David Alvarez, once displaced amid gentrification, wants a seat on the City Council. Photo by David Rolland.
David Alvarez was 18 when he found out he was going to be homeless. It could have been worse for his family—his four older brothers and his older sister had already moved out, so his parents had to worry only about themselves and their youngest. David ended up moving in with the family of a friend he'd known since preschool; his parents moved into his sister's house.
This was the late 1990s. The Alvarezes had been living in their Barrio Logan house for a generation, since 1976, when the family emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico. In their new country, David's dad, who'd been a guest farm laborer in the Bracero Program in the 1950s, was a janitor, and his mom worked in fast food. They managed to get by, the younger Alvarez says, until voters approved Prop. C in 1998, which made Petco Park possible and brought real-estate speculators into Barrio Logan. Amid the minor gold rush, the family's elderly landlord died, and their rental property was sold out from under them.
“Prices were going up,” Alvarez says. “We couldn't afford to live in this community, which was [my parents'] home for their whole life [while] living in America. And for me, it was the only place that I knew.”
With the help of their daughter, Alvarez's parents ended up buying a house in Southcrest. Their little boy, meanwhile, thrust suddenly into the trenches of real-world land-use politics, got involved.
Alvarez, a church-going Catholic, hooked on with the San Diego Organizing Project, a religion-based nonprofit that advocates for the working poor and focuses largely on affordable housing. “I never knew what the City Council did before then,” he says. “But the more I started to learn about how influential politics was, and government was, on people's lives, particularly in my community here, the more interest I gained in government.”
A decade later, Alvarez—29 years old and married, with a 6-month-old daughter—is still living in the neighborhood, works as an aide to state Sen. Denise Ducheny and is running for the vacant City Council District 8 seat. He's one of the no-names in a field of seven men that includes two surnames that are easily recognizable in this district. Felipe Hueso wants to assume his brother Ben's position on the council; Nick Inzunza Sr. wants the seat once occupied by his nephew Ralph, who preceded Ben Hueso. Conventional wisdom in political circles gives those two men a built-in advantage.
But, since he launched his campaign last year, Alvarez's total fund-raising—$45,334 as of mid-March, the last time disclosures were filed—has outpaced that of Hueso ($31,343), Inzunza ($21,465) and every other candidate. Alvarez decided against hiring a political consultant, which allows him to spend more money communicating directly with voters. He didn't even hire a campaign manager until about two months ago. Arguably, he's pulled in more influential endorsements, including the city's firefighters (Local 145) and white-collar workers (Municipal Employees Union), the county Democratic Party, the League of Conservation Voters, the local Sierra Club and Progressive San Diego (PSD), run by prominent environmentalists and advocates for low-income residents.
“He is one of the most progressive candidates to run for the seat in District 8—heck, for any office in the city—in a very long time,” says environmental attorney and PSD board member Cory Briggs, speaking for himself and not for the group. “If he wins, it'll be a long-overdue change of pace for the district to have a principled progressive who makes decisions based solely on what's best for his community, not on his political ambitions or ego.”
Political consultant John Dadian notes that District 8 is notoriously plagued by low voter turnout. He calls it a “grassroots” district that's up for grabs among Alvarez, Inzunza and Hueso. “I think any one of those three are credible,” Dadian says. “Obviously, Hueso and Inzunza are counting on the name.”
In the last regular primary election in District 8, in 2006, just 11,399 people voted. That's less than half of the voters drawn to most of the other districts during primaries in 2006 and 2008. With seven candidates in 2010, including a trio of presumed frontrunners, it's conceivable that the top finisher could get 3,000 votes or fewer. The top two vote getters move on to the general election in November.
That means making face-to-face connections with voters is key, and each candidate knows it. For his part, Alvarez is working for Ducheny part-time during the campaign and walks the district nearly every day. If he can effectively communicate his narrative—boy from low-income family gets involved in community activism and finds career success despite the odds—it “helps him tremendously,” Dadian says.
As young as he was when he became active in the affordable-housing battle, Alvarez started stirring the pot much earlier. His family's rental home was next to Master Plating, a metal shop that community leaders and environmentalists battled for years until it was shut down in 2002. Alvarez says that when he was 7 or 8 years old—around the same time the nonprofit Environmental Health Coalition began proposing buffer zones between residents and such industrial-type business—he grabbed the phonebook and started dialing the numbers of local TV stations to complain about the emissions spewing from the shop and into his yard.
“When the machine started running in the morning,” he says, “we could see the plume of smoke come out.”
Only Channel 12, the Spanish-language station, responded. “None of the English-speaking stations came out, of course—there was no interest in Barrio Logan back then,” Alvarez says. Channel 12 spread a sheet over a shed in the yard, left it there for a few days and then came back to show its viewers what had been deposited.
“I think that was my precursor to getting involved in organizing through campaigns,” Alvarez says, grinning.
A few years later, when he was in a sixth-grade GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program at what is now Perkins Elementary School, he believed his teacher was being prejudiced against the Latino kids—who were the majority at the school but the minority in the class—and preferential toward the white kids who were being bused in. So, he organized his classmates and went, en masse, to the principal. The teacher survived, but the kids at least won the chance to air their grievance in an open meeting.
Turns out, Alvarez wasn't able to shake the politics bug that had been with him since his time with SDOP. After graduating from San Diego State University with a psychology degree, he tried his hand at social work, but it didn't stick. “I knew I wanted to impact people's lives in some way, and I felt that social work was not the way I wanted to go, or at least not the best match for me,” he says.
So, Alvarez applied for, and was selected to, a 10-month Capital Fellows Program in Sacramento. While there, he worked on voting-rights issues and gained the experience that led to his job with Ducheny, for whom he's served as a liaison to many of the communities in District 8 and assisted his boss on issues such as education, prisons, the state budget, housing and workforce development.
Asked where he'd sit on the political spectrum of the current City Council, Alvarez said he likes Todd Gloria on infrastructure improvement in neglected communities, Donna Frye on environmental protection, Tony Young on small-business advocacy and, yes, Carl DeMaio on pursuing an agenda and getting things accomplished.
It's certainly no secret by now that Alvarez is ideologically progressive, but that was underscored during a run-in he had with Chris Reed, The San Diego Union-Tribune's libertarian blogger and editorial writer, when Alvarez and other candidates met with the newspaper's editorial board. He says Reed asked for the candidates' position on banning or allowing Walmart Supercenters in San Diego.
Alvarez knew Reed wasn't going to like his response: “I do not want more low-paying jobs in my district,” he says, adding that he'd like more jobs similar to those that three of his older brothers hold. They work at Continental Maritime, General Dynamics and the Port of San Diego. None is college-educated, yet each earns a good wage and receives decent benefits that provide healthcare for his family. “Those are the kind of jobs I want to see for my neighborhood.”
Alzarez's answer didn't help him. But it didn't hurt him, either. He didn't get the U-T's endorsement on Monday when the paper published its recommendations for the City Council races, but neither did any other candidate; the U-T decided to sit the District 8 primary out.
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