San Diego to the Chargers: Hasta la Vista!

Pound sand, Deno. That’s the message emanating from the San Diego commentariat to Chargers owner Dean Spanos when it comes to the team’s quest for a new stadium. Either build the stadium yourself, without any public contribution whatsoever, or pound sand. Go to Los Angeles. It’s where you want to be anyway, right?

The commentariat has decreed that the Chargers don’t really need a new stadium in order to remain in San Diego. But if it’s that important to them, let them take full financial responsibility for it. They’re billionaires. They can afford it.

It’s an asinine position to take, and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the issue, or an unwillingness to look beyond preconceived notions.

Let’s get one thing straight: There will be no new stadium built in San Diego without some sort of public component. That’s the reality; that’s the nature of being the #28 media market in the U.S. with a limited corporate sponsor base. And with a net worth of $1.2 billion–$955 million of which is the Chargers—the Spanoses do not have the resources to finance it themselves.

The San Diego Chargers cannot survive financially in San Diego long term without a new stadium. That’s a fact. And if they don’t get one, they will be forced to move. They will have no choice. The Chargers are not only competing with the rest of the NFL on the field of play, but they are also competing financially. And in a grotesquely outdated Qualcomm Stadium, they cannot compete financially with 29 of the 31 other teams all playing in newer stadiums. Only the Raiders and New Orleans Saints play in stadiums of comparable age, and the Louisiana Superdome underwent a complete overhaul after Hurricane Katrina tore it apart in 2005.

The newer, modern stadiums are in and of themselves revenue generators. From the digital signage and ribbon boards that can be customized for each event, giving the organization all kinds of freedom to get creative with in-stadium marketing packages, to the premium seating and luxury suites, to the more efficient and strategically placed concessions, all enabling each tenant to maximize its revenue potential. This is not possible in Qualcomm Stadium, which relies on stationary signs and outdated video boards. And that doesn’t take into account the poor sightlines in Qualcomm, the obstructed view seating, and the dilapidated state of the old concrete hulk, diminishing the game day experience of the paying fans.

There’s also the $15-$18 million hole Qualcomm Stadium blows into the City’s general fund budget every year to consider. With a new building, the City would actually have a chance to at least break even, if not turn a small profit. That’s not a guarantee, mind you, but at least it’s a distinct possibility. Instead, San Diego annually gushes red ink when it comes to the ‘Q.’

Meanwhile, the nature of the San Diego market places limitations on the Chargers’ potential revenue. The San Diego region is home to roughly 3.3 million people (including Imperial County), 3.5 million if the Southern Riverside County cities of Temecula and Murrieta are included. Compare that to the 14 million in the Greater Los Angeles area, the number two media market in the country.

NFL team net profits come primarily from the local revenues they can generate, and San Diego is limited in that regard, putting the city and the team at a distinct disadvantage in comparison. San Diego is home to five Fortune 1000 companies (two Fortune 500); Los Angles is home to 15 Fortune 500 companies; San Jose and the Bay Area combined are home to 53 Fortune 1000 companies. There just isn’t the economic base here to make a completely privately funded facility feasible.

To be clear: If the Spanos family really wanted to move the Chargers to Los Angeles, they could have done so at any time in the last several years. There are two shovel ready stadium projects ready to begin construction in L.A., one in the City of Industry and another in Downtown L.A. All either project needs is a team to commit to becoming a tenant and they’ll break ground. Contractually, the Chargers can opt out of their Qualcomm Stadium lease every year between February and May until the lease expires in 2020. The team would only have to pay a lease termination fee, starting at $56 million in 2009, falling on a sliding scale until 2020, when the team would owe the city $3.5 million. (If the team leaves in 2016, they would owe the city just over $15 million to terminate the lease.)

If they really coveted Los Angeles, they would already be gone.

If the team remains in San Diego, the best they could possibly hope for is to climb from the bottom of the league to the middle of the pack in revenue and valuation. Dean Spanos knows this, and he’s content with it. The team doesn’t need to be in the top 10 financially in order to be competitive on the field and in the stands. But they need a new stadium to even put the middle of the pack within reach.

The sentiment against using public funds to build a stadium is understandable, even justifiable. But that sentiment should be held against the value of having the Chargers remain a part of the San Diego community, hosting periodic Super Bowls, NCAA Regionals and Final Fours, a potential MLS team and future World Cups, and various other events the stadium will bring to San Diego, not to mention SDSU Aztecs football and the two college bowl games that will disappear along with Qualcomm Stadium.

If the prevailing point of view is still against any kind of public investment, that’s fine. It’s the voters’ prerogative and an acceptable and legitimate position. But let’s then end this charade, stop wasting everyone’s time and the Chargers money and allow the team begin its future in a new city. There’s no point in drawing this out any further, perpetuating the false notion that the Chargers can go it on their own. Shake hands and part ways amicably. If the City is not willing to participate financially, there’s no point in discussing it further.

The Chargers will get their new stadium, whether it’s here or elsewhere, and San Diego will survive without the Chargers. But it will never be the same, as a huge part of our culture and identity will have gone with them. And it will permanently mar our image as a forward thinking, dynamic, business friendly city that companies actually want to call home. That’s reality.

Chargers Season Ends with a Thud

Coaches, personnel staff has some serious soul searching to do this offseason

by Andy Cohen

The San Diego Chargers, in control of their own playoff destiny, walked onto the natural grass surface at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, and ended their season with a whimper. The situation was pretty simple: Win and you’re in the NFL playoff tournament; lose, and make your vacation plans.

To make matters even more favorable for the visitors, the Kansas City Chiefs would be playing without their starting quarterback, San Diego native and Helix High School grad Alex Smith. In his place, Chase Daniel would be making only the second start of his six year NFL career, his first coming in week 17 of the 2013 season against the Chargers.

The Chargers lost to the Chiefs 19-7, ending their playoff hopes and their season.

Instead of bowing up and playing to the occasion, the Chargers—particularly the offense—mailed in their 2014 regular season finale. With so much on the line, the team wilted.

To be fair, this was a Chargers team that probably wasn’t even as good as their 9-7 record would seem to indicate. Other than a rather impressive win against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in week two, the Bolts floundered against the best the NFL had to offer in 2014. The Chargers finished  3-7 against teams with a .500 or better record, and despite some heroic finishes by Philip Rivers and Co. against St. Louis, Baltimore, and San Francisco that gave a hopeful fan base an overabundance of confidence, this team was clearly not ready for prime time.

The truth is, even after a miraculous playoff berth in Head Coach Mike McCoy’s first season at the helm, the Chargers are clearly not a very good football team overall. They weren’t a year ago, and they aren’t now.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, with plenty of holes to fill on a deficient roster.

Personnel Woes

Two years ago, GM Tom Telesco inherited a depleted roster lacking depth across the board. Despite his best efforts, many of those holes remain. An offensive line unit that was once-upon-a-time one of the team’s greatest strengths is now one of its biggest weaknesses. A near complete overhaul, similar to what took place in 2004—when the Chargers replaced four of five starters, and eventually the fifth—is in order. The 2013 addition of right tackle DJ Fluker via the first round of the NFL Draft was supposed to be an improvement, yet he has struggled in each of his first two seasons. Both guard positions are a major liability, and with the pending retirement of center Nick Hardwick, a starter since opening day of his 2004 rookie season who missed all but the first few snaps of the 2014 season, the Chargers will need to find a replacement at center stat.

One option would be to move Fluker to guard, where he is probably much better suited at the NFL level. It remains to be seen whether 2014 third round draft pick Chris Watt is the long term answer at center (or guard), but it’s clear that four out of the five offensive line spots need serious upgrades, with left tackle King Dunlap the only player worthy of returning to his current spot.

The Chargers also need to find an answer at running back. Ryan Mathews is supremely talented, and a difference maker when he’s on the field. But therein lies the rub: The Chargers cannot count on him to stay healthy, and they cannot count on him to hold on to the ball when he is. Mathews just completed his first NFL contract, and he’s worth hanging onto at the right price. But the team MUST find another back that can carry the load. Which is fine. Running-back-by-committee seems to be the way most teams in The League are approaching one of the most physically demanding positions on the football field. But there is clearly no one else currently on this roster capable of being that every down threat, capable of supplying a consistent rushing attack for a team that is desperately in need of finding offensive balance between the run and the pass; a team that needs to rely less on an athletically limited Philip Rivers.

As well as Rivers has played at times, a consistent run game will only make him more effective, particularly considering his lack of mobility. If the team chooses to part ways with Mathews—a perfectly reasonable conclusion—they’ll need to find two such backs. As great a story as Branden Oliver has been in 2014, he is not the answer. Donald Brown was a waste of a free agent signing, likely a product of Telesco’s loyalty to players from his former team, the Indianapolis Colts. And while everybody sings Danny Woodhead’s praises, he is not an every down player, but rather a nice change-of-pace back and a good checkdown receiving threat out of the backfield.

The Chargers receiving corps remains solid, including future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates and backup Ladarius Green, who possesses all kinds of as yet unrealized potential. Perhaps they could use another receiver for depth, but it is hardly their most glaring need.

Defensively, reinforcements on the defensive line are called for. Corey Liuget is a player the franchise can build around. The linebacking corps is relatively solid—Melvin Ingram is a difference maker when healthy, Manti Te’o has steadily improved, and Kavell Conner and Jerry Attaochu show great promise, while an aging Jarret Johnson has provided a steady hand. Yet while the defensive backfield seems rich in talent, they are sorely lacking in discipline and fundamentals. Still, with better coaching and a focus on fundamental skills, it’s a backfield that holds a good deal of promise for the future.

Speaking of coaching….

Deep soul searching called for

As a young, aspiring NFL scout way back when, I was perplexed by what I was seeing as I studied college game films. I could not understand why some of the most highly touted college prospects—including many certain first round draft picks, the absolute cream of the upcoming crop from some of college football’s premier programs—seemed so deficient when it came to basic football fundamentals. I asked then Chargers GM Bobby Beathard how that could be the case; why some of the best prospects were so lacking in basic skills.

His response was that most coaches tend to assume that prospects have been taught the basic fundamentals at the lower levels of the game; college coaches assume the high school coaches have it covered, and NFL coaches assume the college coaches have emphasized it. Coaches are far more interested in installing and tinkering with their exotic offensive and defensive schemes, spending an inordinate amount of time adding wrinkles to their playbooks and are loathe to spend much time reinforcing basic skills—the basic skills that make the game safer and can help prevent injuries (and blown plays).

Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, that problem persists, and in many cases is worse than ever. The Chargers under Mike McCoy have been among the biggest culprits. Defensively the Chargers are possibly the worst tackling team in the NFL; they take poor angles, they don’t stay square to the line of scrimmage, and they stop their feet, getting stuck in cement while the ballcarrier blows by them. The secondary can’t seem to cover a soul without committing defensive holding or pass interference. Their footwork is abysmal, and they have no idea what to do with their hands.

The offensive line is nearly as bad; a unit so short on talent cannot afford to be fundamentally deficient, with feet stuck in quicksand and shoulders getting turned out of square, unable to react to twists, stunts, and blitzes, leaving Philip Rivers, the epitome of a pocket passer, constantly under siege.

But even more disconcerting is the barrage of injuries suffered by the 2014 Chargers. Injuries happen.  They’re a part of the game.  But the number of injuries suffered by this Chargers squad cannot be explained by a simple case of bad luck. Something is very, very wrong with the way this team prepares. Many concussions can be prevented with the use of proper hitting technique, and yet so many Chargers defensive players insist on leading with their helmets, refusing to “see what they hit.”

Sound fundamentals can help prevent many injuries. When those fundamentals break down, however, injuries become far more likely.

Compounding the problem, the San Diego Chargers are a poorly conditioned, physically unprepared team. A well conditioned team is less prone to injuries to begin with, while fatigued players tend to breakdown in their fundamental techniques.  A team that is deficient in basic fundamentals is far more susceptible to major injuries when they’re not in peak physical condition.

NFL teams simply don’t burn through five different starting centers and nine different offensive line starters in all through the course of one season; well prepared teams don’t have to scramble just to field a complete defensive backfield week in and week out.

Say what you will about Dave Redding, Marty Schottenheimer’s strength and conditioning coach, but he had his teams physically prepared. Mike McCoy’s teams clearly are not.

McCoy and GM Tom Telesco have some deep soul searching to do.  They must take a good hard look at the way they and their respective staffs prepare their team for the rigors of an NFL season, beginning with the offseason strength and conditioning program. Personnel deficiencies aside, a better conditioned and fundamentally sound football team is a far more competitive football team.

The 2014 Chargers showed a lot of grit in securing last minute wins against St. Louis, Baltimore, and San Francisco. But they are clearly not in the same class with New England, Green Bay, Denver, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, even Seattle. They have a long way to go if they hope to compete for an AFC West title, let alone a Super Bowl.

A Sterling Day

Board of Governors MeetingNBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s ouster of Clippers owner Donald Sterling sets a new, bold precedent and updated standards for professional sports ownership.


I’m not much of an NBA fan, which is to say not at all. I rarely pay more than cursory attention to the league. It’s just not a product that I appreciate. I love college basketball, but the NBA game is another story. Fantastic athletes, but a nearly unwatchable product.

These last five days, however, have been absolutely fascinating to me. What the NBA has just gone through with the moral stain that is Donald Sterling and how the league and its players ultimately handled the situation, in my mind, is nothing short of spectacular and applause worthy. Roger Goodell could learn a few things from rookie NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

As many readers may know, I spent 15 years working in professional sports here in San Diego. I spent five years with the San Diego Padres, and 11 years with the San Diego Chargers (one year overlapped where I worked for both). I’ve seen good owners and bad owners. I was there during the Padres’ fire sale in 1993 perpetrated by then principal owner Tom Werner. I was working in game day operations when they called us in to help the overwhelmed switchboard operators to answer complaints the team was receiving in protest from Padres fans. I think I still have the highly detailed script of responses they gave us and warned us not to deviate from.

I was with the team when John Moores swooped in from Houston and rescued the Padres, with the rebuilt roster that in 1996 brought a division title to San Diego. You think the fans breathed a huge sigh of relief once Werner was gone? That was nothing compared to how we felt. But for all of the problems and missteps Moores blundered through—mostly personal, some professional, such as the lawsuit that found he cheated his employees out of overtime pay—that eventually led to his sale of the team, he brought some real memorable moments to Padres fans and to the staff that worked for him. And because of him, we have Petco Park, which I think most San Diegans will agree is a good thing.

As for the Chargers, when you work in the NFL and get the opportunity to travel around the league, interacting with other league personnel as I did, you get a sense of what a truly awful owner looks like. Bill Bidwell, Al Davis, and Mike Brown come to mind. Dean Spanos isn’t perfect, but he’s always tried to do right by his team and his city. Believe me, we could do far, far worse. And if anyone other than Dean Spanos owned the Chargers, they’d be playing in Los Angeles by now.

Every now and then the Clippers would come up in conversation at Chargers Park. Every time they did, all I could think was thank God I don’t work for Donald Sterling. Honestly, I would have quit. I couldn’t have done it. And I suffered through Tom Werner! That’s how bad Sterling was.

In the pantheon of major professional sports team owners, Donald Sterling is without a doubt the absolute worst. Winning never mattered to him. For most of his 33 years of ownership there wasn’t even a nominal effort to build a successful team on the court. The Clippers were nothing more than a toy to him, something to use as leverage to make him seem more important than he really was; to elevate his status in order to bolster his real estate business. He moved the team from San Diego because his real estate holdings were in LA, so that’s where his NBA ownership status would do him the most good. The team was a joke, and their fans were suckers.

I’m sure there were many NBA owners, particularly in the West, that were thrilled to have him around. In most years it meant that as long as Sterling was there, no matter how bad their own teams were, the Clippers would almost always be worse, insulating them somewhat from the criticism of their own fan bases. Sterling? He just didn’t care.

But what could you do? He was the team owner. It’s not like you can fire him like you can fire the coach or the GM, although that’s exactly what was needed. It’s his team. He can run it however he wants.

That’s why Adam Silver’s decision to lower the hammer on Sterling yesterday was so historic. In one fell swoop, Silver changed the nature sports ownership for good.

In the wake of Sterling’s well publicized racist rant, Silver didn’t just punish an NBA owner, he took the unprecedented step of effectively ending the ownership. He banned Sterling from the Clippers and all NBA activities for life, and pledged to do everything in his power to garner the support of 3/4 of the NBA owners to force Sterling to sell the team. Silver sent a message that those types of attitudes, those behaviors will no longer be tolerated; that the NBA as a league will have nothing to do with someone who holds those views.

In short: Donald Sterling, You’re FIRED!

Let’s be honest here: This is something that should have been done long ago. Donald Sterling didn’t just suddenly, mystically come up with these racist convictions. In 2006, Sterling agreed to pay the U.S. Department of Justice $2.725 million as part of a settlement amid allegations of housing discrimination in apartment buildings he owns. He refused to rent to blacks, Hispanics, and people with children. Yet Sterling was not required to admit any guilt. In 2003 he was sued, accused of housing discrimination where he allegedly told his staff that he did not like Hispanic or African American tenants. That case was settled for $5 million, again with Sterling admitting no guilt.

In 2009, former Clippers GM Elgin Baylor filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Sterling and the Clippers, claiming discrimination and a hostile workplace. Baylor, who is black, said that Sterling ran the team “with a Southern plantation like structure.” Baylor said that Sterling wouldn’t allow his GM to negotiate player contracts, and that the owner had a vision of his Clippers team to be composed of “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach.” Baylor lost that suit, with the jury determining that Baylor was fired because the team just wasn’t very good, not because he was discriminated against.

I wonder if that jury wants another crack at that decision now? File it under the category of “if I only knew then what I know now.”

The exodus of Clippers team sponsors surely had much to do with Silver’s decision. It was clear that companies wanted nothing to do with an organization owned by bald faced a bigot. It was only a matter of time before the league’s corporate sponsors began to follow suit in the absence of clear and decisive action on Silver’s part. We’re talking billions of dollars and a new TV contract that needed to be negotiated. From a business standpoint, the NBA simply could not continue to associate itself with Donald Sterling.

But Silver sent a clear message, and set a precedent for the entire sports world: No longer can owners act with impunity. An owner’s behavior will be taken into account, with the rights and privileges of ownership liable to be stripped away if that behavior is deemed detrimental to the league itself. Team owners will now be held to a new level of accountability for their actions. There is now a clear social contract that must be upheld, no matter how rich and powerful one is. In the business of professional sports, image is everything. Image means dollar signs. Unsavory attitudes, beliefs, or actions on the part of team owners that bring ill repute to the league itself will no longer be swept under the rug.

It’s the dawning of a new era. And although he likely had the full support of a majority of the owners for whom he works, we have Adam Silver to thank for it.

Don’t Punish Team for Sterling’s Views

Clips LogoThe Clippers’ players are suffering enough.

Donald Sterling’s a bigot.  Surprise surprise.

Actually, no, not really.

Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers (formerly the San Diego Clippers before Sterling moved the team up Interstate 5) has a long and dubious record of being one of the worst owners–if not the worst–in all of professional sports.  Since taking ownership of the Clippers in 1981, Sterling has amassed the worst winning percentage of any owner in any of the four major pro sports leagues.  And he never seemed to care.  Winning for him was never a priority; being able to claim membership in an exclusive club, and using his NBA ownership status to bolster his real estate business was always his priority.

Donald Sterling has always been tolerated rather than accepted.   Clippers fans–if there really was any such thing prior to about two years ago when the team’s two superstar players, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, vaulted the team to NBA pseudo-prominence–were kind of like the Chicago Cubs fans of the NBA.  But hey, at least it could be said that the Cubs were trying to win every once in a while.  Sterling’s Clippers?  Not so much.

This year the Clippers have the LA/Southern California spotlight all to themselves.  For the first time in, well, ever, the LA Clippers are the only LA team in the NBA playoffs.  After an atypically abysmal season of turmoil, the Golden State’s revered Lakers didn’t qualify, leaving the Clippers the opportunity to make their own mark, and their own run at a championship out from the shadow of the team with whom they share an arena.  Until this year, the Lakers were LA’s team, selling out every game at premium prices, while the Clippers were the bargain basement brand of LA that no one but the truly die hards, like Billy Crystal, bothered to go and see.

A lot of that had to do with the fact that the Clippers were always so putrid.  Much of it had to do with the fact that their owner was largely viewed as a disgrace to professional sports ownership.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past four days, a secret audio recording was published last Friday by the celebrity gossip site TMZ allegedly containing the voices of Sterling and his girlfriend V. Stiviano (Sterling is married, by the way, although apparently not happily so) with Sterling castigating Stiviano for hanging around with black people, and posting photos of herself on her instagram account with black people such as Magic Johnson and Dodgers baseball player Matt Kemp.  He also warned her not to bring any black people to his games with her.  Even though nearly 80% of the players in the NBA are black, apparently black people are not welcome in Staples Center on Clippers game nights.

The website Deadspin later posted an extended audio of the hour long conversation, where the voice purported to be Sterling’s, upon being reminded that he has “a whole team that’s black, that plays for” him, replies “You just, do I know?  I support them and give them food and clothes and houses.  Who gives it to them? Does anyone else give it to them?  Do I know that I have–who makes the game?  Do I make the game or do they make the game?  Is there 30 owners that created the league?”

Other than the fact that he doesn’t “give” them anything; that they earn what he “gives” them through employment contracts with the organization that says they must actually perform a service in order to earn that paycheck (i.e. play the game of professional basketball), or that nobody, and I mean nobody goes to Staples Center to see him do anything, or even cares that he’s there, he may be on to something.

On second thought, no, he’s not.  The guy is a first class douchebag with a history racist-y behavior.  Such as when he was ordered to pay $2.75 million for housing discrimination for allegedly discriminating against blacks and Hispanics in apartment buildings he owns.  He’s also been dubbed the “Slumlord Billionaire.”  Or the time he was sued for employment discrimination by his former Clippers GM, Elgin Baylor, a legendary NBA player in his own right.  Baylor, who is black, lost that suit, but given Sterling’s most recent comments, the courts must surely wish they had a do-over.

OK, so we’ve established the fact that Sterling is a real piece of excrement.  That much any sports fan has known for decades.  Hell, I even knew it, and I pay what can only be described as approaching zero attention to the NBA, save occasionally one player in particular; one recent SDSU Aztec who has in short order become a rising NBA star.  Other than that, in my opinion, the NBA game has no redeeming qualities.

But that’s neither here nor there.  There are an awful lot of people who do enjoy the NBA game.  More importantly, there have been an awful lot of people who have enjoyed Clippers basketball, particularly this year when they have consistently been one of the league’s best.  They’ve sold out nearly every game this year, something that previously only the Lakers could claim among the LA teams.  And now they return to the Staples Center for Tuesday night’s game five against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors amidst uncertainty.  There is concern amongst the players and the coaches about how the team will be received in their home arena, by a crowd that has apparently been as raucous and enthusiastic and supportive as any Lakers crowd could ever hope to be.

“We’re going home now, and usually that would mean going to our safe haven,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers after Saturday’s 118-97 game four loss in Oakland, “and I don’t even know if that’s true” anymore.

That’s a shame.  They shouldn’t have to feel this way.  They shouldn’t be punished because their team owner is one of the worst human beings on the planet.  The good work that they’ve done to this point should not be the subject of ridicule.  They’re great players and class acts, by all accounts.  Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are the darlings of corporate sponsorship, staples of television commercial rotation.  Coach Doc Rivers has earned a place of high regard throughout his playing career and his brief coaching career with the Boston Celtics (where he won a championship) and now the Clippers.

These players and these coaches deserve better than what they expect.  They’ve worked too hard, represented themselves, their team, and their city with class and dignity all year, and have provided an awful lot of enjoyment for an awful lot of people.  And now, through no fault of theirs, they’re caught up in this disaster of their owner’s making.  It’s not fair to the players; they shouldn’t be punished for Sterling’s actions.

It’s one thing to want to boycott Donald Sterling, as many voices are calling for, including Warriors coach Mark Jackson.  But it might be helpful to remember that doing so not only hurts Sterling–though it’s entirely debatable whether he cares at all–but it also hurts the players.  And they clearly deserve much better.  In fact, they probably need the support of their fans now more than ever.


Healing the Democratic Divide in San Diego

Fletcher-AlvarezLack of a unified, collective effort a major factor in Dems’ mayoral loss.

By Andy Cohen

San Diego Democratic leaders and Team Alvarez gathered last week at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park for a mayoral special election postmortem. City Beat’s John R. Lamb has a great recap of the group’s discussion, and their efforts to find “silver linings” in Alvarez’ defeat published in last week’s edition.

Alvarez and his team ran a strong campaign that, combined with their labor backers, appeared to choose a strategy focused on turning out the Democratic base to the polls. The theory was that with a strong Democratic registration advantage and a LOT of money, they could overcome the typical Republican electoral advantage in off year and special elections. Outspending the opposition combined with a registration advantage would equal victory on Election Day.

It was a sound theory. Or at least it seemed to be. If it works for Tea Party Republicans, why can’t it work for Democrats?

Call it a grand experiment that went awry. But why?

According to Lamb’s report, participants in the confab lamented the lack of participation by key local Democratic figures, namely Nathan Fletcher (Alvarez’ Democratic primary opponent) and State Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez.

It might be helpful to recall the rift between Mickey Kasparian, the powerful president of the UFCW Local 135 and defacto spokesman for the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, and Gonzalez, the former chief of said Labor Council.

Gonzalez, newly ensconced in her role as a member of the State Assembly, ruffled the feathers of the labor leader when she quickly endorsed her friend Nathan Fletcher in the mayoral race, before Alvarez had even entered the fray. Kasparian responded by allegedly threatening to run a primary challenger in Gonzalez’ bid for reelection in 2014.

So if there’s a current rift within the local Democratic Party, that’s where it begins.

But that’s also where Team Alvarez’ electoral fortunes seem to have gone astray as well.

The complaints of Fletcher and Gonzalez’ absence from the campaign trail are legitimate ones, as their explicit support and efforts surely would have bolstered Alvarez’ standing with potential voters, particularly those more moderate voters who apparently turned their gaze to the completely repackaged I’m-not-a-Republican City Councilman (now mayor) Kevin Faulconer.

Gonzalez did eventually come out in full support of Alvarez after the primary, taking to social media to promote his candidacy and making appearances on his behalf. But what about Fletcher? One would think that the newly minted Democratic mayoral hopeful would have wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to further cement his bona fides within the local Democratic Party. Yet he was nowhere to be found.

That proves it, right? He’s not really a Democrat. He abandoned ship once the primary was over and he had lost. Instead, he took a trip to climb a mountain in Argentina.

That’s the easy explanation, but like just about everything else in life, it’s not even close to being that simple. Or correct.

The mayoral special election primary was a brutal fight, at least for the Democrats in the race. Kevin Faulconer sailed into the finals with 42% of the vote, but Alvarez and Fletcher were caught in a battle royale to determine who would take on Faulconer—the presumed primary winner from day one—mano-a-mano.

Alvarez slipped through, taking 27% of the vote to Fletcher’s 24%.

Early on in the primary Fletcher became the target of both the GOP establishment and the Democratic progressive base, getting hammered from both sides as Alvarez’ backers, namely the Labor coalition, and the GOP’s Lincoln Club seemingly teamed up to do as much damage to the former Republican Assemblyman’s image as possible in order to set up a showdown between their two chosen candidates. The Democratic base clearly did not trust the Dem convert, and the Republicans saw him not only as a traitor to their ranks, but as the biggest threat to their prospects of retaking the San Diego Mayor’s office.

At his concession press conference, a clearly beleaguered Fletcher threw his full support behind Alvarez.  He committed to help get Alvarez elected in any way he could. So what happened?

This is where the story gets interesting.

Twenty-four percent of the primary vote is no small potatoes. That’s a significant chunk of the voting electorate that Alvarez clearly had to have in his corner if he had any hopes of winning in February. It only made sense that the Alvarez and Fletcher camps would work together to heal whatever fractures between the two sides—and within the Democratic ranks—still remained.

Only it never happened.

First there was the last minute trip to Argentina. In desperate need of a break from the grueling campaign he had just endured, a friend of Fletcher unexpectedly called an offered a vacant spot on an expedition they had planned into the Andes. Tough to blame him for jumping at the opportunity given the beating he had just taken. Fletcher would not return until early January, when early voting had already begun, which according to the Alvarez campaign played a role in their decision not to enlist Fletcher’s help.

Second, Team Alvarez never asked for the Fletcher campaign contact/donor list, a fairly customary ask for a winning campaign of a losing campaign of the same party. Team Alvarez could have used that list to reach out directly to Flecther supporters, many of whom were concentrated in neighborhoods north of Interstate 8, and cement their support for Alvarez in the runoff. Instead, the Alvarez campaign relied on a strategy of neighborhood canvassing, using both Alvarez campaign volunteers and relying on the efforts of paid canvassers organized and coordinated by outside expenditure groups. But no direct targeting of Fletcher supporters or moderate Democratic voters took place.

Upon his return from Argentina, Fletcher had every intention of making good on his concession press conference promise to support Alvarez. He called Alvarez and reiterated his commitment: I will do anything you want me to do. ANY. THING. Whatever Alvarez deemed appropriate, Fletcher was ready, willing, and able. He asked only one thing in return: Support Lorena Gonzalez’ reelection efforts.

It was a rather innocuous seeming request, but given the level of acrimony between Gonzalez and her former labor compatriot Kasparian, and Kasparian’s role in supporting Alvarez’ campaign, and the alleged threats to run a primary challenger against Gonzalez in 2014, he felt it right to recruit the backing of the potential next mayor of San Diego on behalf of his friend.

From Team Alvarez’ perspective, it was a deal breaker. Either you’re going to help us or not, no preconditions. No negotiation, no discussion. The fact that Fletcher would even suggest what was taken as a quid pro quo arrangement was an outrage. Thus Fletcher remained on the sidelines, his support deemed unnecessary.

This is the state of the San Diego Democratic Party as we head into the June primary election and the November midterms, torn between a strategy of “building a movement,” as an Alvarez campaign representative called it, and doing what is necessary to win an election; between catering a message to low propensity base voters and creating a more nuanced platform that doesn’t compromise core values, yet appeals to more moderate voters who actually do show up to participate in elections.

This is not to say that Team Alvarez wasn’t in it to win it. They most certainly were. They had a strategy that they thought would win and they stuck with it. But at least as important to the Alvarez camp was movement building for the long term. Whether that will pay dividends in future elections remains to be seen.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and with that benefit what we can say for certain is that the strategy cost San Diego Democrats the opportunity to keep the mayor’s office, and likely dealt a setback to Democratic priorities such as environmental concerns (e.g. Barrio Logan), a minimum wage increase, and put a crimp in efforts to increase affordable housing stocks.

Priorities have to change. Movement building is a noble cause, but it’s much more effective in the midst of a winning electoral effort.

Rethinking San Diego’s Democratic Electoral Strategy

ImageBy Andy Cohen

There are some valuable lessons to be learned from the recent mayoral special election here in San Diego, and as we head into the 2014 primary and general elections it would be wise to take stock of what happened so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.  In case anyone’s forgotten, Republican Kevin Faulconer beat Democrat David Alvarez by a nine percentage point margin on Election Day.  The final margin ended up being closer to six points, but it was never really in doubt as the first returns rolled in on Feb. 11.

David Alvarez was a very good candidate.  He was the obvious choice of progressives.  He is a young Latino who has a record of soothing tensions in difficult negotiating arenas and coming out the other side with a deal everyone can live with.  He’s on the right side of all of the hot button policy issues that the progressive base holds dear.  He’s the kind of candidate that in theory should have drawn base voters to the polls in droves and maximized the Democrats’ huge registration advantage over Republicans—there are nearly 90,000 more registered Democrats in the City of San Diego than there are Registered Republicans.  Republicans are even outnumbered by NPP voters (no party preference) by nearly 16,000 voters.

When you outraise and outspend your opponent by nearly $1.5 million in a mayoral special election and still lose by six percentage points, and you have a voter registration advantage of 90,000 voters, it might be time to seriously rethink your election strategy.

The Democratic strategy, it seems, was designed to motivate base voters to get to the polls.  Massive GOTV efforts were employed in neighborhoods south of Interstate 8—neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of Democratic voters.  Get them to show up on Election Day, and Alvarez has a chance.

Only they didn’t show up to the polls.  They didn’t vote.  In the meantime, more moderate Democratic voters were largely ignored, and the enormous chunk of independent voters in San Diego were completely ignored…….by Democrats at least.  There were no discernible efforts to reach out to those voters in the middle, and it likely cost the Democrats the opportunity to hold on to the mayor’s office.  Kevin Faulconer, on the other hand, did everything he could to woo those independent voters, running as far away from the Republican label as he could in an effort to appeal directly to those independents and middle of the road Democratic voters who likely cast their ballot for Nathan Fletcher in the primary.

What Faulconer knew was that Republican voters were going to vote for him anyway.  He didn’t need to do anything to win their support.  He already had it.  It was those middle-of-the-road voters that were the key to his chances at victory, and that’s who he targeted.

Meanwhile, despite having Nathan Fletcher’s endorsement, the Alvarez campaign did nothing to reach out directly to Fletcher voters.  They did not ask for the Fletcher campaign’s contact lists in order to reach out to them directly, and they did not have Fletcher do any direct campaigning for Alvarez, which I’ve been told that Fletcher would have been happy to do.

The Democrats and Alvarez stuck to their base strategy, and because of it, and because the base did not turn out in significant numbers, they lost, and lost badly.  Comparing the turnout numbers in precincts that Alvarez won to the precincts Faulconer won is quite disconcerting if you’re a Democrat.  We’re talking high 20’s to mid 30’s for Alvarez, and high 30’s to mid 40’s for Faulconer, with a sprinkling of 50 and 60 percent turnouts here and there to pull his numbers up.

In 2012 Scott Peters ran for Congress in the 52nd District as a moderate Democrat.  He and progressive champion Lori Saldaña were vying for a slot in the runoff against Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray.  Peters won that primary race against Saldaña, and went on to narrowly beat Bilbray in the general election.  Had Saldaña moved on to the general, Brian Bilbray would likely still be a member of Congress today.  But Peters was able to win because he appealed directly to the middle voters.  The voter registration split for that election was roughly one third each for Dems, Repubs, and NPP’s.

Need proof that the middle won?  According to an analysis by, in the 2012 mayoral race where the City of San Diego and 52nd Congressional Districts overlap, Carl DeMaio won 120 of the 189 precincts that Scott Peters won, while Bob Filner won only 69, and only one precinct that Brian Bilbray carried. 

Those moderate Dems and independent voters are looking for someone who appeals to them, who will reach out and communicate directly with them.  Remember, there are 192,000 registered NPP voters in San Diego.  And while that may not be completely relevant to the upcoming primary and general elections, it’s a fairly consistent theme throughout the San Diego region—huge numbers of independent voters who have the power to swing an election.

Now, those 2012 results could be merely a matter of familiarity as San Diego’s go-to political analyst Carl Luna suggests, since Peters did represent the City Council District 1 centered in La Jolla.  But I suspect it’s a lot more than that, since the City Council District only accounts for a small portion of the 52nd Congressional District.

Moving forward, Democratic candidates for public office would be wise to consider the middle instead of catering to a base that is unlikely to show up at the polls in a non-presidential election year.  If you’re a Republican running in a heavily Republican district, then it might make sense to all wingnut in the campaign, since those people actually vote.  That doesn’t work on the Democratic side, as we just found out the hard way.  Democrats cannot win elections by appealing to the base alone.

More importantly, if Democrats run solid, moderate candidates with strong backing (hint hint, DCCC) in the 49th and 50th Congressional Districts this year, they might actually have a chance to unseat some of the most divisive and bitterly partisan Republicans in Congress—not to mention getting rid of the guy who thinks it’s a good idea to nuke Iran.  (Dems might actually have that moderate candidate for the 50th, but more on that at a later date.) 

And in the City Council Districts, moderate Democratic candidates could very well win seats that were previously held by Republicans in District 2 and District 6 (both districts that voted for Faulconer in the mayoral race).  Candidates brandishing their progressive credentials have no chance.

The goal should be to actually win an election and not to make some sort of ideological stand.  Yet unfortunately that’s kind of where we’ve been headed in the last two election cycles.  It is better to win and get most of what you want than it is to lose and get nothing.

The GOP: The Party that Doesn’t Care

Republicans profess an unmatched love of country, but what they have is an unmatched disdain for the people who inhabit it.

There’s a line from the 1995 movie “The American President” starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening that just keeps ringing in my head.  I’ve used the line in past posts, and I’m sure I’ll use it again (and again, and again, and again) because it’s so incredibly and pointedly accurate.  Even more so today.

A little refresher course:  “The American President” is about a widower, Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), who in the wake of his wife’s death from cancer manages to get himself elected President of the United States.  He falls in love with a lobbyist, Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), and they begin dating.  During the course of their relationship, they are subjected to countless vicious, heinous attacks on their character by Republicans for having the audacity of being two single, consenting adults who find that they have much in common and enjoy each other’s company immensely.

The line in question comes from the scene where the happy couple is enjoying a quiet, private weekend “alone” at Camp David (the President is, after all, never really alone).  Responding to a particularly heinous charge hurled by Republican Senator and erstwhile presidential candidate Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), Wade asks her boyfriend, “How do you have patience for people who claim they love America but clearly can’t stand Americans?”

Back in 1995, in the aftermath of the Newt Gingrich led revolution and the Republican takeover of Congress (original version), Republicans found new ways to mask their disdain for the American people in a cloak of patriotism.  But while they claim a superior and unwavering love of their country (while accusing Democrats of being anti-American, or communists, or of having an absolute hatred of America, or the latest attack where former New Hampshire governor John Sununu laments that he wishes Barack Obama would “learn to be an American”), it is becoming more and more clear that what Republicans are doing is projecting their own growing hatred of this country onto Democrats.

Well, okay, maybe that’s not entirely accurate.  Republicans do love America.  They love the property they own.  They love the money they can make.  They love the power they can accumulate.  They love the rules they can flaunt.  What they so clearly hate, as Bening’s character said so succinctly, are Americans.  As in the American people.

Think about it in terms of the policies they support.  Prime example:  Health care.  The Affordable Care Act that was recently upheld by the Supreme Court provides for a dramatic expansion of Medicaid that will expand coverage to millions of Americans who earn up to 133% of the poverty level.  Until the health law kicks in, Medicaid is only available to the extremely poor with families or the disabled.  Now it will be available to anyone who otherwise would have no access to basic health care.  The kicker?  The federal government will pay for 100% of said expansion for the first four years, tapering down to 90% of all costs by 2020.

This won’t cost states any more than they’re already spending on Medicaid programs, and will open up access to health care to millions who need it but can’t afford it on their own.  Not so fast, say Republicans.  By imposing strict rules that opens the program up to more people you’re infringing on states’ rights, they say.  Several states headed by Republican governors have already declared that they will outright refuse to accept any expansion of Medicaid at all.  If people can’t afford health care, that’s their problem.  Florida’s Rick Scott, South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindahl, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Kansas’ Sam Brownback, and Iowa’s Tom Branstad have all vowed to reject the program.  Texas and Rick Perry have vowed to reject the Affordable Care Act altogether.

When challenged by Fox News’ Chris Wallace (I know, right?  A Fox News anchor challenging a Republican politician?!?!) on what Republicans would do to provide coverage to the 30 million who would finally get health insurance under “Obamacare,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell replied “That’s not the issue.”  The truth is they have no plan, and no intention of coming up with a plan.  People are uninsured and without access to health care unless it’s via the emergency room at taxpayer’s expense, and that’s just peachy with Republicans.  In fact, the only proposal offered by Republicans to counter the Affordable Care Act would have extended coverage to a mere 3 million people.  That was the best they could do, and they didn’t care.

The truth is that they have no desire to reform a broken system that denies health care to those with preexisting conditions, institutes lifetime caps on how much health care any one individual can receive, and won’t allow young adults who are just starting out on their own to remain on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26.  They don’t like the provision that says that insurance companies must dedicate a minimum of 85% of premiums collected to actual health care expenditures.  They don’t want to prevent insurance companies from culling their rolls of less healthy patients just to increase profits.  If it’s not excessively profitable for insurance companies, Republicans are against it.

They’ve even suggested that an individual without health insurance who is otherwise healthy but gets into an accident or suddenly becomes catastrophically ill should be left to die without the life saving care he needs.  “Let him die,” Republicans shrug.

And then there’s Medicare, the wildly popular (especially with seniors) and successful government program that provides health care to those 65 and older, most of whom would otherwise be entirely without it.  Republicans excoriate the ACA for cutting $500 billion over 10 years in waste and fraud out of Medicare, insisting that the ACA is making cuts to Medicare benefits, which is entirely false.  Meanwhile, the only “serious” proposal offered by Republicans is the Paul Ryan budget that turns Medicare into a voucher system, placing actual limits on the care seniors can receive.  A $6,000 per year allowance to purchase health insurance on their own is not going to get our seniors very far.  Ryan’s budget would significantly increase the burden on seniors, including benefit cuts, particularly to low income and disabled seniors.

Republicans have been itching to get rid of Medicare for decades, and the Ryan budget that has been passed not once but twice in the Republican controlled House of Representatives would essentially accomplish just that.  Medicare as we know it today would cease to exist.  And yet the hypocrisy is absolutely staggering when Republicans accuse Democrats of making cuts to Medicare via the ACA.

Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities wrote of the Ryan budget:

The new Ryan budget is a remarkable document — one that, for most of the past half-century, would have been outside the bounds of mainstream discussion due to its extreme nature. In essence, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse — on steroids.  It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history).  It also would stand a core principle of the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission’s report on its head — that policymakers should reduce the deficit in a way that does not increase poverty or widen inequality….

Specifically, the Ryan budget would impose extraordinary cuts to programs that serve as a lifeline for our nation’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, and over time would cause tens of millions of Americans to lose their health insurance or become underinsured.

The Paul Ryan budget that is so fervently supported by Republicans across the board—including presidential nominee Mitt Romney–and includes the dismantling of Medicare and Medicaid programs, is a clear demonstration of the utter and complete disdain Republicans have for actual American people.

The list goes on and on and on with immigration, abortion rights (Republicans are incredibly concerned about the fetus, but once the baby is born, they could not possibly care less), pollution and the environment, voter ID laws designed to prevent certain groups that are more likely to vote Democratic from voting…..

Republicans have no solutions to any problems, but they sure like telling us about what they don’t like.  And what they don’t like are the people (non ultra-rich, of course) that government is supposed to serve.  And so the question is “How do the American people have such patience for a political party that claims to love America but so clearly can’t stand Americans?”  If anyone can possibly figure this out, please share.  I’m dying to know.

“Save KLSD:” The Corporate Consolidation of America’s Airwaves

San Diego’s last progressive talk radio station a victim of the loosening of media ownership laws

Talk radio has become big business in the last decade and a half, particularly conservative talk radio, which has seen an explosion in popularity and influence.  Progressive talk radio?  Not so much.

San Diegans have become accustomed to the conservative stylings of locally owned 760 KFMB and the not so locally owned KOGO 600.  When you’re looking for news in this city, there are no other choices.  You’re stuck with the nonsensical, anti-government, sensationalist, and sometimes maniacal ramblings of Rush Limbaugh and Roger Hedgecock.  But that wasn’t always the case.  For a brief while, San Diego did have a progressive talk radio station to call its own:  1360 KLSD (for “Liberal San Diego,” as we are informed by radio and television news personality Bree Walker).

KLSD at one point was the home of San Diego personalities like Stacy Taylor and Jon Elliott.  It was also San Diego’s home to Air America Radio, the national syndication outfit that brought voices such as Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow, Randi Rhodes, and Al Franken, now a United States Senator from Minnesota, to the airwaves.

And the station, despite some limitations, and despite being hampered by a weak signal that didn’t reach the entirety of San Diego County, was doing quite well and continued to grow.  “I beat Hannity” in San Diego, said Ed Schultz, now a host on MSNBC in addition to his daily radio show.

According to Cliff Albert, the KLSD program manager in 2007, KLSD ranked number one in San Diego in time spent listening—the average amount of time a listener would actually tune in to the station without changing the dial.

“There are two things that make up ratings.  How long do they listen to you, and number of people,” said Randi Rhodes, the nationally syndicated progressive host.  “The time spent listening, I was number one in San Diego.  Advertisers look at time spent listening—TSL it’s called—because they want to see if I can hold the audience through the commercial so that their commercial gets heard by my audience.”

“The other part of ratings,” she continued, “is the number of people.  If you can put together 100,000 people, which is what we had, and combine it with four or five hours a week of listening, that is the ballgame.”

Despite its apparent success and continued growth, in August 2007 rumors began to surface that San Diego’s only progressive talk radio station was going to be taken off the air.  KLSD was about to go through a format change and become another all-sports talk radio station.

“Save KLSD,” a documentary five years in the making by former TV news producer and marketing executive Jennifer Douglas and Jon Monday, the current vice president of the Fallbrook Democratic Club, uses the demise of progressive talk radio in San Diego as a launching point for discussion of a much larger problem.  It uses the death of KLSD to make a broader point about the results of corporate media consolidation nationwide.

The documentary begins with a Benjamin Franklin quote:  “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freedom of speech.”  It is the contention of the movie’s producers that corporate media consolidation is, in fact, having that very effect that Benjamin Franklin warned about.

According to the documentary, in 1983 there were more than 50 corporations who were major players in the American media landscape.  FCC rules prevented companies from owning more than four radio stations in any given market and more than 40 stations nationwide.  Those rules have been obliterated.

Today there are five major corporations controlling our airwaves, the largest of which is Clear Channel Communications, Inc.  Today, FCC rules allow for a single company to own eight stations in any given market, with no limitations on nationwide ownership.  As of the year 2000, Clear Channel owned nearly 1,200 stations nationally.  That figure has shrunk to 850 different radio stations, including seven here in San Diego, including XTRA Sports 1360 (KLSD’s current all sports format).

Clear Channel is also the owner of KOGO, the ultra conservative San Diego talk radio station, the local home of Rush Limbaugh, and until recently the home of the disgraced ex-mayor of San Diego, Roger Hedgecock.  It was Clear Channel that made the decision in 2007 to make the format change at KLSD from progressive talk to all sports talk, despite the growth, success, and popularity of the station.

“The story is not that (KLSD) failed,” said Randi Rhodes.  “The story is that we succeeded against all odds on low power signals, which is all we had access to.”

KLSD, though, is typical of what has happened in dozens of other markets across America.  Ninety-one percent of all of the news talk radio stations in the country are conservative, with only nine percent progressive.  And in San Diego, KLSD was competing directly with the more established Clear Channel property, KOGO.  KLSD, the documentary asserts, was cutting into the profit margin of Clear Channel’s local conservative darling, and they just couldn’t allow that to happen.

Based in Texas, Clear Channel was founded by Lowry Mays, a hardcore Republican supporter and a major backer of George W. Bush.  The company was taken private in 2008 by Bain Capital, whose founder and former CEO is none other than current Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“We’re not in the business of providing news and information,” Mays told CNNMoney Magazine.  “We’re not in the business of providing well researched music.  We’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.”  According to “Save KLSD,” It was this mentality that was used to justify the format change, as it was the contention of the KLSD sales staff that they just couldn’t sell enough advertising to keep the station afloat.  It was the clear implication that progressives don’t buy products and services, but conservatives do.

“Save KLSD” is a fascinating and important look at the changes in the national media landscape that has resulted in the massive misinformation campaigns conducted by conservative media and made possible only by the corporate consolidation of our media nationwide.  Using KLSD as the example, the documentary examines the larger issue of what our media outlets have become because of corporate consolidation, and perhaps more importantly the resulting demise of local news and information.

“Save KLSD” is well worth seeing.  The next screening is scheduled for this Thursday, July 5th, at 7pm at the Fallbrook Democratic Club at 990 E. Mission Rd. in Fallbrook.  The next San Diego screening will be Tuesday August 14th at 6pm at 98 Bottles in Downtown San Diego.  The full length DVD can also be purchased for $25 at  See this link for complete screening schedules and information.

Dissecting the Supreme Court’s “Obamacare” Decision

ImageDissecting the Supreme Court’s “Obamacare” Decision

The Supreme Court today upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the signature legislative accomplishment of the Obama Administration in a 5-4 decision, a majority that included conservative Chief Justice John Roberts.  This is a big day for the Obama Administration, and for Democrats nationwide.  This was the day that the Affordable Care Act—an imperfect law with definite shortcomings, but a good start toward healthcare reform nonetheless—was ratified as the law of the land once and for all.

Since day one Republicans have assaulted the Act as unconstitutional on several grounds, spreading lies and misinformation about the Act in a propaganda campaign to ensure public opinion is squarely against it.  Lies such as calling it a “government takeover of healthcare,” or excoriating the “death panels” that the law supposedly contained, or that those who already had insurance through their employer were going to lose it, or railing about the trillions of dollars it will add to the budget deficit.

None of those things are even remotely true.  In fact, they’re all demonstrably false, but that hasn’t stopped the right wing from passing it all off as gospel.

In the 2010 midterm election, Republicans swept into power largely on the strength of their propaganda campaign against “Obamacare,” a sweeping piece of reform legislation modeled directly after the healthcare system in Massachusetts.  That system, which included the controversial “individual mandate,” was taken directly from the hard right wing Heritage Foundation, who first published the concept in 1993 in response to the Clinton Administration’s attempt at a massive overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system (which, of course, failed).

The individual mandate is the proviso that everyone who didn’t already have health insurance through their employer and can afford to purchase healthcare must do so.  Those who cannot afford to purchase insurance would receive government subsidies based on their level of need in order to help them do so.  Those who still could not or refused to buy insurance would be levied a fine in the form of a tax to be collected by the IRS (with incredibly weak enforcement provisions, I might add).

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee (unofficial) and former Governor of Massachusetts, implemented this very system as governor.  In 2009 Romney went on “Meet the Press” and specifically endorsed the idea of an individual mandate on a national basis.  In 2007, Romney praised the Massachusetts law as “a model for the nation.” In fact, since they helped write the Massachusetts law, former Romney staffers were brought in to consult on the Affordable Care Act.

Upon the ACA’s passage in 2010, it didn’t take long for Republican state Attorneys General—26 of them, to be exact—to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law on two primary fronts:  That the individual mandate itself is unconstitutional, as is the requirement to expand Medicaid programs or face the loss of federal funding.

Today, albeit by a narrow decision and one that would normally be the subject of much consternation and bring more charges of extreme partisanship upon the Supreme Court, the Republicans were nearly completely rebuffed in their assertions.

With the ruling in 2000’s Bush v. Gore that effectively handed the presidency to George W. Bush, and the highly polarizing Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate cash to be spent wantonly and directly on political campaigns, and with a recent study that found the Court ruled in the Chamber of Commerce’s favor in 68% of the cases where it had an interest in the outcome, Justices are becoming viewed more and more as political actors.

Take Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent in the Arizona immigration case earlier in the week:  Scalia took pen to paper to excoriate President Obama’s decision to allow some illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children to stay, despite the fact that the case before him had absolutely nothing to do with Obama’s executive order.  In fact, the executive order was issued long after the case against Arizona’s SB 1070 was heard by the Court.  Scalia’s dissent focused on matters not before the court, was entirely political, and completely unbefitting a Supreme Court Justice.

During his 2005 confirmation hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he came “with no agenda,” and that he viewed his job as a Justice of the Supreme Court as that of an umpire, that it was his job “to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.

With the precedent set by Citizens United and the reaffirmation of it in ruling against Montana’s 1912 state law banning corporate contributions in political campaigns, that promise was highly in doubt.  Until today.

In writing for the majority, Roberts said “Members of this court are invested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments.  Those judgments are entrusted to our Nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them.  It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.”  As properly apolitical a statement as there ever was.

In his ruling on “Obamacare,” Roberts held true to his word, saying that it was the Court’s job to seek out a way to find the law constitutional.

This was a rather complex case, and it shows in the ruling of the Court.  The Obama Administration argued that the individual mandate was constitutional under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.  In effect, the government argued that when a person declines to purchase health insurance and gets sick, the costs of treating that person get passed on to everyone else in the form of increased healthcare costs, and thus affected interstate commerce, since everyone at one time or other will need health care.  In this case, inactivity rather than activity was being legislated against.  The Court held, though, that the ACA could not be held constitutional under the Commerce Clause.

“The individual mandate forces individuals into commerce precisely because they elected to refrain from commercial activity.  Such a law cannot be sustained under a clause authorizing Congress to ‘regulate Commerce,’” Roberts wrote, deeming the law unconstitutional if judged strictly by the Commerce Clause.

However, under the government’s power to tax, “the Government asks us to read the mandate not as ordering individuals to buy insurance, but rather as imposing a tax on those refusing to buy that product.”

Under the mandate, if an individual does not maintain health insurance, the only consequence is that he must make an additional payment to the IRS when he pays his taxes. See §5000A(b). That, according to the Government,means the mandate can be regarded as establishing acondition—not owning health insurance—that triggers atax—the required payment to the IRS. Under that theory, the mandate is not a legal command to buy insurance.Rather, it makes going without insurance just another thing the Government taxes, like buying gasoline or earn­ing income. And if the mandate is in effect just a tax hike on certain taxpayers who do not have health insurance, itmay be within Congress’s constitutional power to tax.

Because the ACA enforced the mandate through the IRS via a “shared responsibility payment” by taxpayers, the individual mandate was thus deemed proper and constitutional under Congress’ authority to levy taxes.

The ACA also required states to expand their Medicaid programs to provide basic coverage to all individuals under the age of 65 whose incomes fell below 133 percent of the federal poverty line.  The federal government, in turn, would fund a minimum of 90 percent of the additional costs incurred by the states.  Failure to comply with this requirement, according to the ACA, could result in a state losing all of its Medicaid funding.

The Court ruled that the federal government does not have the power to require states to “govern according to Congress’ instructions.”  The Court was led to “scrutinize Spending Clause legislation to ensure that Congress is not using financial inducements to exert ‘a power akin to undue influence,’” Roberts wrote.  “Congress may use its spending power to create incentives for states to act in accordance with federal policies.  But when ‘pressure turns to compulsion,’ the legislation runs contrary to our system of federalism.”

The federal government can still offer funds to expand Medicaid programs, but it cannot threaten to withhold all federal Medicaid funding from states that refuse to accept the terms of expansion spelled out in the ACA, the ruling held.  It is my guess that most states will, in fact, take the federal government up on its offer to fund at least 90 percent of the costs incurred by expansion.

The short of it is that this is a victory for health care reform in the United States.  “Obamacare” is far from perfect, or even ideal.  But it was deemed the best they could do under the circumstances, and is without a doubt a good start.  The process of reform is far from over, and this is a necessary first step.  And while a public option was not included in this iteration of healthcare reform, there is no reason to think that we might not eventually see one implemented several years down the road.  The Affordable Care Act leaves room for that option.

The fact that it was John Roberts joining the liberal wing of the Court in affirming the legality of the ACA is a major blow to Republicans.  Roberts is a stalwart conservative and normally reliably among the conservative cabal on the Court, after all, and Anthony Kennedy, who is normally the swing vote in 5-4 cases, voted in dissent.  It was widely expected that the Court would either overturn the Affordable Care Act in a 5-4 decision, or affirm it in a 6-3 vote with Roberts and Kennedy both in the majority.

Ordinarily a 5-4 decision would be met with derision; the court would be ostracized for making a strictly political ruling.  But with Roberts siding with the majority, that accusation falls flat, and lends the finding additional credibility.

The bottom line is that the affirmation of “Obamacare” means that 30 million people will have access to health care that otherwise would not.  And it means that the United States is finally well on its way to completely reforming our healthcare system.  The implementation of the Affordable Care Act is merely the beginning stages of that process.

The Myth of Exorbitance in the San Diego Police Department

In San Diego and elsewhere across the country, public employees are the bane of conservatives’ existence, including, as we found out, police and fire services.

City Beat’s Kelly Davis has a great story up about the Police Officer’s Association and their efforts at their own pension reform.  The union, it turns out, came up with a pension plan that would have reduced the amount paid to their members out of their pension fund upon retirement, increased some officers’ take home pay, made the San Diego Police Department more competitive salary wise with departments across the state, and saved the City of San Diego $3 million over the next two years.

The plan was rejected almost entirely out of hand.  Why?  Purely due to politics.  Mayor Jerry Sanders didn’t want to do any major contract negotiations, leaving that responsibility to whoever is elected as San Diego’s next mayor—either Carl DeMaio or Bob Filner.

The problem is, as Davis’ story points out, that the SDPD is hemorrhaging officers left and right, and is unable to replace them.  Since 2008, 708 officers have left the SDPD for better paying jobs elsewhere, either with other police agencies or in the private sector.  In the meantime, the department has only been able to replace 576 of them.  San Diego is at the bottom of the pay scale among the major police departments in California.  And each time the department has to train a new officer, it costs $100,000 in addition to the officer’s salary.

The SDPD is having a major retention problem.  And when their own union tried to do something to alleviate the problem, they were rebuffed because it didn’t fit the political narrative of the day:  That unions are bad; unions are always bad; unions are greedy and are only out for themselves and their members, never mind what’s good for the city at large.  Unions make city services too expensive.  The Carl DeMaio crowd’s rhetoric is that unions need to be decimated in order for the city to even be able to function.

Public employee unions are the villains in this narrative, no matter how much of their salaries they’ve given back in the recent past to cooperate with city officials to solve the great fiscal crisis San Diego is just climbing out of.  It doesn’t matter how many benefits they’ve given up, or how valuable the services are that their members provide, and regardless of the logical, reasonable, workable proposals they come up with to solve current crises.  Unions are the problem, and anything that goes against that message must be soundly rejected because the unions must not be allowed to look reasonable.

Look, I’m not a union guy.  I’m supportive of the unions, but I’ll be the first to call them out when I think their behavior is detrimental to the public good and their members.  (By the way, City Beat’s right when they say the teachers’ union has to relent, and it appears that they’re going to do just that.)  But in just about every case over the last several years, that has been the complete opposite of the truth, and Carl DeMaio knows it.  He just doesn’t want you to know it.

In my story Wednesday I took a look at fire fighter salaries in San Diego.  You’d be surprised at just how easy it was to find.  A comment by the OB Rag’s Jack Hamlin inspired me to look into the salaries that SDPD officers earn.  Because if you listen to the right wing rhetoric, all city employees are dramatically overpaid, including police officers.  So according to the FY-2011 budget, the latest available, under the category “Personnel Expenses,” here is a sampling of what officers in the San Diego Police Department earn (the number in parentheses indicates the number of individuals performing those jobs):

  • Police Officer 1 (125):  $49,254 to 59,467
  • Police Officer 2 (1,149.25):  $62,837 to $75,941
  • Police Officer 3 (7):  $65,998 to $79,747
  • Police Sergeant (292, down from 312):  $76,274 to $92,206
  • Police Lieutenant (50.25):  $97,594 to $116,813
  • Police Captain (14):  $117,645 to $140,899
  • Police Detective (343.5):  $65,998 to $79,747

Chief Bill Landsdowne apparently currently earns a salary of $172,928, and of course there’s only one of him.

(Side note:  I wasted a bunch of time, thinking I could do a comparison on my own of the salaries offered by some of the major PD’s in California, but apparently the SDPD is the only department that puts their annual budget online, separate from the rest of the city operations.  So kudos to them for the transparency.)

Just for giggles, here’s a look at some of the salaries civilian employees of the SDPD make:

  • Clerical Assistant 2 (9.75)  $29,971 to $36,067
  • Dispatcher 2 (72 of them; we lost 7):  $37,440 to $45,178
  • Police Records Data Specialist (8, two fewer than a year ago):  $32,074 to $38,834
  • Public Information Clerk (1):  $31,491
  • Information Systems Analyst 2 (9):  $54,059 to $65,333

Nobody is getting rich working for the San Diego Police Department.  Some of the higher ups are paid fairly well, but with higher responsibility comes higher pay.

San Diego, with a population of 1.3 million people, is the 8th largest city in the country.  Between all of the sworn officers and civilian personnel, the SDPD employs 2,538 of those people, unless I’m misinterpreting the numbers they provide in their budget.

Bottom line:  We’ve got a faction of political leaders in this city that are telling us, in effect, that all government spending is bad.  Unless it’s spent on the military, of course.  They would have everyone believe that anyone working in the public sector is a leech getting fat and doing nothing of value on the public’s dime.  In the ideal world of people like Carl DeMaio and Lorie Zapf, there would be no public sector, as every public service would be contracted out to the lowest bidder.

The thing is, we tend to get what we pay for.  And personally speaking, having strong, competent, well run and adequately funded police and fire departments are incredibly important for a city as big as San Diego—we may like to pretend we’re a small town, but we’re anything but.  And when you consider that San Diego lifeguards, who stand watch over one of our most valuable economic engines—the beaches–their role takes on even more significance.

San Diegans typically demand a high level of service from those who get paid out of the taxpayers’ coffers.  But they also don’t like the idea of having to pay for those services, and that applies to all public services and not just the police and fire departments.  We must hold our workers and public officials accountable for the jobs they do, but what we have to decide on is what we value more:  A high quality work product, or paying as little as absolutely possible for the services we benefit from.  And if paying as little as possible is the most important factor, then maybe we should contract everything out to the lowest bidder (which would include current city departments).

Just don’t be surprised if the work product turns out to be somewhat less than our normally high standards.  And don’t complain when the police don’t respond to your 911 call

Update:  The Washington Post’s  Greg Sargent has a piece up talking about Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  In a response to a statement made by President Obama, Romney said:

Romney said of Obama, “he wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

(emphasis added by Sargent, quoted from CNN)

Sargent also points out the Republican message that public sector employees “are parasites who are destroying the economic condition of ordinary Americans.”

Mitt Romney, the de-facto leader of the Republican Party, says that not only do we not need more police and firefighters, but we don’t need any more teachers.  We have no use for ’em.  They’re part of the public sector problem, and we can easily do away with them.  This fits in line with Romney’s way of thinking that class sizes are not significant factors in a students’ ability to perform in the classroom.

Other than to highlight that saying students learn better with larger class sizes is patently ridiculous on its face, and that every credible stuy done on the matter has determined that it’s patently false, we’ll leave Romney’s stance on education alone for now.

President Obama met with the press today and said that the private sector is doing quite well.  He’s right.  WaPo’s Ezra Klein lays out that case quite nicely here.  But what isn’t doing fine, Obama said, and the reason our economy is still lagging, is because the public sector is still in serious trouble.  Since Obama took office, the public sector has lost 600,000 jobs.  That includes police, fire fighters, teachers…

The private sector, on the other hand, has added a net 780,000 jobs since February 2009.  The private sector is humming along, but the economy is lagging because the public sector is in trouble.  Obama wants to help state, county, and municipal governments to restore some of those 600,000 jobs that have been lost.  Mitt Romney wants to see those people remain unemployed.  Or he wants to see all of those services privatized.  It’s hard to tell which, since Romney won’t actually tell us where he stands on anything, and anytime he does hint at it, he flip flops on it by the next day.

But it’s a philosophical divide; one with the Mitt Romneys and Carl DeMaios of the world saying “eradicate the public sector,” and the Barack Obamas, Nancy Pelosis, and Bob Filners of the world saying that the public sector plays an important role in our overall economic health.  There’s plenty of evidence out there (presented here in this update, even) to tell us who’s right and who’s wrong.


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