Wednesday, December 11, 2013

David Alvarez Can Take San Diego For Good


by Lucas O'Connor

San Diego is the largest border city in the country, and one of the last big cities where Republicans have been able to stay competitive. That's been changing in recent years thanks to a whole lot of hard work to organize emerging communities, and in a special election this February the city now has the chance to elect a strong progressive as San Diego's first Latino mayor. In the process, a rising progressive movement capitalizing on the region’s rapidly growing minority population can deliver a generational death blow to the local GOP, mirroring the shift that’s happened statewide in California and demonstrating what’s coming across the country.

The first public polling has recently been released in the runoff contest, reporting a tie in the campaign to complete the term of Bob Filner. With three months until Election Day, that means that after closing an 11 point gap in less than three weeks before the primary election, as an encore Alvarez has now closed a 13 point gap in three weeks. If you’re scoring at home, that’s a trip from 17% to 46% since Halloween. Most tantalizing is a quick look at who the remaining undecided voters are: Latinos, cell­phone voters, liberals, and young people jump out. These groups are natural Alvarez supporters, but also some of the most difficult to reach and turn out to the polls. It’s a tough climb, but it’s very winnable with the necessary work and the stakes are high.

Councilman David Alvarez grew up in the Barrio Logan community of San Diego, a neighborhood with a long history of standing up for fair treatment and basic justice when the city’s downtown power brokers weren’t interested. The son of a janitor and a fast food worker, Alvarez grew up next to an industrial plant and can trace his own asthma to a growing up amid toxic emissions affecting residential areas, school playgrounds, and parks. The experience helped launch his career that began as a social services worker and after­school teacher.

Now on the City Council, Alvarez has shown a rare willingness to stand up against the traditional establishment (of both parties) and ability to bring together the many pieces of the grassroots left. He’s run point on smart growth development projects and new local rules to hold banks more accountable for foreclosures, championed long­neglected funding for border, infrastructure and arts projects, and pushed to improve public safety. Along the way, Alvarez has become one of the strongest Council allies for working families in the face of strong attacks and forged one of the Council’s strongest environmental records while chairing the Natural Resources and Culture Committee. And along the way, he has set the standard for supporting progressive candidates and fostering stronger infrastructure.

Meanwhile, his opponent Kevin Faulconer is straight from empty­conservative­suit central casting. He lost his first run for city council, then eked out a special election win by a few hundred votes. Since then he hasn’t faced a serious electoral challenge while being elbowed out of bigger opportunities by other, stronger Republicans. He’s made a career of staying out of the fray, a mixed blessing for progressives now: His slim record means few voters know Faulconer or support him strongly, but it also means if he can keep his head down just enough, he can sneak through a relatively low­intensity special election with the more conservative electorate.

That’s a scary proposition because while Faulconer may be more inclined to simply drift along as the Tea Party drags things further right, remember that George W. Bush was supposed to be an aw shucks moderate once upon a time too and the extreme conservatives with their arms up the back of Faulconer’s suit jacket are ruthlessly effective given the chance. The attacks on working families, public education, the environment, responsible growth and public services are already rolling, and just last year the assault on public pensions they ran with Faulconer was so extreme that it not only left public workers with no pensions or Social Security, it managed to leave lifeguards and firefighters without death benefits. It could just be the beginning.

In general elections, San Diego votes for Democrats. But dynamics in this special election go beyond the usual Republican benefits. For example, before last year there hadn't even been a Democratic candidate for mayor on the November ballot in 20 years. Yet San Diegans made history by electing a Democrat by a five point margin. It was historic, but in the same election Obama won by a twenty­five point margin. That’s a seriously challenging gap.

Plus, the region’s only major newspaper is owned by aspiring-­Murdoch secessionist Doug Manchester. The retired hotel mogul has spent years dumping buckets of money into conservative candidates and ballot measures like Prop 8, and has spent his few years as owner of the local paper not only shilling for pet candidates and causes, but buying up smaller community papers with different opinions­ conveniently in electorally important parts of San Diego. And naturally, he was also central to a (relatively) secret meeting of powerful San Diego conservatives who anointed Kevin Faulconer for this mayoral race.

Last year, San Diego’s insider establishment was stuck in an impossible position: two strong ideological mayoral candidates, neither of whom were interested in business as usual. This year, they’ve hand­picked Faulconer as their golden boy to return San Diego to its decades of back­room plutocracy and slam the brakes on San Diego’s growing progressive movement. Those interests have already spent millions on this race, and they certainly aren’t done.

That’s why it's going to take a lot of help from progressive allies outside of San Diego itself. The voters are there, but decades of poor infrastructure that's only started coming back in the last few cycles means it’s particularly hard to reach those progressive voters in a low­turnout special election. But this is about the only game in town nationally, and by supporting David Alvarez and helping raise this race’s profile among progressives who generally tune out local politics, we can not only take it for the rest of our lifetimes, we can do it while demonstrating what the political future of the country looks like.

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