Saturday, November 3, 2018

The despair of highly motivated voters

I’m what’s called a "highly motivated" voter.  Most of the people I hang out with are highly motivated voters.  We vote in every election.  

And I try to be informed.  I read and re-read the ballot initiatives… investigate and double-check the small print… pay attention to which group endorses which measure.  Sometimes, I gather friends and neighbors to comb through the ballot.  But let’s be honest: it still feels like a crapshoot.

The initiative process gives us regular citizens the option of by-passing our elected representatives (whenever deemed necessary) and taking matters into our own hands to make laws on our own.  It's a romanticized notion of vigorous direct democracy.

Wanna hear a dirty secret?  Ballot propositions are never clear-cut, transparent, or exempt from unintended consequences.  They demand value judgments – the same as all political actions. 

Wanna hear another dirty secret?  Ballot propositions have been known to send “highly motivated” voters into paroxysms of anxiety and guilt as they try to figure out the right answers to what are often trick or tricky questions. 

With 11 state proposals, 4 county measures, and 9 city initiatives on San Diego's current November ballot does it surprise anyone that “low propensity” voters (Latinos, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, ages 18-30, and low-income residents – statistically speaking) would rather skip the whole thing?  Haven’t you ever been tempted?

Here’s my attempt to ease the pain for voters who'll be giving it their best shot at their neighborhood polling places this Tuesday.  First, a few points to keep in mind when deciding your vote: 

  1. Sometimes elected state, county, or city lawmakers put items on the ballot when they want to sidestep responsibility.
  2. Often, powerful interest groups (with cash to burn) turn the initiative process to their own advantage.  With a multi-million dollar professional signature-gathering syndicate at their fingertips, private players can secure a place on the ballot for almost any one of their measures.  
  3. Occasionally, community or nonprofit groups successfully turn to the initiative or referendum to assert public interests.
  4. Maybe one day some reputable, civic-minded citizen groups will put their heads together and come up with workable ideas for repairing the initiative/referendum process. 

Now for a look at the State Propositions:

  • Propositions 1 and 2 are bond measures which (like all bond measures) require a vote of the public.  Both deal with special housing assistance needs and both seem deserving.
  • Props 3 and 4 are also bond measures.  Both found their way to the ballot through signature-raising petitions.  Prop 3 focuses on repairing groundwater infrastructure over-used by central valley agricultural interests and probably should be financed locally rather than statewide.  Prop 4 funds private and public childrens hospitals – a worthy cause, of course – but fundraising goals might readily be met through private endowments rather than long-term public debt.  
  • Props 5 and 6 were put on the ballot by private interests.  Prop 5 involves preferential property taxes and Prop 6 involves gas taxes. Both would undo important provisions in previous initiatives and both are unwise.  
  • Prop 7 gives the go-ahead to state lawmakers to fiddle with daylight savings time.  It's a popularity poll but why exhaust voters with yet another proposition to wrestle with?
  • Prop 8 is a labor dispute involving dialysis clinics that asks voters to butt in on one side or the other.  Vote No on items that don’t belong on the ballot in the first place.
  • (Prop 9 was mercifully removed from the ballot)
  • Prop 10 is the rare case of a worthy measure placed on the ballot by public-interest signature gatherers.  It gives cities the right to set their own policies and laws concerning upwardly-spiraling rents.  I say Yes.
  • Prop 11 (like Prop 8) is a labor dispute, placed on the ballot by private ambulance companies to get the public to intercede on their behalf on money issues.  It doesn’t belong on the ballot and gets a No vote from me.
  • Prop 12 returns to an issue involving the humane treatment of farm animals that voters already considered in 2008.  The Humane Society and other groups put this initiative on the ballot to tighten and enforce standards and restrictions.  The inflexible nature of propositions is a good reason why some dilemmas should not be legislated and controlled through the initiative process.  Rule of thumb: when in doubt… vote No.

Now for a look at the County Propositions:

  • Measure A is a “clean-up” Charter amendment that looks fine to me.
  • Measure B is a bit sinister.  It would require gerrymandering county district lines to ensure that a majority of Supervisors will have a personal stake in the County’s rural back-country (perennially under pressure for denser development).   No, not a good idea.      
  • Measure C wants voters to assume the role of fiscal taskmasters and put County pension stabilization funds in a lockbox.  yes? no? no? yes?  When in doubt… I vote No.
  • Measure D brings standard voting practices to the County by requiring a runoff by the two top winners in a primary election to run again in the general election.  Fine with me.

Finally, San Diego City Propositions:

  • Measures E and G are competing proposals to develop a huge chunk of city-owned property in Mission Valley at the site of (the former) Qualcomm Stadium.  Both are big on shiny promises but shockingly short on guarantees of what we’d end up with.  Land use planning by initiative, and surely on this scale, should be outlawed (if only…).  A hearty No on both of them.
  • Measures J, K, L, and M are charter amendments that (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) deserve voter approval. 
  • Measure N amends the municipal code (city's book of laws) to reinstate certain benefits to police officers.  It’s fine.
Oops… almost forgot the SD Unified School District:

  • Measure H is a screwy response to a set of needed reforms that were recently recommended to – but ignored by – the San Diego School Board.  So this one is a No.
  • Measure YY is the 3rd and largest bond measure to be put to the voters in the past 10 years (previous measures were voter-approved).  Because of their high repayment costs, 30-year bonds should be reserved for durable capital improvement projects.  Long-term bond borrowing should not be used for routine acquisitions and day-to-day maintenance purposes.  Truth is, I have never turned down a school bond measure.  This may be my first.
And that's it.  Congratulations for hanging in there.  The rest of the day is all yours. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

When good-guys go rogue (Installment III of III)

They say meditation clears your head and speeds you down the road to enlightenment.  I’ve tried.  Remember my mindful walks?  Breathe in…breathe out…notice…let it go. 

But letting it go doesn’t work anymore.  San Diego’s notion of progressive politics has changed a mindful walk into a walk on the wild side. 

Come notice with me and you’ll see what I mean. 

Notice that primary election day is here and the June ballot is a real turn-off.  Too many ovals to blacken, vague propositions, and mysterious candidates – who are most of them, anyway?

A couple of years ago some smart-alecks sold us a bill of goods about the civic virtues of the “open primary,” which invites unlimited numbers of candidates of every political persuasion to a free-for-all to duke it out for 1st and 2nd place.  Then the day after the primary, beleaguered voters submit to more rounds of fundraising, TV ads, pricey campaign mailers, and nasty bloodletting as the top two vote-getters pummel one another until November, when they’re thrown back into the ring for the final winning battle. 

Let it go?  We shouldn’t.  Not when there could be a more efficient, quicker, less expensive, and painless option for electing our representatives (back to this subject at a later date).

Now notice the unusually high number of self-proclaimed progressives on the June primary ballot.  What’s peculiar is that many are running for the same office. 

In past years, bewildered voters could count on a who’s-endorsing-whom cheat sheet to steer them in the right direction.  No longer.  Odd-couple endorsements and peculiar pairings fly all over the map. 

For example, two of my favorite do-good nonprofits tell me to vote for candidate X when I know for certain that candidate Y is the superior choice.  Democratic politicians I once respected are pimping for ineffectual, manipulable, cliché-ridden candidates.   And the local Democratic Party has sold its soul by publishing indefensibly dirty ads against a particularly qualified Democratic candidate while bestowing endorsements on flashy candidates proclaiming phantom achievements.

Let it go? Not if we care about the future of San Diego. 
And what if we notice that some of our good-guys have gone rogue, creating so much muck they’re stinking up San Diego’s fledgling progressive movement?  Are we really supposed to let it go?  


Let’s take a quick look backward.  San Diego is an arid, drought-prone place with a politically conservative history.  Nevertheless, various ethnic, sexual, environmental, labor, and racial streams have occasionally trickled through and fertilized the political scene.  Consider:
  • our tenacious union leaders who keep up the pressure for workers rights in a city that once turned high-pressure water hoses on the wobblies (International Workers of the World) to drown out their calls for free speech.
  • our decades-old tradition of electing Latinos to local office and then propelling them ASAP straight up to Sacramento.
  • San Diego’s top-ranking as a gay-friendly city that elects LGBTQ candidates at home and also propels them ASAP straight up to Sacramento.
  • our environmental advocates who fought for open space, regional parks, building height limits, and quality-of-life growth policies.
  • and the range of woman who left their marks on San Diego history – Ellen Browning Scripps, Bertha Pendleton, Luisa Morena, Belle Benchley, Katherine Tingley, Florence Chadwick, Maureen O’Connor, Ingrid Croce, Judy the Beauty…
Looks hopeful, doesn’t it?  But who can call it progress when we see our current good-guys indulge in proxy wars… personal vendettas… obsessional political ambition… compulsion for dominance?  when they pull the rug out from under authentic good-guys? 

It comes as no surprise that even progressives can succumb to venial sins like ignorance, gullibility, or falling head-over-heels in love with sexy and seductive people.  But mortal sins (lying, coercion, defamation, bribery, hit-jobs) are something else.  

To some, it just politics.  But for progressives, when the lofty idea of intersectionality ends up looking like collusion, it's called going rogue.  Here's how it's been playing out in San Diego:

Workers unions are fighting for their collective lives all over this country.  In San Diego, they’ve become their own worst enemies.  

As it happens, a nasty internal power struggle is underway between two union chieftains – Tom Lemmon, head honcho of the SD County Building and Construction Trades Council (and BFF with San Diego's emerging #MeToo sisterhood)  and Mickey Kasparian, former president of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, current head of the San Diego Working Families Council (and exclusive target of  #MeToo).  

What was originally a cockfight has shape-shifted into a noxious proxy battle involving two candidates running for county Supervisor: professed convert to progressivism Nathan Fletcher and long-time progressive Lori Saldaña.

Mickey Kasparian had once thrown his union's support to David Alvarez for San Diego mayor, bypassing Nathan Fletcher (turns out, neither won that race).  Fletcher is once again back in the saddle as a candidate for county Supervisor.  And once again Kasparian could be a spoiler.  

It's likely someone ordered a purge.  You may have read  about harassment charges (sexual and otherwise) lodged against Kasparian by three women in #MeToo attempts to strip him from power and send him packing.  Politics/ power/ revenge?

A true-blue labor activist once confided to me that, despite many misgivings about Nathan Fletcher and his anti-union, anti-woman, anti-taxes voting record, most unions would endorse him based on assurances that his wife Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (past political director of the Labor Council  and current state assembly-member) would make sure that that her husband would always vote the right way. 

Some simple arithmetic: Labor unions are a major funding source for the Democratic Party.  Labor is under the thumb of Lorena Gonzalez.  The Democratic Party anointed and endorsed  Nathan Fletcher, husband of Lorena Gonzalez, for county Supervisor.  Any questions about this equation?

Fold in the role of the Latino community, which remains underrepresented at the polls and only perfunctorily represented by their elected leaders here at home.  Political turf battles, controlled mostly within family lines (the Inzunzas, the Huesos), are still the norm in San Diego and the South Bay, where above-mentioned Lorena Gonzalez diligently shores up kinship alliances.

So it’s hardly a surprise that a non-family-affiliated independent Latino city official like David Alvarez gets the snake-eye from the ruling Latino establishment.  And it shouldn’t be surprising that the campaign to oust Mickey Kasparian was ferociously fueled by activists within the Latino community.

Up north you'll find environmental lawyer Marco Gonzalez, big brother of Lorena Gonzalez, defending the coastline.  He also wears the progressive label while doing his loyal best to stay on the good side of his sister.  In the past he's kept his fingerprints anonymous – for example, when helping to assemble aggrieved women to bring down Mayor Bob Filner, thereby clearing the coast for Nathan Fletcher's (ultimately unsuccessful) mayoral runs. 

The upshot for the citizens of San Diego? We got Kevin Falconer for mayor – four years of regressive planning, housing, infrastructure, homeless, and social policies – just like in the bad old days.  What more proof do we need that underhanded, murky tactics, even when they come from progressive good-guys, lead to fetid outcomes?

Now fold in San Diego’s gay community.  Once predominantly Republican, around two decades ago a contingent of organized, motivated gay activists took over the moribund county Democratic Party and infused it with new energy, money, and leadership.  A gay center was established in Hillcrest, a gay council district was created, and increasing numbers of gay elected leaders were shepherded onto the school board, city council, and upward to the state assembly and senate. 

But these Dem Party leaders were failures at multi-tasking. They ignored the party’s other obligations to cultivate, groom, and support a wide spectrum of Democratic candidates and pursue a comprehensive range of progressive goals for the region – leaving the Party vulnerable to attacks from all sides of the Democratic spectrum and bereft of a healthy pool of new, true-blue blood. 

As for the Democratic Party –  Ordinarily, I feel protective of San Diego’s Democratic Party.  But the party's unprecedented decision to freeze out highly qualified progressive candidates running for county Supervisor (two black men, Omar Passons and Ken Malbrough, and Latina Lori Saldaña) and throw huge financial resources into their anointed candidate Nathan Fletcher (whose outstanding political achievement so far is his marriage to Lorena Gonzalez) is dumbfounding – especially since the party has sidestepped a truly crucial race for the US Congress in the county’s 49th district!

The Party’s indefensibly hateful attacks on Saldaña feel downright deviant.  This is not politics as usual.  This is not progressive. This reeks of manipulation and bullying.  This poisons the progressive well.
Finally, intersect our #MeToo movement in this lineup of distorted progressive values for giving full consent to being exploited as battering rams and manipulated into doing the dirty work for other people's retaliatory power games and personal agendas.  

We're smarter than that, aren't we?  We shouldn’t let ourselves be bullied... or bully others,  should we?  We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be silenced... or silence others, so why do we?


Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in a State of the Union speech in the early years of WW II, summed up what progressivism is all about.  He named Four Freedoms: freedom of speech; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. 

Today’s progressives in San Diego have a much narrower view of the big picture.  We are handicapped by a high tolerance for mediocrity in our leaders... by the city's narrow-minded and self-serving business leaders... by the city's subservient devotion to developers and hoteliers...

And we handicap and cripple ourselves by ignoring unprofessional, uncoordinated, unaccountable, inefficient, and just plain sloppy city management under Mayor Faulconer’s administration.

The easy part for progressives is fixing our governmental and structural handicaps.  That's what we ought to be doing.

The hard part is fixing ourselves.  That's what we must do.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the most progressive of us all? (Installment II of III)

Mega-sized campaign mailers from San Diego’s current crop of would-be reformers reach practically to the ceiling.  I’m sure it’s a boon to the US Postal Service but I feel punch drunk from the senseless beatings so many of our “change-makers” are inflicting on one another.

The bloodshed is really puzzling, since all of our good-guys identify themselves with the same label – Progressive.  So here’s a question: what does “progressive” actually mean? 

This much I remember from my Urban Planning classes: Way back, starting in the late 1880s and lasting for about three decades till the end of World War I, a social movement arose to confront the negative consequences of the great industrial revolution of the 19th century, and this social movement grew into a political movement, and it became known as “progressivism.”  

Progressivism was a big umbrella.  Under it, a wide swath of players agitated to reform innumerable societal ills – ruthless business practices, corporate greed, robber barons, government corruption, anti-immigrant venom, anti-black venom, discrimination against women, class warfare, and other fallout from a Golden Age of unprecedented industrialization and rapid economic growth.    

But they did more than agitate.  They created reform measures to tackle child labor abuses, sweatshops, factory working conditions, efficiency in municipal governance (San Diego’s city manager system, recently replaced by a strong mayor system, was created at this time), monopolistic corporations, and corrupt political machines.  

Their bipartisan efforts led to a federal income tax, voting rights for women, direct election of US senators, federal control of the banking system, the initiative/ referendum/ recall process, unionization, public health standards, anti-trust laws, minimum wages, neighborhood settlement houses, public education – you get the gist.  

Fast forward a century for the spectacle of modern-day reformers in San Diego and across the country rallying alongside Occupy Wall Street activists in peaceful rebellion against a resurgence of corporate abuse, bank fraud, mega-money control of elections, income inequality, a rigged economy… could this auger a revival of the historic Progressive Era? 

Not likely.  Times have changed.  Today’s “progressive” movement deviates in significant ways from old-time progressivism.  
  • Back then, the movement and its achievements were the result of vigorous bipartisan efforts.  Nowadays, the movement is exclusively owned by “left-leaning” groups and individuals.
  • Back then, progressivism drilled-down on ways to create better-functioning bureaucracies and rebuild government institutions.  Nowadays, most energy is directed toward social issues of gender equality, ethnic diversity, economic justice, #MeToo dynamics – with less interest in fine-tuning the (wonky but pivotal) managerial, bureaucratic, and structural components of local and federal government.
  • Back then, progressivism took a pragmatic approach to change and reform. Societal problems were dealt with through concrete legislative action.  Nowadays –  given the cold war freeze between polarized political parties – we get more aspirational and inspirational pronouncements and fewer practical steps to achieve them.

Do you ever wonder, are YOU a real progressive?  Test yourself with this cheat sheet of progressive values and goals, garnered from public statements by self-branded progressive groups, spokespeople, and progressive-labeled candidates.   
A progressive:
  1. chooses the “public interest” or “common good” over rampant self-seeking individualism
  2. is a strong proponent of workplace regulations and a living wage
  3. undertakes environmental stewardship, promotes renewable energy and other programs to deal with climate change
  4. promotes equality and civil rights for all citizens without regard for race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, lifestyle choice
  5. demands police reform regarding minorities
  6. signs on to policies to increase housing construction in urban areas and believes that densification will lower housing costs, relieve homelessness, and make housing more affordable
  7. backs marriage rights for gay/lesbian couples
  8. works to elect more women to office
  9. supports hand-up programs for struggling families, including paid family leave and Social Security expansion
  10. defends women’s rights to full, autonomous control of their bodies and supports Planned Parenthood...  Wait! there’s more!  A progressive:
  11. agrees with legalizing recreational marijuana
  12. wants to expand automatic voter registration
  13. values investment in our country’s infrastructure and opposes international trade agreements that send jobs overseas
  14. agitates for a single payer healthcare system
  15. champions free community colleges and expanded preschool programs
  16. advocates for tighter gun regulations
  17. pushes for net neutrality for free and open internet
  18. wishes to increase rights and obligations for Wall Street shareholders to undercut corporate dominance
  19. is repelled by the influence and control of corporate money, bundlers, super-PACS and TV ads in political campaigns 
To sum up: Progressives have an all-inclusive agenda advocating social, racial, economic, and gender justice; and a simple policy platform to tax the rich, end wars, and create honest and effective government for all.

 Don't worry – nobody’s asking a progressive candidate to be a saint.  But something’s missing from our progressive litmus test.  Where’s the bullet point for personal integrity… honesty… truthfulness… dependability… past performance… ethical core… consistent voting record?  
Where are the demerits for vituperativeness? obfuscation? distortion? arm-twisting? coercion? false witness? creating one's past out of whole cloth?
Did you pass the test?  I did - but, I admit, not with a perfect score.  What about the bevy of local candidates who sport the big-P?  I predict they'd all get an A.  There’s nary a hair’s breadth of difference in their campaign platforms.  
Except, perhaps, when it comes to #19 – campaign money.  

Despite plenty of lip service from San Diego's candidates about campaign finance reform, the brutal combat zones in some of our primary races (e.g., District Attorney, County Supervisor D4, Congressional D49 & D50) are fueled by big money from super-PACs and fabulously wealthy donors.  Even the San Diego County Democratic Party is tilting the primary scales with heavy bundles of cash for one anointed candidate above all others.
What’s crazy about this picture is the wild-west mashup of progressive candidates endorsed and financed by odd-fellow combos of unions, PACs, and rich individuals.  There are too many hidden agendas.
I have a contrarian friend whose opinions I appreciate.  He points out that life in San Diego isn’t as bad as all that, at least not when compared to the near-fascistic forces manipulating today's White House and Congress.  True. 
Then again, even in a city as placid as San Diego, seasoned veterans of political wars readily recognize the alternate political reality hidden under high stacks of glossy campaign sloganeering and progressive rhetoric. 
In this era of extreme partisanship, smug convictions, fierce rivalries, smoldering grudges, and #KnowNothing #MeFirst mindsets, even the good guys are not immune to infection.  
San Diego looks good on the outside but:
↠ if we don’t master good governance at the local level
↠ if we don’t challenge those who bear responsibility for what goes wrong in our region
↠ if we keep giving passing grades to mediocre politicians 
↠ if we fail to confront our change-agent superheroes when they start behaving like the bad guys, then all progressive bets are off.

More on these issues, players, and candidates next time…

Progressive agenda

Thursday, May 17, 2018

San Diego – the exceptional city (Installment I of III)

Never before in human history have ordinary people – you and me – been able to peer into the quirky, submicroscopic genomic particles that direct traffic within our mortal bodies (hooray for our tenacious medical researchers) while simultaneously scanning the vast cosmos for the daunting mysteries of black holes (posthumous homage to Stephen Hawkings).  ­­­­­­­­­­

By contrast, tackling the routine challenges of daily existence ­– love, work, family, politics – should be a piece of cake.  Alas, not so.  The scientific method, the intellect of experts... these tools are woefully inadequate in the realm of social and political affairs.  

To illustrate, let’s look at our own city of San Diego.  
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that despite huge population growth over the decades… despite a leftish tilt in political party registration... despite city charter reforms to give us district elections, term limits, a strong mayor government, and a new “minority/majority” council district... 

... despite the increasing number of female and lgbt and ethnic candidates elected to office… despite project/labor agreements and living wage resolutions… despite rivers of craft beer flowing through our neighborhoods… 

... despite downtown rallies and marches and declarations of #MeToo… despite new trolley lines and colorful bikes and scooters… despite sprouting cannabis dispensaries... despite the promising winds of change in recent decades... despite it all... 

San Diego has stood its ground as a city that defies the natural laws of nature.  We've mastered the secret of self-cloning to routinely reproduce generations of complacent, lackluster, interchangeable political leaders.  We're stunted by a fossilized political mentality, hobbled by a stubborn disregard for the public good, yet successful at resisting change.  

San Diego is, perhaps, the only place on earth where evolution has been observed to move backwards. 

We also have an exceptional gift for pulling the wool over the eyes of insiders and outsiders, alike.  Take a look at this east coast perspective of our city: 
Like its urban rival Los Angeles, San Diego is not so much a city as a loose collection of overlapping (and sometimes colliding) communities bound by arterial, life-giving freeways: it’s a military town in Coronado; a surf town in funky, eclectic Ocean Beach; and a border town in the historic Mexican-American neighborhood of Barrio Logan. If San Diego has a cohesive identity at all, it’s a shared embrace of an easy, breezy Southern California casualness. With its lack of pretension, the city is often seen by outsiders as a kind of Pleasantville — a bland, happy place with an exceptional amount of sunshine. Depending on how deep you look, that may be all you see. But there are, after all, worse things than Spanish tiles, palm trees, tropical blooms, year-round flip-flops, fresh fish tacos and bonfires on the beach.
 Yes, it’s recognizably us.  

But missing from view is a rendering of the heart, the soul, the driving force of our city – our relentless zeal to pander to land speculators, developers, and the venerable "hospitality" industry.  

Also overlooked is San Diego's well-honed art of seducing, manipulating, and ultimately neutralizing (and eviscerating) would-be reformers as they attempt to turn the political tide toward a more enlightened, equitable city.

But cheer up!  There may still be a future in our future.  A new contingent of ambitious “change-makers” is on the horizon, girded for the battle to redirect San Diego’s historic trajectory.  It's a welcome undertaking but a risky one in a city like ours.   

So here's a useful reminder: our city’s previous brave reformers helped dig their own black holes by resisting the necessity for comprehensive planning and strong coalition-building (think of it as a pragmatic version of "intersectionality").  

What caused them to resist?  Let's just say that inflated egos and personal political goals are equal opportunity afflictions that cut across all political persuasions.  Even “good guys” in pursuit of power for a just cause can succumb to underhanded, undemocratic, and vindictive tactics that eventually poison the well.  

It may not be fair that the “bad guys” don’t have to be encumbered by attributes like honesty, integrity, and ethics while the “good guys” do.  But like it or not, if our new reformers are to be effective advocates for the public good, then higher standards are a sine qua non.  And right now, a brutally honest assessment of San Diego's newest warriors suggests a very mixed score.
Next installment we’ll take a tour of the political aspirations and maneuverings of San Diego’s current crop of change-makers.