Nov. 25 2015 01:24 PM

Party chair Francine Busby weighs in voter rolls, heated races and a long shot for mayor

Dem Party spats? Par for the course, says Chairwoman Francine Busby
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb
If you get 15 Democrats in a room, you’ll get 20 opinions.

—Patrick Leahy

At the end of a freewheeling, 90-minute conversation last week with Francine Busby, Spin Cycle urged the chairwoman of the county’s Democratic Party to “keep swinging.”

“I try to keep people from swinging,” Busby said with a laugh.

As the 2016 election cycle begins to heat up, Busby once again finds herself in the crosshairs of some of the party’s more progressive ideologues. It’s a position she’s grown accustomed to.

“I believe in what I’m doing, and I know that not everybody has the same opinions,” Busby said. “But I do think it’s my job to try to keep everybody positive and moving forward. We’re doing the best we can to meet our mission. That’s why I do this. That’s my goal.”

From a surprise Democratic mayoral contender to stacking club memberships to inviting a monopoly to speak before party leaders, Busby addressed all this with her usual chipper aplomb.

The local party chairwoman since 2013, Busby oversees a political organization that continues to see its voting ranks swell. The latest figures from the San Diego Registrar of Voters back that up, with Democrats leading Republicans by more than 23,000 registered voters countywide.

“Every month we’re registering 1,000, if not more, Democrats than Republicans right now,” Busby said.

While this voter advantage would seem like good news—Busby likes to boast that 64 percent of endorsed candidates won last year—losses in local city council races and the big-ticket mayoral battle from which Republican Kevin Faulconer emerged victorious raised serious questions about the party’s ability to drive voters to the polls.

This year, Busby has witnessed the leading Democratic hopefuls—San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria and state Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins— shy away from a Faulconer challenge in 2016 with mixed results.

Gloria is considered a shoe-in to succeed termed-out Atkins, who has chosen an intra-party scuffle with state Sen. Marty Block as her next run.

Busby is perpetually upbeat, but Spin could hear her wheels grinding on mention of the Atkins/Block race. “Do I have any thoughts as party chair?” she said with a laugh. “It would be better if we weren’t seeing two of our most popular and accomplished legislators running in the same race. But the good news is one way or the other, we will have a very accomplished and experienced candidate running and winning that seat.”

Still, Busby expressed hope that “there’s a way that they will work this out” prior to endorsement caucuses in January.

That race led to a discussion about recent efforts by supporters of Atkins to pay for memberships to various political clubs in San Diego in hopes of gaining their endorsement. Several clubs have reported returning those checks, but Busby shrugged off the episode as politics as usual.

She recounted how a Democratic club in North County had emerged back in the day when she ran for Congress that “never met one time,” had “13 members from one family” and wound up endorsing another family member.

“So people are claiming that this has never happened? It happens all the time.”

Busby did note, however, that in this “particular instance with those checks, it really rubbed people wrong, and they were very vocal, and they let Toni know that they were very unhappy about it. The only difference is they went to the press.”

Busby said so far this year she has already dealt with “nine different clubs with nine different issues,” from questionable agenda noticing to quorum debates. Most of the “hubbub,” as she described it, could be attributed to “new leadership” within the clubs, over which she said she has no direct control.

“They’re autonomous,” she said. “They have their own leadership, their own boards and they make their own rules. We’ve done everything possible to make sure they have clear, accountable and fair processes in place. My job is really educating clubs to assure their processes are transparent. It’s not to our benefit to get in fights with our clubs. We want them to grow. They are our base.”

Busby also felt some pushback recently when she invited a representative of utility giant Sempra Energy to speak at a Central Committee meeting on the controversial issue of net metering. Environmentalists argue that changes the company is seeking from the state Public Utilities Commission will cripple solar-power adoption in the state and efforts to combat climate change.

Busby acknowledged that SDG&E, a Sempra subsidiary, was a sponsor of the party’s recent convention in Escondido and has in the past contributed to the Democrats’ annual Roosevelt Dinner. But she said environmentalists were also well represented at the Central Committee meeting.

“This was a relevant issue,” she said. “It will impact every single person who turns on a light in San Diego, and it’s an issue that people feel passionate about. We had a very vigorous, civil and informative debate, and people went away knowing more but also having more questions. It’s what we do.”

Added Busby: “I think it’s important to establish relationships. If we want to work together toward a better San Diego, we need to be informed and communicating. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything.”

Asked about the chance of a competitive mayor’s race in 2016, Busby said “there are still other people who are considering getting into the race,” but she did have positive things to say about the recent surprise announcement from Ocean Beach Town Council President Gretchen Newsom.

“I admire her for her courage and her decision to do that,” Busby said. “I really like Gretchen, and I know she would be a really strong standard bearer for us in a very challenging race.”

Busby’s term runs through next year, and she said she’s “not really sure” if she’ll seek the position again in 2017. “I believe in what we do,” she said. “We as Democrats have differences of opinion, but this job is about bringing people together and to remember that we have so much more in common than we have that’s different. I really believe that.”


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