By Jim Miller
San Diego is on the national stage again.
As the final week of the dead heat mayoral showdown unfolded, Politico reported on “the battle for San Diego,” the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters pondered whether the race would be a harbinger of things to come in California politics, and the New York Times covered “a battle of ideology in a city unaccustomed to that sort of election,” astutely noting, as I did here at the San Diego Free Press during the primary, that this contest is “a test of whether yet another big-city Democrat can be elected by riding a wave of populism, much as Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York did last fall.”
And that test is happening because last November David Alvarez defied the pundits and political insiders and beat the prohibitive favorite, Nathan Fletcher, in the race to face Kevin Faulconer in the run-off to be San Diego’s next mayor. This was a seminal moment for San Diego—perhaps the biggest political upset in the history of the city.
What was important about the Democrats’ interparty conflict that the primary represented was not the battle of personalities that much of the local media is obsessed with but the contest of political philosophies and orientations it represented. Alvarez’s unexpected triumph was a victory for progressives over corporate Democrats, activist over machine politics, and social movement unionism over business unionism. Like de Blasio’s win in New York City and similar triumphs of progressive populists across the country, Alvarez’s victory is a sign that business as usual inside the Democratic party and in the country as a whole can be successfully challenged.
And the consequence of all this is that the historic pivot toward a new, diverse, inclusionary San Diego has a chance to continue. Alvarez’s candidacy redeems the promise of a better San Diego that Filner betrayed. Thus out of a summer of scandal and a fall of discord, new hope has been born.
On election night last November, you could see it in the joyful crowd of people celebrating the Alvarez comeback at Bread and Salt in Barrio Logan. It was multiracial, young and old, blue and white collar—a living embodiment of the notion of the beloved community. As one observer posted on social media, “No matter what the eventual election results are, I hope the Alvarez watch party is what the future of San Diego looks like.”
It is, and the future is now. And that’s something we should be excited about.
Surely, it hasn’t been easy. The Lincoln Club cranked up their hate machine and worked overtime to defame Alvarez as a tool of the unions while simultaneously playing on the divisions in our community, hoping that it will elicit the worst in us. Indeed, they’ve done just about everything they can to remind voters that Alvarez is a “South of 8” guy who they should be afraid of walking away with their slice of the pie.
But what the right wing fears and much of the local press misses is that this election is part of a new direction in labor and the community.
Last Friday, as they were gearing up for a huge GOTV effort over the weekend through tomorrow, labor, community, business, and political leaders such as Todd Gloria and Toni Atkins, met and discussed how the future of progressive politics in San Diego and the country as a whole will depend on robust labor-community alliances. If they are to be successful, these alliances must be aimed at achieving mutually beneficial goals with regard to addressing income inequality, immigration reform, affordable housing needs, environmentally sustainable cities, and a whole range of other social justice work that will begin to rebuild the middle class and improve the quality of life for all of us.
As the AFL-CIO’s Tefere Gebre told Politico, the battle for the soul of San Diego is not “just about the person, not about the office, but about the agenda” and building “working partnerships with communities” that focus on a social justice vision that will raise everyone up and improve all of our neighborhoods. Things have been moving in the wrong direction for both union and non-union workers alike, middle class and working class communities, but the hard work of restoring the American Dream will require that we reach out to one another in ways that transcend the transactional and build deeper ties between us all.
It’s not about some people trying to get a bigger piece of the pie than others, it’s about rethinking how the pie gets made and distributed and seeing how the common interests of the vast majority of ordinary Americans are inextricably bound. Divided we have raced to the bottom. Together, we can all win.
That’s what the huge crowd of over 700 workers and their community allies who showed up for the Labor Council’s “Super Walk” for David Alvarez represent–a new vision of an open, progressive, and more egalitarian San Diego. These union workers are not a threat to the middle class here in San Diego or in the nation at large, but those who seek to demonize them and destroy their movement surely are.
Perhaps that’s why President Obama, who has recently declared our historic level of income inequality to be the “defining issue of our time,” endorsed Alvarez over the weekend saying, “David Alvarez has been a fierce advocate for his city, and on the Council, has led efforts to build a strong middle class, put neighborhoods first and expand opportunities for kids in and out of school. Today, with the city’s economy and neighborhoods poised to make progress there is no question that David is the right choice to be San Diego’s next mayor and I am excited to support him.”
Thus the “Battle for San Diego” is about whether or not we embrace the rich diversity of who we are now and will be in the future or whether we can be scared by reactionary bluster about “union bosses” into handing the city back to the big corporate special interests that the folks at the Lincoln Club represent. They want you to be afraid of David Alvarez because they are afraid of the future he represents.
But no matter how hard they try, they can’t change the fact that it’s not their San Diego anymore. Our city is more diverse, Democratic, and less inclined to believe that Republicans in sheep’s clothing have their interests in mind.
And Faulconer is no moderate. He is bought and paid for—business as usual brought to you by a back room meeting between the House of Manchester and the Chamber of Commerce. And if Faulconer wins, San Diego will be run by the same old “shadow government” of moneyed interests that have called the shots in our city for most of its history.
What is inspiring about David Alvarez is what I saw when he spoke to a group of students last fall at City College. During his visit, Alvarez spoke about his story: how he grew up the son of working class parents, struggled with asthma exacerbated by industrial pollution in Barrio Logan, had brothers who got into gangs, but then made it to college, taking a couple of classes at City and then graduating from San Diego State.
He told the students that he didn’t always like his classes but he stuck with them and succeeded. Then he talked about a professor he had at San Diego State who challenged him to make the world better, and he offered that same challenge to the students in the room.
Alvarez spoke of his early work as an activist, social worker, and educator in the community and joked that he never thought he’d become a politician, but there he was. His manner was easy, and he seemed happy to be speaking to students who came from a similar background and were working through the same kinds of struggles that he had as a younger man. His take away point for the students was not “vote for me” but rather “if I can do it, so can you.”
What struck me about the event was not just how comfortable in his skin Alvarez was as he took hard questions from the audience, but also how much his story resonated with the students. Nearly every student who asked him a question started with “thank you for coming to speak with us” or “thank you for representing our community.” It was clear to anyone who was in that room that his story was their story.
And that’s the Alvarez story: if I can do it, you can too. No better tale could be told to our fine city.