State Sen. Ben Hueso / Photo by Sam Hodgson

State Sen. Ben Hueso is calling for an independent investigation of the San Diego County Democratic Party’s clubs in the South Bay and asking party officials to postpone discussions of which 2020 races should be declared critical.

If he’s successful, Hueso would effectively block an early endorsement in the County Board of Supervisors District 1 race — where he’s a candidate — and an influx of resources to one of his competitors.

San Diego County Democratic Party Chairman Will Rodriguez-Kennedy is pressing ahead with possible reforms to the club system and encouraging people with a personal and financial stake, like Hueso, to back up.

“It is the party that will set the rules for our endorsement process and we will not be dictated to by any elected official, candidate, or special interest,” Rodriguez-Kennedy wrote in a response to Hueso.

Clubs are the engines of the party’s grassroots, allowing members — typically centered on a topic or a geographic area — to talk policy and find new candidates. Crucially, they make recommendations on who the party should endorse.

Activists contend that a prominent consultant from Chula Vista, Jesus Cardenas, is gaming the endorsement system by corralling high school volunteers into a dozen youth clubs, which each vote to endorse his friends and clients, making it far more likely those people will receive the party’s money and support.

Centered in the South Bay, District 1 has long been held by Republican Supervisor Greg Cox, who’s being forced out because of term limits. Voters in the area are overwhelmingly Democrat. Nora Vargas, a vice president at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, and Port Commissioner Rafael Castellanos are also running.

Citing a recent Voice of San Diego story in his letter, Hueso suggests that the endorsement process is rigged against him, because the youth clubs associated with Cardenas are going to have significant say.

“I hope that as the new leader you put a stop to this chaos and take the steps necessary to restore the integrity of the Democratic Party,” Hueso wrote to Rodriguez-Kennedy.

Hueso did not name names in his letter, but the assumption among party activists is that Vargas has the strongest relationship with Cardenas among the D1 supervisor candidates, and therefore has the best chance of winning an early endorsement vote.

Cardenas anticipated this fight. He told Voice of San Diego last week that Hueso had previously relied on young volunteers in the South Bay to win office, and that he’s only trying to squash their clubs because he now sees them as a threat.

At the heart of the dispute is whether Cardenas has exploited a loophole in the county party’s rules allowing his young allies to maximize their influence over the endorsement process. The students meet at the same time, at the same place, with the same adviser — Cardenas’ sister — suggesting they’re actually just one large club. On paper, however, they represent 13 individual clubs — each with its own endorsement vote.

Rodriguez-Kennedy invited Cardenas and others to clear the air and talk about what reforms might look like. On several occasions, they reference a series of proposals put forth by Codi Vierra, south state regional director of the California Young Democrats, the state party’s engine for young activists, but did not settle on any language.

Vierra has suggested, for example, that a consultant who contracts with the party — like Cardenas — not work for candidates in races that are up for an endorsement.

Rodriguez-Kennedy told Voice of San Diego that a meeting on the issue Tuesday was intended as the first of several meetings ahead of an April deadline to provide the party’s top officials with new rules that can divorce the endorsement process from business interests on the ground.

“I’m hopeful this will bring down the bile,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized the recommended reforms of the club system that Codi Vierra put forth.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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