past and San Diego’s Future:
- If San Diegans like the way the city has been run for more than 50 years with a small group of white, male, downtown business leaders making all the decisions behind closed doors, they should elect Kevin Faulconer.
- On the other hand, if they want to see the neighborhoods and the working people and those who have been “left out” of the decision-making in San Diego have a voice in the city’s future and through that voice shape policies that eliminate the favoritism special interests have long enjoyed, they should elect David Alvarez.
If that is the choice that the voters perceive is before them, David Alvarez has an excellent chance of emerging as our next Mayor.
Larry Remer has been a fixture in San Diego progressive politics for more than 40 years. He worked on the DOOR in the early 70s, went on to found SAN DIEGO NEWSLINE and later became a political consultant who works for progressive Democratic candidates and to pass school bonds including Propositions S and Z for San Diego public schools.