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Politics Report: The 180-Degree Shift in Union Construction Politics

Raul Campillo, a candidate for San Diego City Council District 7, speaks at a San Diego Labor Council rally. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

It wasn’t so long ago that every time you turned around, voters were approving measures that banned cities from using project labor agreements. A decade later, PLA politics have almost completely inverted.

Chula Vista and Oceanside voters in 2010 barred their cities from using the agreements, which stipulate wages and benefits for construction workers on city projects and mandate that contractors hire through union halls. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously did the same that year, and two years later voters in the city of San Diego and El Cajon imposed the same restriction.

Now, the city of San Diego is on its way to overturning that 2012 measure, after a City Council committee took the first steps of putting a new measure on the November 2022 ballot. Chula Vista voters last year struck down their ban. And PLA proponents are preparing to put another measure on the 2022 ballot to end the county ban (although state law has already effectively killed the county’s measure).

The shift underscores the evolution of California politics since the recession.

“It’s a 180-degree change,” said Carol Kim, political director of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council, who supports PLAs.

“It’s just a reflection of the larger change of politics across California,” said Kevin Dayton, a consultant whose group, Labor Issue Solutions, opposes PLAs. “The state has changed, and San Diego County has changed dramatically. It’s obvious.”

To wit: 55.7 percent of Chula Vista voters approved a PLA ban in June 2010. Last year, 67.5 percent of voters revoked the ban. In 2012, 58 percent of San Diego voters approved the city’s ban. In a committee hearing this week, city staff cited polling that found 63 percent of voters would support undoing the measyure.

The 2022 ballot: Councilman Raul Campillo has led the charge at the city to ask voters to undo the ban they put in place the same day they approved a now-defunct measure ending pensions for most new city employees and made former Councilman Carl DeMaio the top vote-getter in that year’s mayoral primary.

Two state laws passed just after 2012’s Prop. A – with the backing of PLA proponents in Sacramento, specifically to thwart local efforts to restrict their use – complicated the city’s ban, by restricting any state funds from going to cities that had such measures in place. The city managed to get an exception so its massive wastewater recycling program, Pure Water, could move forward, but in an interview Campillo said it’s time to move on and bring more state funding back for city infrastructure spending.

“We don’t want to take anymore risks on losing tax dollars,” he said. “Let’s get our contracting rules in compliance and move forward.”

The city’s Rules Committee this week directed city staff to put together a measure undoing Prop. A, and a staff report for the committee cited recent polling that found 63 percent of likely voters support the change (the measure won 58 percent approval in 2012). Maybe more revealing of the shift, though, was the involvement of Lani Lutar, a longtime local policy consultant who was among the supporters listed in the ballot materials for Prop. A in 2012. She spoke at the committee hearing in favor of undoing the ban. “Times have changed,” she said.

“Based on pension issues at the time, voters had the mindset that unions were hurting us and costing us money,” Campillo said. “It passed at such a high rate because that was the narrative at the time. We’re moving away from blaming unions, and realizing that unions are part of the solution.”

Getting rid of the ban, Campillo said, would unlock state funding the city hadn’t bothered to compete for before. He said the city’s need for 11 to 19 new firehouses could be the first beneficiary of any new state funds.

How things have changed: Twenty-five years ago, Dayton said, he would be hired to fight between 3 and 4 PLAs a year. He recalled the shock of local politicos in 1999, when the San Diego County Water Authority imposed a PLA, which they thought were limited to the Bay Area. Now he sees PLAs hit local agendas 3 to 4 times a week.

“I’ve always said you can use PLAs as a canary in a coal mine, to see when a conservative area is trending blue,” he said. “Often, it’s a foreshadowing of when political change is coming.”

Kim said events of the last 10 years helped hasten the shift. Donald Trump clarified for voters what it meant to vote Republican, she said, increasing support for union-backed policies, and wealth inequality became too pronounced to ignore. Plus, she said, the electorate itself changed, growing by about half a million people countywide, while unions themselves became more strategic about supporting officials who would pursue the issue. (She also emphasizes the low turnout environment when PLA bans passed, which exaggerate their popularity even at the time.)

Company on the 2022 ballot: The state boosted PLAs in 2012, with SB 829 cutting off money to cities that banned them. But it could act more directly on counties, with SB 922 in 2011 simply negating any county-imposed ban.

That means the 2010 measure approved by all five San Diego County supervisors has been inoperative – a vestigial organ, essentially – ever since. Even still, Kim said she expects supporters to move forward on a 2022 ballot measure that would strike the inoperable language from the books, for good measure.

“That won’t be a big campaign, because it isn’t a real thing to start with,” she said.

That’s basically what Dayton expected would happen too.

“I’m sure some day the unions will repeal the county’s ban, just for the fun of it,” he said.

And Then There Was One

This week, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said the recent merger of Balboa Park’s two largest philanthropic groups into one — now known as Forever Balboa Park [1] — sets the stage for a more formal partnership with the city to address the iconic park’s many needs.

A decade ago, civic leaders founded the Balboa Park Conservancy in hopes that it could serve as a park leader that set priorities, pulled in philanthropic dollars and managed park projects. Progress in achieving that mission didn’t come as quickly as [2] many park stakeholders had hoped.

Then, as Balboa Park faced major closures amid the pandemic last year, the Conservancy and the Friends of Balboa Park considered a merge [3]. They made it official on July 1.

Gloria cheered the news of a potential merger [4] as a mayoral candidate and wrote in a Friday statement that he’s excited about what could come next. He said:

“The merger of two philanthropic organizations that each have a track record of achievements in Balboa Park provides an opportunity to pursue the vision outlined in the “Soul of San Diego Report” [5] which, after a thorough public process, called for the city to partner with a nonprofit organization to help raise funds, manage projects and provide a level of care for Balboa Park that the city has been unable to achieve on its own. It is my hope that the city will formalize a relationship with Forever Balboa Park to help achieve these objectives. My intention is that the agreement will have the ability to grow gradually as Forever Balboa Park demonstrates its capability of taking on greater responsibilities in the park.”

-Lisa Halverstadt

How Politics Spurred Anti-Gay Icon’s ‘Rapturous’ Career

A dispatch from contributor Randy Dotinga:

There’s something about living in East County that makes religious leaders want to leave this world behind.

First, there were the Unarians [6], a UFO-based faith based in El Cajon that popularized “interdimensional science” and was run by an eccentric woman “who combined [7] the couture sensibilities of a drag queen with the joie de vivre of a Frisbee-chasing Irish Setter.” Then came El Cajon-based minister Tim LaHaye, whose “Left Behind” novels, co-authored with Jerry B. Jenkins, sold tens of millions of copies. They’ve focused the minds of countless fellow evangelicals on the coming End Times, the subsequent Rapture of true believers into Heaven, and the ensuing battle against the Antichrist back home on earth.

It’s Pride Week in San Diego, which inspired me to dig into our region’s LGBT history. I dug into a now-forgotten anti-gay ballot measure in 1978 and discovered how state and local political battles helped transform LaHaye into a towering figure in the American religious right movement.

LaHaye toiled in obscurity for much of his career as a minister before 1978, a watershed year for the rise of conservative Christian influence in politics. Many evangelicals had voted for fellow born-again Christian Jimmy Carter two years earlier, but they despised his liberal-leaning stances on gay rights and abortion. They also feared losing tax breaks for segregated religious schools.

Enter Tim LaHaye, who’d already gotten drawn into politics in the 1960s when the San Diego City Council refused his church’s bid for renovations. This experienced convinced him, as a historian writes [8], that “there were powerful enemies of Christianity in the secular world of politics.” (He later built his church empire in El Cajon, where his legacy is the Shadow Mountain Community megachurch.)

In 1978, he became a fierce supporter of Prop. 6, which would have banned gay people from working as teachers in California. The proposition failed after Republicans, including former Gov. Ronald Reagan, urged “no” votes. (Three decades later, another evangelical congregation in East County – Skyline Church – led the fight for Prop. 8, the successful anti-gay marriage ballot initiative.)

Also in 1978, inspired by an editor who suggested he write “a penetrating book on homosexuality,” LaHaye came out with “The Unhappy Gays [9].” Based in part on his own undercover explorations of San Diego gay bars, the book’s highlights include a field guide to “usually very selfish” gays: He identifies species such as “The Closet Queen,” “The Typical Homosexual,” and “The Butch.” He also declared that he saw “shades of New York City, San Francisco, and San Diego” in the ruins of a Pompeii bathhouse.

Boosted by their outspoken activism, LaHaye and his anti-feminist wife, Beverly, became major players in the fledgling religious right movement. LaHaye even helped found the Moral Majority organization. “LaHaye is not always mentioned along with the marquee names of the religious right, but he was a presence throughout,” Dartmouth College religion professor Randall Balmer told me. “His writings clearly reached a wide audience of evangelicals. LaHaye was very gifted at the language of victimization, the rhetoric that evangelicals are somehow under siege in a multicultural society.”

Fast forward: LaHaye’s first “Left Behind” novel was published in 1995, spawning an empire of enormously popular sequels, books for kids, and even a series of movies, including one in 2014 starring – who else – Nicholas Cage. (“Biblical in its silliness [10],” scoffed one critic. “Score one for Satan [10],” wrote another.)

The “Left Behind” books reflect a real-life “desire for the world to end” among evangelicals, said Tina Pippin, a professor of religion at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., in an interview. She added that they feature a kind of voyeurism “which is really perverted”: Raptured believers in Heaven see the action from above as the Antichrist fights a Christian militia on earth.

LaHaye died [11] in San Diego at the age of 90 in 2016. The evangelical obsession with the Rapture, which he helped stoke, remains alive and influential. It’s even a touchstone among some of the nation’s most powerful political figures. “This,” one religion expert told Rolling Stone [12] last year, “is mainstream.”

-Randy Dotinga

Political Notes

If you have feedback or ideas for the Politics Report – or any especially cutting insults about Scott Lewis – please send them to andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org.