A meeting of the San Diego County Democratic Party’s central committee / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
A meeting of the San Diego County Democratic Party’s central committee / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The local Democratic Party is close to settling a dispute over the way it endorses candidates.

Earlier this year, party activists alleged that a South Bay political consultant, Jesus Cardenas, had exploited a loophole to steer resources to preferred friends and clients. He did so, they said, by establishing a dozen clubs that seemed to exist only on paper.

Clubs are important within the Democratic Party structure. They help determine which candidates get an official endorsement, but the rules for launching a club are lax. Stack enough of them in one geographic area and you can exert influence over a process that can make and break campaigns.

Endorsements don’t always ensure victory. Last year, Monica Montgomery won a spot on the San Diego City Council over incumbent Myrtle Cole, who had the party’s official backing. It created bad feelings among the party’s grassroots and mistrust lingers today.

Those arguments still fresh in the minds the progressive activists, the San Diego County Democratic Party Central Committee will consider a series of reforms this week.

Those reforms include a requirement that the clubs meet separately at least four times a year and show proof their endorsement process actually took place. Each club would also need 20 unique members and must state any financial interests — meaning any potential conflicts — when speaking to the party’s top leaders.

The entire debate about the legitimacy of the South Bay clubs revolved around Cardenas, but it provoked a larger discussion about the proper role of political consultants and staffers in the endorsement process. Those who owe their careers to one politician or another may be more inclined to lobby other party officials for their boss or client. That could prevent newcomers from getting a fair hearing.

Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, told Voice of San Diego last month that he hoped the party’s leaders could find a way to divorce the endorsement process from business interests on the ground, while bringing down the temperature of the debate.

At the same time, party leaders seem to recognize that some clubs — which are typically chartered around topics or communities — attract more people and should be deserving of a louder voice. If the reforms are approved Tuesday without alteration, bigger clubs could request an additional vote at the endorsement process for each 20 unique members. Ideally, that would give well-organized and bigger grassroots groups more sway — an incentive to go out and recruit new Democrats.

Cody Petterson, a La Jolla activist who helped push the party to consider reforms, credited officials for thinking broadly rather than narrowly about how the system might be rebalanced and better democratized. But he’s conscious of the possibility that some political operatives will look for new ways to exploit the system.

“We’ll have to wait and see how the clubs adapt,” he said.

The South Bay clubs will be key in determining who, if anyone, gets an early endorsement for the District 1 supervisor race. Republican Greg Cox, who spent nearly a quarter century on the County Board of Supervisors, is termed out. Democrats outnumber Republicans there by more than 2 to 1.

State Sen. Ben Hueso, one of several candidates interested in the seat, has called for an independent investigation of the club system and asked the party to postpone discussions of which 2020 races should be declared critical.

Rodriguez-Kennedy told him to back up and let the folks without personal and financial interest in the process deliberate.

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

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