In a special election for mayor during which less than half of registered voters cast a ballot, few were particularly surprised that Kevin Faulconer, a 47-year-old business-friendly Republican, won by more than five percentage points.
What perhaps was surprising was that Democrat David Alvarez, a little-known, 33-year-old, first-term City Council member with an unapologetically populist platform, made it out of a tough primary race and posed a serious challenge in the Feb. 11 general election.
Most analysts chalked up Alvarez's showing to union dough, which consisted of roughly $4.2 million of the $5.2 million that his campaign raised. That's about $1 million more than Faulconer scraped together.
But maybe, more subtly, the answer was Mickey Kasparian, the decade-long president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135. Roughly 80 percent of Alvarez's campaign funds came from outside of San Diego, contributions that Kasparian largely helped secure.
The union leader—who's also president of the executive board of the powerful San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, of which UFCW is the largest member—backed the young progressive, to the chagrin of many Democrats.
"I'm just going to be honest with you," the 55-year-old said in his thick New York accent. "I'm a competitive person, and I want to win, but I don't pick the safe guy, or the safe lady for that matter. I'm going to pick the person who's going to share values."
Despite losing the election, Alvarez's campaign helped awaken a grassroots movement that will benefit local Democrats and labor organizations going forward, Kasparian argues.
"We galvanized an entire community," he said. "There was a rallying cry. I've been doing this 18 years. I never saw walks and phone banks as there were for David. It was just overwhelming, and I think it's a lot to build on."
The only other Democrat who had a chance to win was Nathan Fletcher, a former Republican member of the state Assembly who turned independent in 2012 and then joined the Democrats in 2013. Fletcher's record hadn't been labor-friendly, but he had name recognition, stern promises and marketable good looks.
The abrupt special election—triggered by the resignation last fall of Mayor Bob Filner—caught many folks on their heels. But Fletcher was ready, announcing his intent to run just days before Filner agreed to step down. The Municipal Employees Association, which represents white-collar city workers, and the city firefighters' union lined up behind Fletcher. He also secured the endorsement of recently elected state Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, who had for the last five years been CEO of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council.
"While Nathan Fletcher is not as progressive as I am, I was confident he would help us move our city forward and not backward," Gonzalez said in an email. "I thought he'd make a good mayor and, most importantly, I thought he could win against a Republican."
A long list of union officials and Democrats declined to speak on the record for this story but had strong opinions on Kasparian and the labor council's decision to back Alvarez. To sum it up, many believed Fletcher was the smart money in a special election expected to draw low voter turnout.
If you ask Kasparian, he doesn't disagree with the premise, just the conclusion.
"We could have played it safe," he said. "We could have went with Nathan, and I just think we would have woken up every morning not knowing what he was going to do.
"Sometimes, we get out and we endorse the candidate who we think is more electable, and I'm tired of those days," he added. "I would sooner lose a race than back a candidate up who is going to let our members down."
Growing up in the Bronx in the '60s and '70s, Kasparian worked his way through high school at Key Food, a unionized grocery-store chain. Making well above minimum wage at $3.35 an hour with benefits, the teenager came to appreciate his situation.
"I knew people who were working in grocery stores making half what I was making, with no healthcare, and I thought, Man, they probably don't know what a difference it is," he said.
A few years after graduating from Mercy College in Westchester, N.Y., he and his wife moved to San Diego in the early '80s and started working at a Safeway as a meat cutter. He quickly became a union shop steward, and in 1996, he started working full time as an organizer for UFCW before moving up to political director.
"I became immediately thrust into not only organizing but politics," he said. "I got to get a good glimpse, a good look-see, at how important a role we played."
In 2003, he became president of UFCW Local 135, months before the union's Southern Californian chapters entered into a five-month-long labor dispute, which cost local grocery chains such as Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons roughly $2 billion. The union agreed to wage concessions for new hires but avoided significant healthcare cuts for roughly 70,000 workers. In 2007, the union was able to reverse the wage concessions, which had created a second-tier pay scale for workers hired after 2003.
"I always thought that that grocery strike changed the playing field for how labor was viewed," Kasparian said. "People sacrificed a lot, but they fought to protect their healthcare and union jobs. That began to put us in the conversation. That strike put us on the map."
In 2011, UFCW chapters in Southern California threatened to picket again after grocery-store employers repeated demands that workers agree to significant healthcare cuts. After eight months of negotiations, and with a proven willingness to strike, the union reached what it considered to be a favorable compromise with the employers.
Organized labor, in 2012, played a significant part in electing San Diego's first Democratic mayor in more than 20 years. Unfortunately for liberals, veteran Congressmember Filner turned out to be a disaster. The labor council never called for Filner's resignation amid mounting sexual-harassment allegations, and when Lorena Gonzalez became the first elected official to do so, it frustrated Kasparian and other labor leaders, who wanted proof of sexual harassment.
"Because, at that time, Lorena had just recently months before left the labor council, we just kind of felt at that time, if anyone understood due process it was her," Kasparian said.
After numerous women came forward with unsettling stories about the mayor's behavior, Gonzalez, Kasparian and others began looking for potential replacements. At first, several left-leaning politicians that Kasparian said he would've supported toyed with the idea of running, including state Assemblymember Toni Atkins and City Council President Todd Gloria.
It also looked as though former City Councilmember Carl DeMaio might run. With his reputation among liberals as a right-wing zealot, Democrats anxiously looked around for anyone who would match up well, and Fletcher seemed like a good fit.
If DeMaio had run, it would have been a "tougher choice," Kasparian said. "There might have been more of that electability conversation as opposed to the values and principles."
In early September, after Filner finally resigned, Gonzalez endorsed Fletcher on the same day that Alvarez announced his intention to run. The follow day, the labor council endorsed Alvarez.
"From the moment that he [Kasparian] got out of step with Lorena Gonzalez for endorsing Nathan, it was evident that it was going to split Democrats," said Democratic political strategist Chris Crotty. "I don't know whether or not Democrats would have split anyway, but it got a lot more fractious after Mickey took Lorena to task."
All of a sudden, folks started playing hardball.
A labor council interview with Fletcher was leaked to local Republican Party Chair Tony Krvaric, who used the document to slam the former Republican for his new-found support of unions. Gonzalez was furious. Kasparian wouldn't say if he knew who leaked the document.
"Our process should be a very private process," he said. "That absolutely should not have happened."
Members of the local Democratic Party central committee started receiving anonymous packets blasting Fletcher, which included, among other things, pictures of him with notable Republican characters, such as longtime George W. Bush crony Karl Rove.
"Whoever it was, it was clearly someone who was organized and understood that it would be very hard to ignore those mailings," said San Diego County Democrat Party Chair Francine Busby. "It was a very intense lobbying effort."
By the end of September, the party had narrowly voted to endorse Alvarez during a meeting in which Kasparian and dozens of other officials spoke.
"We had a very lively conversation between people who made the argument that Nathan was more electable and those who made the argument that David was the one to carry the Democratic, progressive banner," Busby said. "It was a difficult decision."
In November, Alvarez edged out Fletcher in the primary. But instead of tacking to the political center like the Faulconer campaign, Democrats and labor stuck to their progressive messaging and focused on low-income neighborhoods south of Interstate 8.
"We got criticized a little for not moving over to the middle," Kasparian said. "Kevin did a better job of moving over to the middle. But here's what David didn't do: He didn't change who he was; he didn't say something to get votes."
Alvarez's honest campaign helped build a new grassroots progressive coalition that will significantly benefit Democrats going forward, Busby said. "What occurred here is huge," she said. "We're going to be organizing in areas that were very energized by the Alvarez campaign. We had new leaders coming forward, and they are on fire."
The first test for that claim will be the San Diego City Council primary elections on June 3. The labor council and the Democratic Party have endorsed both Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Boot, who is challenging Republican City Councilmember Lorie Zapf in District 2, and education consultant Carol Kim, who's facing off with San Diego County Taxpayers Association Vice President Chris Cate, a Republican, and independent former San Diego Unified School District board member Mitz Lee in District 6. Democratic Party-endorsed Councilmembers Alvarez and Myrtle Cole are also up for reelection.
Despite losing a costly mayoral campaign, the labor council's credibility and ability to raise money for these races remains intact, Kasparian argued.
"A lot of it was spent on Filner," he said. "We still raised the money. A lot of it was spent with David, obviously. We'll still raise the money. Does it mean if we had 20 races now, we could do all 20? No, we couldn't.
"We gained more respect than we ever had before because we didn't change our principles," he added. "Quite frankly, I was getting messages from New York City, from Florida, from Ohio, from Wisconsin, of people saying, This has been some fight. You guys did amazing. You set an example for all of us. Now, we all need to do the same thing as you.'"
In November, there will be two mayoral races that could also be important to the labor council and Democrats. In Chula Vista, Mayor Cheryl Cox will term out, leaving open what many predict with be a hotly contested seat, and progressive Escondido City Councilmember Olga Diaz will challenge conservative incumbent Sam Abed for mayor.
Recently, Diaz voted to allow a 99 Cents Only store in Escondido, which would compete with nearby unionized grocery stores. When Kasparian found out about the vote, he blasted the liberal on Twitter:
"Escondido councilmember Olga Diaz betrays union grocery workers and overturns a Planning Commission ruling to allow a 99 Cents store downtown."
The labor council has said it has yet to make a decision on whether to endorse Diaz, but Kasparian isn't too excited about the race as of now.
"I don't have a lot of interest in it," he said. "It's about candidates who support workers."