- Photo by Jeff “Turbo” Corrigan
It's a Saturday morning in late March, and a group of 20- and 30-somethings is gathered in the conference room of a Mission Valley office building. For the next several hours, they’ll learn about political messaging: how to frame an issue, market it and combat opposition. Many of them have experience with this already; some are staffers for Democratic elected officials or employed by nonprofits that focus on left-leaning causes. A few have worked on campaigns. But there’s a handful of unlikely professions represented here; among them are a therapist, a couple of financial analysts, a Realtor and a guy who handles marketing for a tech start-up.
So, what’s a diverse group like this doing wading into the messy world of politics?
The group, 20 in all, are the 2012 fellows selected to participate in the New Leaders Council Institute, a five-month program that seeks to train the “progressive political entrepreneurs” of the future. San Diego’s is one of 20 chapters of the national New Leaders Council (NLC) and part of a local collaborative called the San Diego Leadership Alliance (SDLA). Attorney and SDLA co-director Johanna Schiavoni says the goal is to build a broad, diverse coalition of young progressives.
“It’s not just the electeds and staff and the political sector, or the nonprofit sector—they’re both critically important, certainly,” she says, “but [so is] developing allies in the business community and creating a space for people to come out in favor of equality and justice and issues they support.”Colin Parent, whose day job is director of external affairs for the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, and Evan McLaughlin—political director for the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council—founded SDLA in 2010. Parent now co-directs it with Schiavoni. His hope is to rebuild San Diego’s progressive infrastructure—or, to draw on a baseball metaphor: “build a deeper bench.”
“I think it’s pretty clear that the demographics and momentum means we’re going to have a progressive San Diego in the near future,” he says. “We already have a plurality of Democrat voters, and there’s nothing to indicate that the trends are going to be any different. It’s just a matter of time before there’s a progressive power structure that’s able to effectively dominate the political conversation.”
Dominating the political conversation—or even getting a word in edgewise—is something progressives haven’t been good at lately. But it’s not always been that way.Donald Cohen, who, until 2010, headed up the left-leaning San Diego think tank Center on Policy Initiatives, calls 2001 and 2002 the “zenith” for progressives—Democrat Donna Frye won the District 6 seat in a 2001 special election, and, the following year, Michael Zucchet, also a Democrat, took over what had been a Republican-held seat for more than two decades. With Zucchet’s election, Democrats held a two-thirds majority of seats on the San Diego City Council, largely the result of the move from citywide elections to district-only election.
“District elections were a key moment, and actually opened up the possibility, at least, that ordinary folks could compete politically for City Council seats,” Cohen says. “Before that, City Council seats were citywide and would go to people with power and money.”
While “Democrat” doesn’t always equal “progressive,” Democrats tend to embrace a progressive political philosophy that emphasizes things like civil rights and social and environmental justice. Between 2002 and 2005, the City Council pushed through policies such as a living-wage law that guaranteed a minimum level of pay and benefits for city workers and employees of companies that win city contracts. Enacted during the housing boom, the so-called inclusionary-housing ordinance required for-profit developers to either include a small number of affordable units in new projects or pay a fee into the city’s housing trust fund. And, a left-leaning coalition secured an agreement from Padres owner John Moores that guaranteed workers on the Ballpark Village project (housing and retail) would come from the local labor pool, that $1.5 million would be set aside for job training and new development would be environmentally friendly.
“And the question is,” Cohen says, “what’s happened since then?”
For starters, living-wage opponents didn’t like losing.
“You know, we got 1,500 janitors a raise to 10 bucks an hour, plus. It wasn’t the end of civilization,” Cohen says. “But [opponents] couldn’t handle it; they just couldn’t handle it. They brought it up in every [City Council] candidate interview: ‘Would you repeal living wage?’ It drove them crazy. It’s a small group of people we’re talking about… but they just went apoplectic. And they increasingly got better organized.”
In 2005, the Center on Policy Initiatives published Target San Diego. The 79-page treatise, authored by longtime progressive political consultant Lee Cokorinos, warns of a “right-wing assault” on San Diego spearheaded by GOP strategists and conservative think tanks. San Diego, with its shift away from being reliably Republican, had become a “battleground city” for the right, Cokorinos wrote.
There’s a chapter in Target San Diego that focuses on Carl DeMaio, who brought his for-profit think tank, The Performance Institute, to San Diego in 2002 and was quickly moving from noisy activist to the leading proponent of a plan to privatize city services.
San Diego City College Professor Jim Miller wrote about Target San Diego and DeMaio’s increasing foothold in CityBeat’s Feb. 1, 2006, issue. “DeMaio quickly made himself a presence, setting up a well-funded operation, issuing reports, working the local media and positioning himself to influence policy if the opportunity arose,” Miller wrote. “Enter the pension crisis like manna from right-wing heaven.”
Though it was under Republican leadership that the city’s pension-under-funding scheme was hatched, the labor-union leaders who agreed to allow the city to skip pension-fund payments in exchange for a boost in benefits were equally complicit. But DeMaio’s been able to craft a narrative in which the unions were solely to blame. It’s a theme that’s driving his current bid to be mayor of San Diego.
“In 2008, [the pension] was a really big deal, but when we ran campaigns, nobody wanted to talk about pensions even though we just went through this whole thing,” says the labor council’s McLaughlin. “But Carl DeMaio was able to beat that thing. If it was a dead horse before, I’d love to know what it is now.”
“I think we became consumed—and I’m not saying it was right or wrong to do so—with the pension,” says Cory Briggs, an attorney and board member of the political-advocacy group Progressive San Diego. “And when we had a strong [Democratic] majority, many of them were very tight with labor…. I think very few people are capable of separating, or do separate, their views about organized labor from employee pensions.”
Pensions weren’t the only thing that dragged down the progressive movement. In May 2005, Councilmembers Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza were forced to resign after being found guilty of corruption (a third indicted councilmember, Charles Lewis, died in August 2004; Zucchet was later cleared of all charges). For six months, Zucchet’s and Inzunza’s seats were empty; in November 2005, Zucchet’s seat went to Republican Kevin Faulconer.
“Don’t think that the prosecution of the three young, left-of-center Democrats on the City Council wasn’t a ploy by the Bush Justice Department to break up the progressive force in San Diego. I mean, it totally was,” says longtime San Diego Democratic political consultant Larry Remer.
In October 2010, Cohen, who’d led the fight for the living-wage ordinance and the Ballpark Village community-benefits agreement, left San Diego to take a job in L.A., creating a leadership void in the progressive movement.
“Donald was the guy,” Briggs says. “You had Donald being the mouthpiece and Murtaza [Baxamusa, CPI’s former research and policy director] providing the data. That team’s unstoppable because Murtaza’s analysis is damn-near impeccable.”
Also in 2010, City Councilmember Donna Frye, a progressive icon, was termed out, her seat going to Republican Lorie Zapf.
“When you eliminate two or three people from the system, we don’t have the infrastructure to recover,” SDLA’s Colin Parent says. “And I think even though we have these really terrific demographic changes and trends in our favor, we don’t have the infrastructure in place to capitalize on it.
“You can have a great charismatic voice,” he says, “but if that voice doesn’t have an understudy, what happens when they decide to go somewhere else or decide to retire? There’s just so much work that needs to be done before we start trying to dominate the conversation.”
On the right, that infrastructure runs deep. There’s the Lincoln Club, a well-funded political advocacy group that’s been able to spend large amounts of money on local campaigns, most recently spending more than $400,000 on the controversial pension-reform ballot measure, Prop. B. The San Diego County Taxpayers Association, too, is viewed as a reliable Republican ally. Online, there’s the blog San Diego Rostra that gives GOP elected officials, political consultants and right-wing activists a platform, effectively unchallenged, to share their agenda and get folks whipped up.
Meanwhile, the left’s attempts to start similar groups has faltered. Briggs admits that Progressive San Diego, which was founded in 2003, hasn’t turned out to be the organization he’d hoped it would become.
“There’s not enough money; there’s not enough people involved. The progressive-left community in San Diego’s too fractured,” he says.
Two years ago, New Leaders Council fellow Jason Everitt and SDLA board member and Democratic strategist Lucas O’Connor started the blog Two Cathedrals, hoping to give progressives a virtual meeting space, similar to what Rostra offers on the right. But they were unable to rally contributors in the way Rostra has.
“[Rostra] is the only game in town for a certain space of political conversation, and, by inertia, if nothing else, that’s going to drive the conversation in a certain direction; it just is,” he says. “So, part of it is, how do you get enough volume on the left to have a similar conversation in terms of effect? How do you create a space where a conversation can happen about a progressive vision for San Diego?
“Two Cathedrals scratched at that a little bit,” he says. “It certainly didn’t get there, and we’re not done working on getting there, but in broad strokes, that’s what needs to happen…. There has to be a space to talk about what it would mean to have a progressive San Diego.”
But being progressive means different things to different people. Last month, the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council issued a report card for all eight San Diego City Council members, grading them on votes they’d cast on matters ranging from a proposed expansion of the San Diego Convention Center to upholding an ordinance that would have required greater scrutiny of proposed big-box stores. Republican councilmembers, predictably, scored low, but so, too, did three Democratic councilmembers, among them Todd Gloria, a 34-year-old liberal Democrat who can readily point to a long list of progressive issues he’s championed during his four years on the City Council.
“This tool was blunt and very frustrating and ultimately self-defeating,” Gloria says of the report card. “It really lacked strategy, in my mind. I think it certainly does not create an environment where someone, like myself, who’s been very successful in going out and finding five votes to move forward progressive legislation—am I going to be in a position to do that going forward? I don’t think that I can.”
“It wasn’t meant to go after Todd,” says Labor Council CEO Lorena Gonzalez. “People serve in a leadership position. They have a choice to move a progressive agenda forward. God knows the other side leads by pushing a conservative agenda forward, and every time they’re on television, that’s what they’re talking about.”
At the NLC training in March, Remer, the political consultant, explained to the NLC fellows that being able to frame the debate and carry a message forward is everything, especially for progressives.
“The problem with being on the left—inevitably, we’ll be outspent,” he told them. “We have to really rely on the ability to frame.”
In an interview with CityBeat, Remer recalled a conversation he had with Democratic activist Tom Hayden when he was running Hayden’s 1997 bid for L.A. mayor.
“I’m at Tom’s house maybe three or four days before the election, and he says to me that he doesn’t believe in political organization. I look at Tom, and I’m, like, ‘Tom, what the hell are you talking about? You started [Students for a Democratic Society].’ And Tom says to me—look, after all these years in politics, he’s come to feel that even the best organizations, even the best political efforts, they all, one way or another, get corrupted. It’s not necessarily big payoffs or special interests; it may just be using your buddy’s agenda instead of yours. And he says to me, ‘The best thing you can do after all these years in politics is to be a catalyst.’ And by being a catalyst, it’s to pick an issue and to shine the hugest light possible on it—to jump up and down, yell and scream about it, and it gets media attention and public attention and public debate, and in the wake of that, there will be change and reform.
“I don’t know if I agree with that,” Remer says, “but I do appreciate that perspective.”
Ultimately, it comes down to leadership, Cohen says.
“The other side will always have more money, always. Not that we shouldn’t figure out how to raise money, but you’ve really got to win them with people-power. Not just small groups, big groups. Not just small leaders, big leaders. You can be tough and you can be passionate about what you care about.
You can disagree vehemently, and not like the people on the other side, but you can also have grace and leadership and smarts about how you’re perceived in the world. That’s important; people are attracted to that kind leadership.”
Last year, the New Leaders Council was put in the spotlight when 2010 fellow Midori Wong was hired as the San Diego Redistricting Commission’s chief of staff to oversee the process of redrawing City Council district boundaries. Even before any maps had been drawn up, the local GOP was on the offensive. Tony Krvaric, the party’s chairman, switched his Twitter avatar to a photo of Wong and Carlos Marquez—a redistricting commissioner and, at that point, a San Diego Leadership Alliance board member. Bloggers on San Diego Rostra hammered Wong for being partisan, using her NLC training against her, and described her hiring as “an absolute catastrophe for San Diego’s democratic process.” The GOP filed a lawsuit seeking to disband the commission, but the challenge was tossed out by a judge.
Wong says she knew was she was getting into.
“By its nature, redistricting is highly politicized and often tense, and my goal was always to keep the public process accessible and moving forward in spite of obstacles posed from any side.” Her focus, she says, was on community outreach and engagement—in all, the commission held 45 public hearings.
“I think anyone who got to know me through the process knew I was there to make it as easy as possible to participate. As a result, together we completed the process on time, under budget and with unanimous approval by all seven commissioners.”
And not a word from the local GOP when the final map was approved.
“I think the [Republicans’] intent was to dissuade people from getting involved,” Parent says, “but I don’t think that’s going to be a successful tactic in the long run. The people that we are recruiting have a stated interest in doing something meaningful with their lives, and we’re doing the best we can to equip them for that.”