By Jim Miller
Nobody thought this was going to be easy.
Back in July, at the height of the Filner debacle, I predicted a dire outcome, noting that “in a recall or special election in an off year, the electorate is guaranteed to be more conservative and definitely not favorable” for a progressive replacing Bob Filner because, “Faulconer would have a huge fundraising advantage garnering support from all the usual suspects downtown and benefit from an energized base geared up to hand it to the liberals, unions, minorities, and other foul ‘special interest groups’ that they’ll blame for bringing us the evil that was Bob Filner. With the Democrats dispirited, humiliated and divided, it might not even be much of a fight.”
As it turned out, David Alvarez stepped up and offered progressives hope, and the labor movement surprised everyone by actually being able to raise more money than the Faulconer forces.
Thus, for a time, it seemed we might be able to do what nobody thought could be done: redeem the promise of the progressive agenda that Filner betrayed. Indeed, after the big upset of Nathan Fletcher in the primary, I was hopeful that what my gut told me in July was wrong as I wrote, “That would be some crow I’d enjoy eating and washing down with one of our fine local IPAs.”
Sadly, on Tuesday, many of us were crying in our beer instead.
On election night, the optimism of the will manifested by local progressives met the hard reality that San Diego was not ready for its first Latino mayor, nor would it follow in footsteps of New York and Boston and go with a populist who speaks openly about inequality as one of the central issues of our time. Instead we got Kevin Faulconer, a Republican in sheep’s clothing who, as many here and elsewhere have observed, will surely return us to business as usual.
Welcome back to America’s Finest Tourist Plantation.
Predictably, many in the local media were quick to blame Alvarez and his supporters in labor for campaigning too far to the left and/or catering to ideological purity rather than the bland centrism supposedly required to win in a special election. Over the last week, many also took to Twitter and other forms of social media to refight the primary.
Thus, the conventional wisdom goes, the “left” blew a winnable election first by rejecting the more electable Fletcher and then by running an openly progressive campaign. While I understand it’s always gratifying to use hindsight to confirm your pre-existing biases, the problem with that is that it doesn’t illuminate much.
The electability argument with regard to Fletcher is dead on arrival as Fletcher disproved that himself when he lost in a primary where he was the odds-on favorite and had more money than either of his opponents (not to mention that he lost in the last mayoral election in the primary as well).
In politics, you get attacked. If you can’t sustain the attacks, you lose. End of story.
If you don’t think the Lincoln Club had even more up their sleeves if they had met Fletcher in the run-off, I have a bridge to sell you.
Fletcher collapsed like a paper tiger under attack in the primary revealing his fundamental weakness as a candidate, not to mention a lack of principle from a progressive standpoint. Bottom line: winning this election in the wake of the Filner scandal was a very tough task no matter who was running and to suggest otherwise on the basis of hypotheticals is a fantasy-based analysis.
As for the second point about Alvarez running too far to the left, what none of the analyses blaming the “left” or “unions” explains is the gap between the pre-election polling and the actual results. Indeed, both the public polling and the internal polling inside the pro-Alvarez camp showed that the race was a dead heat going into the election.
Our polling on the labor side also showed that the messaging going after “corporate special interests” and elite insiders was helping to counter the relentless anti-union message coming from the Faulconer forces. With both the anti-union line from the right AND the anti-corporate message from the left polling well, the end result was that they effectively negated each other.
Indeed, all the talking points from the labor camp with regard to the minimum wage, outsourcing, etc. were thoroughly poll tested. And the Labor Council’s independent campaign, Working Families for a Better San Diego, hired Kaufman Campaigns (who have a solid winning track record) as their primary consultants. And the Kaufman team relied on pollsters with a good national reputation for their data. So, on their own, there was nothing wrong with the issues that Alvarez championed. In fact, they poll well and will continue to be popular with the public.
What hurt Alvarez was not his platform; it was his race and the Lincoln Club’s skillful use of race-coded politics. That’s the ugly truth that none of the local pundits want to talk about. And the fact that many in the press and elsewhere would rather attack progressives and unions than talk about the use of race in the election says a lot about our local political environment and media landscape.
In mailer after mailer the Lincoln Club relentlessly hammered away at Alvarez as a guy from “Southeast” who looked like a gangster and was going to walk away with your suburban piece of the pie and take it back to Barrio Logan. Alvarez was not a mayor for “us” he was a “they” who wanted to take from “us.”
Robert Reich described precisely the kind of phenomenon we saw in this election in a recent column where he noted:
The pronouns “we” and “they” are the most important of all political words. They demarcate who’s within the sphere of mutual responsibility, and who’s not. Someone within that sphere who’s needy is one of “us” — an extension of our family, friends, community, tribe — and deserving of help. But needy people outside that sphere are “them,” presumed undeserving unless proved otherwise.
The central political question faced by any nation or group is where the borders of this sphere of mutual responsibility are drawn.
Why in recent years have so many middle-class and wealthy Americans pulled the borders in closer?
Here in San Diego the use of this kind of rhetoric resulted in some nasty stuff, but it worked.
Score one for TJ Zane, the guy smirking just behind Kevin Faulconer on the dais at the U.S. Grant Hotel as he celebrated his electoral victory on Tuesday and talked about bringing all San Diegans together. Score another one for Pete Wilson who maxed out for Faulconer in the campaign’s last days and in whose legacy the Lincoln Club’s fear of a brown city hatchet job stands.
With this in mind, it’s clear that the gap between the polls and the election results is a classic example of what is called the “Bradley effect,” (coined after the front-running in the polls but ultimately failed African American gubernatorial candidate, Tom Bradley) when white voters give inaccurate answers to pollsters because they may feel the desire to avoid the appearance of racial bias.
On election night, as the big discrepancy between the polling and the actual results became clear, I was depressed but far from shocked. As someone who has studied the history of race and class in San Diego, I knew that we weren’t that far from the days of outright public racism and that the legacy of that history informs the present.
When I asked Isidro Ortiz, a professor of Chicano Studies at the University of San Diego about it, he agreed that the Bradley effect was evident in the election and offered some thoughts as to how race was used in this contest:
Yes, I believe there was a Bradley effect in the mayor’s race. The discrepancy between pre-election polls and actual election results strongly suggests that “social desirability” was at play, i.e. potential voters, primarily white, when polled expressed what they thought was the socially acceptable thing, namely that they supported and would vote for David Alvarez. This phenomenon is not unknown in elections where race is one of the factors at play in the race. Voters can provide the seemingly socially desirable thing, get themselves off the racial hook, and then vote in a way that reproduces the racial hierarchy.
Blatant race-baiting in the mayor’s race did not occur, as was the case back in the battle over Prop 187 in 1994, but race was at play via the commercials that invoked images of “us” vs them, the hit pieces that included the shorthand racial code words in San Diego such as “southeast,” and the interjection of the news about the alleged illegal contribution from the Mexican businessman, a curiously timed news occurrence that played on what has been described as long-standing “Mexican phobia.”
I am not suggesting that something sinister and dastardly was at play; it was just racialized politics as usual, a type with deep roots and appeal in California. In this context offering the socially desirable opinion may have seemed easy, logical and to many it certainly might have seemed the expedient thing to do.
And what this “Alvarez effect” shows us is that, in some ways, San Diego is still in the political bush leagues, where a good number of voters are not yet able to imagine the city as the kind of diverse place that it really is and will be in the years to come.
That uncomfortable reality combined with the equally important fact that labor and its community allies, despite an incredible effort by an army of committed activists, were not able to get out the vote as needed in Democratic strongholds sealed the deal against Alvarez. He could not sustain the attacks because we didn’t bring out enough Democratic voters to win. We failed on that front. Period.
The lesson of this should not be that we have to sacrifice principle, triangulate, and capitulate to the “racialized politics” that Ortiz describes (with bland white suburban standard bearers for instance) to win future elections, but that we need to double down on the kind of work that Rising Majority and others are doing in registering and mobilizing working class voters of color in San Diego.
Had south of I-8 turned out at the same rate as north of I-8 did, Alvarez would have won the election, as he would have during a presidential year. If we don’t take this as a key long-term goal, we will continue to lose. If we embrace this effort and mobilize the new San Diego more effectively in the future, we will turn the tide sooner rather than later, particularly in presidential election years.
To all of my friends and allies in labor and the community who worked tirelessly to elect David Alvarez, the young people in particular, I say thank you and keep your heads high. We stood on principle and that’s what matters in the final analysis. We’ve begun to change the narrative in the city. While it’s hard to lose a race like this, we should all know that the work we did this time planted seeds that will bloom in the future.
As devastating as this last year has been for all of us, we need to remember that hope, as Percy Shelley once said, is a moral obligation.