This is the second in a three-part series. Part one: How Barrio Logan’s Fumes Pushed David Alvarez into Politics.

David Alvarez believes that a cabal of power brokers runs San Diego.

“As a council member, I’ve witnessed firsthand the establishment control the agenda in downtown at City Hall,” he said, “and how the priority and attention has been given to a special select group of projects. If you have money and access, you can basically make anything happen.”

Some of those interests helped Alvarez make it to the City Council three years ago. And the group that fought the hardest against his Council bid is now bankrolling his run for mayor.

While taking on the establishment on the City Council, Alvarez has only had a minor effect on the city as a whole. His authentic storytelling about his own life took him far. But he also assisted Democratic allies in key ways by helping former Mayor Bob Filner navigate city politics and deploying his young staffers to get other progressives elected.

Over time, Alvarez put himself in position to run for mayor.

Alvarez’s first two years on the Council overlapped with Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders, and that’s when Alvarez says he learned about the downtown cabal. Unlike just about everyone else in San Diego politics, Alvarez has no problem painting Sanders as a petty tool of downtown interests. Alvarez believes Sanders stalled new street lights and other meat-and-potatoes projects that would have benefited Alvarez’s district because Alvarez opposed the mayor’s broader agenda.

At the time, Alvarez cast the lone vote against the mayor’s major downtown redevelopment and tourism initiatives. Alvarez often went back to his life story to explain why.

“It might be easy for people who have never been poor to water down the definition of blight to fund pet projects while ignoring the real needs of poor neighborhoods,” Alvarez said when voting against speeding up downtown redevelopment projects in 2011. “It’s a lot harder for those of us who have personally experienced poverty and who live in blighted neighborhoods to accept this inequality.”

In those years, few Alvarez ideas had citywide impact – save a belated plan to create a registry of foreclosed homes in an effort to limit neglect. His words often were as sharp as anything coming from firebrands Filner and Carl DeMaio. But unlike them, Alvarez has a soft-spoken and unassuming personality. His anti-establishment positions didn’t translate into a broader citywide following.

Things began to change once Filner got elected.

Alvarez was an early and enthusiastic backer. Filner prided himself on always siding with a David in any fight with a Goliath, and here the David happened to be Alvarez.

In the spring, Alvarez was home sick during a City Council meeting where Filner and the hotel industry battled over Filner’s refusal to sign off on a tourism promotion surcharge on hotel bills. Alvarez later watched a video of the meeting and thought he could broker a compromise. A few days later, he did – and Filner inked the contract.

“He was the only person who could get through to Bob,” said Bill Evans, a Republican and prominent hotelier. “He never gave up even though he was dealing with a madman.”

But Filner’s short tenure left Alvarez little time to build a bigger citywide profile. (When the sexual harassment allegations against Filner first emerged, Alvarez backed the mayor. After hearing a first-hand account of Filner’s behavior the next day, Alvarez told Filner to his face to resign.)

Filner’s departure created a void on San Diego’s left. Alvarez wondered publicly whether he should wait his turn before running for mayor. But his history and success within the Democratic Party gave him an opening.

In 2010, Alvarez defeated two candidates who saw the City Council seat as their birthright. Alvarez was going up against opponents named Hueso and Inzunza – last names that had won the previous four City Council elections to represent Barrio Logan and other southern neighborhoods. Felipe Hueso had the backing of then-Councilman Ben Hueso, his younger brother. Family members of Nick Inzunza Sr. had been elected to school boards, city councils and other political offices in the South Bay since the 1960s.

But Alvarez leveled the field by raising more money than and gaining the Democratic Party endorsement, no doubt helped by his years on its central committee. He finished first in the primary and then blew out Hueso, an attorney, in the runoff.

Alvarez benefited from Hueso’s litany of problems – he had filed for bankruptcy, was put on probation by the State Bar and struggled to answer how he’d address the city’s challenges. But Alvarez also had to overcome Hueso’s backing from the San Diego Imperial-Counties Labor Council, the most powerful financial and organizing machine on the left.

On the trail, Alvarez bucked the Labor Council on a proposal to require extra review on downtown hotel projects. Business groups backed Alvarez over Hueso and cheered the night of his election.

Once he got on the Council, though, Alvarez and the labor group made up. It gave him and Councilwoman Marti Emerald its highest marks for his City Council votes, mainly for his positions against downtown tourism initiatives. Richard Barrera, who now leads the Labor Council, said his organization has persuaded Alvarez that by supporting labor causes, he’s supporting the change he wants to see in the city.

“The nuts-and-bolts labor issues are some things David’s come to learn while on the Council,” Barrera said.

Alvarez also worked to get other Democrats elected. He’s used his Council office as a kind of factory for young progressives. His staffers organized and executed a strategy during the November 2012 campaign to register and turn out college students at UC San Diego. Five Democrats, Filner, Sherri Lightner, Scott Peters, Marty Block and Dave Roberts, were running for various offices whose districts overlapped on UC San Diego’s campus. All five Democrats won, some by razor-thin margins, and DeMaio cited the registration campaign as a reason Filner beat him.

In this race, Democrats have split between Alvarez and former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher. The biggest negative for Fletcher is obvious. He switched political parties twice in the last 18 months, and his positions on big issues have shifted, too.

For Alvarez, Democrats don’t have to worry if he’s one of them. They worry whether Alvarez has enough political experience to get big things done.

“It’s one thing to stake your claim to a position on an important issue,” said environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez, a Fletcher supporter. “It’s another to be so well-educated on a position that you’re able to bring others who might not have been on the same side along with. I’m not sure that’s David’s strong suit at this point.”

Next in the series: how the biggest deal David Alvarez tried to make might backfire. 

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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