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Politics Report: Behind the Scenes of the Big Vote

One labor leader broke with his colleagues before a crucial City Council vote Thursday on the Convention Center initiative before breaking back. Plus: Rep. Juan Vargas says he gave away private prison company donations and San Diego City Council candidate Vivian Moreno talks about housing.

Tom Lemmon is the business manager of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

On Wednesday, several members of the leadership of the Yes For a Better San Diego campaign were on a phone call trying to decide what they might do if they got bad news from the county registrar about how many valid signatures they had collected.

While they were on the call, they got the bad news.

It was quickly decided that they should ask the City Council to put the measure on the ballot. The campaign’s executive committee was united on that point — including labor leaders, specifically Keith Maddox, the executive overseeing the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

The mayor would fly in from a family vacation on Catalina Island, on a sea plane, to make his pitch at the Council meeting scheduled for Thursday. Councilman Mark Kersey would call in from Ohio. Councilman Chris Cate would come in during his paternity leave, just a week since his baby was born.

Crucially, it would later turn out, Councilman Chris Ward was in the Cook Islands, deep in the South Pacifc. Though he was likely supportive, he would not be able to call in.

But Wednesday evening, Tom Lemmon, the leader of a coalition of unions known as the Building Trades Council, wasn’t on board.

“This thing is a train wreck,” he wrote in an email to several members of the coalition, which included key consultants, representatives of the hotel industry, the Chamber of Commerce and other labor unions.

“2020 makes sense,” he wrote. He and his team were buoyed that the measure had gotten a lot of signatures, maybe enough to qualify, just not enough to qualify for the ballot in time for the November vote. They could just wait until 2020.

The next morning, the day of the hearing, Lemmon and his team spread that message.

The Council might as well wait, they argued. The measure could stay as a citizens’ initiative. Thus, instead of a measure put on the ballot by the Council, it would perhaps only need approval from a bare majority of voters.

Lemmon confirmed all this to us. “We wanted this thing to pass and thought it had a better chance that way rather than having to jump through all the hoops they had to go through at Council,” he told us.

There was a problem with that reasoning, though. The campaign may not have collected enough signatures to even make the 2020 ballot. The registar of voters sampled 3 percent of the ballots and found that only 67 percent of them were valid. It projected that just more than 100 percent were valid but things can go badly in a full count. The initial count, for example, included four duplicate signatures.

Duplicates are death: For every duplicate signature a campaign has collected, the registrar must project thousands of other signatures are duplicates. That issue has ruined a number of initiatives, including a 2010 measure pushed by Councilman Carl DeMaio and one the next year pushed by a group of education reformers.

The mayor’s staff and others became convinced that the measure was not likely to qualify or had, at best, a 50-50 chance. The validity rate was so bad on the signatures collected that it was likely they would lose even more signatures. (The campaign has alleged it was a victim of fraud by the signature-gathering firm Arno Consultants.) Supporters of the measure laid out their thinking to Lemmon and prevailed on him to change course and encourage Democrats on the City Council to support the measure at the hearing later that day.

Maddox reminded Lemmon he had told him earlier that was the plan. Lemmon said he didn’t really remember that.

“I’m an open book and he’s more calculating than I am,” Lemmon said of Maddox.

By 4 p.m., Lemmon had agreed. He spoke at the City Council meeting — dropping his now notorious “What a shit show” comment — before lauding the proposal. But whatever pressure he applied to the Council after his change of heart landed on deaf ears. Councilwoman Barbara Bry said the measure should have more of a public process. Council President Myrtle Cole didn’t want to be the only one to support it.

Ward was in the South Pacific. The measure died — one vote short.

Quotes and Tweets!

Aimee Faucett, the mayor’s chief of staff, doesn’t tweet very often but she sent one last night: “Today’s thoughts … ‘Hell have no fury like a scorned woman’ and ‘Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes.'”

Tom Lemmon, acknowledged labor’s role in the shit show. “I have no problem owning it. We tried. #2020 regardless of the problems we encountered the vision remains the same!”

Mark Cafferty, CEO of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., quoted Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Keith Jones, the owner of Ace Parking, emails: “Let’s face it, Mayor Faulconer is a failed leader and dud as a effective mayor. He will be remembered by his stated #1 priority — an expansion of the Convention Center — failing to make the ballot not once but twice within the same week.”

Vargas’ $30,000 Promise

Back in June, Rep. Juan Vargas was not pleased to be accused of accepting donations from a private prison company while serving as a state senator, so he made a stunner of a pledge.

Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) speaks at a pro-immigration rally in San Diego in February 2015. / Photo by Liam Dillon

The progressive website San Diego Free Press reported that Vargas faced blowback at a Keep Families Together rally on June 23 and responded. “After Vargas denied ever receiving contributions from any of those companies, activist Mark Lane whipped out his cell phone with a screen proving otherwise, to the tune of $3,000, right after Vargas said he’d make a charitable donation equal to ten times the amount if any could be proved. There is no word on who’s getting the $30,000 yet.”

Now, Tim Walsh, Vargas’ chief of staff and campaign manager, told VOSD that the congressman in July donated $15,000 in campaign funds to Border Angels, which provides support to immigrants, and $15,000 to the Immigration Justice Project, which provides legal services. Walsh said he wouldn’t be able to provide copies of the checks to those groups until next week.

Other local legislators have been on the hot seat because they accepted campaign donations from private prison companies. Vargas stands out because he denied getting any donations from private prison companies at all. Campaign finance records reveal he received $1,000 from Corrections Corporation of America, now known as CoreCivic, for his state senator campaign fund in 2010 and a $2,000 donation in 2012.

Progressives despise the companies, in part because they are housing immigrants who are being detained by the Trump administration. Two companies, CoreCivic and Geo Group, were expected to benefit big-time according to The Wall Street Journal. The CoreCivic CEO told the Journal, “this is probably the most robust kind of sales environment we’ve seen in probably 10 years.”

CoreCivic runs the Otay Mesa Detention Center, where immigrants stay as they wait for court hearings. It’s the only detention center in California that’s allowed to expand, and it’s planning major expansions in the coming years as the uptick in detentions is expected to continue, as our Maya Srikrishnan reported earlier this year.

Randy Dotinga

Faulconer Staffer and Imperial Beach Candidate Lobbies IB on Pot

As Imperial Beach considered marijuana regulations this spring, some of the input came from Darnisha Hunter, who works for San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and is running for the Imperial Beach City Council.

On June 6, Hunter presented the IB City Council with a list of recommendations for improving the proposed regulations, which she said had come from members of the community at a church forum. Personally, she said, she did not agree with what the city was doing.

“But as a person that works in government, when people say they want something your job is to figure out how to make it happen,” she said.

An email exchange obtained by Voice shows that Imperial Beach city manager Andy Hall spoke with Hunter shortly before that City Council meeting in June — and then documented their phone chat in an email from her official San Diego account.

Three days later, Hall passed along Hunter’s recommendations to two IB Council members who sat on a committee working on marijuana regulations.

Hall told Voice that while he was aware Hunter worked in the San Diego mayor’s office, she didn’t mention it or give the impression that she was speaking on behalf of Faulconer. “I felt she was speaking to me as a resident of IB,” Hall wrote in an email.

Hunter also responded with a statement: “My interactions with the City of Imperial Beach have been in my capacity as a resident and do not reflect the positions of my employer nor was it my intention to relay that effect.”

The Union-Tribune reported this week that Hunter is hosting a backpack giveaway in the South Bay city for Faulconer’s office, and the timing of the event has caused some officials to wonder whether Hunter was leveraging her position in San Diego to boost her profile in IB. The mayor’s office said her role includes hosting events across the region.

“Normally, you organize events in your own city. My residents don’t want me organizing events in San Diego,” said IB Mayor Serge Dedina.

— Jesse Marx

Deputy Sheriffs Bail on Bonnie

As of Friday, Bonnie Dumanis’ campaign for county supervisor still had its endorsement from the Deputy Sheriffs Association of San Diego County on its website.

But Friday, the association announced it was changing sides and endorsed her rival, Nathan Fletcher, for the supervisor seat.

The Democrats for More Housing, Class of 2018

The pro-development liberal group YIMBY Democrats, named for its reversal of the pejorative NIMBY, for “Not in My Backyard,” has picked its candidates for the November election. It gave endorsements to a handful of candidates who are ostensibly running for re-election, but don’t really have a race on their hands. In competitive races, here’s who they went with.

District 4 City Council Candidate Monica Montgomery speaks to the YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County. / Photo by Dike Anyiwo

San Diego: Attorney Monica Montgomery, who is challenging Council President Myrtle Cole in District 4; Council staffer Vivian Moreno, running for District 8, where Councilman David Alvarez is termed out.

San Diego County: Former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, squaring off with former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis for the District 3 seat.

National City: Councilwoman Alejandra Sotelo-Solis, running for mayor; Jose Rodriguez, running for City Council.

Imperial Beach: Nonprofit executive Paloma Aguirre, who’s running for City Council. (Aguirre is coastal and marine director for Wildcoast, the conservation group run by current IB Mayor Serge Dedina.)

U.S. Senate: Kevin de León, who’s challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

It’s an interesting group, both for who got endorsements and for who didn’t. There’s no mention, for instance, of Jen Campbell, a San Diego District 2 candidate who, if successful, could give Democrats a veto-proof super majority, but who has not taken a pro-development stance during her campaign.

And the group went with something of a risk with Montgomery, who is challenging a party incumbent with the financial backing of the city’s labor establishment (though, Montgomery finished ahead of Cole in the primary, and has built a strong grassroots movement in the community).

Maya Rosas, president of the group, said they’ll consider another wave of endorsements in September.

“These candidates understand that there are not enough homes for San Diegans near transit, are willing to say ‘yes’ to new neighbors and are open to smart-growth policies to help solve the housing crisis,” Rosas said.

Speaking of (and With) Moreno …

Moreno came into the podcast studio for an interview Friday that we’ll release a little later.

Vivian Moreno is running for San Diego City Council District 8. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

But while she was here, we spoke about housing, and boy — it’s no surprise she got the YIMBY endorsement.

She said the most important solution to homelessness is building more permanent supportive housing, but that the region can’t stop there.

“We need to build,” she said. “We need to build, period, in San Diego.”

I asked if she counts herself as full-on YIMBY, and she nearly scoffed at the question. Of course she’s a YIMBY, she said.

“I was born and raised in San Diego and you know, I want my nieces and nephews to be able to live in San Diego, and at the rate we’re going, they’re not going to be able to afford,” Moreno said.

The city needs to look at ways it can pack incentives into potential projects to make developers more likely to build the sorts of dense housing in transit-served urban areas that the city needs, she said.

“Before I really got my feet wet in this industry, I think developers were, you know, kind of a big, bad boogeyman,” she said. “But in reality, you know, we need to work with developers to bring these developments into our communities, right? Whether they be affordable housing, market-rate housing, middle-class housing. I think that we definitely need to upzone a lot of our transit-oriented districts. I think that’s something that we could do a right away.”

.. And the View From the Far Left

The Democratic Socialists of America got a serious exposure boost in June when one of its members, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, knocked off incumbent New York Rep. Joe Crowley in the primary, leading to her likely place in Congress come November.

The local Democratic Socialists of America chapter meets to discuss housing. / Photo by Andrew Keatts

DSA has an active San Diego chapter, too, which has set its sights on two races.

Cameron Gilbert, a local DSA member, said the group is focused on electing Montgomery in District 4, and in supporting the state initiative Proposition 10, which would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act, a state law that severely restricts individual cities’ ability to implement their own rent-control measures. The measure wouldn’t impose any rent-control measures itself, but it would give cities the opportunity to.

Gilbert said DSA San Diego is excited to work with chapters in Los Angeles and San Francisco on Prop. 10, which have been more involved in ballot pushes in their cities in the past.

But DSA hasn’t formally endorsed Montgomery. Yet.

“The candidate that the chapter is very broadly fired up about, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an endorsement for, is Monica Montgomery,” Gilbert said. “Monica and Prop. 10 are probably the two biggest priorities for DSA San Diego this year.”

Gilbert said DSA prides itself on having a high bar for endorsements, since its members care about a range of issues and candidates might be aligned with them in one area and far apart on another.

“We have a lot of members who are passionate on criminal justice, and (Montgomery) has spent time organizing on issues like bail reform, and for people on the wrong side of the criminal justice system. We see her race as a chance to be on the front lines of issues that aren’t uncontroversial, and might ruffle feathers with law enforcement. Getting Monica on the Council would be a capstone in pushing the Council to the left, as with the election of Councilwoman Georgette Gomez, allowing us to push the Council president and committee chairs towards people who would be more willing to work for the working class of this city.”

One takeaway: Montgomery continues to build a broad base of support in her challenge of Cole. She has the full-throated support of the DSA, the self-described far left of the city’s political spectrum, and the pro-development YIMBYs. DSA and YIMBYs in California battled this year over a controversial Senate bill that would have dramatically upzoned properties around transit stops throughout the state, before it died in committee.

Unions, though: Major labor organizations still seem united behind Cole.

If you have a tip or thoughts for the Politics Report, or want to share your endorsements, email scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org. 

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