Assemblyman Todd Gloria / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In 2012, the county’s largest labor group gave Todd Gloria a nearly failing grade on its first and only report card assessing the labor friendliness of San Diego’s City Council.

That group, the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, was then led by Lorena Gonzalez, who’s now Gloria’s colleague in the state Assembly and among the most powerful union-focused legislators in California.

The report card was a public display of what was not secret at the time: Gloria and labor were on bad terms.

Eight years later, Gloria’s mayoral bid counts Gonzalez and most major labor groups in town as enthusiastic supporters. Gloria has received perfect marks from the California Labor Federation for two years running.

Gloria, though, said his repaired relationship owes less to his own political changes, and more to San Diego’s shifting political landscape, where labor has become the center of political gravity at City Hall.

“I don’t feel as if I’ve changed; the circumstances around me have,” Gloria said in a recent interview.

Gloria said he’s the same guy since he first ran for Council in 2008: the kid of a maid and gardener who centers his ideological framework on their success story, but who prides himself on a political pragmatism that leads him to talk to anyone.

“I think he’s progressed and is willing to be much stronger on positions when he knows he’ll get pushback,” Gonzalez said. “His values are for working people – he gets the struggle. I think he’s learned to balance the fact that the other side will always say ‘that’s onerous.’ His willingness to meet with everyone, you want that, but going in with the understanding that people will always complain.”

For now, Gloria’s balancing act is working out. He’s calibrated a way to collect endorsements and financial support from the Labor Council and most of their largest member unions, and from the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce – typically the “other side” of labor on local issues.

But the dynamics between labor and the city’s business establishment are not what they were in 2012.

Then, Gloria’s support for a maneuver to expand the Convention Center accounted for a handful of the red marks on his D-minus report card from the Labor Council.

Now, the Chamber and other business groups are partners with the Labor Council on Measure C, the city’s latest attempt to raise hotel taxes to expand the Convention Center. Gloria’s position hasn’t changed, he argued, but it’s now a labor-friendly position because local politics have shifted.

Gloria recalled a time when then-Mayor Bob Filner, never a Gloria ally, ordered him off the Council dais to chastise him in private.

“He didn’t feel I was progressive enough,” Gloria said. “I don’t think it was ideology. To Filner, bomb-throwing was the point. That is an exercise in privilege. People say, ‘You don’t feel the issue strongly enough,’ well, I beg to differ.”

A Deal-Breaker Vote and Support for Civic San Diego

During Gloria’s first year on the City Council, he joined a unanimous vote to impose a new labor contract for AFSCME, the union for blue-collar city employees.

Gloria wasn’t on an island with his vote, but it was still a deal-breaker for Brigette Browning, president of hotel workers union Unite Here Local 30.

“In union world, an employer voting to impose a contract is an aggressive anti-union move,” she said. “I was very outraged by that. When that happened, we just stopped talking to Todd.”

She wasn’t alone. Browning recalled a Labor Council event that year in which a speaker called out Gloria and former Councilwoman Marti Emerald from the stage over the vote, leading them to leave the dining room.

Browning is now a part of a newly empowered labor coalition happy to fight business groups where their go-along-to-get-along predecessors wouldn’t. But Unite Here is among the most significant labor groups that has not weighed in on the mayor’s race. She thinks both Gloria and his chief Democratic rival, Councilwoman Barbara Bry, would be reliable, pro-union mayors.

Nonetheless, she said freezing out Gloria over the AFSCME vote was a mistake.

“I regret the decision,” she said. “I think it would be much better to say to his face, ‘We are disappointed.’ By cutting off communication, we created a vacuum, and the downtown establishment filled the void. I blame myself. He was brand new and so was I.”

Indeed, on the Council Gloria was friendly with right-leaning business groups, even if he didn’t always vote with them. He was a reliable supporter, though, of Civic San Diego, a group the downtown establishment loved, and labor didn’t.

After former Gov. Jerry Brown ended the tax-funded statewide redevelopment program, San Diego saved its former redevelopment agency, the Centre City Development Corp., by rebranding it Civic San Diego.

Civic San Diego lost its primary revenue source, but it kept its authority to approve development permits downtown.

The business community hailed Civic as a model for urban renewal: It issued permits more quickly and with less bureaucracy to get stuff built quicker and more cheaply. Labor hated it. Construction, hotel, grocery and white-collar city staff unions each had specific complaints.

Eventually, Gonzalez passed a bill to kill Civic San Diego, but Brown vetoed it. A lawsuit from a construction union-affiliated official eventually killed it off.

Gloria championed Civic from the beginning.

“To the extent that a lot got done downtown, yeah, my argument was: Let’s give other communities more of that too,” Gloria said. “It is undeniable that the downtown that was here when I was growing up is not the downtown that we have today, and that’s a good thing, right?”

Gloria cites his vote in favor of the city’s prevailing wage ordinance and his opposition to a voter approved ban on mandatory project labor agreements – in which unions guarantee construction workers for a development, and developers agree to pay union wages and benefits and to hire workers from union halls – as evidence of his labor bona fides during his early political career.

Civic, he said, was a worth fighting for, until it wasn’t.

“Ultimately what happened is people weren’t as in love with it anymore, and the city agreed to dismantle it,” he said. “That’s frustrating in the sense that, you worked to keep it around and make it better and then it goes away, and what was that for? The problem for Civic in the end was, it’s brand was for efficiency. Eventually, that wasn’t their brand anymore.”

Carol Kim, political director for the Building and Construction Trades Council, helped end Civic. Her group recently endorsed Gloria, too.

“(Todd) really believed that Civic was good for downtown,” she said. “The political climate didn’t exist to allow him to improve it in a fashion that was more progressive. I’m glad we’ve created a political climate that will allow him to be stronger in his left-wing values.”

Making Compromises

Gloria also got dinged in 2012 by the Labor Council for his vote to undo a city ordinance that would have made it difficult to open Wal-Mart supercenters in the city.

It’s a funny story: Gloria introduced the measure. Then the company collected enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot for a referendum, and Gloria joined with his Council colleagues to rescind the partial ban he’d proposed.

In other words, one of his anti-union votes was over pro-union legislation he had carried.

Likewise, Gloria led the charge to raise San Diego’s minimum wage in 2014, though it didn’t go into effect for nearly two years after business groups collected signatures to force it to the ballot, where voters approved it in June 2016.

Gloria seized on a temporary Democratic super-majority to pass the measure and overcome a mayoral veto. But Gloria also proposed a smaller increase than some on the left wanted, in hopes of tempering the business community’s opposition. Those groups, including the Lincoln Club, ended up opposing it anyway, and the state eventually passed a more aggressive increase.

“I think Todd and the progressive community learned some valuable lessons trying to negotiate in good faith with the Lincoln Club crowd and getting kicked in the teeth on issues such as Walmart, the Barrio Logan plan and the minimum wage,” said David Lagstein, political director of SEIU Local 221, the largest union for county workers, which is spending heavily on Gloria’s behalf. “If elected, I think he would come into the mayor’s office with a clear sense of when he needs to compromise and when he needs to fight.”

Gloria said those experiences aren’t lost on him.

“I understand just exactly how hard it is to get victories on behalf of working people,” he said.

But he emphasized how much City Hall politics have evolved since those days.

“At the time, labor was under attack,” he said. “Carl DeMaio was at the height of his political power. Now … labor is ascendant, right? Labor is the new powerful force.”

Keith Maddox now heads the Labor Council. He wasn’t in town when Gloria was on the Council, a fact he thinks has been a major benefit. He doesn’t carry any baggage from old fights.

Maddox said he’s heard the stories about Gloria and labor from before his arrival, but he’s also heard that Gloria’s transformed since heading to Sacramento and now “sees the bigger picture.” He said he’s never had an issue where he and Gloria weren’t on the same page.

“He might have done things we disagree with, but he’s done a hell of a lot of things we agree with,” he said.

Lessons From Sacramento

Gloria had his share of unequivocal pro-labor positions in his Council days, too.

Michael Zucchet, general manager of the city’s white-collar union, the Municipal Employees Association, said his group backed Gloria in part because he didn’t just oppose Proposition B – the 2012 voter initiative that stripped new city hires of pensions – and support a proposed sales tax in 2010. Zucchet said Gloria touted those positions publicly even after it was clear he was on the losing side.

“He was fighting what we considered to be not just right, but principled battles, when you know something will go the other way, but you state the case anyway,” Zucchet said.

That’s exactly what Gonzalez and others were looking for and didn’t see from Gloria on the Wal-Mart issue.

“For organized labor, we always see people say I’m going to be a champion of this, and there was a sense of disappointment that as soon as there was pushback, he got nervous,” she said. “We were frustrated. We had very few champions then. On the local level, we were constantly looking seeking out individuals who would do in office what they said while campaigning.”

Things got easier in Sacramento.

Land use decisions are generally the most contentious issues city leaders face. That can put labor in a tough spot, lobbying an official to reject a specific, tangible project over a concern that might seem like an abstract principle. Those trade-offs can feel less concrete in Sacramento. Favoring labor’s concerns means standing for big policy changes, not killing specific projects.

But Gloria said that doesn’t have anything to do with his D-minus labor score in San Diego and his A-plus in Sacramento. He said the annual Labor Federation scorecard in the Capitol, the one he aced, is a better test.

“The folks who choose to create those scorecards are selecting the votes they wish to use,” he said. “What was unusual about the 2012 scorecard is to my knowledge, there was never one before and there hasn’t been one since. That is not the case in Sacramento.”

Gonzalez, though, reiterated that San Diego is changing – fast.

“In San Diego, for years you could call yourself a progressive and be very average for working folks,” she said. “That’s changing. We’re seeing that dynamic change in the mayor’s race.”

Rejecting Limitations

One of Gloria’s final acts before heading to Sacramento was acting as pitchman for Measure A, a ballot measure from the San Diego Association of Governments that would raise the sales tax to pay for transportation projects.

That measure developed into a scandal that led to full-scale reform of the agency, the ouster of its long-time executive and the arrival of a replacement who has pushed the agency to the left.

But before all that, Gloria was at odds with would-be allies over the measure. Environmentalists and transit advocates joined labor – specifically, IBEW 569 – in opposing Measure A. They objected to its refusal to guarantee union wages for its major capital projects, and because they said it spent too little on public transit.

Gloria has always presented himself as a transit advocate, and he argued Measure A’s share of transit spending was as good a deal as they were going to get.

“He would constantly pivot back to selecting from the measure, where the transit opportunities were, and it just wasn’t good enough for us, we wanted a big vision,” said Gretchen Newsom, IBEW’s political director, who is now a vocal Gloria supporter. “He has since adopted that big vision.”

That big vision doesn’t just include the agency’s newfound transit. AB 805, the measure (authored by Gonzalez) that reformed the agency’s governance structure, also included language that all but ensures the next measure will provide union construction provisions that weren’t in Measure A.

Gloria said he learned a lesson over his disagreement with labor on Measure A, and what’s happened since.

He saw Measure A as a pragmatic compromise. It reserved more money for transit than SANDAG’s previous measure, and he didn’t think transit advocates could hope for more.

Opponents rejected the premise. If you can’t win in the status quo, change it, they argued.

“You spend years cultivating relationships to get a majority of the SANDAG board to vote for a tax increase – and mind you, this is a majority Republican board, and you get them to commit to a plurality of that funding going to public transit, when a majority of those Republican members don’t even believe in climate change,” he said. “That’s the mountain I climbed to get to that point, that seemed like a reasonable deal. But I’m grateful for my experience in Sacramento – I didn’t realize AB 805 was possible.”

Similarly, the city has been for years pursuing a massive infrastructure project to reclaim sewage and turn it into drinkable water, providing the city up to a third of its needed drinking water while ending its current practice of dumping tons of sewage into the ocean.

But the City Council wanted to attach a project labor agreement to that deal – something complicated by the fact that voters in 2012 approved a ban on such agreements. Gloria passed legislation in Sacramento that required the project to have a PLA for it to receive state financing.

He’s learned not to accept what seem like practical limitations.

“There were remedies there that I didn’t necessarily know or appreciate,” he said. “I am several years older, or wiser, and my obligation in my mind is to take that wisdom and experience and put it to work.”

Hearing that, I tell him that it sounds like the lesson he learned is that if you cannot win under the existing rules, you need to change the rules, and that the lesson may not be especially welcome to people who are already cynical about politics, and labor’s influence over them.

He didn’t flinch.

“It’s a fact, right?”

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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