Rafael Castellanos, Nora Vargas and Ben Hueso appear at a District 1 forum in Coronado. / Photo by Megan Wood

At first glance, a meeting of the San Diego County Democratic Party’s South Bay members Tuesday night was essentially a nothing-burger: The group ultimately decided not to endorse a candidate in the District 1 Board of Supervisors race.

But the process leading up to that decision, as well as interviews and documents obtained by Voice of San Diego, reveal the ways in which the D1 candidates and their supporters have been jockeying for months to use the party’s club system to improve their chances. An endorsement from the county’s Democratic Party comes with financial resources and other advantages, giving them a boost.

Just a week before the meeting, the party’s executive board suspended 12 South Bay clubs’ ability to vote to endorse candidates after complaints about their legitimacy.

For Democrats, local clubs — which are typically focused around a topic or geographic area — serve as the engines for the base, a way for grassroots activists to influence strategy and elevate candidates. The clubs also make recommendations on who the party should endorse.

The group’s decision Tuesday not to endorse a single candidate may not sound like a big deal on the surface, but it was a victory for all but one of the candidates: Nora Vargas, a Southwestern Community College trustee and former Planned Parenthood executive who seemed the most likely to win the endorsement because of her ties to a political consultant, Jesus Cardenas, who’s been accused of gaming the club system.

Earlier this year, activists alleged that Cardenas was exploiting the system by creating a network of clubs that existed only on paper to help steer official support toward his friends and clients. New accounts from club presidents detail how other candidates have since tried to sway the clubs in their favor by infiltrating their membership rolls.

The District 1 race is a big deal for the South Bay. For the first time in more than two decades, voters there will elect a new representative to the County Board of Supervisors.

Four Democrats are vying for the seat being vacated by Republican Supervisor Greg Cox: Rafael Castellanos, an attorney and Port of San Diego commissioner; state Sen. Ben Hueso; Sophia Rodriguez, an employee at the county’s Health and Human Services Agency; and Vargas.

Kate Bishop, of the south area chapter of the Progressive Democrats, stood up during the deliberation Tuesday to express her support for Vargas. Bishop also used the opportunity to blast the other candidates for trying to stop the clubs from endorsing Vargas.

“There was an effort by the other three candidates to come into the clubs and convince the clubs not to endorse because Nora is beloved by the people in this area,” Bishop said. “I just want to stand by the clubs and say that people who were members of the clubs for the whole year were overridden by people who messed with their endorsements, and I don’t appreciate it.”

In turn, the campaigns have portrayed their actions in recent months as defensive measures because they felt that many of the clubs were unfairly biased toward Vargas.

Eduardo Valerio, a businessman who once ran for the Sweetwater Union School District’s school board, encouraged others at Tuesday’s meeting not to endorse anyone in the race.

In August, he filed a complaint about the legitimacy of the clubs connected to Cardenas that set in motion an internal investigation by party officials. That effort ended by taking away the endorsement authority of 12 clubs, each of which is connected to Cardenas, named after a local high school and supposedly made up of politically active students and young adults.

The party’s top leaders concluded last week that the clubs hadn’t been complying with the rules and were not eligible to participate in Tuesday’s endorsement.

Why the Clubs Were Suspended

The decision to revoke the endorsement authority of the 12 youth clubs came from the party’s top leaders — the culmination of several months of complaints, investigations and deliberations.

In April, the party’s central committee passed a series of reforms intended to shed more light on how local clubs operate and restore integrity in the endorsement process after the complaints against Cardenas surfaced publicly. The reforms included a requirement that the clubs have 20 unique members, meet separately at least four times a year and provide a copy of the notice, agenda and minutes to party officials.

But in his complaint, Valerio claimed that on at least three occasions over the summer, the clubs hadn’t actually met at the time and location posted on the party’s website. He didn’t respond to a request for an interview. Claire Pratt, a member of the Eastlake-Bonita Democratic club, said she provided Valerio with some of the information that went into his complaint after looking into the matter herself. She was told, she said, that the youth clubs met on their respective high school campuses — which, if true, could have restricted access to the public and violated the party’s own rules about conducting open meetings.

Pratt told Voice of San Diego she was startled to hear in the spring that the political process in the South Bay might be tainted, because she was involved with the party’s grassroots organizing team. It tends to be a vehicle for young recruitment.

“It’s personal to me, because I feel kids should get involved in politics and do it respectfully,” she said.

In October, the party’s club development committee concluded its own investigation and recommended that 12 clubs connected to Cardenas should be stripped of their endorsement voting rights for failing to prove that they’d been adhering to the bylaws. The committee members said they had trouble contacting club leaders, as their phone calls, emails and texts went unanswered.

One club leader did pick up the phone, but responded, according to the committee’s report, “Who the fuck is this?” and hung up. “Eventually contact was made and handled politely, but this is clearly not a good way to represent the ‘Democratic Party’ to voters,” the report says.

Sweetwater High School District also gave the committee cause for skepticism. The clubs weren’t sanctioned to meet on their respective campuses and weren’t recognized by the associated student body. Two of the 12 club presidents are no longer students.

In passing along their recommendation to the party’s executive board, the committee said it was “deeply concerned that the actions of the subjects constitute a serious problem that disenfranchises other Democratic clubs and Public Ballot members in the South Area.”

Those words prompted a series of threatening legal letters to the executive board.

The first one came from an attorney for the clubs who alleged that their due process rights were being violated. The second came from an attorney who threatened to seek relief and damages in the courts if the party’s executive board didn’t follow the recommendation of its club development committee.

In the end, the executive board agreed with the recommendations, meaning the 12 South Bay youth clubs were unable to weigh in Tuesday on endorsements.

Cardenas described the suspension as a minor setback for the youth clubs — the result of technical nitpicking by people with political agendas. Over the last year, he said, both Castellanos and Hueso have been attempting to pad the membership of clubs across District 1 to gain an advantage when the endorsement vote came around.

He said he appreciates that the party has now given the youth clubs a roadmap for coming into compliance on future endorsement matters. In the meantime, he said, the students will continue to engage in politics by walking for various candidates and causes.

How the Campaigns Tried to Sway Clubs

Presidents of South Bay clubs that weren’t suspended said they, too, saw candidates and their staffers trying to infiltrate their groups to skew the endorsement process in recent months.

“It feels very divided,” said Griselda Ramirez, president of the Latina Democratic Club. “Our party instead of engaging in unison is working against itself.”

Ricardo Ochoa, president of the South Bay Democratic Club, said his group decided earlier this year not to endorse anyone in the District 1 race, but was forced to reconsider when the new members joined and pressed for an endorsement vote. They were ultimately unsuccessful, but the membership padding left the club’s immediate future in question.

When the club’s membership increased, so too did the number of people required to officially conduct business. The addition of the candidates and their allies pushed up the threshold for a quorum. Ochoa said his club was forced to cancel its November meeting because not enough people showed up.

“We have candidates willing to play games with the clubs and potentially destroy the clubs,” he said. “It’s completely cynical.”

Castellanos and Rodriguez both said the breakdown of the vote Tuesday suggested that the clubs had been stacked in Vargas’ favor all along.

Of all the candidates, Vargas received the most votes, but not enough to cross the threshold to secure the endorsement. In multiple rounds, a number of the clubs cast their vote for no one.

Hueso declined to comment for this story.

After failing to win the endorsement Tuesday night, Vargas criticized the party’s decision last week to suspend the youth clubs’ endorsement voting rights. She said it was a shame that the party was disenfranchising some of the same young and diverse volunteers who’d been highlighted in the past for their work.

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

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.