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A dozen Democratic clubs made up of young Latinos have played a major role in how the party has approached recent races, and they are set to influence one of the most important South Bay elections in years.
But their sudden power in the party has triggered a bitter internal fight and accusations that the clubs are fake, a tool of one savvy political consultant.
Party activists have alleged that the clubs exist only on paper and that Jesus Cardenas controls them — and much of the candidate endorsement process, which helps determine who gets financial support, by extension.
The San Diego County Democratic Party’s newly elected chairman, Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, has acknowledged a loophole in the party’s bylaws that creates an opportunity for exploitation and embarked on a process to change the rules. But he has resisted the allegation, spelled out in letters to party leaders and later in social media arguments among activists, that Cardenas has already benefited from the loophole.
Former San Diego Councilman David Alvarez, meanwhile, said the issue was so bad last cycle that there should be an independent audit to see how much party money in the South Bay ended up going to Cardenas as a result of it.
Tempers flared at a recent party meeting, causing officials to call a time-out. Rodriguez-Kennedy wrote on Facebook the following day that the conversation had gotten out of control.
The debate comes on the heels of several races in heavily Democratic districts with large populations of people of color. But it reveals a larger sense of restlessness and mistrust among the party’s grassroots.
The basic question they’re all wrestling with is whether a dozen clubs are actually one club — known as the South Bay Young Democrats — that helps steer endorsements to the friends and clients of Cardenas’s firm, Grassroots Resources.
“Everybody in South County knows they’re controlled by one entity,” Alvarez said. “If they say otherwise, they’d be lying.”
Cardenas said all he’s done is help the area’s young people get involved in politics.
“Nobody has ever been interested in these students,” he said. “I’m actually glad this is coming up, because then we’re putting attention into a disenfranchised community that [the party] never, ever supported.”
In the local Democratic Party structure, clubs serve as an engine for the base — a place to talk policy, cultivate new candidates and energize activists — but the rules for getting one off the ground are minimal. An organizer of a club, for example, needs to show the names of 20 people on paper.
The clubs are generally chartered around a topic, like equality or the environment, or one of four geographic regions — north, south, east and the metro west. A couple are attached to the universities and considered academic. Even though the clubs associated with Cardenas are named after schools, they chose to become part of the South County area rather than the academic network.
Instead, they all gather in a single location, at the same time, with the same adviser, who is Cardenas’ sister, Andrea. None of the clubs had a social media presence or active websites until Grassroots Resources created them a few days ago.
Crucially, once a club is accepted into the political infrastructure of the local Democratic Party, its members make recommendations on which candidates to support within their area, sending endorsements to the party’s top leaders, who typically rubberstamp the request. Winning that recommendation doesn’t guarantee a candidate the party endorsement and an influx of resources. The party’s central committee can overrule the endorsement, but that is rare.
Together, the 13 clubs associated with Cardenas make up 25 percent of all the eligible votes on endorsements in the South County area — not enough to single-handedly make an endorsement but enough to steer the vote if the other clubs are on the fence.
They were key, for instance, in giving Antonio Martinez the endorsement in San Diego City Council District 8 over Vivian Moreno. Martinez won the party’s financial support in the process, nearly $10,000 of which made its way to Grassroots Resources. Still, Martinez lost the election.
Cody Petterson, an activist from La Jolla and president of the San Diego Democrats for Environmental Action, wrote a 10-page report last month in which he identified the ways he thought Cardenas had benefited from a system in the South Bay that exists at the “nexus of crooked politics and profit.”
Petterson said the issue first crossed his radar when he was trying to whip votes for an endorsement for then-candidate Monica Montgomery in San Diego’s District 4, and recognized how hard it was to overcome the fact that the 13 clubs associated with Cardenas all supported her opponent, Myrtle Cole.
“For people in the know, it was pretty well understood when it started happening in 2017,” he said.
Since releasing his report and forcing a conversation on the issue, Petterson has been accused of having a white-savior complex for seeking to reform politics in the minority-majority South Bay.
Cardenas’ allies have argued that young students of color shouldn’t be held to the same standards as their affluent elders in other parts of the county.
“Many of the apparent irregularities, as seen by adults, are not due to nefarious manipulation,” said Cynara Velazquez, a former get-out-the-vote coordinator for the South Bay, in a Feb. 5 letter, “but the limits and constraints that young people face in terms of organizational skills, financial systems access, and transportation.”
In an email to party leaders, Andrea Cardenas, a Grassroots Resources executive, compared her critics, including Petterson, to President Donald Trump.
“Just like in the White House,” she wrote, “the attack is being led by a man who has no idea what this path filled with barriers and borders means to us.”
Andrea Cardenas alerted members of the youth clubs to a Central Committee meeting Feb. 24 about their legitimacy and helped organize rides to Kearny Mesa. Several dozen teens and adolescents wound up listening to the debate from the back of the room. Although none spoke, their presence was intended to serve as a visual demonstration of their legitimacy.
Petterson said it’s fair for activists to point out that he is white and not from the South Bay, but that he thinks the party needs to fix the issue now before other clubs try to exploit the same loophole throughout county.
There is a broad view among active party members that Cardenas wields an outsize influence over the South Bay endorsement process and that the discussion of how he — or anyone else — could benefit financially is long overdue.
“It’s political theater,” said Jose Caballero, the former president and founder of the club San Diego Progressive Democrats. “A lot of people are trying to figure out how to clean up this mess, because it is a mess, and we don’t want to be perceived as taking away political power from high school kids. But we also don’t want to usurp the whole process.”
Cardenas insists that he’s kept his political organizing separate from his business interests. When South Bay high school students work on campaigns, he said, they do so in a volunteer capacity by “supplementing” the work around them.
Grassroots Resources specializes in “systems and data analysis.” For instance, Ammar Campa-Najjar paid the company more than $140,000 in the 50th Congressional District race last year, $10,547 of which was listed as “robo calls and canvassing.”
Cardenas said the people who accuse him of blurring the lines of his personal and commercial operations don’t understand or appreciate the role the area’s young volunteers play in getting Democrats elected.
Cardenas said he’s been mobilizing teens in the South Bay since 2006 to work on local campaigns in exchange for community service hours in high schools. Many of those kids, he said, have stayed in touch to help build up the political infrastructure and some, like Martinez, have gone on to run for office.
“Our only involvement … was to guide them in the process,” Cardenas said. “That’s it.”
Until a couple years ago, the area’s young volunteers were more active in the California Young Democrats, which is the state party’s engine for young activists, than in the San Diego County Democratic Party structure. The fact that the 12 youth clubs in the South Bay now under a microscope sought local chartering — which gave them endorsement votes — just in time for the 2018 elections is a coincidence, Cardenas said, part of a larger statewide effort to recruit more people in the era of Trump.
The number of young people who became interested in South Bay politics began to balloon around 2016, he said, after Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez introduced a constitutional amendment to allow 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote. That bill did not pass. But a similar bill she co-wrote was signed into law in 2018 and went into effect on Jan. 1.
As the high school pipeline grew, Cardenas said, the students made the decision to form independent clubs but continued to meet and consult with his sister as a matter of convenience.
Three of the 12 youth club presidents in the South Bay have been employees of Grassroots Resources. Voice of San Diego tried to reach the other nine by phone and email last week, but none returned interview requests.
Cardenas rolled his eyes at the suggestion that he’s used the clubs to steer endorsements to clients and money toward his consulting firm.
“The party endorsed over 30 candidates in South County,” many of whom took the time to meet with the youth clubs and personally seek their endorsement, he said. But in the last election, he noted, he only worked on behalf of a couple of those candidates and primarily through his existing general consulting contract with the San Diego County Democratic Party, whose officials made the final decision on how much money to spend and where to spend it.
Campaign finance records show that the party paid Grassroots Resources $9,500 to phone bank for Martinez in San Diego, $4,000 to produce communications for Mark Bartlett in Chula Vista and $1,320 to coordinate a robocall for Myrtle Cole in San Diego. In the Southwestern College race, Leticia Cazares — who most assumed would win the endorsement in any case — hired him directly for web work totaling $4,655.
It is, his critics concede, a relatively modest sum of money. But money, they contend, is not the main issue; it’s the possibility that 2020 endorsements are fixed — and some candidates won’t get a fair hearing.
The real victims of the political gamesmanship in the South Bay, Petterson has argued, are the candidates of color who haven’t worked with the right operatives.
Club stacking is not new.
“Elected officials and campaigns have been engaging in less than honorable methods for earning the county and state parties’ endorsements for a long time, from club stacking and buying memberships, to creating and controlling clubs,” wrote Codi Vierra, the director of membership for the San Diego County Young Democrats, in a letter last week to party leaders.
But the issue appears to have gotten especially bad during the 2018 race for San Diego’s District 8 City Council seat.
Martinez won the endorsement with the help of the 13 clubs associated with Cardenas. Alvarez and Moreno attempted to combat Cardenas’ advantage by quickly forming six clubs of their own, Petterson told party officials late last month. Alvarez disputed this, saying he was only involved with starting two clubs last year.
That experience — especially after Moreno won the race without party support — has helped renew attention on the proper role of clubs in recent weeks. Now, a major race looms over the next year for a county supervisor seat that has not been open for decades. Democratic clubs could have an important say in who gets coveted party support.
Three serious Democratic contenders are competing behind the scenes for outgoing Republican Supervisor Greg Cox’s seat: Nora Vargas, a vice president at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, Port Commissioner Rafael Castellanos and state Sen. Ben Hueso.
Cardenas said he’s not working for any of them, though he might in the future. He knows each of them, but Vargas has regularly met and engaged with the youth clubs that his sister advises.
Vargas said she has worked with youth clubs in the South Bay for many years, most recently while helping with Cazares’s campaign last year. She thinks the party needs to engage more young people in politics.
“There are a lot of good questions being asked and there is a process for that, and we’ll make a decision when it comes to that,” she said. “I’m really deferring to the party to make a decision.”
If party officials deem the District 1 supervisor’s race “strategically critical” — because it could help the party claim more control of the county — it could lead to an early endorsement. The youth clubs could be key in deciding who gets support.
Cardenas said Castellanos and Hueso see him as a threat and are moving to squash the youth clubs rather than take the time to meet and win their support.
Castellanos spoke to the party’s Central Committee on Feb. 24 in favor of taking a closer look at the South Bay youth clubs and to consider reforming the endorsement process, according to several officials in attendance. One Central Committee member also said Hueso’s campaign had called party leaders to encourage them to do the same.
Neither campaign returned an interview request.
The accusations are flying at incredible speed, and the party’s top leadership is trying to regain control.
“This conversation has gotten out of hand,” Rodriguez-Kennedy wrote last week as the dispute spilled onto Facebook.
Vierra, the San Diego County Young Democrats’ director of membership, has offered a few suggestions.
In an interview, Rodriguez-Kennedy stressed that the central committee is an independent body and said it has from time to time questioned endorsements from the area level. Still, he’s criticized some of the party’s endorsements in the past, which “could very well be linked to some of these manipulations of the rules,” he said.
To rebuild trust in the system, he’s asked everyone who might have a stake in the outcome to let the party’s leaders take over. Whatever potential solutions they put on the table can then be debated in the open.
“If we don’t solve these rules in the right way there are political and business interests which may trump the interest of the party and the interest of the people,” he said.
But what those reforms look like is unclear.
Left unchecked, Petterson said, the current rules would incentivize other large clubs in the county, like the one he runs, to subdivide their memberships to maximize influence on the endorsement process. It’s less a question of disenfranchisement, he argued, and more of whether the young people whom Cardenas organized should have one club with one vote, or one club that gets 13 votes by playing games with its charter.
At the same time, Melinda Vásquez, a prominent North County party official, said she’s concerned that if leaders go too far they could have “a chilling effect on the ability to organize high school clubs” where she lives.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a Jesus Cardenas who’s willing to invest in high school kids and get out the vote,” she said. “It’s been talked about in Escondido and Vista and San Marcos — that we do need to duplicate the efforts of grassroots organizations like in the South Bay.”
All that could have an effect not just on the District 1 supervisors race in 2020, but others.
Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized rules regarding academic clubs. They are not required to meet on their respective campuses.