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Saturday, April 28, 2007 | Though known for the conservative roots laid down by the Navy, former Mayor Pete Wilson and others, San Diego, for this weekend at least, will be the home to the Democrats.

And not just some Democrats — more than 2,000 of the party’s most visible activists in the state, scores of elected officials and seven of the eight Democratic presidential candidates have descended upon the San Diego Convention Center this weekend for the annual California Democratic Party Convention. The three-day event will allow the delegation to hash out its own issues, hear from its Oval Office hopefuls for 2008, and take a glimpse at a city where Democratic politics have struggled for dominance since taking an edge in registration in the past several years.

Ushering the conventioneers into San Diego is Jess Durfee, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party. Durfee recently sat down with voiceofsandiego.org to chat about the newly left-leaning Governator, the party’s best marketing tool (rhymes with “mush”), and what he’ll tell delegates from around California about the state of the Democrats in San Diego.

As delegates from around California converge here this weekend, what are you going to tell them about the state of the Democratic Party in San Diego?

We’re actually not doing badly here. Last fall, we had four statewide candidates who won in San Diego County (Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Attorney Gen. Jerry Brown, Treasurer Bill Lockyer and Controller John Chiang) — that’s unusual. If you go back four years, we didn’t have that.

I think there is a trend that is changing, not only in San Diego, but across the country. You’re going to see places that were traditionally considered red certainly moving to purple with the potential of being blue. I think San Diego County is very much in that transition.

But are those four victories in the county a good gauge of Democrats’ strength here? Or does it speak to the strength of the four candidates up and down the state?

I think it’s a combination. We spent more and did more in the last election cycle than we’ve ever done. I would say the county organization has dramatically changed and ratcheted up its involvement. We’ve got a precinct-organizing project that proved to be effective last fall … increased turnout over past elections. We are also doing more fundraising in the past and are far more competitive than before.

And that was a good start. What has happened nationally has really created a lot of momentum among Democrats. The Democrats are more enthusiastic than they ever were before. They’re turning out in bigger numbers. I thought President Bush was a good organizing tool for us in 2004. He’s proving to be absolutely phenomenal for us in 2008.

But that national backlash against Bush didn’t seem to cross into San Diego County?

We didn’t lose ground in ’06. I would even argue — even though she didn’t win — the success of Francine Busby getting within that slim margin of victory in a very Republican district was an indication that the voters are turning their backs on the Republican Party. Even just her being competitive in the 50th Congressional District (and) … the fact that they had to spend millions of dollars on a seat where they would normally have to spend a couple hundred thousands of dollars, is an indication that the Republican Party is in trouble.

Despite having a Democratic majority in terms of voter registration, many still see San Diego as a conservative town. Is that the case? Why does it still have that label?

There are a lot of issues in which that is absolutely not the case. One obvious one is that this is really a city that took the lead on transforming its city ordinances in terms of civil rights for the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community when they passed the human dignity ordinance (in 2002). It was long before many cities even looked at that sort of thing. San Diego City Schools had adopted a domestic partner benefits program long before other school districts around the country had.

The affordable housing policy by the City Council, the living-wage ordinance — there are a number of things on social issues that demonstrate this isn’t the conservative place that most people assume it is. Certainly if you compare what we’ve got going on here as a city to cities in the Midwest and the South, we would be considered liberal.

That said, if Councilwoman Donna Frye doesn’t throw her hat into the ring as a write-in candidate in 2004, you’ve got the eighth-largest city in the nation holding a race for mayor with no Democratic candidates to choose from.

That’s absolutely an area that we need to work on. It takes a long time to establish a party structure and organization to support candidates, and in the absence of that, it’s very hard to get the best qualified Democratic candidate to jump into the field.

We were lucky to have Donna decide to jump in at the last minute. Had she done it earlier, she probably would have won that election. But things didn’t work out that way, things changed, and now we’re looking forward to the future.

For ’08, I would say that again it’s going to be difficult because we’re facing an incumbent mayor. But I could very well say that [Mayor Jerry Sanders] could very well be the last Republican mayor we see for a while.

One of the common analyses politicos make about local races is that Republicans seem to have deeper bench strength — that they have a roster of up-and-comers who are well known, well funded and willing to run. What are the Democrats doing to improve upon that?

We were actually in a good position, had the pension crisis not happened. It’s unfortunate that the decisions that really came from Republican mayors have tainted a generation of younger leaders and quite possibly damaged their careers.

We also saw what happened to (former Councilman) Michael Zucchet. The judge threw [the jury’s guilty verdict] out, but nonetheless his political career was ended by an overzealous federal prosecutor. There’s another one of our future Democratic leaders whose career was sidetracked and, quite likely, ended.

We were actually in a good position, and now we’ve got to go back and rebuild that. But I certainly believe the potential is there. One of the things we will be fighting for is maintain district elections the way they are now. I know there is an effort underway by some of the conservative, financially backed elements of the city to undermine district elections for City Council as they look at the charter amendment process that is coming up.

When you talk about citywide election, money is an issue. There is a direct connection between money and who wins. But when we can break those down into the different districts of the city, then we actually have fair, competitive elections and each community gets better representation.

You talked about fundraising. Republicans have traditionally outspent Democrats. The Lincoln Club of San Diego County, a fundraising arm for pro-business conservatives, boasts that it has spent a combined $1 million since 2005. How do the Democrats respond to that?

They’ve really gone out of their way to impact elections. And that’s where you see the downtown business community and the developers spending money, and, yes, the Lincoln Club has been very successful. You know, you can only buy so many elections before people start getting tired of that.

I am optimistic that in the ’08 election we will be financially competitive.

But even more so, we will have the volunteer support to support our candidates. And I think we’re going to be riding a national wave, where Democrats are going to be winning across the country. That is going to translate into some wins at the local level.

There are a lot of big donors to the national Democratic Party — Murray Galinson, Irwin Jacobs, Bill Lerach, Sol Price. Are they spending money on San Diego Democrats too?

One misconception that the larger donors to the national party have is that that money comes back to San Diego, or that some of it does. That is not the case. We don’t get any financial support from the Democratic National Committee or, for that matter, the California Democratic Party. What we raise here is what is spent here. If money is being given to the DNC, it’s helping candidates nationally, it’s not helping candidates in San Diego.

Part of our series of meetings is to educate people that it’s wonderful to give to the national party, but let’s not ignore our own backyard and let’s give money to the local party as well.

What is going to be the most important local race in 2008?

There are a couple of City Council races that are going to be, quite possibly, highly competitive. I would say District 7 (which includes eastern communities such as College Area and Tierrasanta) and District 1 (northwestern neighborhoods such as La Jolla and Carmel Valley). District 3 (uptown neighborhoods including Hillcrest and North Park) is solidly Democratic, so I’m not terribly concerned about that one. District 5 (northeastern suburbs such as Rancho Bernardo and Mira Mesa) is going to be one where we’ll try to be competitive, but while certainly recognizing that that will be the biggest challenge for us.

But I absolutely think District 7 is a place where we can win with the right candidate, and same with District 1. (Council President) Scott Peters has held the District 1 seat for eight years and has been strongly supported by that district. If we can find a candidate that has somewhat the same makeup of a Scott Peters, then we’ll be successful in District 1. District 7 is also very much in play after the 2001 redistricting.

We don’t normally cover state issues, but because the state convention is here, let’s talk about the governor. What is your opinion of Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, now that he is proposing policy and speaking very much like a Democrat? Are Democrats buying it?

He’s another example of another Republican who has basically turned his back on the president and what has been the Republican leadership.

I mean, he didn’t even campaign for his fellow Republicans who were running for statewide office. He knew he needed Democratic votes to pass his bonds in order to put forward his agenda, which looks more like a Democratic agenda than a Republican agenda. So Arnold is a good example of how fractured the Republican Party is.

So, are we buying the new Arnold? Something I said leading up to the gubernatorial election was, we’ve got Arnold of 2004, Arnold of 2005 — which was very scary — and Arnold of 2006. They were three completely different people, keeping in mind that he is an actor, and so what are we going to have in 2007 and beyond?

He’s acted more like a Democrat than a Republican, not as much as we’ve liked, so it’s hard to figure out what he’s going to do.

Seven of the Democrats’ presidential contenders will be speaking at the convention this weekend. Do you have a favorite presidential candidate so far?

I don’t, actually. I think we’ve got a good field. That’s the one thing I would say is going into this, if you compare the field that we have versus the field [the Republicans] have, I think any of our top four of five candidates could beat anyone of their top three viable candidates. Regardless of who is the nominee from the Democratic side, I think we’re going to be in good shape.

As far as handicapping the different one, I don’t know. It’s a little early. I haven’t had a chance to hear all of them. This weekend will be an opportunity for that.

I’m not sure why (Sen. Joe) Biden’s in the race, for example. He’s not going to be here. (Sen.) Chris Dodd hasn’t really kicked in, and so I’m assuming that’s not going to happen. But between (New Mexico Gov. Bill) Richardson, (Former Sen. John) Edwards, (Sen. Barack) Obama and (Sen. Hillary) Clinton, anyone of the four could … rise to the top.

Last time, even at this point, we had no clue. I mean, Howard Dean was just starting to be heard of. Then he did a rapid rise during summer of ’03. By fall of ’03, everyone thought he was in. By January ’04, he was out. So, I’m not going to try to predict, which is one of the reasons why I’m not committing to anyone.

— Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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