I don’t think I’ve made any secret in the past of my lack of esteem for the organizing ability of the local Democratic Party. Despite having more registered voters in the city than Republicans, the Democrats have struggled to build sophisticated fundraising or candidate recruitment systems. Their efforts pale in comparison to Republicans.

Now that campaign finance system for the city of San Diego has just been gutted, political parties will have even more of an influential role. It’s pretty clear the Republicans are better prepared for this.

Jess Durfee is the leader of the local Democratic Party and its chief spokesman. I thought it was time to check in with him to see what he’s thinking these days.

To catch up on what I’m doing with these e-mailed Q&As, you can read the intro here along with the interviews with: Marco Li Mandri, Marco Gonzalez, Lorena Gonzalez, Dianne Jacob, Gil Cabrera, Tom Shepard, Carl DeMaio, Kathy Keehan, Murtaza Baxamusa, Kevin Carroll, Donna Frye and Walt Ekard.

Are you going to vote to approve the renewal of the city of San Diego’s strong mayor form of government? Why or why not?

It’s my policy not to get ahead of our County Party’s Central Committee on positions like this. When they take a position, I’ll have a public position, but not before.

 How about the county supervisors term limits proposal labor is pushing? Term limits seem to be something Democrats and Republicans think have crippled Sacramento, if you support them here, how would you keep that dysfunction from happening at the county?

Same as above. Our Central Committee will be discussing this at our February meeting, and we’ll see what comes out of that discussion. Looking at varied examples in legislative bodies around the country, term limits by themselves are neither a panacea nor a cause of dysfunction. We have to do what’s best for this particular county government, where the power of incumbency is just overwhelming.

Whatever position the Democratic Party takes on the initiative, we’re committed to electing a Board of Supervisors that is more responsive to and representative of San Diego’s changing population.  (From Scott Lewis: On Tuesday night, the Central Committee endorsed the initiative to impose term limits on county supervisors.)

It’s my impression that local Republicans are better at blogging, Twitter, Facebook and digital marketing in general, why is that?

I think it’s a mixed bag. There is a more robust Republican blogging culture here. Yet on Facebook, you’ll see more local Democratic elected officials and candidates with pages than Republicans.

Their side may be quicker to adopt best practices from the corporate marketing world. But ours ultimately benefits when new technology empowers people at the grassroots level — especially young people — and gives them ways to be politically active. We’re planning to invest more in the next cycle to keep that going.

Someone described local politics to me recently as this: The Republicans have interest and money involved, it’s professional. Democrats don’t have many issues where their constituents have major stakes in the game so it’s not as professional. What do you think about that?

If the Republicans are perceived as more “professional,” it’s probably because they represent and do the bidding of the downtown business interests and developers. The Democratic Party and its leadership come from the ranks of hard-working families who want to make this place better for everybody.

On our board, we have a labor organizer, a doctor, a small-business owner, a former teacher. I think our interests such as good-paying jobs, health care coverage, affordable housing, and environmental sustainability are pretty big stakes.

What’s the worst thing someone can say in an endorsement interview?

“I’m not really sure why I’m running, but I thought it would be a fun experience.” I’ve actually heard that one.

What decision will you be paying attention to the most in the coming year and who will be making it?

I really am focused on the decisions voters will be making on June 8 and Nov. 2. In particular, if initiatives on holding a constitutional convention or lowering the 2/3 budget threshold appear on the statewide ballot, we could set in motion some profound changes to California’s unworkable system of government.

Who is the most promising leader in San Diego these days and what do you think he or she might do in 2010?

Of course it’s hard to single out one person. Among political leaders, I think all eyes at the moment are on Donna Frye, who is termed out of the San Diego City Council this year. Now that Lori Saldaña has withdrawn from the Board of Supervisors race in District 4 due to personal circumstances, Donna is the one person who could still enter that race and win in June.

To campaign for a level of government that voters don’t often think about, she’d have to get people to focus on the board’s $5 billion budget and its vast authority over health and social services, infrastructure, environmental policy, emergency services, land use, and more.

Donna would be the perfect populist antidote to the insular club of Republican supervisors we’ve had for the past 15 years. She’d bring independence, compassion, and transparency to County government. So if she does decide to run, I think she’d be in a great position to excite voters about what a fresh perspective and set of priorities could do.

What else are you looking forward to in 2010?

Of course in any election year I look forward to fighting for our candidates and winning races, from the Governor’s office to school boards and everything in between. Apart from those specific outcomes, I’m interested in seeing how the political landscape in San Diego County will continue to evolve.

People are still getting used to the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans countywide. That became true just before Election Day in 2008, and our (admittedly tiny) registration advantage has only grown since then.

Notwithstanding the national political headwinds we’re facing this year, 2010 might demonstrate what I believe is a long-term shift toward Democrats in the county. In 2002, not a single Democratic candidate for statewide office carried San Diego County. In 2006, four of our statewide candidates did so. In 2010, I think we’ll have even more — in addition to the many local candidates we will elect.

On a different issue, I am closely following the formation of California’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission, which voters approved in 2008. It’s meant to decrease the role of partisanship in the drawing of political boundaries, but it’s certain to have unintended and possibly harmful consequences.

Feb. 16 was the deadline for citizen applications to the commission. According to public data, almost 68 percent of eligible applicants are male. More than 70 percent are white. The final panel will likely have one or two members from San Diego, and the first commissioners will be picked by the end of this year. I would say that most citizens are far from engaged in the process at this point.

Here’s Durfee’s list of major projects by their priority for San Diego

I would call only the first three “priorities.”

1. A New Wastewater Recycling System

2. An Expanded Mass Transit System

3. An Expanded Convention Center

4. A New City Hall

5. A New Central Library

6. A Different Airport Infrastructure

7. A New Stadium

8. A Performing Arts Center

And Durfee’s response to the request to rank local civic problems

A ranking wouldn’t mean much to me because so many are interconnected. But one problem that these and more have in common is a lack of broad civic engagement. For our form of democracy to function, the public needs to be informed, organized, and active. We’re still aspiring to that in San Diego. And there are too many disparities in the level of civic participation.

Voter registration and education are part of it. So is the ever-shrinking news coverage of serious local issues. The public’s willingness to make tough choices and investments in the future is challenged when there’s a fundamental misunderstanding or even distrust of our political system. All the other issues suffer.


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