Monday, Dec. 15, 2008 | When the environmental group Friends of Rose Canyon mulled a lawsuit over the expansion of the Westfield University Towne Center mall a few months ago, labor leader Lorena Gonzalez knew who to call.

Westfield officials asked Gonzalez, who favored the expansion, to arrange face time with the group, which had been represented in past lawsuits by her brother Marco, an environmental lawyer.

She called Friends of Rose Canyon President Deborah Knight and phoned her brother, who signed on to represent the environmental group in the Westfield dispute. A series of meetings followed, and the two sides hammered out a settlement, the terms of which remain confidential.

“They knew I had a relationship obviously with my brother, and with Rose Canyon,” Lorena Gonzalez said.

Natives of San Diego County, the Gonzalez siblings have grown to local prominence in their fields — environment and labor — before age 40. Representing causes that aren’t always aligned — and aided by strong personalities and a tendency to bicker privately — the two are sometimes at odds. While they clearly care for one another, they are in some ways each others’ most pointed critics.

But the Westfield incident shows how the Gonzalezes have mostly used their relationship to broker compromises and form formidable coalitions. Their influence stands to grow because of the recent election, in which a spate of candidates backed by Lorena Gonzalez’s San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council won races throughout the county.

“If you look at her role in a very short time at the Labor Council and what happened on Nov. 4, Lorena and Marco are two people who wield a great deal of power in San Diego,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper and a longtime friend of both siblings.

He added, “In their mid- to late 30s, Marco and Lorena have left a big imprint on San Diego’s environment, San Diego’s politics and just the policies that San Diego’s moving forward with.”

Growing Up, Going in Different Directions

Marco and Lorena Gonzalez, now 38 and 37, respectively, were born 18 months apart in Oceanside. Their parents divorced young and the siblings, along with their older brother, were raised in Oceanside and Vista.

Their mother worked as a nurse at Tri-City Medical Center, where she took part in three failed efforts to unionize the hospital’s nurses. Growing up, Lorena Gonzalez’s best friend was the daughter of Jerry Butkiewicz, the longtime labor leader she would later work for as an adult.

Those experiences, Lorena Gonzalez said, led her to believe strongly in labor from a young age, even penning her college admissions essay on Cesar Chavez and the grape boycott he organized.

“I was overexposed,” she joked.

Her brother didn’t graduate high school with similar sensibilities. Marco Gonzalez was a right-leaning teenager who saw himself as a “geeky science guy” who was “pretty much trying to manipulate my life so I could surf.”

It was a college project studying grizzly bears in the woods of Montana — “just the whole semester being out in the woods with a bunch of hippies” — that provided one of the first steps that led him down the path to environmental law.

Seeing the way the Reagan administration had managed land boggled Gonzalez’s mind and prompted him to shed his Republican sensibilities.

He eventually graduated with his law degree from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, returned to the San Diego area and set up a solo practice. He also started volunteering at the local Surfrider chapter, showing up at local government meetings to express the views of the environmental group, which advocates for the protection of coastal areas.

No one at the all-volunteer organization was making inroads with policymakers, Gonzalez said. He soon capitalized on a tool to do that: lawsuits.

Gonzalez represented environmentalists in a number of lawsuits — typically on behalf of Surfrider’s San Diego chapter, which he led, and Coastkeeper, where he served as general counsel before leaving in 2004 to form an environmental law firm in Encinitas.

Gonzalez sued over the city of San Diego’s numerous sewage spills that eventually led the city to agree to fund significant infrastructure improvements. Another suit about the city’s approval of a waiver regarding its sewage treatment plant at Point Loma led the city to take the first steps in a project that would turn treated wastewater into drinking water.

Reznik said that’s one of the most important environmental decisions that’s been made in the past decade or two. “Marco’s the one that had the vision and will to push this through,” he said.

Reznik said Gonzalez has done this with a working style that can easily be misinterpreted.

“Marco is a bit of a chest-thumper, I think even proudly,” Reznik said. “I think some people may view that as sort of bravado or posturing, but I think that’s actually just sort of your passion.”

In reality, Reznik said, Gonzalez is “very smart and very willing to listen.”

Rising to the Head of Labor

Lorena Gonzalez, meanwhile, worked her way through Stanford University, a graduate program at Georgetown University, and law school at UCLA.

She received a fellowship that landed her a job working for Cruz Bustamante, then the recently elected lieutenant governor. At her brother’s urging, she first specialized in environmental policy on issues such as opposing offshore drilling. She was quickly promoted to Bustamante’s policy director, then worked as a senior adviser in Bustamante’s Los Angeles and San Diego offices. Her plate expanded to encompass other responsibilities, including labor issues.

While working at the San Diego office, Lorena Gonzalez ran for City Council to replace Michael Zucchet in a special election in early 2006. She lost to Kevin Faulconer by 724 votes.

It was, supporters say, a tough race in which Gonzalez was outspent, had been campaigning for less time than Faulconer and had the misfortune of facing him in a January special election, where the low turnout favored her opponent.

Marco Gonzalez said his sister was still relatively unknown during the contest.

“I think people referred to her more as Marco’s sister,” he said, “much as they refer to me now as Lorena’s brother.”

In September of that year, Lorena Gonzalez took the job as political director at the Labor Council — the political arm of a coalition of unions — at the urging of Mickey Kasparian, president of the local United Food and Commercial Workers, who said he wanted to beef up the council’s political department.

A little over a year later, Butkiewicz stepped aside after more than a decade at the helm of the Labor Council and recommended Gonzalez as his replacement.

“She’s the youngest head, the first female, the first Latino that’s headed that organization,” Reznik said. “That’s really groundbreaking here in San Diego.”

Butkiewicz is credited with transforming organized labor into a formidable force in San Diego and forging relationships with the business community.

Andrew Berg, executive manager of the National Electrical Contractors Association, said Gonzalez has proved her political mettle with the recent election.

“I just don’t know that people on the business side respected her as much as they do now,” Berg said. “They might have thought her not as worthy an adversary as Jerry was. Hopefully they’ve figured out that was a miscalculation.”

In the general election, the Labor Council threw its weight behind Sherri Lightner, Marti Emerald and Todd Gloria in San Diego; Steve Castaneda and Pamela Bensoussan in Chula Vista; and Marty Block in the 78th Assembly District.

Tom Shepard, a longtime Republican consultant who ran Mayor Jerry Sanders’ campaign, said the Labor Council did a good job of recruiting candidates, who ran smart and well-funded campaigns.

“I respect anyone who takes a risk, which she certainly did by getting out early and declaring support for specific candidates in each of these districts and following through with the resources necessary,” Shepard said. “I respect someone who’s got the guts to do that.”

Duane Dichiara, who ran campaigns that lost to labor-backed candidates in Districts 1 and 7, said the winning campaigns clearly benefited from the lopsided local vote for Barack Obama.

He said while Gonzalez “appears to know what she’s doing,” she lucked out with Obama’s presence on the ballot.

“It would be an error to be born on third and think you hit a triple,” Dichiara said. “To have lost any of those races this year would have been damning.”

A Public Dispute

The election, however, also led to a public spat between the Gonzalez siblings.

After the election, District 3 candidate Stephen Whitburn’s campaign manager said he had lost the labor endorsement to Gloria because he wouldn’t support the union’s pick for council president over his ally, Councilwoman Donna Frye, whose votes have sometimes drawn the ire of labor. (Frye ultimately lost the council presidency last week to Ben Hueso, who was backed by the Labor Council, in a 6-2 vote.)

Lorena Gonzalez responded with a letter calling the claim false and criticizing Whitburn’s campaign for stooping to a “disingenuous, sour-grapes attack.”

That prompted a scathing comment from Marco Gonzalez, a backer of Whitburn and a longtime supporter of Frye’s, that read in part:

Sorry Sis, I ain’t buying it, and you crossed the line casting aspersions at the Whitburn campaign. Without hiding that I’ve endorsed Stephen, I’ve got to say that B.D.’s account sounds entirely consistent with the Labor Council’s perspective on Donna’s unwillingness to “follow the leader” on every issue brought before the Council.

The comment prompted a phone call from Lorena — and more from her family members — to Marco.

“I think Marco showed very little discipline,” said Lorena Gonzalez. She added that her brother had plenty of chances to air his criticism privately in their almost daily phone calls.

In a separate interview, Marco Gonzalez said: “There are circumstances where we both take off our brother and sister hat and put on our advocate-lawyer hat. When one of my clients/endorsees/friends gets slammed by someone, just because it’s my sister doesn’t mean I’m not going to speak up to defend them.”

He said his sister’s letter about the Whitburn campaign demonstrated a short-sighted tendency to burn someone who could be a future ally.

“She’s going to have to learn as head of organized labor to keep her friends close and her enemies closer,” he said. “I think that’s going to be hard for her because she wears her heart on her sleeve. I think her emotion and passion are both her biggest asset and her biggest liability.”

Lorena Gonzalez disputed the characterization of her as a bridge-burner, saying her brother, if anything, is the one who can be “a little cranky.”

But she said she takes people at their word and doesn’t hold her tongue when they violate that.

“I don’t think I let things pass too quietly,” she said. “That’s my job. I advocate for the workers and I take it personal when people lie to them.”

‘We Don’t Tiptoe Around Anything’

It’s rare for the siblings to have a one-on-one feud that makes the press, but private disputes are more common.

“We bicker and fight constantly among the two of us, but that’s just the environment we grew up in,” said Marco Gonzalez. “We’re Mexican. … It’s part of how we were raised and it’s part of who we are. We’ll (have a) big blowout and the next day we’ll talk about our kids playing together. We don’t tiptoe around anything.”

Their constituencies — labor and environment — are left-leaning but not automatic allies, especially with development that promises good union jobs but has potential environmental consequences.

For instance, Marco Gonzalez has filed three lawsuits challenging approval of a desalination plant in Carlsbad, while Lorena Gonzalez spoke out in favor of the project. (The Labor Council’s political director, Evan McLaughlin, said the support was contingent on Poseidon Resources working with the environmentalists.)

Marco Gonzalez said the potential for disagreement increases as the economy worsens and the pressure to encourage development grows. “She’s clawing forward to get more for workers and we’re pushing back…to the extent it rapes our natural resources,” he said. “It’s a microcosm of what happens nationally.”

Yet, he added later, their family connections make it more likely that they’ll work together to unite their constituencies than be at war. Both siblings cited the Westfield project as an example.

“We agree on so much,” said Lorena Gonzalez, who noted that she’s worked for the environment as long as she’s worked for organized labor. She added that her brother “cares about workers as deeply as I care about the environment.”

Reznik said: “They agree far more often than they disagree. I think they get into the sibling dynamics and find some disagreements where they don’t really exist. I think the vast majority of the time, they’re on the same page on issues.”

Despite their differences in District 3, the siblings mostly back the same people in political races. “Obviously, it’s effective,” Shepard said, “and they’ve got kind of a natural alliance there, brother and sister, so I think it’s likely to be a factor in the future.”

And development projects that face opposition from both environment and labor face stark chances of approval.

“The relationship between the environmental community and organized labor is very politically powerful,” said Scott Maloni, vice president at Poseidon, builder of the Carlsbad desalination plant. “I can tell you that a lot of our success at Poseidon is (from) having forged a relationship with organized labor.”

Eric Christen, director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, a business group that battles labor unions, said organized labor has used its relationship with environmental groups to gain concessions using environmental challenges that “melt away” when developers sign labor agreements — an allegation referred to as “greenmail.” That has made it very difficult to get projects built, said Christen, who cited the example of Gaylord Entertainment’s dropped plans to build a bay front resort in Chula Vista.

“It’s kind of a marriage made in hell for us,” Christen said, “a marriage made in heaven for them.”

Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, said labor in San Diego needs partnerships because, despite its recent successes, it is still relatively weak compared to places like Los Angeles.

There, he noted, labor and environmentalists have joined forces on a clean trucks initiative addressing labor’s desire to organize truck drivers and environmentalists’ attempts to curb the pollution spewed by the Los Angeles port’s aging fleet of trucks.

“You may see those same kinds of alliances and strategies pursued down here,” Erie speculated. “Certainly this is a town where labor needs friends and partners, particularly with the kinds of attacks you’re going to get on municipal pensions.”

More than a strategy, Lorena Gonzalez said labor and environment share a moral imperative to cooperate whenever possible.

“I think it’s a responsibility for people with progressive values to work together early and often,” she said.

Please contact Rani Gupta directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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