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As Vivian Moreno and Antonio Martinez go door to door connecting with voters in their quest to represent District 8 on the City Council, they hear the types of issues and complaints you’d expect: Community members want more parks, better sidewalks, improved police relations.
Those concerns are also punctuated by pronouncements that the district has never received its fair share and that what’s commonplace there would never be accepted elsewhere.
“The things we deal with, other neighborhoods take for granted,” said Martinez, a San Ysidro school board member, between talking to voters while canvassing in Logan Heights, just south of a trolley line flanked on both sides by rundown warehouses and scrap metal yards.
“For 35 years, we’ve been promising this community this park,” Moreno, a staffer for termed-out Councilman David Alvarez, said outside of a vacant property eyed for an 11-acre park near the border of Nestor and San Ysidro. The land is near I-5, so the park requires a sound barrier that inflates the project cost. “A kid in this community, it isn’t his fault that a sound wall is expensive. These are basic things the city needs to do.”
But behind the scenes, in the realm where endorsements and by extension, money, are doled out – the battle lines are being shaped by a different and far more personal dynamic. There, the race has become a proxy fight for long-running divides in South Bay politics.
That contest is less about parks and infrastructure as it is about where Martinez and Moreno line up among the people who’ve represented southern San Diego and the South Bay on the City Council, in Congress and in Sacramento for decades.
The Old Story
Eight years ago, Alvarez did something he wasn’t supposed to: He won the race to represent District 8.
Alvarez was young and a relative newcomer, after working for state Sen. Denise Ducheny. He ran against Felipe Hueso, whose brother Ben declined to run for re-election to the seat so that he could run for state Assembly. Ben Hueso is now in the state Senate.
Felipe Hueso had support from the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and Rep. Juan Vargas, who had also previously represented the district on the Council.
The race became a new chapter in an old story in the South Bay. Vargas and former Mayor Bob Filner had never been close. Hueso was closer with Vargas, while Filner was closer with other South Bay politicians like Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas, who used to be in the Assembly. Ducheny wasn’t clearly aligned anywhere, but was often said to be with Filner, simply because she wasn’t with Vargas.
Suddenly, Alvarez wasn’t just running against Felipe Hueso, but a powerful contingent of those aligned with him, too. He won, and it wasn’t particularly close.
In 2013, after Filner was forced to resign in disgrace, Democrats raced to find a candidate who could hold the party’s control of City Hall. Former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, newly a Democrat, quickly jumped into the race – and just as quickly, got endorsements from Hueso, Vargas and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who had previously run the Labor Council. She and Fletcher are now married.
That election wasn’t for a South Bay seat, and Fletcher isn’t from the South Bay himself, but the Democratic side of that primary became a rerun of some of the same political history Alvarez had just run against three years earlier.
Now, Alvarez is termed out on the Council, and the same story is playing out once again in the race to replace him.
Martinez has collected endorsements from Vargas, Hueso, Gonzalez, the Labor Council and the Democratic Party.
Moreno, who’s worked for Alvarez for years, told me the first thing she did when she decided she was running was call Vargas, Hueso and Gonzalez to discuss her campaign, because “she was raised right.”
None of them agreed to meet with her, she said. (Gonzalez confirmed this account, Vargas did not respond to an inquiry.)
“And you know what, the day I get elected I’m going to call them,” she said. “Because we need resources in the district.”
Unlike Felipe Hueso, Martinez doesn’t have any natural connection to Vargas and Hueso. But he met with them early and won their support, he said.
“To them, this position means a lot, because they used to be here,” he said. “They wanted to have a relationship with the office, so if something comes up, we work on it together.”
Martinez said he reached out to Alvarez for a meeting too, but “he didn’t give me that chance.” (Alvarez’s office disputes this.)
“I’m trying to break that old rivalry,” Martinez said. “There’s no reason for rivalries – Ben and Juan would say the same thing. Anybody who thinks rivalry politics is important, no – that’s amateur politics. It’s trivial, it’s ‘Who looked at me the wrong way at the gala the other day?’ It’s beyond trivial.”
Moreno likewise minimized the rift, saying there’s nothing ideological or philosophical on which the two factions disagree. She even volunteered on Hueso’s 2004 City Council campaign. It’s just about personalities, she said.
“David wasn’t supposed to win,” she said. “It became personal. I called them because I have no problem. I respect them. It’s the right thing to do.”
But Moreno said it’s clear the old rivalries are a big part of the race.
“Sometimes it’s like, am I running against him, or them?” she said. “I don’t get it. I really don’t. But I guess it’s not for me to get. It kind of sucks. It makes me kind of sad.”
Cops and Landlords in Logan Heights
None of this comes up among the dozens of voters Moreno and Martinez talk to while canvassing for votes about a month before Election Day.
In Logan Heights, Martinez knocks on the door of Nancy Ortiz, a 50-year-old who picks up shifts in the stock room at dd’s Discounts, and sells stuff at the swap meet in National City. She said drug addicts are squatting in a vacant house nearby, and gang activity is common.
“Police, we don’t see them,” she said. “It takes 30, 40 minutes for them to get here when we call.”
Her neighbor, Ernesto Gonzalez, is 52 and on disability, and had the same complaint. Police sometimes come to chase off “gangsters,” he said, and other times they’re nowhere to be found.
Down the street, Anastacia Gallardo, a 28-year-old who was a supervisor at NASSCO until she was forced onto permanent disability, said the gangs spray graffiti on everything, but the police are never around.
“If we don’t call, they don’t do rounds,” she said. “When we call, it takes an hour or two, but they get here. If you don’t have a guard dog, you’re not safe.”
Martinez said the northern part of the district needs better relationships with police. While he was walking a precinct in Shelltown, he said, he watched someone solicit a prostitute in broad daylight. Later, someone whose door he knocked on told him to make sure he didn’t wear red while he was canvassing, lest he be mistaken for a gang member.
“That positive relationship with community policing here, it isn’t there right now,” he said. “In San Ysidro it’s better, not that it’s perfect.”
The best thing the department could do, he said, is hire officers from the community. “If they’re from the community, they’ll do a damn better job policing the community,” he said.
Other neighbors remark on blight and eyesores in the community. People leave junk in the streets and sidewalks, and no one from the city cleans it up. Landlords let properties fall into disrepair. We walked to the back of a second-story unit, which gave us a clear view into a neighbor’s backyard, where multiple derelict RVs have been parked and turned into makeshift homes.
“We need to hold landlords accountable for the standards we set,” Martinez said. “It’s a disgrace. Where do we live? We live in San Diego.”
On the Ground in San Ysidro
The community on the border of Nestor and San Ysidro looks different. Instead of rundown craftsmen homes, Moreno approached a leafy campus-style apartment complex with lawns manicured by a homeowners association.
Systematically, Moreno shakes the front gate to every house before opening them, hoping to startle any dog that might be back there, just to be safe. “Veteran move,” she said.
She tells everyone the same thing – she was born and raised in the South Bay, works for Alvarez now and her top priority is infrastructure. “A road here should look just like a road in La Jolla,” she says, to nodding approval.
Rafael Lopez, a retired 64-year-old, is thrilled to talk infrastructure. He walks with a cane, and most of the curbs in the neighborhood don’t have ADA ramps.
He’s also worried about a new stop sign that Alvarez’s office helped get put in – he’s happy it’s there, but no one seems to stop.
Another neighbor is thankful for the new funding for the nearby Southwest Neighborhood Park, which the community has been waiting on for 30 years, since it was first added to the local community plan. But he mentions a grassy area around the corner that could really be another playground, too. And Moreno has a lengthy conversation in Spanish with an older man who wants to know what the county is doing with land it owns in the Tijuana River Valley.
“What we need is to fight for state and federal grants, because we know we can use them,” Moreno said about the region’s historic lack of funding compared with other districts. “It’s changing because we have good legislators, like David, who know how to get projects across the finish line.”
Near the Iris Avenue trolley station, she jumps into another pitch for one of the region’s biggest needs.
“Look how much housing we could provide there,” she said, pointing to a mostly empty surface parking lot surrounding the station. “We need to upzone all of our land around those stations. We could attack half of our housing need just by going after transit-oriented developments near these stations.”
Moreno vs. Martinez
Moreno’s case – to me and to the voters she talks to – is simple. Alvarez’s office has figured out how to work within City Hall to get projects done. She knows how the system works, and is going to keep it running to bring more money to District 8.
Her opponent, she said, can’t say the same thing.
In 2012, Martinez was elected to the board of the San Ysidro School District, one of the poorest school districts in the state. That district has had a series of serious scandals and financial problems, both predating Martinez and after his arrival.
Martinez has never been accused of any wrongdoing. But he was on the board when a superintendent and deputy superintendent are suspected of committing fraud, misappropriation of funds and other illegal fiscal practices.
The county grand jury, in its investigation into issues at the district beginning in 1997 and ending in 2015, concluded the district’s trustees “failed to perform their fiduciary duties” and that they “lack training and/or understanding” of their responsibilities.
A state audit was more scathing.
“Executive staff used the board’s lack of fiscal knowledge and placed people in positions for which they were not fully qualified, or pressured them, so that executive staff could use the district’s resources for their personal benefit,” the audit read.
Neither of those reports names Martinez, but I asked him how he responded to their conclusions that the board shared culpability for the scandal.
“Board members aren’t experts,” he said. “We guide policy, but we rely on the expertise of administrators and lawyers. Lawyers have been of the biggest issues in our district and other districts. You rely on them, but when things go bad, they wash their hands.”
Moreno said Martinez can’t escape San Ysidro’s issues.
“How could anyone get behind that?” she said. “He’s batting .130 in the minors, and they want to promote him to the majors. But I guess their disdain for David is that much.”
Martinez didn’t take any shots directly at Moreno, but he made a veiled critique of Alvarez’s approach on the City Council, echoing others who think Alvarez been too confrontational, especially with Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
“I want to go in there and be a consensus-builder,” he said. “Don’t have any animosity with anyone there. I want to come in and make sure we’re all working together to get District 8’s fair share.”
That’s also the subtext of why he said Vargas and Hueso supported him – “They wanted to have a relationship with the office, so if something comes up, we work on it together.” Left unsaid: They don’t feel that way about Alvarez– and Moreno will be more of the same.
Moreno takes that argument head on.
“People say that David doesn’t get along with his colleagues, and I’ll be the same,” she said. “It’s not true. The media always wants me to talk bad about the mayor, and I won’t do it. I know we need to work with the mayor for our district.”
In the meantime, they’re both hustling to talk to as many voters as possible, and both think they have a superior ground campaign that’s going to guarantee victory.
For Martinez, he’s modeled his after Vargas, the political leader with whom he now finds himself aligned.
“One hundred homes is a productive day for me,” he said. “I heard Vargas used to do 200. I’m like – wow, he’s the man.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post said Ben Hueso resigned his City Council seat to run for Assembly; he declined to run for re-election.