Nov. 26 2014 10:03 AM

Is a challenger to San Diego County Democratic Party chair in the wings?

Will Francine Busby face a party challenge? Steve Rivera says “it’s a real thing.”
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb
"Leadership is getting someone to do what they don't want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve."

—Tom Landry

And you thought campaign season was over. Ha!

During the last few weeks, rumblings of dissension have begun bubbling to the surface in the churning cauldron that is the San Diego County Democratic Party. Traditionally an amalgam of diverse opinions and agendas, party apparatchiks and leaders in the labor movement are hinting that a change at the top is needed as San Diego heads for the big political showdown come 2016, a presidential-election year when Democratic voters typically come out of hibernation and play.

Mickey Kasparian, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135 and head of the executive committee of the influential San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, launched one of the few public salvos at the helm of party Chair Francine Busby in late October when he tweeted that local Democrats "are releasing delegates [sic] personal information under @FrancineBusbySD's watch. #incompetent #embarrasing [sic] #timetogo."

Kasparian has made no bones about his displeasure with party darling Olga Diaz, whose recent loss in the Escondido's mayor race highlighted the schism between party leaders and labor, which decried her support for a 99-cent store and the controversial golf-course-development initiative, Proposition H, which went down to defeat.

That opposition drew the ire of some Latino activists, including CSU San Marcos communications lecturer Fredi Avalos, who, in an open letter published in La Prensa San Diego, chastised Kasparian with the refrain, "What side are you on?" 

"Your decision to spend hundreds of dollars in mailers attacking Olga Diaz who was running for mayor of Escondido was much more than just an ill-advised attack on a fellow Democrat and union supporter," Avalos wrote. "It was also a crushing blow to a city and a region riven by racial tension. Diaz was the first Latina mayoral candidate in Escondido in over 150 years."

Kasparian did not respond to several attempts to reach him for this column, but Richard Barrera, the Labor Council's top executive, said he's working to bridge the divide. "It's been unfortunate some of the things that have been written about Mickey and the actions that UFCW took in that race," Barrera told Spin. "We've had some very productive conversations with leaders in Escondido who want to figure out how we don't end up in this situation again.

"We can't allow one election to polarize people in an ongoing way, and I'm certainly working hard to try to build some bridges there, and I think we will."

Barrera said he, too, has heard talk about replacing Busby as chair, but he took a more diplomatic approach. "The relationship between the Labor Council and Democratic Party is an important relationship," he said. "But there's always going to be some tension in the relationship. We do politics because we're trying to achieve better public policy for working families.

"We certainly don't want situations where we feel like the party is moving in a direction that we don't believe is best for our workers," he continued. "We are looking for partners that are committed to our agenda, and we recognize that, at times, that will mean there will be difficult issues that we've got to confront."

For her part, Busby is taking no chances. At a recent Central Committee meeting, audience members found in their chairs a flyer extolling her accomplishments and urging members to give her another two-year term when the election occurs on Jan. 20.

Privately, some members found the self-promotion during a party meeting a bit over-the-top, but Busby said she offered a similar written rundown of her talents to members when she ran two years ago at the urging of outgoing party Chair Jess Durfee.

"There was nothing unique about that flyer," Busby said. "I'm asking people to vote for me and giving them the reasons why I think I am qualified to do the job."

Busby, a former Cardiff-by-the- Sea school-board member who's run unsuccessfully four times for Congress, said she's confident that her decade-long efforts on behalf of the party will earn her a second term as chair. Plus, she noted, no one has officially come forward to challenge her.

"I know that people's names are floating, but nobody has told me or anybody that I know that they've definitely decided to run," she said. "So, I still think it's a lot of talk."

Indeed, many names have been floated—from San Diego City Council-race losers Carol Kim and Sarah Boot to party icon Christine Kehoe—but Spin could find only one who would admit interest in challenging Busby for the volunteer job. 

"It's a real thing," longtime Democratic political operative Steve Rivera told Spin. San Diego's regional director for the California Democratic Party, Rivera said Democrats have a "tremendous opportunity to take advantage of the ramp-up for 2016. This is a party run mostly by volunteers, which always creates a sense of volatility. Unlike local Republicans, we don't have a Lincoln Club to rely on. Instead, we must rely on our critical mass."

Rivera said the young volunteers who participated in the recent election, particularly in the congressional campaign of Scott Peters, need to be folded into the party "in some capacity." His message seems clear: The party needs to do a better job of outreach.

The undercurrent here seems to be: How does a party that has boosted its presence in typically Republican turf like North County also attract youthful enthusiasm south of Interstate 8? Busby argues that outreach will continue to expand. 

But as one Busby supporter even noted privately, the party media strategy needs work.

"They're incoherent when it comes to communicating with the masses over social media," the backer said. "She's got what was coming to her by not engaging on that medium."

Busby seemed to concur: "I've met fundraising and campaigntraining goals and managed to get our website in Spanish. But, yes, you can expect me to improve my social-media presence."

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