"I want to make lemonade out of the lemons that were dealt to me."
Oblivious to most sun-kissed Balboa Park patrons last Saturday afternoon, a gathering of political dreamers clustered in the iconic El Centro Cultural de la Raza for a forum appropriately titled, "What the Heck Just Happened? And What Now?"
For all cave dwellers, Republican Kevin Faulconer is now mayor of San Diego—congrats to him, enjoy the spotlight, etc. That reality was abundantly clear on the faces of the 60 or so attendees of the forum organized by the Chicano Democratic Association.
Indeed, there was some interesting analysis of the recent special election offered by some sharp political minds, but Spin Cycle also wanted to see how City Councilmember David Alvarez, Faulconer's narrowly defeated mayoral opponent, was handling the loss. Whispers among some Democrats suggested that he had taken defeat hard.
Casually dressed and unshaven, Alvarez told the audience that he'd spent that morning knocking on doors in support of District 2 City Council candidate Sarah Boot, whose team did the same for him during his mayoral run.
Prior to the mayor's race, such canvassing might not have engendered much cachet for Boot.
"When I first got into the race," Alvarez told the crowd, "the first poll, there was 4 percent of the people in the entire city of San Diego who knew who I was—4 percent of the people!"
A poll he saw a month ago, Alvarez added, put that number at 92 percent of the electorate. "I hope that you all see this experience as I do," he said. "It was such a positive, well-run campaign."
Alvarez drew laughs when he talked about attending Faulconer's swanky inaugural gala on the waterfront after the election. "I was talking to one of my colleagues on the council who's a Republican, and he said that last week they were"—he paused— "you know, they were really scared, and he thought that maybe we were going to pull it off."
Alvarez seemed to bristle a little when recounting the head-pat notion of his potential political trajectory. "Yeah, of course they say, David, you've got a bright future.' But I've always said that politics is not about an individual. It's about a movement and what you believe in," he said.
On that front, those assembled seemed in agreement. They particularly got a kick when Alvarez proclaimed unequivocally, "San Diego has definitely changed. I believe with no doubt in my mind that after the mayoralship of Kevin Faulconer, Democrats will be in control of the city for a long time to come."
But, he added, much work lies ahead. Noting the baffling predilection of San Diego's Democratic voters who engage during presidential election years but wander away during off-year races, Alvarez said the presumption that campaign mailers and TV ads will drive Democrats to the polls just doesn't hold water.
"They have jobs. They take kids to school. They work sometimes multiple jobs," he said. "So it's a lot more challenging to engage than we'd like, but we were able to do some."
Contrary to some local punditry, Latinos did vote in impressive numbers, despite the challenge of a shortened election cycle, Alvarez campaign manager Gabriel Solmer told the audience. The drop off in voters, she suggested, came from the more white precincts.
Her subtle note was turned to a blast by an Alvarez volunteer in the audience who called it a "strategic mistake" not to focus on voters north of Interstate 8, where Faulconer soared. "We focus too much on putting a lot of blame on the Latinos not turning out," he said. "No, the whites didn't turn out north of 8 that turned out on Nov. 19."
He said he talked to a lot of people who seemed put off by the lack of participation from certain Democratic leaders—he mentioned Nathan Fletcher, Juan Vargas and Lorena Gonzalez. "They expressed that if they're not interested, I'm not going to bother with it," he said.
San Diego State University political science professor Isidro Ortiz, a panelist at the forum, was the only participant to touch on the subject, noting that "the Democratic elite in San Diego were a house divided amongst themselves. This was evident before the election and increasingly clear during the election . There was no solidarity, not much unity. How can you expect to win an election when you have one group of Democrats supporting one candidate and others endorsing another. It just doesn't work."
Ortiz described the Republican analysis of the election— "better candidate, better team, more compelling message"—as little more than "self-congratulatory." But he said voters' growing preference for mail ballots— where the local Republican apparatus shines—should be a focus going forward.
Carmen Lopez, outreach coordinator for the county Registrar of Voters, echoed that sentiment, noting that 85 percent of new U.S. citizens locally now register to vote by mail. Unfortunately, "hundreds" of ballots are tossed out when they arrive late or lack a signature.
"These are people who come from 26 different Spanish-speaking countries where vote-by-mail does not exist," Lopez said. She suggested that increased voter education, moving early voting from Saturday to Sunday—"A lot of Latino families work six days a week," she said—and even early ballot drop-off opportunities at polling places would help boost turnout.
Forum participants emphasized in the end that the road to a progressive political future for San Diego will not be an easy ride, but it will come.
As Alvarez put it: "How the city really has not invested in a lot of our communities, how people have been left behind—all of that was brought to the forefront of this campaign. It was centered on that so much so that the other candidate decided to take on the same mantra, right? He talked about the same exact things."