Sept. 2 2015 01:09 PM

San Diego Democrats are on a 2016 collision course

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and State Sen. Marty Block
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb

If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.

—H.L. Mencken

Now playing at the Mystery Café dinner theater in Bankers Hill's iconic Imperial House is a Roaring '20s whodunit titled Where There's a Will, There's A Wake! The theater website proclaims: “Unfortunately, someone has just whacked the head of the family…Eddie ‘Longlaces' Shoeleone! And you are personally invited to his wake!”

But last week, a political whodunit took center stage in the dark-draped theater space when a meeting of the San Diego County Young Democrats turned raucous over its agenda of friendly endorsements for the coming 2016 election cycle.

Originally scheduled for a Young Democrats friendly endorsement but then later pushed from the agenda to a later date, incumbent state Sen. Marty Block, whose district includes most of San Diego, said he flew down from Sacramento just for the meeting to make his case for support.

“I had my acceptance speech here for the friendly endorsement,” Block half-joked to the packed room of young political activists. “I am the incumbent, but apparently not friendly enough.”

Block then launched into an impassioned speech about focusing on upcoming battles with Republicans rather than “splitting the party because somebody wants to challenge…a sitting Democrat.”

A couple months ago, Block had a stock line when asked about rumors that termed-out state Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins was considering a challenge to his re-election plans. “She'd make a great state senator…in 2020!” he would say with his trademark toothy grin.

Well, the line is gone and so is the humor. Team Marty is convinced the Democratic primary fight between two local political heavyweights is on, and he's trying to lock up endorsements as quickly as he can while Atkins operatives do their best to slow down that process so Atkins can finish what they describe as her “Herculean” work as speaker by January.

“It does nobody any good to have a Democrat challenge an incumbent Democrat,” Block told the crowd, claiming that 22 of 25 members of the state Senate's Democratic Caucus that day had endorsed him “no matter who runs against me, Democrat or Republican. And more than that, they decided it was really important for them and activists like you to talk to any Democrat you might hear of who wants to take on a good Democratic incumbent.”

He added: “We've seen tonight how it splits people, splits the activists.”

Political consultant Laura Fink, who works part-time as a special assistant for Atkins, attended the meeting but did not specifically address the rumors that Atkins will challenge Block.

“I do understand the challenges that all of these discussions face, but the message that I bring from Toni Atkins tonight is that she has a laser-like focus on a particularly difficult legislative session. And the reason that it's difficult is that it's extraordinarily ambitious,” Fink told the activists, noting efforts to tackle a $6 billion annual transportation backlog, raise MediCal reimbursements and pass historic environmental legislation.

Atkins echoed that sentiment when Spin Cycle approached her Saturday before she hosted an employee wage-theft forum in Bankers Hill. When asked about a run against Block, she said, “You know, I'm not ready to talk about this. I've got two weeks of session left, and I'm getting stuff from every direction. At some point, I would love to sit down with you and talk about it—I'm not afraid to talk about it—but I want to focus on the next two weeks. We've just got a lot spinning.”

Mickey Kasparian, president of the influential San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, was also a panelist at the wage-theft forum. He seemed less concerned about an Atkins- Block battle (“It will work out,” he said) than he was about Democratic Rep. Scott Peters receiving a friendly endorsement that same night.

Incensed by Peters' June vote to give President Obama “fast track” trade authority, Kasparian said the search for a more labor-friendly Democratic challenger to Peters continues. “I think we're getting close,” he said. “That endorsement of Scott really sent me over the edge. That really pissed me off.”

Kasparian said Atkins, mean while, has not reached out for an endorsement in a 39th Senate District challenge of Block. “I mean, it may come,” he said. “Maybe when the session's over in the Assembly things may come a little clearer.”

Why the likely challenge? According to Atkins supporters, a primary bloodbath was avoided four years ago when Block told Atkins that he wanted to run for the Senate seat she had coveted for some time—her mentor, Christine Kehoe, held the seat previously— but would only hold the seat for one four-year term and then retire, opening the door for her run when she termed out in the Assembly in 2016.

“He changed his mind,” said a source with knowledge of the conversation.

With talk of leadership changes whirling about in Sacramento, it is indeed “a balancing act,” as Atkins spokesman John Casey told the Sacramento Bee last week for a story about a letter Atkins sent to fellow Democrats asking them to agree to an early January vote to choose a speaker replacement.

The best scenario, Atkins supporters say, would be for Block to stick to his earlier promise— his seeking early endorsements would suggest that's not going to happen. Otherwise, as one operative put it, “we're wasting upwards of $3 million” on an innerparty battle.

“Hopefully it works out,” Kasparian said, “but I mean, it could be a bloodbath. I'm hoping it's not. We don't need that shit, but it may.”

As far as politicians breaking a promise about their future plans, one Democratic insider put it this way: “I was not particularly surprised. He's like 90 percent of people in elective office who have a flexible relationship with that concept.”


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