Sept. 3 2014 09:24 AM

Chamber of Commerce, led by the former mayor, launches all-out campaign to regain control of San Diego

Darth Sanders
Darth Sanders
Photo illustration by Lindsey Voltoline

In July, we used our Comic-Con issue to have some fun with San Diego's political figures by matching them up with characters from Star Wars. We cast San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO and former Mayor Jerry Sanders as Darth Vader and U-T San Diego publisher Doug Manchester as the Emperor. It was meant as a wee bit of whimsy, but we really seemed to have reached the core of the matter—or the center of the Death Star.

Manchester's newspaper published a Q&A with Sanders last Friday, the day after Sanders' Chamber of Commerce announced that it was launching a new offensive to turn San Diego into the most business-friendly region in California. In the Q&A, Sanders laid out the strategy for a war that's already begun: partner with conservative, business-oriented political action committees and spend as much money as possible getting Republicans elected to the San Diego City Council and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

The endgame is to return control of San Diego to the region's business-industrial-Republican empire.

By the end of Sanders' term in the Mayor's office, in 2012, the only reliable allies he had on the City Council were Republicans Kevin Faulconer and Lorie Zapf and rogue Democrat Tony Young (then-Councilmember Carl DeMaio couldn't be considered a Sanders ally). As he began his new gig with the chamber, he lost Young to resignation (replaced by the liberal Myrtle Cole), a new ninth council district went to the Democrats and Sanders himself was replaced by ultra-liberal Mayor Bob Filner, but he gained two new allies in Republicans Mark Kersey and Scott Sherman. The Democrats held a 5-4 advantage on the council and occupied the Mayor's office, and when Filner imploded, City Council President Todd Gloria, the Democrats' emboldened new leader, took control of the city and rode an impressive wave of popularity among both liberals and moderates. Gloria laid out a bold legislative agenda for a newly progressive San Diego.

The Democrats lost the Mayor's office when Faulconer beat Councilmember David Alvarez, but they replaced Faulconer on the council with a Democrat, Ed Harris, and they've used their temporary 6-3, veto-proof supermajority to enact a series of progressive policies, such as a beefed-up fee on developers for affordable housing, a Barrio Logan Community Plan update that was hailed as a win for neighborhood residents and the big one—a higher minimum wage.

But the Empire struck back. Using well-funded direct-democracy campaigns, Darth Sanders and friends defeated the Barrio Logan plan and the affordable-housing fee, and they fought off an electoral challenge to key henchwoman Zapf and appear primed to take one of the Democrats' council seats in November as they put everything they have behind Republican Chris Cate. The intense skirmish right now is over their attempt to repeal the minimum-wage increase. Then they'll turn their big guns on Gloria's plan for San Diego to do its part in the fight against climate change.

If Cate wins, they'll have enough votes next year to defeat progressive policies by sustaining Faulconer's vetoes. Then they'll set their sights on District 1, where Democratic Councilmember Sherri Lightner will be termed out in 2016. If they take that seat, San Diego's powerful business interests will occupy the Mayor's office and have control of the City Council and the legislative agenda.

So, the minimum-wage battle being fought in front of San Diego's grocery stores is a microcosm of a larger war for the city's soul.

Sanders and the chamber (along with representatives of the building and restaurant industries, among others) believe it's better for business if the lowest-earning San Diegans don't get a raise and industry lobbyists walk hand-in-hand with policymakers through the halls of power. If regulation costs business any amount of money, they'll spend as much as they can on a propaganda campaign to convince you that it's a job-killer—whether it's a legally required fee to close a housing-affordability gap that they helped create, or cleaner air in asthma-plagued Barrio Logan, or a forward-thinking plan to help slow the rate of climate change, or a modest increase in the minimum wage in a city with a very high cost of living.

San Diego is at a crossroads. Sanders and his friends want San Diego to go backward because they believe that's what's best for them. If you want to go another direction, volunteer for Carol Kim in her campaign against Cate and be skeptical of anything Darth Sanders or Emperor Manchester (though his newspaper) say.

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