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Unions Split: Inside the Fight for Control of the City Council

The behind-the-scenes vote wrangling between Councilman David Alvarez and Councilwoman Myrtle Cole to become the next Council president is turning into a proxy war between two powerful progressive interests in City Hall.

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.”

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.”

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