The Wisconsin of the West No More: San Diego is Now a Democratic Stronghold, What Will This Mean for Local Progressives and the Future of the City?
With all the focus rightfully placed on the national picture, it’s worth noting how historic the election was here in San Diego.
With Democratic victories in the County Board of Supervisors races, only one Republican left on the San Diego City Council, and Todd Gloria winning the Mayor’s race against a fellow Democrat who had positioned herself to the right in a gambit to gain Republican support, the end result is total Democratic control in San Diego.
All this in the place where they hung Herbert Marcuse in effigy from a flagpole in the sixties, and the bumper stickers bragged that, “There is No Life East of I-5.”
This in San Diego where Mike Davis, Kelly Mayhew and I wrote of “endangered dissent” and a history of “Social Darwinist city planning, reactionary vigilantism, and open [top down] class warfare” in Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See. Yes, here in San Diego where, back in 2011, the Republicans, dreaming libertarian dreams, had Carl DeMaio running point in their effort to make San Diego a beacon of the right in liberal California by busting the public employee unions and crushing a potential source of power for Democrats.
Those who were around for the good old days might remember when local Republicans held their unity night at the Kona Kai Resort, notables such as Jerry Sanders and Kevin Faulconer cheered as DeMaio asked if they were ready to make San Diego “the Wisconsin of the West.”
They, along with the Chamber of Commerce, the Taxpayers Association, the Lincoln Club, and other luminaries of the local GOP were getting fired up and ready to go for a ballot initiative that would undermine collective bargaining rights for unionized public sector workers in San Diego.
As I observed in a City Beat piece back in 2006, Carl DeMaio’s agenda was/is connected to a larger, nationwide web of think tanks whose decades-long intellectual assault on unions, the public sector, and even the very notion of government bore fruit from Wisconsin to California.
In “Indy by the Sea: California Dreamin’ with the Right Wing Think Tanks” in the now defunct SD CityBeat, I pointed out that DeMaio, then of the Performance Institute, had argued that San Diego could become a model for the right nationwide by mimicking free market policies that had been enacted in deep red states like Indiana:
- If you want to understand what’s really going on in San Diego politics, skip the local media as they trip all over themselves to fawn over new “strong mayor” Jerry Sanders and pick up a copy of the recently released Center on Policy Initiatives’ report, Target San Diego: The Right Wing Assault on Urban Democracy and Smart Government.
- It will be sobering reading for the swing Democrats whose votes were necessary to elect Sanders in a majority Democratic city and even for moderate Republicans who don’t think their party is aiming to roll back the great reforms of the twentieth century.
- As Lee Cokorinos’s rigorously researched and thoroughly documented work notes, “The San Diego right has waged a series of intense ideological and political campaigns to undercut the role of the city council in favor of a ‘strong mayor’ form of government, developed anti-union messaging in the media and raised the profile of San Diego as a problem city in the national media.” They are, Cokorinos informs us, training activists and “developing and driving anti-government policy initiatives and research” through local, state, and national think tanks with the support of organizations such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform.
- Norquist, who once famously said his goal was to cut government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” and who has said that “bipartisanship is another name for date rape,” counts San Diego County Republican Party Chair Ron Nehring as his San Diego “senior consultant.”
In those days, the Republicans had Democrats playing on their turf, by their rules, at all levels. Their dream was so close they must have been able to taste it. How’d they almost do it? Here’s how:
- Cokorinos’s report carefully documents the intricate web of connections between the corporate funded think tanks at the national, state, and local level.
- Some of the key organizations include the aforementioned Americans for Tax Reform, Freedom Works, and the American Legislative Exchange Council at the national level; the Project for California’s Future, the Pacific Research Institute, the Claremont Institute, and the Reason Foundation at the state level; and the Performance Institute here in San Diego.
- This powerful, well-organized network of right wing think tanks is funded by the owners of the largest and richest companies in the United States such as Koch Industries, Amoco, Shell, Texaco, Coors Brewing, Nationwide Insurance, Pfizer, the National Energy Group, Phillip Morris, Verizon Communications, Inc., and a host of others too long to list.
- As the report indicates they are part of a “movement to reverse decades of progressive reform” that began during the early seventies.
An obscure reference in 2006, the Koch Industries folks have since been in the national spotlight after orchestrating Scott Walker’s rise in Wisconsin, funding the Astroturf Tea Party movement and trying to kill federal health care, and supplying an army of anti-government ideologues to populate the federal government. And, until quite recently, for the local and national right, San Diego was a key target.
But those rightwing think-tank-inspired dreams were dashed when Bob Filner defeated DeMaio in 2012 and it appeared that the old guard was on the run before Filner betrayed his base and imploded in a humiliating scandal that tore the local progressive community apart.
After Filner’s premature departure, City Councilmember David Alvarez lost a special election where Faulconer benefited from a deeply racist Lincoln Club independent expenditure campaign putting our current lame duck mayor who dreams of being Governor in office for two largely unremarkable terms as the Democrats flailed and failed to mount a competent opposition even as the demographic shifts in the city continued to favor them.
Indeed, early on, as Faulconer and his allies defeated affordable housing initiatives, crushed the Barrio Logan plan, and did everything they could to assure that the Chamber of Commerce crowd was happy, it looked like San Diego had returned to its historic form for the foreseeable future. All the while, however, the city continued to change.
Finally, the ground tilled by activists for years and the seeds that they thanklessly planted south of I-8 and east of I-5 and in progressive pockets elsewhere, bore fruit as the power on the City Council shifted so decisively that we now have a political class that represents a new, more diverse, more progressive San Diego that is no longer the sole property of the city’s shadow government of business interests and a largely white suburban voting base.
Indeed, this election is truly historic in that it has ushered in Democratic rule at the county and city levels that is ostensibly pro-labor, friendly to community and environmental activists, and seemingly ready to break from San Diego’s past as a largely conservative paradise by the sea allergic to its status as a big city with big city problems and potential.
At the county level, we have dramatically gone from a Trump-loving reactionary majority to a progressive one for the first time. In some ways, it’s hard to believe that this has all actually happened when you think of the long-term history of the region.
So local progressives should celebrate this change, while not getting too happy. As a local activist joked with me just last week, “On to the curse of the supermajority.”
Now the struggle will no longer be Republicans versus Democrats but Business Democrats versus Progressive Democrats.
Just before the election, in my column on Todd Gloria, I noted that we are far from utopia in this new day for San Diego for many reasons. Gloria’s appointment of a Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce as his Chief of Staff is yet another indicator that progressives should be wary.
Another early indicator of how far we have or have not come will be whether the new Council elects Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, a white moderate more palatable to moneyed interests, or the far more progressive African American Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe as City Council President.
If Montgomery Steppe prevails, the long-suppressed voices of San Diego’s historically underrepresented communities will finally be heard loud and clear in San Diego City government. If not, perhaps we will just be rehearsing the same old San Diego story with new players for a few more years.
How will the new mayor and council address the Franchise agreement? Will they be bullied by San Diego Gas and Electric or will they insist on a better deal?
Other challenges will come when we see how this new Democratic rule deals with the austerity brought by the Covid-19 crisis in tax-averse San Diego where both mayoral candidates and some City Council candidates opposed a state-level ballot proposition that narrowly lost and would have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to the region.
We will also see how real climate action will be with no more excuses and whether the labor-endorsed Democrats actually support unions and local working-class folks in tangible ways.
Can the city really address equity issues across the board? Police reform? Housing? Homelessness? Will the new balance of power allow the region to move forward aggressively on the 5 Big Moves and transform our transportation system while addressing the climate crisis?
With no more Republicans to blame for lack of bold vision, it’s game on.
Similar issues await as well at the county level on the Board of Supervisors, which will make the coming year exciting, interesting, challenging and, inevitably, disappointing for those with high hopes.
But, looking at things from a historical perspective, we are moving to a better set of problems than whether or not we will ever turn the politics of conservative San Diego away from the wish list of rightwing think tanks.
We aren’t the Wisconsin of the West anymore, but it’s unclear what we will become.
Doug Porter was active in the early days of the alternative press in San Diego, contributing to the OB Liberator, the print version of the OB Rag, the San Diego Door, and the San Diego Street Journal. He went on to have a 35-year career in the Hospitality business and decided to go back into raising hell when he retired. He’s won numerous awards for his columns from the Society of Professional Journalists in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. Doug is a cancer survivor (sans vocal chords) and lives in North Park.