Only two years after they seemed to be facing indefinite minority status, Republicans in the city of San Diego have begun a new era of strength capped by Wednesday’s overthrow of Council President Todd Gloria and a new alliance between the GOP and Councilwoman Sherri Lightner.

They now hold the mayor’s office and a much stronger position on the City Council than the veto-proof majority led by a charismatic leader Democrats enjoyed just last month.

Councilman Scott Sherman was modest about this latest triumph. He tried to make the case this was just a rotating of the seat. Gloria had done a great job. It was someone else’s turn.

C’mon bro, own it. You threw him out, and that’s fine.

It wasn’t long ago that Sherman invoked Gloria’s rise to the position of Council president as a lesson for others.

It was August. Sherman made a show of rushing back to San Diego from an island off Baja California where he’d been fishing. The City Council was in recess.  But Mayor Kevin Faulconer had vetoed its new ordinance increasing the minimum wage.

Breitbart News, the national conservative outlet, picked up the story.

What got Breitbart’s and many others’ attention was the speech Sherman made trying to convince supporters of the minimum wage hike to change their mind. Here it is:

YouTube video

“Look at the Council president,” Sherman said, nodding to Gloria. “His parents came from very humble beginnings. But in this country, with hard work, you can lift yourself up out of that. He became the interim mayor of the eighth largest city in the country.”

It wasn’t a new message. It was a version of the pull-yourselves-up speech Republicans have been giving for decades. But Sherman tried out an inspirational twist while looking directly at the audience.

“Every single one of you has something special inside where you can go out and prove to your employer that you are worth more than minimum wage. If you do that, the next time you’ll see minimum wage is in your rear-view mirror,” he said.

The video of the speech got more than a blip on social media. The campaign to overturn the minimum wage increase featured it as a call to action when they began to gather signatures for a referendum.

Several weeks later, Carl DeMaio, a Republican former City Councilman who had helped Sherman get his seat, called that campaign a “complete mistake.”

DeMaio said Republicans had to offer some kind of alternative that would resonate with the working poor as much as the minimum wage increase does. If they did not, the GOP would be seen as “the Party of No.”

As Republicans struggle to rebuild their party in California, they’re trying to engage those voters concerned about poverty. In fact, the prevalence of the poor in California was Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari’s main campaign message: How could California be recovering if so many people lived in poverty? The message resonated among conservative editorial writers.

They have a point. In San Diego County, 23 percent of households pull in less than $31,307 a year — the line the Public Policy Institute of California set for poverty when you consider cost of living and government subsidies a family might be collecting. People like Pradeep Khosla, UC San Diego’s chancellor, are warning of a near-term dystopia where such vast inequality exists in San Diego that we will become very much like a third-world country of walled-off wealthy areas and young people with no hope.

But so far, at least in San Diego, Republicans have stopped short of offering a vision for what they’d do about it.

I asked Mayor Kevin Faulconer that question: OK, if not minimum wage increases, what can we do about poverty in San Diego?

His answer? After-school programs.

“I think it begins and ends when you talk about poverty and providing opportunities to lift people out of poverty. It has to begin and end with education,” he said.

Fortunately, then, he is off the hook. The city, of course, has no role in local education and Faulconer has stayed away from others who have pushed the city to take a role. Many people point to education, even me. Were I to try to rebuild a country, the first thing I’d do is build strong schools. But this is remote and aspirational for those struggling in abject poverty right now.

I asked the same thing of incoming City Councilman Chris Cate. If not the minimum wage, what do you tell the working poor?

Cate told them to reject the minimum wage.

“We have 106,000 people who are unemployed. A minimum wage increase is not going to help them,” he said.

The focus needs to be on getting them opportunities, he said.

A new study written in part by UC San Diego professor Jeffrey Clemens supports Cate’s position: Yes, low-skilled workers earned more after the minimum wage was increased, but fewer people were able to get jobs.

Republicans can run with this if they want. It’s a fine point. But people understand the minimum wage and they seem largely supportive of it. Even in a Republican sweep during November’s elections, increases to the minimum wage were confirmed in five states.

It’s so popular that even opponents to the hike in San Diego have been reluctant to say they are actually against an increase to the minimum wage. The leader of the campaign against it here thinks the minimum wage should go up, just not in our city alone.

An executive at Phil’s BBQ, which helped fund the campaign to force the City Council’s minimum wage increase to the ballot, told an angry customer that the company was not actually opposed to an increase in the minimum wage. They just support democracy.

Or something.

Minimum wage increases are popular because people can see very clearly what it might do to their lives. And crucially, even those who wouldn’t be directly affected by the increase still seem to appreciate how it would impact others.

This is obviously the pressure that DeMaio senses. It’s not enough to tell these people no. You have to offer a better alternative.

Republicans do have a different vision of poverty and the economy. It goes something like this: The fewer restrictions and mandates that we give businesses, the more investing in growth and employees they will do.  If we can create so many jobs that everyone is employed, that will have an organic upward pressure on wages. It will create more opportunities for people — they will have more chances to choose between employers desperate to grow.

But this is another abstract ideal. Rather than help people understand it, Republicans most often articulate it the way Sherman did, with a version of: Stop whining and get to work.

DeMaio said Republicans should have put a competing ballot measure up — one with a list of regulations the measure would repeal and a commitment from company owners that they’d direct all of the savings to employees.

That’s one idea. Perhaps they should consider branding a war on housing prices or on other costs that limit the opportunities of the poor. However weird DeMaio’s idea was, he was trying to create something on his side as direct and tangible as the minimum wage.

If they want to keep talking about poverty in their political movements, Republicans will have to take on the same challenge. After all, they can’t point to Gloria’s position as Council president as a model anymore.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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