Wednesday, April 30, 2008 | In less than five weeks, San Diego residents will cast their ballots to decide the city’s next mayor. While the clock is ticking, voters who want to know which candidate is most likely to sympathize with the region’s labor movement will have to wait for direction.

In a race where the two leading candidates are both Republicans, San Diego’s labor unions, political organizations with the ability to mobilize grassroots support for their chosen candidates, have remained on the sidelines.

The San Diego Police Officers Association is staying neutral. The San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council is leaning toward endorsing Steve Francis, but hasn’t committed. The local union representing blue-collar city workers may endorse a candidate but won’t decide for a couple of weeks.

“For us, it’s a lesser of two evils argument,” said Joan Raymond, president of the city’s 1,900-worker blue-collar union. “Francis is a risk, he’s a politician. We don’t necessarily trust him. But we know what (Mayor Jerry) Sanders has done. We know Sanders has not supported us. We don’t know about Francis. It’s certainly a risky proposition. But sometimes you don’t get a really good choice.”

Raymond said she doesn’t see a clear-cut choice for mayor. Labor would support Democrat Floyd Morrow, she said, but he is not likely to be elected. “If he’s not elected, he’s not going to help us,” she said.

In looking to Francis, the labor council sees an alternative to Sanders. However, he opposed unions while previously serving in office. Union officials in Nevada say Francis fought the labor movement when he served in the Nevada Assembly from 1983 to 1986.

“I’d say he’s anti-labor. I knew him to be a conservative Republican,” said Danny Thompson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada State AFL-CIO, who served in the Nevada Legislature at the same time as Francis. “In those days, he certainly wouldn’t be someone we would support. He was no friend of workers.”

Thompson said while Francis was in office, Nevada Republicans attempted to gut prevailing-wage laws and instituted limits on striking picketers. Jack Jeffrey, former secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building & Construction Trades Council, also served in the legislature during Francis’ tenure. He described Francis as “pretty much anti-worker.”

“The only thing that makes sense is if [San Diego labor officials] think he’s a winner and they want to go along,” Jeffrey said. “With his activities here, he was certainly never worthy of a labor endorsement.”

Francis, who has actively been pursuing the labor council’s endorsement, said his views have evolved since his time in Nevada.

“I was a young man when I entered the assembly. My world was working in a hotel,” he said. “My viewpoints then were much more narrow than they are today. I’m a 53-year-old man, I have a much broader perspective on the world and business and how things work. I think labor unions play an important role.”

Union officials in San Diego say they do not expect Francis to be pro-labor, but note that he has committed to listening to their views. Sanders has an open door, said Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the labor council, but his open line of communication hasn’t translated into policy.

“I can think of very little at the city that’s been designed to help middle-class families,” Gonzalez said. “This administration has shown almost a disdain for working families. We will oppose anyone who wants to blame the trash man for San Diego’s crisis.”

Sanders has offered some salary increases to union employees while in office. His administration boosted public safety union employees this year, giving a 6 percent raise to police officers and a combined 5 percent raise to firefighters, their first in four years. But the mayor has opposed the labor movement on other issues, vetoing the City Council’s Wal-Mart Supercenter ban last year, for example.

The mayor said he has neither sought unions’ endorsements nor would he accept them because of ongoing contract negotiations. “It’s not appropriate when negotiating with them,” he said. “It takes all objectivity away from it.”

Sanders attributes the labor council’s views to his strategies to address the city’s financial troubles. Labor unions exist to get raises for their workers, he said, and the city doesn’t have the money. Sanders has led efforts to contract out some city services, a cost-cutting privatization measure opposed by unions. Francis also supports privatization, but promises to require that private workers who are hired receive comparable wages to the city employees they displace.

If private companies can do a job cheaper, it will be because they are more efficient and less management-heavy, Francis said, not because they pay their workers less.

Sanders said such a promise is unrealistic. Guaranteeing private workers the same wage as city employees would mean a private company would have to rely solely on its efficiency to effectively compete for government contracts, he said.

Francis also promises to accelerate privatization, which has progressed slowly since voters approved it in November 2006. That promise ignores the complexity of the process, Sanders said. The mayor points to comments Francis made in September 2007, when he acknowledged that implementing the change would take time.

“The fact that he’s saying that is simply disingenuous on his part,” Sanders said.

As the labor council moves slowly toward endorsing Francis — the decision is not final, Gonzalez cautioned — the hesitance highlights the lack of other options for labor, said Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego.

The reluctant endorsement underscores the San Diego County Democratic Party’s failure to field a candidate who can challenge Sanders, Erie said.

“The weakness of the Democratic Party in San Diego is legendary,” Erie said. “They’ve had voter registration gains in the city and they can’t seem to field viable candidates.”

Jess Durfee, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, said the only way to successfully challenge Sanders would be to field a candidate with high name recognition or an ability to self-finance the campaign as Francis is.

“We found ourselves in a situation where any of the Democrats who were high enough profile to launch an effective campaign took a pass,” Durfee said. “We were happy when Floyd Morrow stepped forward.”

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