An Enduring Progressive Majority in San Diego is Possible

by on September 30, 2019 · 0 comments

in Election, San Diego, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

As we move into yet another election cycle, perhaps it might be useful to start with a little perspective.  Back in 2003 in the introduction to Under the Perfect Sun, Mike Davis, Kelly Mayhew, and I summarized the political landscape of San Diego as such:

War, tourist spectacle, endangered dissent: these are the perennial axes of modern San Diego history.  Here, where illusion is a civic virtue, reality has always nestled inside spectacle like a set of Russian nesting dolls. 

First, of course is the happy tourist in shorts and a Sea World T-shirt proffering his credit card to the gods of commerce. 

Second is the heroic warrior, blue eyes fixed on the westward horizon of manifest destiny. 

Third is the smiling booster, handing out brochures welcoming newcomers to “Heaven on Earth.”

Fourth is the low paid service worker or enlisted person struggling to afford the cost of paradise. 

Fifth is the scorned dissenter, trade unionist, or civil rights activist. 

And sixth and innermost is the recent Latino immigrant, whose invisible labor sustains the luxury lifestyles of Coronado, La Jolla, and Rancho Santa Fe.

In the 16 years since we wrote this, the demographic shifts that were just becoming evident then has continued to march along, and San Diego’s politics have evolved as well.  Almost a decade after the publication of Under the Perfect Sun, Bob Filner’s short-lived mayoral victory over the snarling anti-union campaign of Carl DeMaio represented a historic shift in local politics promising the end of business and usual at a City Hall with doors wide open to progressives, labor, environmentalists, and underrepresented communities.

But, as we all know, the moment of opportunity for progressive policy coming from the mayor’s office was abruptly destroyed by Filner’s sexual harassment scandals and the subsequent internal warfare within San Diego’s prematurely aborted liberal ruling coalition that followed his resignation.  The ripples from that period continued to disrupt and divide San Diego’s “left” for years after the Democratic loss in the special election with the result that the Democrats were unable to even field a viable candidate against Kevin Faulconer in the next mayoral election.

Nonetheless, the demographic transformations that led to that briefly victorious but ultimately disastrous moment in local progressive politics have continued unabated as the city’s Republican old guard has watched the ground slowly shift under their feet.  A case in point: the election of a Democratic supermajority on the city council was a historic win and something that would have been unimaginable in years past.

And things just keep getting worse for San Diego’s right with the San Diego Union-Tribune recently reporting that, “San Diego’s political shift to the left just passed another milestone: Each of the city’s nine council districts now has more registered Democrats than registered Republicans.”

That same piece in the SDUT quotes Jack McGrory who observes:

“When I started working in the city in 1975 it was so Republican — I think there were only two Democrats on the seven-member council,” he said. “A lot of it I would attribute to the huge demographic shift in the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s when we really started to grow. There was a wave of immigration that really started to turn things around.”

So, in historical terms, this is a big deal.

In fact, if San Diego Democrats play it right, they’ll finally land a Democratic candidate in the mayor’s office who will be working with a Democratic supermajority on the city council.  So, in the midst of a pretty dark time nationally, there is not just some hope here in California, but the real possibility of an enduring progressive majority in San Diego of all places.

Let that sink in for a moment.

But, before you get too happy, it would be wise of me to remind you of the tendency on San Diego’s left for people to silo themselves in their various corners and spend more time playing Game of Thrones with one another than building lasting coalitions.  It is also important to remember that much of what one might call San Diego’s Democratic establishment is still wedded to a split of the middle approach that is not always welcoming to a bolder progressive agenda.  Hence, business as usual dies hard.

In sum, our politics have still not quite caught up to the possibilities that our demographics now offer for a distinctly different kind of San Diego leadership.

How to move this along?

One thing that needs to change is the political culture itself.  I was at a public meeting last week listening to the proceedings, and I was struck by how many people I saw in the room who had run for city council, mayor, school board, Congress, or some other public office.  I knew them all and several of them were perpetual candidates.  Despite the fact that I am involved in politics through my role in the labor movement and local activism, it is remarkable that such a thing could be true.

Indeed, in a city with a population of 1.42 million and a surrounding county of over 3.3 million people, it staggers the imagination to think that the circle of political animals is intimate enough to make San Diego feel like a big “small town.”

And that is not a good thing.

It makes for too much who-knows-who and revolving door, “my turn” B.S. in our politics.  It also helps entrench a wide array of deeply mediocre politicians in places where we need smarter, bolder (and younger) leadership.  Finally, it opens the door for folks who aren’t really that qualified to serve but have a higher sense of themselves than their character or political talent evidences. I won’t list the usual suspects here, dear reader, but any honest, long-time observer of San Diego politics knows exactly what I’m talking about.

We are still a minor league town in lots of ways.

All of this at a time when the political playing field of San Diego politics has finally shifted in a way that should make more progressive leadership in the city a reality for years to come.  Nonetheless, it seems, our politics are lagging.  Yes, there are some breaths of fresh air in public offices in our fair metropolis, but what we need is a strong wind to blow off the dust of San Diego’s political past.

For that to happen, San Diego progressives need to build a much deeper bench by actually nurturing, and then drafting, more and more people from progressive organizations of all sorts who have a real sense of how the various labor, environmental, and community organizations share fundamental values and can work together to build a vastly better city.  That means being more interested in having a big, long term vision of a deeply inclusive coalition than in winning petty turf wars.  It will also mean not starting from a compromised position when we think about what’s possible.

At base, it is really about challenging business as usual and no longer permitting the moneyed interests who have long served as our “shadow government” to divide and conquer even though the political terrain is no longer favorable to them.

What should matter most is not what club you belong to but what your core values are and how you can move San Diego to a place where life beneath the tourist postcard is a lot sunnier than it is for those currently on the outskirts of the place where happy happens.

If we don’t make this happen soon, fellow progressives, we’ll have no one but ourselves to blame.




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