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Few groups in San Diego politics have as much power as the tourism industry. Over the past year, it has made big asks of city leaders for billions to promote San Diego and expand the Convention Center.
David Alvarez, who was elected in November 2010, has been the only City Council member to vote consistently against the tourist lobby on both issues. Those votes are two in a series that has put Alvarez, a Democrat who represents San Diego’s southernmost communities, in opposition to traditional big-time city interests. He’s also stood against downtown redevelopment.
When he’s explained his decisions from the dais, Alvarez has referenced his time growing up in poverty in the city’s Barrio Logan neighborhood. Too long, he’s said, the city has directed its energy toward areas that benefit the privileged at the expense of its neediest residents.
We talked with Alvarez about San Diego’s priorities, his at times icy relationship with Mayor Jerry Sanders, the future of industry in Barrio Logan and an alternative to a pension reform initiative.
You’ve made the case repeatedly that the communities in your district don’t receive the same level of services that others, particularly downtown, do. Why in your opinion has the focus been on downtown instead of other communities that are now more impoverished?
Average citizens don’t have lobbyists. They’re not involved as much in campaigns, whether it’s public campaigns or political campaigns. There are a lot of very influential folks in the downtown area.
If you think about it, it’s the easy thing to do because there is money downtown because of redevelopment: Let’s improve downtown because then we’re improving San Diego. But we’re not really improving San Diego. We’re only improving downtown. We’re not improving Clairemont or Linda Vista or San Ysidro or Barrio Logan.
People talk about how we’re afraid of taxes or that the pension is the problem when in reality, my reality, is that we’re not willing to have the dialogue with the community as to what we need and what it takes to meet our needs.
I want to read back something you said before asking your colleagues to delay a vote earlier this month on the Convention Center expansion. You said: “I’m going to make this very personal. As someone who has been left out of a lot of processes and you all know that’s happened to me while at the city, I know what it’s like to be left out, not included and not part of the conversation.” What did you mean by that?
First of all it’s a community perspective, as a community member, someone who’s lived in San Diego.
I really, really felt that those who have more power have the ability to make decisions for those who have less power. You know about the north of 8, south of 8 divide that everybody talks about. Whether it’s schools, whether it’s city government. That’s a lot of the sentiment that I bring.
But you said that you’ve been left out of a lot of processes while at the city. It sounds like you were talking about your time as a council member.
Yeah. This idea that council members get left out or frozen out, it’s very real. It happens here all the time. It’s happened to me after a couple of votes. It’s unfair.
If you make a decision that’s not looked upon well by the executive branch, then you get the repercussions. Whether it’s not getting briefings, or not getting access to staff, it’s something that happens and we’ve got documentation to prove that if we had to.
Give me an example. You said that it’s happened to you a couple times.
The last time when it was very prevalent was as a result of my vote on the Miramar Landfill. I was opposed to [putting landfill operations out to bid] because I thought it did not accurately analyze what the service level should be, in terms of could we get more use out of it. We were basically going with the status quo. I questioned that in my five minutes that I get to question every item that comes before council. That was not popular, I guess. So we were declined meetings.
Why don’t you think people are willing to come out and say these sorts of things publicly?
It happens. And if you say it, then it continues happening. People don’t want to be left out. People want to get their projects accomplished in their district. I can honestly tell you that it hasn’t impacted the way I’ve voted on things. If that was the case, I probably would have voted different on Convention Center. That was something that was a top priority for this administration.
Why are you willing to talk about it?
Because it’s the truth. It’s what happens. I don’t know why people are so afraid.
You’ve endorsed Bob Filner for mayor recently. But his primary economic development plan focuses on greater maritime commerce at the port. I’m wondering how that squares with the proposals that are out there now, including ones that you back, for more residential zoning in Barrio Logan and a reduction of industry presence there.
I think that’s not accurate, that I’m backing a more residential approach and less industrial or maritime business. I don’t think that anybody has the proof to tell you either way to be honest. That’s what I’ve been asking for from day one: Tell me what this plan will do to our maritime related businesses. Is it really less?
The industry seems to think so.
The industry seems to think so and I’ve asked the industry to please provide me with the facts. Nobody’s been able to.
That being said, I’ve also always said we must maintain our working waterfront as it is today. And find a way not only to maintain it, but there’s got to be an increase. Those are the jobs on our port that pay the good wages, sustainable wages where families can afford to live here in San Diego. Tourism jobs, on the other side, aren’t the jobs that allow families to stay afloat.
So you don’t think there’s any conflict with what Filner is proposing and what you envision for Barrio Logan?
Absolutely not. I don’t think there’s a conflict at all.
Do you believe that there is space for an alternative pension measure on the June ballot?
What would that look like?
Something that doesn’t cost us millions of dollars to switch over and that doesn’t expose us to potentially more if we must re-enter Social Security. I think there’s been a lot of changes over the last several years. Most of the outrageous things that we saw in the pension have been scaled back, they’ve been rolled back. If you believe that that’s the case and that our benefit now is a level that is reasonable …
You’re talking for new employees?
New employees. I think the new benefits are reasonable. There’s no reason to change those. If the freeze of pay is where all of the savings are in this measure, and I’ve seen the numbers and that’s what they show, then perhaps that’s where we should go and we should look at how we could achieve savings that way.
Would you be leading the charge on that? Obviously, it would be something the council would put on the ballot themselves.
I’m talking to Council President (Tony) Young about that because obviously he has to put it on the agenda or we’ll have to find four people that are willing to. Obviously, if something does come, it will come in the next 60 days.
Interview conducted and edited by Liam Dillon, who can be reached at email@example.com or 619.550.5663. is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org.
He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?
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