Story and Photos by Eva Posner
The San Diego Democrats for Equality endorsed City Councilmember David Alvarez last night, furthering his momentum toward an improbable-but-not-impossible victory against Nathan Fletcher and Kevin Faulconer in the November 19 special election to replace Bob Filner as mayor of San Diego.
The result is interesting, given the amount of infighting that has taken place among local Democrats since Alvarez entered the race– placing himself opposite former Republican Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher for the title of Democratic front-runner.
It’s about balancing practical decisions with ideology, Doug Case, president of the San Diego Democrats for Equality, said after the endorsement vote.
“We have a candidate we can support,” he said.
The meeting opened in memory of Gloria Johnson, the well-known and much-loved LGBT activist who died last week.
Johnson was a member of the club since the ‘70s, and this wasn’t the usual symbolic eulogy upon the death of a community figure. These were her friends, her surrogate family, telling stories and jokes—honoring her life and sharing profound sadness at their loss.
After a moment of silence for Johnson, Interim Mayor Todd Gloria spoke about moving the progressive agenda forward in San Diego and then answered questions from the audience.
It wasn’t your typical stiff political Q&A, however. There was no feeling in the room that the club members were “the people” and Gloria was “the leader.” It didn’t have the air of bureaucracy and formality present at City Council meetings and other political public appearances.
Gloria, himself a member of the Democrats for Equality, knew everyone’s first name. He called on them one by one and addressed their concerns on issues like sidewalks and pot holes, the North Park Jack in the Box, medical marijuana, MTS, bike lanes and health codes. He didn’t speak to them as a politician with talking points, but as a friend offering help and advice. Jokes flew, punches were pulled, and gratitude was expressed.
“Thank you guys so much,” said Gloria. “You are my home club. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to serve you with the knowledge that I’m doing it on behalf of a lot of people who helped put me in this office– and I won’t let you down.”
The forum took place with two of the four slated candidates: Fletcher and Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save our Heritage Organization. Alvarez and Mike Aguirre, former City Attorney, were at the Voice and Viewpoint forum at the Jacobs Center in Lincoln Park.
Coons and Fletcher both gave brief opening statements, and took turns answering five questions from the audience read by Carla Kirkwood, vice president of political action for the club.
Fletcher addressed his switch to the Democratic Party in January, saying that disagreement with Republican members of the California Assembly lead to “the beginning of the end of my relationship with the GOP.”
“I became a Democrat because I believe our party has the best path and plans to ensure access to the American Dream,” said Fletcher. “To make sure that children can get a quality education, to make sure folks have access to economic opportunity, to ensure that we are a freer, fairer, more equitable, more peaceful world.”
Coons told the audience that he is “the candidate who doesn’t have any baggage,” and that though he was never planning to run for mayor he felt the need for a citizen statesman in San Diego—someone who will “do the job and go home.”
“I’m not running for another office,” said Coons. “So I can make the courageous decisions others can’t.”
Just as the forum ended, and the audience was getting fidgety, Alvarez and Aguirre arrived. A motion was made to allow them to answer the five questions, and after considerable debate, it passed and the candidates were given time to speak.
Alvarez was apologetic for his tardiness and extremely grateful for the club’s generosity in allowing himself and Agguire to speak.
“I’ve been a member of this club for some time and I respect everything that you’ve done, that we’ve done,” said Alvarez. “I’ll continue to walk with you like I have for 18 years– when others were saying that it wasn’t the right thing for a young Catholic like myself. I believe in social justice.”
He also spoke of a 15 thousand dollar donation he made to the San Diego LGBT Community Center when it became ineligible for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) earlier this year.
Aguirre compared speaking to the club to “coming home for Thanksgiving Dinner” and referred to his experience as City Attorney and the cases he filed and legal opinions he wrote that were in favor of LGBT rights and social justice.
When Alvarez and Aguirre were done speaking the club went in to closed session to vote on endorsement.
Members took turns speaking on behalf of Alvarez, Fletcher, and Coons. Various speakers compared both Alvarez and Fletcher to President Obama: Alvarez, for his ability to mobilize people and the possibility to make history in being elected San Diego’s first Latino mayor; and Fletcher for his ability to capture a room when he speaks and bring Republicans to the table.
Club rules require a 60 percent majority to endorse a candidate. The first round of ballots saw Alvarez receive 59.5 percent of the vote, and Fletcher 36 percent, with one vote for Coons, no votes for Aguirre, and two votes to not make an endorsement at all.
The members let out a collective sigh when it was announced there would have to be a second ballot. They were restless, tired, hungry, and hot.
Alvarez won the second round with 66 percent of the vote. Shouting ensued. People jumped up and down, high-fived, and hugged. Some members, however, grumbled in disbelief.
“Some people felt that one candidate had better name recognition, more money, and the ability to win the election,” said Case. “Others felt that the other candidate was more in line with our principles and values and had a long record with us.”
It was a night of organized chaos. It had a casual structure to it that allowed California Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, also a member of the club, to simply blend in with the audience one minute and receive wild applause the next.
It was loud and sometimes contentious. The night was long, the meeting ran late. Tempers got heated, and so did the room as the body heat radiated off the standing-room-only crowd. Zingers got thrown. There were laughs and tears. Debate was passionate and voting was purposeful.
“Our endorsement meetings are often lively,” said Case. “We as a club take endorsements very seriously. That’s why people are willing to stay until 10 o’clock at night. We want to make an informed decision, and the community looks to this club for guidance.”
Eva Posner is a freelance journalist and Southern transplant passionate about politics, current events, travel, her son and her dog. Follow her on Twitter @evaposner.