After progressive former Mayor Bob Filner’s scandal-driven resignation on Aug. 23, 2013, conservatives seized the day. Besting Democrats in two City Council contests, the Republican establishment also installed former Councilmember Kevin Faulconer in the mayor’s seat.
In comparison to the ostensibly well-oiled conservative machine, Democrats and progressives looked disorganized, even petty, as they bickered over whom to endorse for mayor. To the chagrin of Assemblymember and former labor leader Lorena Gonzalez, local unions rebuffed moderate hopeful Nathan Fletcher, embracing progressive City Councilmember David Alvarez.
After decades of political control, the Republican establishment, backed by a powerful and entrenched business community, lost its grip on the city for only a little over a year. While Alvarez had a surprisingly strong showing, the city’s nascent progressive movement seemed crushed by his loss.
Headed into the 2016 election cycle, progressives have licked their wounds and claim they’re ready to fight. However, it’s unclear how much fight lefties have in them. With the June primary elections already heating up, a Democratic challenger for mayor has yet to emerge.
“I am concerned,” said Francine Busby, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party. “We are talking with people. I’m determined to have a Democrat on the ballot, but we do understand the demands on that candidate.”
The obvious choices to go up against Faulconer were Speaker of the Assembly Toni Atkins or City Councilmember Todd Gloria, both of whom decided to run in other races.
Many, including Busby, blame the reluctance to challenge the mayor on the city’s election system, where a candidate can win outright in a primary race if he or she receives the majority of votes. This system has often favored incumbents, especially conservatives, whose base is more likely to dominate low-turnout primary elections.
While on the City Council, Faulconer never faced a November general election. Similarly, former Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders also secured all his victories early in primary races.
Busby says this undermines democracy in the city because general elections usually see significantly higher turnouts. She and others have said efforts are afoot to place a reform measure on the 2016 ballot.
“What we need to do is change the city’s charter,” she said. “This is a disservice to the people of San Diego, and it creates a difficult changeling election dynamic for anybody ever running against an incumbent.”
However, not everyone’s buying this excuse. Some see the left as unorganized, populated with factions that care more about specific causes than practical election strategy.
“The fact that they do not have a candidate for mayor is a party disgrace,” said Carl Luna, professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College.
“On policy, they’re trying to advance things, but until you get friendly policy makers, it’s very difficult,” he added. “They can’t speak with the same sort of unified voice in the Democratic-progressive alliance that you see with the Chamber of Commerce and the business alliance.”
There’s more than just the mayor’s race at stake next year. Democrats now control a five-four majority on the City Council, but that could quickly change.
While most seats are expected to retain party affiliation, District 1, a swing seat now controlled by Sherri Lightner, looks up for grabs. The contest is between Republican businessman Ray Ellis and Democrats Barbara Bry and Joe LaCava. A win for a conservative could give Faulconer the votes on the council to make significant policy changes.
Equally important is the City Attorney’s race, a position seen as a powerful counterbalance to the city’s strong-mayor system.
Democrats Gil Cabrera, Rafael Castellanos and Mara Elliott will duke it out in the primary, hoping Republican candidate Robert Hickey doesn’t grab the requisite 51 percent of votes and end the contest before it can get to November.
While these pivotal races provide progressives a chance to show their strength, many on the left are taking a longer view.
“In the last 10 years, there’s really been a switch in terms of voter registration and the sentiment of everyday San Diegans,” said Colin Parent, co-founder of the San Diego Leadership Alliance. “What we don’t have is the infrastructure from progressives to really capitalize on that shift of the voters.”
As of August, the city of San Diego had about 600,000 people registered to vote. Of those, 39 percent were Democrats, 26 percent Republican and 29 percent declined to state. It’s that last category of roughly one third of voters that has grown over the last decade while Republicans have seen declining enrollment.
However, low turnout has plagued progressives, whose candidates, according to critics, have often had a hard time generating real excitement among voters.
“The fact that you can’t ask the average San Diegan, ‘Who do you think is the Democrat in town? Who helps to lead the town?’ is significant,” Luna said.
“Republicans have a shrinking base, but they can get out the vote,” he added. “They can fund their candidates. They can keep their message pure while the Democrats squabble over each other.”
That’s changing, but it’s not going to happen overnight, said Parent, whose sixyear-old organization has been training young progressives eager to get involved in local politics.
“We need to develop a deeper bench of progressives across sectors in San Diego,” he said. “Solving that is going to take some time.
“You need people who are connected earlier in their careers so they can develop into those people who can fill those leadership rolls later on,” he added. “It is true that San Diego has been run by conservative business interests for a long time, and they have that infrastructure that gives them a lot of influence.”
Thirty-two-year-old Sean Elo graduated from the 10-week San Diego Leadership Alliance program last June. Having graduated from law school, he now works as the director of campaigns and policy for Mid-City Community Advocacy Network. He said many of his peers have rooted themselves in community activism, waiting for the right opportunity to burst onto the political scene.
“If the Republican Party and the right of San Diego thinks that not having a mayoral candidate right now means that the left isn’t active and fired up and really engaged and ready to make a difference here, they’re making a huge mistake,” he said.