San Diego Democrats preserved their City Council majority this fall, and now they’re fighting over what to do with it.

The Council will vote next week on its next president, a position that can dictate the body’s direction and agenda by deciding what gets on the docket in the first place, and assigning Council members to certain committees.

The job has always gone to a veteran on the Council and that means, barring a Republican surprise victory, the two Democratic veterans, Councilman David Alvarez and Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, are the two rivals. Alvarez, a former mayoral candidate, has promised to push an agenda that prioritizes progressive causes like housing and homelessness, and to oppose Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s priorities when necessary.

“2017 needs to be a year of action,” Alvarez said. “The Council must lead in several critical areas, such as increasing housing supply and affordability, impactful solutions to homelessness, and achieving the goals set out in our Climate Action Plan.”


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Cole would play a different role. She’d rather use the promise of Democratic votes to cooperate with the mayor’s office and pull out victories within his push.

The behind-the-scenes vote wrangling between the two is turning into a proxy war between two powerful progressive interests in City Hall.

The San Diego Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents construction unions throughout the county, is backing Alvarez. It’s had issues with Cole in recent years over her support for Civic San Diego, a quasi-public agency that regulates development downtown and increasingly pursues its own redevelopment projects outside downtown and which has resisted union-friendly construction and regulatory arrangements.

“It’s clear to us that we have a different vision, and David is clearly the guy to articulate that position,” said Tom Lemmon, business manager for the Building and Construction Trades Council.

“We are in the business of driving a progressive agenda, and we support people who tell us that they support that too,” said Carol Kim, political director for the group. “We’re pushing for a Democratic majority that pushes a Democratic agenda, an actual platform that is cohesive in scope, not piecemeal and reactionary.”

Cole has her own support from a longtime power broker on the left: Mickey Kasparian, president of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

Kasparian wouldn’t say who he supports. But he sketched out a vision of the next Council president, and it wasn’t one who pushes a clearly articulated vision separate from the mayor’s.

“The Council president is going to be a Democrat, but it should have a relationship with the mayor’s office,” Kasparian said. “There’s nothing wrong with working with the mayor’s office. It shouldn’t be someone who constantly kills stuff, dismantles stuff, or says, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ We need compromise.”

In the spring, Alvarez and Kasparian got into a fight for influence within the local Democratic Party. Alvarez funded a slate of candidates for the party’s Central Committee, which votes on official party endorsements, against a slate backed by Kasparian.

Kasparian didn’t hesitate to praise Cole.

“I’ve always felt really good about Myrtle,” he said. “Myrtle is very progressive. If there’s criticism of her, I think it’s wrong.”

He said he’s differed with her on certain issues over the years, but she never crossed his line — like if she had voted against raising the minimum wage or in support of non-union grocery stores.

The Labor Council’s executive committee held an endorsement vote last Thursday for the position, and the full delegation will vote Wednesday on the organization’s final call. Cole won that preliminary vote, but Kasparian said he wouldn’t talk about it because it was important to respect the group’s  process.

“After Wednesday’s vote, we’ll have more clarity,” he said.

Representatives of Cole and Faulconer’s offices declined to comment.

Faulconer’s office is pushing the Council’s four Republicans to join Cole in voting for herself to make her the next Council president. It’s similar to what Faulconer did two years ago to lift outgoing Council President Sherri Lightner past then-Council President Todd Gloria, who ahead of that vote had pursued a distinct progressive agenda while leading the Council.

Gloria told us last week that his ambitious approach was his downfall.

During Gloria’s run, the Council approved a minimum wage increase, raised fees charged of commercial developers to pay for public housing and OK’d new development regulations in Barrio Logan opposed by the shipbuilding industry.

“The mayor is supporting Myrtle, and that’s how (Lightner) got to be there two years ago,” Lemmon said, though he added he had no complaints about Lightner’s tenure. “Nonetheless, it raises red flags about our ability to have open conversations with her.”

A united Republican front would mean the job is Cole’s unless she decides she doesn’t want it. That is, it’s hers unless one of the four Council Republicans defects.

Alvarez supporters are eyeing Councilman Scott Sherman as the crucial vote. Despite their ideological differences, Sherman and Alvarez get along well and have both been vocal about the city’s need to tackle housing costs.

But Sherman would need to buck his party’s leadership to join four Democrats in supporting a new Council president who has promised to pursue an agenda independent of the one coming from the mayor’s office. It would be a difficult vote for Sherman, though he has pledged routinely not to seek higher office when his new four-year term is over.

That means he might have a little more freedom to pursue his own prerogative.

Any path to victory for Alvarez also requires holding onto the votes of three incoming Council Democrats. Councilwoman-elect Georgette Gomez is a longtime ally, dating to their alliance on the Barrio Logan development plan. He’ll also need the support of District 1 Councilwoman-elect Barbara Bry, who is replacing Lightner. Councilman-elect Chris Ward in District 3 is replacing Gloria.

In an unlikely but technically possible scenario, Sherman’s alliance with Alvarez could go the opposite way and help the veteran Republican get enough votes to take the job.

In the days after the election, progressive leaders like Nicole Capretz, who has been a vocal advocate for the city’s Climate Action Plan, and the Building and Construction Trades Council, said it was time for the Democratic majority on the Council to pursue a coordinated agenda of its own making, rather than simply reacting to the mayor’s proposals.

It’s looking like they’ll see if they can make that happen just as the newly elected Council members are inaugurated.

At the heart of the issue is a developing fissure between the construction unions, led by Lemmon and Kim, and the Labor Council as a whole, led by Kasparian.

“We’re heading to a place where labor is going to be divided,” Kim said. “Right now, labor is copping out, because there’s been one person driving the agenda.”

Kasparian said it’s unsurprising that there are differences of opinion within the labor movement.

“There are 135 unions in the Labor Council, and in my tenure as president I’ve never seen everybody agree,” he said. “I think for the most part, labor is together. I wouldn’t say we’re going in different directions.”

    This article relates to: City Council, Must Reads, Politics

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

    7 comments
    Fotis Tsimboukakis
    Fotis Tsimboukakis subscribermember

    Many points to make here. 

    1) Ms Cole reminds me of Tony Young (not much there).

    2) The far superior intelligent, capable, dynamic AND caring councilmember for Council President IS ALVAREZ,

    3) Though I like Mickey, he is FAST BECOMING IRRELEVANT among Democrats (unless they rely on a job from him), so irrelevant he wasn't elected to the Party Central Committee in June, BY FELLOW DEMS in his district, where THE TOP 6 get elected. TOP 6. This old style East Coast "muscling" DOESN'T WORK OUT WEST.

    4) David is equally adept and capable as Todd was in his short stint after Filner.

    and

    5) Cole's district has YET to have a council member who did anything meaningful FOR the district's PEOPLE not just the special interests that help them get elected. That district has been and still is a ghetto for the poor and the minorities. 

    I should know. I have worked this City and County over in my 35 years of work in San Diego.  

    Frank Pitarro
    Frank Pitarro subscriber

    Amazing, Kasparian ask the Unions to give millions to get David elected Mayor. Now he is turning his back on David and going with Cole.  I remember when he said we had to find some one to run against Cole on her next term.  Now he turns his back on David because of a disagreement.  What a hypocrite.

    philip piel
    philip piel subscriber

    Hopefully the Unions will legislate well through their puppets.

    john stump
    john stump subscriber

    I apologize for not thinking North of 8,  Its a City Heights thing.  the experienced mature Dark Horse candidate to be Council President is Councilwoman Barbara Bry..  She is a secure enough person to stand up to pressure and lead the Council


    Councilwoman Cole and Councilman Alvarez need to come to some understandings or support an alternate Council President 

    bgetzel
    bgetzel subscriber

    You are either a Democrat or you are not. Lightner's defection, in order to become Council President, was merely an ego trip that resulted in nothing getting done during her tenure. The Mayor seems to be more interested in finding a way to appease the hoteliers with a convention center expansion than addressing our serious affordable housing and homeless problems. Ditto for infrastructure maintenance - nothing done. Todd Gloria got a lot done during his brief stint as interim mayor and Alvarez is likely to be a similar force for progressive issues as Council President. 

    john stump
    john stump subscriber

    It is interesting that the Council President  leadership battle also centers among the racial identification boundaries in San Diego politics.  Clearly Districts 8 and 9 are primarily Latin but the growing question is how far East the Latin influence extends.  


    Recently, CIVIC entered into this battle with its attempt to designate a new portion of the City of San Diego, the annexation of unincorporated County land , as part of District 4; instead of the adjacent Latin District 9.  Councilman Alvarez raised concerns about this voter grab East of the I 805 freeway and before Councilwoman Gomez would be able to vote on this voter grab.


    Both of the Candidates for Council President have unique qualifications.  I think that Seniority speaks for Councilwoman Cole for the 2017 term, and her performance should then be measured by her serious control of the CIVIC company  for the benefit of our Chollas Creek watershed residents.


    Councilman Alvarez should be the City's representative on important regional boards like SANDAG, The Airport and Port of San Diego.


    I think, that absent a coming together of the these leaders then a dark horse compromise candidate might solve the leadership gap with Councilwoman Gomez or Councilman Ward. Alternately, a Putney Swope  Chairman gambit may occur . https://youtu.be/OPgId7RgQ2E



    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    Council Member Alvarez should get the job because he is wary and asks questions of Civic San Diego staff.  


    The San Diego Union Tribune Data Watch confirmed that during the last 6 years through Civic San Diego staff purposeful misinterpretation of State and Federal Relocation laws, the City Council, Mayor Faulconer, City Officials, and the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC) agreed to remove 10,000 Affordable dwellings unit from the Affordable Housing inventory within the City of San Diego.  Including 9,290 Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Hotel rooms.  All without public disclosure and purposeful misinterpretation to the City Council, and official documentation to State and Federal government. 


    SDHC most important goal is the Preservation of Existing Affordable Housing.   According to Relocation laws, Civic San Diego and the SDHC should have provided the mostly Seniors in the downtown SROs Affordable Housing Assistance for 3.5 Years.  This did not happen.