Oct. 23 2013 09:04 AM

For the Latino American Political Association of San Diego, it's not enough just to be Hispanic anymore

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Photo illustration by John R. Lamb

"My opponent called me a cream puff. Well, I rushed out and got the baker's union to endorse me."

—Claiborne Pell

Politicians take to endorsements like cats to catnip. While their effectiveness in convincing voters to side with a particular candidate can be debated, endorsements make for almost-daily fodder among media types during election season.

It's especially true during this sprint of a mayoral race in San Diego. In fact, endorsements are typically the first thing candidates seek to nail down when contemplating a political run. Securing such nods early—particularly from high-ranking politicos—can make or break a campaign.

Organizational endorsements can be an interesting barometer of a candidate's philosophy or voting record toward issues of interest to those groups. But sometimes those groups surprise you.

With the flak mayoral candidate and current City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer has taken over his pro-shipbuilder stance in the brewing battle over Barrio Logan's council-approved community plan, take for example the recent endorsement he received from the Latino American Political Association of San Diego.

"While Faulconer was the only non-Hispanic candidate, LAPA membership feels he demonstrated the greatest ability to promote benefits for the Hispanic community in line with the mission of LAPA," Delores Chavez Harmes, the group's vice president, wrote in the Oct. 16 press release announcing the mayoral nod.

While the release noted that the top issue for LAPA is jobs, secondarily it listed "displacement of homes due to commercial and industrial growth" as another area of concern.

"That group was taken over by Republicans a while ago," said former City Attorney and seemingly much calmer mayoral wannabe Mike Aguirre, who, along with competitor David Alvarez, joined Faulconer at the organization's Oct. 1 mayoral forum. (Alleged frontrunner Nathan Fletcher confirmed he would attend but was a no-show, LAPA President Ed Cervantes told Spin.)

Cervantes, a Chula Vista resident now retired from a career in law enforcement, rejected the notion that LAPA now leans right, calling it instead "a good, balanced group with one of the most diversified board of directors around."

"We have independents, decline-to-states, Democrats, Republicans—the whole spectrum," said Cervantes, whose association with the group dates back more than a decade, when it was a "radical-left" chapter of the Mexican American Political Association, a civil-rights group formed in Fresno in 1960 to help Latinos attain public office.

"Yes, I switched parties," Cervantes laughed. "I'm now a Republican."

His board colleague, Chavez Harmes, is quite active in Republican circles, as well, in essence now the face of the local Republican Party's outreach efforts to Latino voters. In addition to heading up a Republican women's club in Valley Center where she lives, she's also founded two organizations, Latino GOP San Diego and the more state-focused CA Latino GOP.

Chavez Harmes said it's disappointing that progressives would assume that Latinos would instinctively vote for a Latino—or even a Democrat. "It's sad because it sets us back, sort of turns back the clock," she said.

She's clearly a loyal Republican, even speaking glowingly of meeting Texas Gov. Rick Perry at a recent function (she does describe herself as a "displaced Texan" on her Twitter account, so Spin will cut her some slack on her choice of exciting governors).

Jordan Gascon, LAPA's parliamentarian and a self-described left-leaning decline-to-stater who recently returned from a three-month internship in Bangladesh with a group trying to bring organic farming to the struggling region, said his nearly twoyear association with LAPA has convinced him that all sides are represented in group discussions.

"Republicans, I would say, are more outspoken now, but I've been impressed with the level of debate," Gascon said. "Everyone shares their views."

Some members said Barrio Logan received scant discussion during the Oct. 1 mayoral forum, which Gascon acknowledged, but he noted that the organization has many members who are small-business owners who are more focused on public safety and reducing municipal red tape in the permitting process.

"I will say when I saw the vote"—19-5 in favor of Faulconer over Alvarez, with Aguirre receiving no votes—"I was pretty surprised myself," Gascon said. "But it was a fair endorsement process."

Not everyone felt that way. 

Mateo Camarillo, a longtime Democratic civic activist, recent District 9 City Council candidate and the founder of LAPA, was equally surprised at the endorsement of Faulconer. When contacted by Spin last week, Camarillo was unaware that the group had met to endorse a candidate.

"The bylaws clearly state that we would support and endorse the best candidate that promotes the interest of the Latino community," he said, "and it's a far stretch to say that the person that you said got endorsed surpasses other candidates who've done a lot more than Mr. Faulconer, who just found out that we're Hispanic in San Diego."

Camarillo later acknowledged that he hadn't attended a LAPA meeting this year until the Oct. 1 forum, and Chavez Harmes said the board made a special exception to the group's "member in good standing" rules to permit Camarillo to vote. Camarillo initially said he hadn't received LAPA's public notice of the Oct. 15 endorsement meeting but later noted that the group has an out-of-date email address for him.

The lesson here, these LAPA board members say, is don't assume people will vote the same way simply because of their skin color or orientation or political persuasion.

"For years, certain candidates wouldn't even approach us for an endorsement," Cervantes said. "They'd think, Why waste our time with a Latino group when I'm not Latino?" 

But this is a group that endorsed dethroned former Mayor Bob Filner last time and backed Donna Frye in the past, as well as District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

"We're all professionals who are looking for the best candidate for San Diego going forward," Cervantes said. "Candidates don't get an automatic pass anymore just because they're Latino."

In the end, that's a good thing. No one deserves a free pass, whether Latino or the guy who thinks a community plan should be challenged even after the council has spoken. That's the beautiful mess we call democracy. 

Got a tip? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.

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