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.

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