Monday, September 21, 2009

The Future of the Democratic Party in San Diego.

The primary challenge facing Democrats in San Diego is to present a credible alternative to conservative leadership.

San Diego is a newly Democratic community. For decades, conservatives have dominated local politics, and Democrats were left to fight over a limited number of districts to play only the loyal opposition. Now Democrats are the plurality of voters in the County, and are increasing their plurality of registered voters in the City. Despite these gains, Democrats have been unable to capture even one seat on the County Board of Supervisors, and it has been over 20 years since voters elected a Democratic mayor.

Numerical superiority alone has not been sufficient to overcome entrenched conservative dominance. Democrats need to present themselves as capable of leading San Diego, in order to leverage our advantages into real electoral wins.

For many years, most elected Democrats in San Diego followed one of two basic models. The first type of Democrat was a feisty contrarian, whose message is primarily a criticism of those in power. The alternative to that contrarian model are Democrats elected as vanilla, uncontroversial compromisers, who pledged to work with the conservative interests that already dominate San Diego.

Neither model presents a uniquely progressive or Democratic vision. The contrarian is a naysayer that critiques the status quo without presenting feasible alternatives. The compromiser more or less accepts the status quo, and pledges to work within its existing framework.

While the contrarian may object to conservative policies, they fail to articulate a persuasive Democratic alternative. The compromiser may support realistic policies, but their views are not meaningfully different from the policies advanced by conservative officeholders.

The future of the Democratic Party in San Diego requires candidates and office-holders to present uniquely Democratic ideas that are credible alternatives to the conservative status quo. We can’t just complain about conservative policies, or promise to compromise with the conservative office-holders. Neither strategy informs voters what a Democratic local government would actually do for them. We have to present a vision of what Democratic local governance would look like. And we have to ask voters to elect Democrats to carry out that vision.

In short, we have to lead.

If Democrats are unhappy about a Mayor’s charter review process, we can’t limit our response to complaining about it. Instead we have to present an alternative review system, and either use the legislative powers of the City Council, or a referendum to enact it. If proposed budgets call for cuts that are antithetical to progressive values, Democrats must show how those cuts can realistically be avoided. If the Democrats only complain about the initiatives of others, then we are not leading, but only reacting.

Democrats in San Diego need not moderate themselves in order to demonstrate a capacity for local leadership. While pragmatism is important, successful Democrats can and should fiercely advocate for the cause of workers, for project labor agreements and environmental concerns. Voters support Democrats on these issues.

In the current City Council, the person who best follows this modern Democratic approach is Todd Gloria. Gloria doesn’t just sit on the sidelines. He puts forward realistic policies that are useful alternatives to the conservative status quo. For example, Gloria has advocated for ending the subsidy renters are forced to pay when the city doesn’t charge homeowners for trash pickup. He placed more Community Relations Officers in his district, to efficiently leverage city resources and stop crimes before they start.

San Diego is fortunate to have someone like Gloria on the Council. But he’s only one person, and we need our other Democrats to follow his example. The Labor Council is taking some important steps by allowing candidates to take a “Labor 101” course on the practical and moral underpinnings policy that supports working people. San Diegans are setting up a local chapter of the New Leaders Council (, to build skills and relationships for young progressive political entrepreneurs.

Democrats need to articulate how their policy preferences will actually operate when applied. If we are going to ask voters to give us the reigns of government, we have to present and fight for a positive view of progressive local government.

Colin Parent is an attorney and the Political Director for the San Diego County Young Democrats.

[Cross-posted on NBC San Diego.]