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It was eight years ago that Bob Nelson, a current port commissioner and former board member of San Diego’s Convention Center Corp., went to a gathering at the Mission Hills home of Bill Beck, a prominent fundraiser for local gay and lesbian political candidates.
Those in attendance were all members of the LGBT community serving on city boards or commissions.
“It was packed,” Nelson said of the party, a clear indication of the progress that gays and lesbians had made joining the ranks of San Diego’s political class in the years since the city’s first openly gay City Council member, Christine Kehoe, was elected in 1993.
Both of Kehoe’s successors in the district, Toni Atkins and Todd Gloria, are gay, and numerous members of the LGBT community have been appointed to city panels since Kehoe’s watershed win drew more members of the gay community into San Diego’s political fold. Two mayoral candidates, Councilman Carl DeMaio and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, are gay.
This month, with the adoption of new City Council district boundaries, the LGBT community has made deeper inroads establishing itself as a powerful political force in the city. The new district covering uptown neighborhoods that are the heart of the gay community will no longer include City Heights. Instead it added smaller neighborhoods that LGBT leaders believe will reinforce their political sway in the district — Mission Hills, Bankers Hill and Old Town.
And it now includes a big addition: Downtown.
Leaders of the gay and lesbian coalition that lobbied the city’s Redistricting Commission to strengthen LGBT voting power wanted downtown in their district too, and not only for its many young, gay residents. It is also the base of San Diego’s political establishment: where moneyed development interests mingle with the political elite. It is the linchpin of the city’s tourism industry and engine of its economic future.
And as the voting bloc that has dominated politics in the uptown district for nearly two decades, the LGBT community now stands to benefit.
“We won,” said Linda Perine, chairwoman of the LGBT redistricting taskforce.
In reality, it may not have been such a dramatic coup. Downtown has become such a political heavyweight that surrounding communities told the Redistricting Commission they feared becoming irrelevant if their districts included downtown.
To the west, members of the city’s beach communities lobbied to have downtown drawn out of their district, saying downtown concerns demanded too much attention from their councilman, Kevin Faulconer, at the expense of their own communities’ needs.
East of downtown, leaders of the heavily Latino, lower-income neighborhoods of Barrio Logan and Logan Heights also opposed being included in a downtown district. They’ve been skeptical of downtown’s eastward expansion, fearing redevelopment could hasten gentrification in their neighborhoods. They wanted a councilmember who could defend their community’s interests without also having to appease downtown constituents.
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“People were very afraid of downtown because of their perceived economic and political power,” Perine said. “But money doesn’t pay any attention to district lines. That economic power exists whether downtown is in your district or not. Including it in the 3rd District allows us to acknowledge and address it and work with it.”
Even downtown leaders were pleased. Janelle Riella, vice president of public policy for the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a local business group, said they often felt like they were tugging for Faulconer’s full attention to resolve issues like parking shortages and homelessness.
“Kevin’s had a very interesting and challenging district,” Riella said. She said her organization was “thrilled to be in this compact urban district” with uptown neighborhoods that share many of the same infrastructure, traffic and homelessness problems. It will make it easier to lobby their councilmember to resolve them, she said.
As money gets spent downtown to address those problems, LGBT leaders can try to negotiate ways for those benefits to trickle into their uptown neighborhoods, Perine said.
Strategizing has already begun. Riella and other downtown leaders have met with LGBT leaders to formulate specific proposals to address homelessness both in downtown and uptown. Those proposals will soon be made public.
Uniting neighborhoods with similar concerns was one of the Redistricting Commission’s primary goals. Commissioner Carlos Marquez said including downtown in a district with Hillcrest and other uptown neighborhoods was an easy sell.
Still, the new district boundaries secure powerful new leverage for the organized gay community to forge downtown relationships that might help them improve their neighborhoods — influence so great that faced with a choice, the district’s current councilman, Gloria, decided he will move so he can continue representing it. The new boundaries have drawn him out of the district.
“If you look at the last 10 to 20 years, the goal of the LGBT community in San Diego was to gain visibility and representation,” said Marquez, who until recently was also a director of the San Diego LGBT Community Center. “In every metric they’ve accomplished that, and in many ways better than other underrepresented communities.”
So much so, Perine said, that the LGBT community is ready to take advantage of its newfound political clout.
“Is it of concern that downtown has a level of political sophistication that might be a little overwhelming?” Perine asked. “Yeah, but this isn’t the LGBT community’s first rodeo. We have some pretty savvy players ourselves.”
Nelson, who was also chairman of the LGBT Community Center’s board before becoming a port commissioner, said the new district was evidence of the LGBT community’s continued political ascendancy.
“It is the ultimate LGBT empowerment district,” he said. “It seems to be an evolutionary step in the integration of the LGBT community into San Diego politics.”
Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?
Contact him directly at email@example.com or at 619.325.0528.
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