After Nathan Fletcher lost last year’s primary election for mayor, he began flirting with the Democratic Party. Among the party stakeholders who met with Fletcher was Mickey Kasparian, president of the local United Food and Commercial Workers.
UFCW is the largest union in the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and Kasparian is also president of the Labor Council. He’s the most dominant personality on that board. You might know Kasparian as the leader of the workers who have, twice in the last decade, stopped work at local Vons and Ralph’s during major disputes with management.
Kasparian met with Fletcher several times.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the former paid executive of the Labor Council, was often with them.
“There were many meetings with Nathan since the last mayoral primary. In all of those meetings, I can remember Mickey was very supportive of Nathan becoming a Democrat and learning labor’s issues,” she said.
Kasparian welcomed Fletcher when he became a Democrat, praising his “commitment to working families.” Gonzalez said that, in those meetings, Kasparian pledged he would support Fletcher in his next campaign, even, perhaps, for mayor in the future. At that point, Bob Filner was still early in his first term in that job.
Kasparian would not comment on the meetings except to say he has always liked Fletcher personally.
“I never expected him to run for mayor just a couple of months after he became a Democrat,” Kasparian told me.
But he is running for mayor. And since his announcement, Kasparian has emerged as one of Fletcher’s top antagonists. Kasparian furiously lobbied other potential candidates to get in the race. He has regularly pilloried Fletcher on social media.
And now he says he’s never been as excited about a candidate as he is about David Alvarez, the Democratic City Councilman.
Not even a year since the broad labor coalition Gonzalez led enjoyed across-the-board victories and total elation, it has devolved into insults and strange maneuvering.
At the heart of it is a newfound tension between Gonzalez and Kasparian. The sides each represents clashed in a heated confrontation at the San Diego Democratic Party’s Central Committee meeting Tuesday night. Members of the committee ended up voting to endorse Alvarez, despite heavy lobbying by Fletcher’s allies.
Kasparian is disappointed with Gonzalez, he said. She was too quick to support Fletcher for mayor after Filner’s fall became complete.
“I have the ultimate respect for the work that Lorena and I were able to accomplish working together and we will always be grateful to her,” Kasparian said. “My disappointment was that she jumped out in front of our process, which was something she was so passionately against when she headed the Labor Council.”
Gonzalez said she will always support labor completely and understood where Kasparian was coming from.
“He’s right that was a process with unions. The confusion here is I’m not a union. I’m not going to just give my stamp of approval to what 25 people in a board room decide. I think I have a broader responsibility than that now,” Gonzalez said. She made it clear she would be a “100 percent AFL-CIO” vote as an assemblywoman. But who she chooses to endorse is her own decision.
The tension got weirder last week when the Labor Council’s secret questionnaire of Fletcher was given to Tony Krvaric, the fiery chairman of the Republican Party, who has often insulted Kasparian and implied he was a mafia-like leader of “goons.”
Krvaric turned the questionnaire into a memo to Republican Party members, slamming Fletcher for waffling on labor issues. That Kasparian and Krvaric would be pursuing the same aim has piqued some interest.
Gonzalez blasted her former team, saying whoever leaked the memo had lost his or her mind. Kasparian told me he doesn’t know who leaked it.
“It shouldn’t happen. How or why it happened I can’t answer; only the person who leaked it can. We’re looking at it internally,” he said.
Gonzalez said she’s concerned about the Labor Council she once led. She said the leaking of the questionnaire is indicative of a bad direction. After a questionnaire in the sheriff’s race in 2009 leaked, she instituted a lockdown on such documents.
“We took it really seriously. The questionnaires are about starting a discussion. If you’re going to have a real discussion, you have to be able to allow that to happen. They actually sent it to Tony Krvaric, who they knew would use labor as a wedge issue,” she said.
It’s not completely clear what led Kasparian to go from welcoming Fletcher to furiously pushing against him. Kasparian said it all has to do with time. Fletcher simply has not had enough of it to demonstrate who he is as a Democrat.
“You can change your opinion but when, just about a year ago, you made statement that you’re one of the toughest Republicans who stood up to labor, it’s hard to explain,” Kasparian said.
Fletcher should have run for another spot, like City Council or Board of Supervisors, Kasparian said.
“The mayor’s office is the most powerful position in the city and we have nothing to go off other than his statements the last 18 months,” Kasparian said. “We need some kind of test, and we don’t think we should give him the chance to prove his commitment to working people as mayor.”
But what test did Alvarez pass? Kasparian avidly opposed Alvarez’s 2010 election to the City Council. Alvarez called Kasparian’s union a special interest group, and he has made supportive comments of two new Walmarts in his district. Kasparian has no greater foe than Walmart and restricting them is perhaps his only major issue in city government.
And that brings up another oddity: The unions with the most direct interest in City Hall decisions seem to be supporting Fletcher. They include the fire fighters, the city’s largest white-collar union, and the hotel workers, who are on the front lines of conflicts with hotel owners and Convention Center issues.
But the unions with the least interest in City Hall policies, the American Federation of Teachers, the United Domestic Workers and Kasparian’s colleagues, are driving the opposition to Fletcher. They also, however, have been the ones to drive the overall labor movement in San Diego, which has increased its prominence in the last decade.
Kasparian said his priority in San Diego is good-paying jobs, and that Alvarez has proven himself a friend to that cause.
“You learn as much about a person when you don’t endorse him as you do when you do endorse him,” Kasparian said.
The mayor’s race has consumed the Labor Council too much, Gonzalez said.
When I asked Kasparian whether Gonzalez was right that someone at the Labor Council had lost his or her mind, he laughed.
“You could say a lot of people have lost their minds. No one expected this to happen. There are a lot of people right now with lot of emotions passionate about their feelings. But the labor council is focused,” he said. And he reiterated that Fletcher is too untested to represent his interests. He didn’t expect Fletcher to run for mayor so soon.
He wasn’t alone.
“Nobody knew that. But Mickey was supportive enough, it made me feel like that, when I gave my commitment to Nathan that I would support him, I wasn’t going to be so far out there,” Gonzalez said.
Correction: I mistakenly wrote in an earlier version that David Alvarez supported construction of three Walmarts in his district. He did not. Only two of the three in the district were built while he has been a member of Council. And while saying supportive things, he claims he did not support their construction and challenged one of them.
Correction: The original version of this story ran with a courtesy photo that said it was Mickey Kasparian. It was not. It was actually a photo of an associate of Kasparian. We regret the error.