On Saturday, May 12, about three weeks before the City Council was scheduled to make a final decision on banning Wal-Mart Supercenters in San Diego, a group of progressive activists met in a house on a suburban Clairemont street to discuss strategy on a number of city issues. Around a long, wooden kitchen table were City Councilmember Donna Frye, City Attorney Mike Aguirre and representatives of labor and the environmental community.
Near the end of the meeting, Frye, who'd already voted for a Wal-Mart ban once, told the group-her friends and the core of her constituency-that she had serious doubts about whether a ban was the most effective way to keep the gigantic retail stores out of the city. Adding to the complexity of the matter, in Frye's view, was the looming 2008 election for four open City Council seats. That a referendum on a Wal-Mart ban would be included on the ballot was a foregone conclusion.
Conventional wisdom would say a Wal-Mart referendum would draw conservative voters to the polls, weakening the chances of electing progressives to swing City Council Districts 1 (La Jolla, University City) and 7 (College Area). Frye says she doesn't want voters choosing candidates based on their views of Wal-Mart. Nor did she want the Wal-Mart matter pushing into the shadows something she views as far more important-a scheduled ballot measure on fundamental changes to the way City Hall functions, including crucial checks and balances between the various branches of government.
Frye said she was asked during and after that meeting to stick with her vote for the ban, and she did. Temporarily. She became one of five votes on June 4 that made the ban law, but she also knew she had more time to think it over because Mayor Jerry Sanders would certainly veto the legislation, setting up a vote to override the veto. Sanders would require five of the eight votes to support his veto, so he'd need to steal one from among those who voted for the ban.
Frye told CityBeat this week that she continued to 'grind' over the decision until making up her mind over the weekend leading up the July 10 override vote. On July 9, she talked to her friends in the labor and small-business communities and broke the news that she planned to support the veto. Mind you, these are people with whom she has personal ties. The small-business lobby in San Diego is currently led by Diana Spyridonidis, the CEO of the San Diego Business Improvement District Council, which supported the ban, and the wife of Kevin Smith, a Frye policy advisor and press secretary. And the labor lobby is led by Lorena Gonzalez, a friend and political ally to Frye and sister to Marco Gonzalez, who has been Frye's lawyer, friend and ally on water-quality issues.
Frye followed through on her decision, killing the ban and handing a victory to Sanders and Wal-Mart and leaving no lingering doubt about her status as a headstrong policymaker. She's confident, her constituents say, that she knows what's best for the progressive movement, even when the progressive movement is begging her to go in a different direction.
Yes, that's true, Frye responds, but she doesn't consciously separate the progressive movement from the public at large; they're not mutually exclusive. Experience told her, she said, that the progressives in this case weren't going to get what they wanted by going about it the way they wanted to go about it.
'I know when there's going to be a train wreck,' Frye said.
But Frye's decision has caused resentment among some progressives. They wanted the fight-not just to take Wal-Mart on, but also to help build a political movement. Some will forgive her because she'll be there for them more often than not, but others are furious and feeling betrayed by their own leader.
Not long ago-the peak was during Frye's remarkable write-in candidacy for mayor in 2004-she enjoyed an almost cult-leader-like status among San Diegans who yearned for her brand of straight-talk populism.
Lorena Gonzalez, political director for the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, was among those who thought Frye was different-not really a politician. 'I'll still probably like a lot of the stuff Donna does, but I'll never feel that same ‘She's something special.' It's very disappointing.' The betrayal was so profound that, for Gonzalez, and likely others in the labor-environmental movement, 'the magic is gone.' Gonzalez said Frye told her she 'would never vote for Wal-Mart.'
Time will tell if Frye's legacy as this era's progressive standard-bearer is forever tainted.
'They're very angry at me, and I certainly understand their anger, and I certainly acknowledge their anger,' Frye said, but 'if you see your friends standing in the way of a big truck coming down the road, you push them out of the way. I did not see that this was going to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish.'
Problem is, none of these people wanted to be pushed out of the way, and the notion that they don't know what they're doing is insulting to them. They wanted the chance to stop that truck themselves. And it wasn't just the labor activists and the environmentalists; it was also small-business owners throughout the city and folks who favor a return to pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods over car-dominated sprawl. They all relished the idea of an epic battle against Wal-Mart, everyone's favorite Goliath.
'We expected it to go to a ballot, and we expected to have our fight. Essentially, now that fight's been taken away from us,' Spyridonidis said. 'All we had left was to fight this, and now we can't even do that.'
Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, echoed the sentiment: 'I understand Donna's rationale, and I appreciate how difficult a fight this would be with Wal-Mart on the ballot. I think a lot of the progressive coalition... were gearing up fot the fight and, essentially, standing up for local communities.'
But Frye reasoned that the fight these folks were going to get was going to be the wrong fight. That truck Frye saw coming 'round the bend was full of Wal-Mart money, which would have been spent on distorting the issue to confuse voters into thinking it was as simple as whether or not the elitists on the City Council had the right to deny consumers a cheaper loaf of bread.
The reality, of course, is far more complex. Yes, unionized grocery workers fear competition from Wal-Mart's non-union jobs. But healthcare activists also decry Wal-Mart's horrendous employee benefits, which sometimes force workers into government programs for care. Others worry that more big-box stores will pull shoppers away from independent businesses that create the commercial cores San Diego says it wants for its communities. Still others cringe at the thought of vast acreage of parking spaces fronting another colossal eyesore of a building, which, if Wal-Mart ever abandoned, would be too big for just about any other use. Such a high concentration of cars in one place creates air-quality problems, environmentalists argue, not to mention traffic congestion. And then there's the broader issue: Wal-Mart demands prices lower than many American manufacturers can meet, so the giant retailer has gone to China, where low labor and environmental standards make rock-bottom prices possible, which in turn has helped destroy the American manufacturing base, leading to a service economy filled with lower-wage jobs.
Gonzalez believes an anti-Wal-Mart coalition could have brought all those issues to the debate, and she says polling and focus-group data suggest a referendum wouldn't have been a leisurely stroll through the park.
But Frye was certain that Wal-Mart's oversimplified message, which would assuredly have been parroted regularly in Union-Tribune editorials, would have won the day: 'You will not win, in my opinion, the debate that is framed: Do you think somebody has the right to tell you where to shop?'
And, Frye added, even with a ban, which would have forbidden only supercenters larger than 90,000 square feet, what's to stop Wal-Mart from proposing a building that's 89,000 square feet?
All that, coupled with the specter of Wal-Mart-dominated City Council elections and an overlooked City Charter ballot measure-which could include such items as expanded power for the mayor, an additional council seat and a change to the way the important city auditor position is filled-made it too high a risk. So instead, she's proposing to require retailers desiring supercenters in San Diego to be subject to a higher level of bureaucratic scrutiny and, more importantly, to pay for an independent analysis of a supercenter's regional economic impact.
That one's a big deal for Frye, not only because it would study potential adverse impacts on small businesses but also because it would provide more and possibly better data for myriad land-use and budgetary planning processes, which, theoretically, would lead to better policy decisions.
And it could also help kill a supercenter project. Frye noted that state-mandated environmental-impact reports (EIR) that accompany development proposals often cop to unavoidable unpleasant consequences for air or water quality, for example. But those EIRs will also include a 'statement of overriding considerations,' Frye said, that 'say something like, ‘It will create jobs, and the economic benefit is so good that it overrides the environmental impacts.' But you never get the analysis.
'It might end up keeping them out of communities. It might not,' she added. 'But, either way, at least we will have something that we don't have now, which is an analysis of what the impacts will be.'
Gonzalez countered, 'If you ask environmentalists, do you want to fight things project by project or do you want a law that establishes some parameters, you always want the law.... You go for it. And if that doesn't work, you fight place by place by place.'
Frye, whose tenure on the City Council will be ended by term limits after 2009, says she has no current plans to run for any other office. If she does, getting labor support might be more difficult now.
'Given the fact that the grocery workers are the largest union in San Diego County, it would be tough. She would have to get their support,' Gonzalez said.
Frye is sometimes thought of as the mother of the progressive movement in San Diego. Some members of that movement worry that she just delivered it a severe body blow. For her part, Frye has trouble responding to that; she doesn't divide groups up in her head. 'My brain is not a pie,' she said, adding that she's confident she did the right thing for everyone, considering both the policies and the politics.
And, to the chagrin of some of those around her, she says she doesn't always feel the need to take a vote or work things out. 'This was my decision. It wasn't people helping me reach it; in fact, people were advising me otherwise,' she said. 'I was fairly prepared for a lot of people to be very unhappy about my decision.'
Four of those people are members of the City Council. Tony Young and Ben Hueso, who represent two lower-income districts and fear Wal-Mart Supercenters are coming their way, were particularly passionate about the issue. Young was visibly angry after Frye made her announcement last Tuesday.
In an e-mail, Toni Atkins said that Frye's move 'reflected defeat for the issues that had been raised. Not sure how that helps the overall cause. I consider this a defeat for working-class Americans whether people realize it or not.' Atkins called the situation 'shameful.'
'I thought that we had a pretty good plan for dealing with these supercenters with the ban,' said City Council President Scott Peters. 'These are terrible for neighborhoods, and it's better to say we're just going to ban them straight out, so everyone knows where we're coming from, rather than go through some more complicated, cumbersome case-by-case analysis.'
Cory Briggs, a San Diego environmental attorney who's fought Wal-Mart in court elsewhere, worries that site-specific Wal-Mart votes would provide opportunities for some council members to change their votes. Atkins, Young, Hueso and Peters voted for the ban, while Councilmembers Jim Madaffer, Brian Maienschein and Kevin Faulconer voted against it. Briggs said he can foresee politics causing Atkins and Peters-who will be termed out of office after this year and perhaps running for something else-to switch their votes, as long as the supercenters are proposed for someone else's district.
'The precedent for approving projects with significant environmental impacts, where the standard has just been ignored for so long-I don't have confidence that when this one comes up in front of the City Council, that they're going to vote the right way,' Briggs said.
But for that to happen, Atkins and Peters would have to dramatically change their tune.
'I still don't think there will ever be a supercenter in San Diego,' Peters said, 'because when the proposal comes to a neighborhood, people are going to recognize what the devastating impacts are, and even in a case-by-case process, it's never going to get through the council.'
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