From a distance, the political signs planted in front of the headquarters of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council bristle like quills on an angry porcupine. Each one demands a vote, whether for Marty Block for state
Assembly, for Marti Emerald for City Council, or for something else. But closer inspection, especially when CityBeat visited three days after the election, reveals that the signs have begun to lean and sag. Some are faded from weeks in the sun; others have only one pole in the ground. But their purpose is achieved: The election is over, and the Labor Council, for most intents and purposes, won.
The Labor Council is the political arm of a coalition of 128 unions in San Diego and Imperial counties. With the decline of the environmental movement in the region, they are, along with the county Democratic Party, the strongest single force for progressive policies in the region. But in recent years, the movement has taken a beating: Unions were an integral part of the pension scandal that has dogged the city; labor backed two City Council members who were disgraced and forced to resign in a separate scandal. All in all, the mid-2000s were a bad time.
But this election cycle, a new team has taken the reins of the Labor Council and, aided by a political wind that favored the Democrats, Secretary-Treasurer Lorena Gonzalez and her political director, Evan McLaughlin, emerged victorious on dozens of initiatives and races to fill political positions. Locally, they helped fill the three open City Council seats with Democrats, gaining one seat for the Dems.
When CityBeat met with them, McLaughlin and Gonzalez bore some resemblance to their signs out front: clear in their message, but pale and a bit worn from the extended election season—and just as successful. Gonzalez is a lifelong San Diegan and former environmental attorney who cut her political teeth working for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante before a failed 2006 bid to represent District 2 on the City Council. She narrowly lost to Republican Kevin Faulconer, but showed enough promise that then-labor leader Jerry Butkiewicz picked her as his political director. When Butkiewicz resigned in 2007, he convinced the board to make Gonzalez his replacement. She, in turn, picked McLaughlin, then a politics reporter with voiceofsandiego.org, to take her spot.
Faced with a wide-open election at the start of the 2008 election season, Gonzalez and McLaughlin had to make some decisions on where best to place their resources.
“All of our plans were laid early, and we were very disciplined in keeping them there,” Gonzalez said. “Those of us on the progressive side aren't known for being very disciplined, and we made some decisions to be disciplined. Moving forward, you're going to see that a lot more in labor.”
They decided to focus on the 78th Assembly District, since it was an open seat that had been in Democratic hands before it was taken by Republican Shirley Horton. That meant they could double-down their resources by taking advantage of the overlap with the City Council District 7, which represents the College Area. So they focused their efforts on TV reporter-cum-candidate Marti Emerald.
Emerald struggled out of the gate. Observers say she might not have been working hard enough and that she must have assumed her notoriety would carry her against the determined, but not widely known, April Boling. It didn't.
Emerald got herself in trouble when her opponents taped her saying she supported paying for trash collection and other impolitic ideas at a forum. She nearly lost the election in the primary, but won enough votes to hang in there.“That was a good wake-up call for us,” McLaughlin said at a recent forum held at the University of San Diego.
Emerald changed her political consultant to Richie Ross, a state-politics specialist who was working with the San Diego Democrats and Block, the Assembly candidate. Labor started investing heavily in get-out-the-vote operations in neighborhoods south of Interstate 8 to dovetail with the party's operations around San Diego State University.
“There were so many people down there—they were so excited to be talked to about anything,” McLaughlin said.
In the end, McLaughlin told CityBeat, they put in 16,000 volunteer hours just in District 7 after Labor Day, including 300 volunteers on Election Day. To put that in perspective, Sherri Lightner in District 1, who was considered to have an excellent volunteer operation, had 60 volunteers on her best day.
The message from labor to voters was clear: Obama-Block-Emerald. Vote the Democratic ticket. While turnout in District 7 was only marginally higher than it had been in 2004, the last election year, McLaughlin and Boling consultant Duane Dichiara both believe the proportion of Democrats was much higher because of the wave of Obama enthusiasm. But Labor made the most of that wave by running an Obama-like ground game to contact voters and get out the vote, a move that probably carried Emerald to victory (though Boling has conceded, there are 6,336 votes still to count as of this writing, and Emerald has a 450-vote lead.)
In District 1, McLaughlin said labor made a deliberate choice to stay out of the race until late. “They see labor very differently up there,” he said, referring to the more conservative District 1, which includes La Jolla, University City and Rancho Peñasquitos.
In point of fact, few people gave Lightner much of a chance to win. “Everyone thought [Republican Marshall] Merrifield would come out of the primary and then beat Lightner,” said Democratic consultant Chris Crotty. “Then, after Sherri won the primary, everyone thought [Republican Phil] Thalheimer would get all the Merrifield votes.”Lightner felt alone.
“We were not a priority race for the Labor Council, the Democratic Party or any of the progressive groups,” she said. “I found out recently we had been written off.”
But she did win the primary. And then she spent the summer going door-to-door and organizing phone banks out of her campaign offices. “She kept doing the things you have to do win,” said Lightner's campaign consultant, Jennifer Tierney.
When labor finally got into the race in October, it did so with both feet. Between the Labor Council and, separately, the firefighters and the hotel workers, unions spent $136,000 on mailings praising Lightner and attacking Thalheimer.
Nearly $100,000 worth of that spending came in the last two weeks of the campaign. Much of the Labor Council's mailings focused on attacking Thalheimer and emphasizing the positions he had flip-flopped on since he ran for the same job in 2004.
“We just wanted to remind people why they hadn't voted for him the last time,” McLaughlin said.
Lightner says she appreciated the volunteer help and the positive mailing paid for by the firefighters, but she's a little skeptical of how much the Labor Council's attack mail helped her. “I had people calling the campaign and asking why I'd gone negative,” she said. “I had to explain that I had no control over those mailers.”
When CityBeat first spoke to Tierney, she credited Lightner with running a well-organized campaign and having a strong volunteer effort for the win. But an hour later, she called back to give some credit to another force in this election: Obama.
“We won all the neighborhoods except Rancho Peñasquitos,” she said. “But we were plus-3,787 votes in north University City. That's the [USCD] area, so it was a lot of students coming out for Obama.”
By comparison, Lightner's next best neighborhood, her home base of La Jolla, was only plus-967 votes, according to Tierney's analysis.
Tierney gives labor more credit for helping Todd Gloria win, though, there again, she credits Gloria with running an extremely well-organized campaign. Still, the springtime endorsement of the firefighters union helped. “How do you build a 10-point win?” Tierney said, “You start with a foundation. In Todd's race, it started with endorsement by fire.”
Gloria's opponent, Stephen Whitburn, wouldn't speak directly about how much the firefighters meant, but at the USD forum, his consultant, Rose Kapolczynski, sure did. “We'd be out walking precincts, and we would be running into firefighters on the streets for Todd,” she said.
In the primary, the Labor Council split its District 3 endorsement between Whitburn, Gloria and John Hartley. But much to the surprise of the political establishment, the Labor Council eventually endorsed Gloria. Why would it devote resources to one of two progressive Democrats, both of whom would likely vote favorably on most issues?
“Whitburn had the second-worst endorsement interview of the whole election,” said McLaughlin, adding that only City Attorney Mike Aguirre's was worse. “He was nothing but ambition.”
McLaughlin said Whitburn promised labor whatever it wanted. He promised to be its greatest champion on the council. So, Gonzalez said, they tested him: Would he go against his strongest supporter, Donna Frye, when it came time to choose a council president? Whitburn balked, undermining himself in the meeting. Whitburn remembers events as Gonzalez did, but he maintains that the council-president question was a litmus test that cost him the endorsement.
With labor's endorsement in hand, Gloria got some $75,000 in mailers and signs, plus additional volunteers to feed into his door-knocking operation. So, did the Labor Council matter in this race?
“Stephen did have the endorsement of the Democratic Party,” Tierney said. “If the party and the Labor Council had lined up against us, it could have been a problem.”
Among this group of new City Council members, Gonzalez now has at least a four-year majority of council members who will be reliable progressive votes. But when there are disagreements, how much do the new members owe labor? Gonzalez doesn't see it in those terms.
“I have seven allies on the City Council—well, six-and-a-half,” she said.
That would be six Democrats plus the Republican Faulconer. Is Faulconer really half an ally?
“He's been with us on some issues, and he may again,” Gonzalez said. “And if not, well, he's got an election in two years, too.”
With all that influence, Gonzalez has the ability to shape city policy in profound ways, though she's not quite ready to say what those ways might be. “We're still regrouping after the election,” she said. “We need to get together and figure out what our agenda is. But it will be to help working families, and to make sure there are good jobs for all San Diegans.”
Donald Cohen, executive director of the Center for Policy Initiatives, a progressive think tank, believes a labor-influenced City Council will have enormous opportunities to alter the way the city does business in favor of helping working-class San Diegans. “There's enormous contracting the city does, a lot of contracting, and all of those create jobs—every one of them,” he said. “Every City Council meeting is chock full of decisions that create private-sector jobs.”
Cohen pointed out that the city has used its redevelopment authority to rebuild Downtown, but it hasn't used it effectively to alleviate poverty. With its new authority, the Labor Council will be in a position not just to influence votes on other people's proposals, but also to get council members to pay attention to problems that city government has ignored for years.
“Those aren't just platitudes about working families,” he said. “We're in a temporary downturn right now, but that's going to change. It's an enormous opportunity to set the policy for growth where the prosperity is shared.”