Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, talks to supporters on election night. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The San Diego County Democratic Party is a much different organization than it was even just a few years ago, let alone a decade ago when it was just trying to catch up to the organizational and fundraising might of the local GOP.

Now, it weighs in regularly on policy and contentious issues of the day, and Tuesday it came in hot with a slew of resolutions about police use of non-lethal (but sometimes lethal) force against protesters and a “responsible reduction in police department funding.”

One of the resolutions got some attention from local political professionals. Here it is in full, emphasis added:

“BE IT RESOLVED that the San Diego County Democratic Party shall refuse all donations from Law Enforcement Unions and Associations and demands that all San Diego Democratic elected officials refuse such contributions as well and reject the endorsement of such associations;” it reads.

That last part demanding that candidates “reject the endorsement of such associations” is a sticky one. Several of the party’s stars — Assemblyman Todd Gloria, Council candidate Raul Campillo and City Attorney Mara Elliott, just to name a few — have proudly received the support of the unions like the Police Officers Association, which represents San Diego Police Department officers. In 2018, Nathan Fletcher got the support of the Deputy Sheriffs Association in his run for county supervisor.

Did the party now expect candidates to reject these kinds of boosts or risk the party’s support?

No, said Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, the chairman of the party.

“From my perspective, that could easily be not promoting an endorsement. There’s no reason to submit a rejection of the actual endorsement,” he said. “If an organization is going to endorse someone, we can’t control what an organization is going to do. But we can control what we do and say as part of our values.”

As of Friday, both Gloria and Campillo still promoted the endorsement on their websites.

The Police Officers Association declined to comment.

The other side: Stephen Puetz, a Republican consultant and Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s former chief of staff said it was an anti-police measure that was both bad politics and bad policy.

“They’ve put their candidates in the impossible position of tacitly agreeing with these extreme positions — like defunding police — or speaking out and risk being stripped of their coveted party endorsement,” Puetz said. It was especially “insulting” he said to San Diego police, where the union, the mayor, and bipartisan majorities on the council have effectively advanced reforms here.

To watch: The Democratic Party also decided to take a stand against getting money from the police unions. Conveniently, the unions haven’t been giving the party money anyway. But they have been contributing to the campaigns of legislative representatives. Will they return the money?

On “responsible reduction” in PD funding: It seems like everyone (except the people in charge) agrees police should not be the responding parties to many of the calls they get, particularly about mental health and homeless issues. And yet, officers are this default all-needs strike team, throwing away homeless people’s tents or doing welfare checks on someone having a breakdown. The Police Officers Association has brought this up itself, lobbying the City Council to relieve them of some of those duties.

Rodriguez-Kennedy said that non-law enforcement responsibilities should be shifted, and so should the funding associated with it.

“We’re not saying ‘defund the police’ but that’s providing a method to defund the police,” he said.

Rodriguez-Kennedy is proud the party is taking such firm stances on major issues. It also passed resolution calling for the “comprehensive decriminalization of fare evasion.” (Lisa Halverstadt did some great journalism on that this week, by the way. And there was a push for reform.)

He said change was coming.

“The Democratic Party is in almost complete agreement that reform is coming and the Police Officers Association and law enforcement unions need to recognize that they need to be more positive partners with their communities  to lead to that reform. In the end, they serve the people and we are the party of the people,” he said.

Hueso Not Part of That

Planned Parenthood official and Southwestern Community College trustee Nora Vargas speaks at the 2019 San Diego Women’s March at Waterfront Park. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano
Planned Parenthood official and Southwestern Community College trustee Nora Vargas speaks at the 2019 San Diego Women’s March at Waterfront Park. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

The Democratic Party also made the stunning decision not only to not endorse State Sen. Ben Hueso is in his bid for county supervisor but also to endorse his rival, Nora Vargas, for the job.

Hueso has been an elected to the City Council and state Legislature in various positions for 15 years. Vargas is on the Southwestern Community College Board and a former Planned Parenthood executive. The party’s Central Committee overcame the threshold to proactively endorse her.

“We’re in a change year. We want change. We want someone who is going to fight for that change as strongly as possible,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said. “Hueso has done good work for the party but Nora Vargas was able to make her case better.”

Down Goes the Last Republican City Council District (By Registration)



Republicans no longer have a registration advantage in any City Council district in San Diego.

The region’s trend away from Republicans isn’t new, with independents surpassing Republicans as the second largest group of voters in the county nearly two years ago.

But Republicans have held an advantage over Democrats in the city’s District 5, covering the suburban northeast part of San Diego, as recently as last summer.

As residents registered to vote or updated their registration leading up to California’s March primary, though, that changed. Democrats are now the largest group of voters, even in the city’s most conservative district.

Democrats now represent 35.1 percent of all District 5 voters, after the party gained nearly 5,000 new members in the district since last summer. That growth came as the number of independents in the district declined, and the number of Republicans was largely unchanged, decreasing by about 400.

The latter half of the Trump presidency hasn’t been kind to Republicans in the district. They still held a registration advantage over Democrats – 33 percent to 30.5 percent – a month before the midterm election. That nearly 3-point edge has become a nearly 5-point deficit since then.

It was in April 2019 that Councilman Mark Kersey left the Republican Party and became an independent. He won the district after running unopposed in 2012, when it was held by Republican Carl DeMaio, who was running for mayor.

November features the first competitive race there in recent history. Joe Levanthal, a Republican and former ethics commissioner, and Marni von Wilpert, a Democrat and deputy city attorney, advanced through the March primary.

Police Oversight Advocates: We’re Good, Let’s Have an Election

Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice, speaks at press conference calling into question Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s support of a police oversight ballot measure. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice, speaks at press conference calling into question Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s support of a police oversight ballot measure. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

After Mayor Kevin Faulconer and District Attorney Summer Stephan endorsed a proposed ballot measure to overhaul police oversight body to give it independent investigative powers, the measure’s proponents urged caution.

In 2016 and again in 2018, they had seen the same effort waylaid by a political compromise and procedural chicanery. They welcomed the new support, but said they’d wait to celebrate.

Because the measure affects a city labor union, the proposal was subject to union negotiations. They wanted to see the final language that emerged from those negotiations.

The city released that language Thursday, and a champion of the ballot effort said everything looks fine.

“At this point, we don’t have any objections to the language,” said Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice, the group pushing the change to the city’s charter. “We are happy that it’s language we think will be useful and helpful for the commission, and don’t have any objections.”

The measure now specifies that a police officer can appeal any sustained findings of misconduct by the commission. That’s the only substantial change from the negotiations.

“From our reading of the language and what we understand, it’s not an addition of an appeal process, it’s a recognition of an appeal process that already exists in California state law,” St. Julian said.

The City Council was supposed to vote next week to put the measure on the November ballot. That won’t be able to happen yet; since the City Clerk hasn’t formally called an election yet, the Council can’t put anything on a ballot that doesn’t exist.

The Council will instead vote to put a formal end to the union negotiations, and to declare its intent to put the measure on the ballot at some later point, before the August deadline.

The Art of Protest Promotion

Image courtesy of SD Peaceful Protests

Dispatch from Bella Ross: In response to fears that white supremacists and outside infiltrators could interfere with recent police brutality protests to escalate tensions — or just send protesters to the wrong location — activists and organizers have developed a system for vetting each event.

The system relies on transparency and preparedness.

Victor Castro, one of the organizers, said within days of the first protest, he began to see online fliers for events with little to no information about who was behind it. With every passing day, he was meeting more people who shared this concern.

One of those people was Rashanna Lee.

“There was this sort of burgeoning group of us who had a sensibility that there was a way we wanted the marches to go, and we wanted to be in charge of making them go that way,” Lee said. “And, honestly, it kind of came up organically.”

What started as a group chat — composed of local activists, medics and public relations professionals — soon evolved into a social media account where people could find protests that have been verified. The SD Peaceful Protest accounts on Twitter and Instagram quickly gained around 5,400 followers.

Castro walked me through the process.

If a protest is being promoted online, the group steps in to communicate with the organizers and find out who they are, whether they have a clear message and that they know how to effectively maintain a large crowd. Protests that pass the test are promoted through the group’s social media network, while events that seem fishy will be reposted with “do not attend” stamped over the flier.

“Don’t trust a flier that has no point of reference to redirect, because you want to ensure that there’s a person behind it that you can go to ask more questions,” Castro said.

The movement has seen an influx of young people and first-time protesters, so Castro said some organizers who seem suspicious may simply not know their way around.

This means one of the group’s other functions has become helping newcomers effectively lead a protest if they don’t know how, Lee said. That includes communicating with protesters about their rights via loudspeaker, ensuring marchers stay behind the front line at an event and coordinating with police about their intentions to try to avoid an escalation.

“Our main concern is ensuring the safety of the attendance is there, that everybody has a place to go and everybody has a person to depend on for safety, whether that be medics or leaders,” Castro said.

Congressional Dems: New Surveillance Bill Strikes Right Balance

Dispatch from Jesse Marx: The American surveillance state was built on bipartisanship. But the politics of it are becoming increasingly erratic in the Trump era.

San Diego’s congressional delegation — four Democrats — voted to reinstate a series of intelligence programs that had lapsed in early 2020. Three of those representatives told me that they believed the legislation was critical to national security and came with new, appropriate protections.

The USA Freedom Reauthorization Act grants federal authorities the ability to collect “tangible things” related to national security investigations without a warrant. It passed both chambers of Congress in recent months before the president threatened to veto and House GOP leaders got cold feet. Negotiations are now underway to reconcile the House and Senate versions into a single bill.

Agents who want to open national security investigations need permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. But the secret judicial body, created in the 1970s after a series of scandals, including one in San Diego, and has long been considered a rubber stamp.

In 2018, it denied in whole only one of the 1,081 requests for electronic surveillance. In December, the Justice Department’s inspector general described “a staggeringly dysfunctional and error-ridden process,” in the words of the New York Times, when the FBI went about obtaining permission to wiretap a former Trump campaign adviser.

In exchange for reinstating federal surveillance powers, Congress has offered to give independent advisers a larger voice in the secret court proceedings and create harsher criminal penalties for abuse. Congress is also considering a prohibition against the collection of GPS and cell site location data.

At the same time, though, lawmakers shot down amendments prohibiting the collection of a suspect’s web browsing history and search queries. And the larger criticism of the court remains: Defendants’ attorneys are still unable to read the FISA applications that allowed agents to collect evidence against their clients, a right afforded in criminal court.

Given all that, I reached out this week to San Diego’s representatives to ask where they stand and why. Rep. Juan Vargas didn’t respond.

Rep. Susan Davis:

FISA is a key component of our national security. The challenge has always been to balance our national security needs while protecting civil liberties. The bill that passed the House contained more transparency and more protections for civil liberties. The Senate increased those protections and sent it back to the House … I look forward to following those [Senate and House] negotiations and review[ing] the final product.

Rep. Mike Levin:

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is a complicated and flawed law, but the bottom line is that its authorities are needed to keep our country safe, and it’s always had bipartisan support. While it’s critical for our national security, the program is in desperate need of reform. I voted for the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act to create stronger protections for our civil liberties and rein in powers that went too far. Any other reauthorization legislation must include significant reforms that safeguard civil liberties in order to earn my support. I hope my friends across the aisle will continue to make this a bipartisan effort instead of catering to the shifting views the President conveys over Twitter.

Rep. Scott Peters:

Congress needs to reauthorize the surveillance programs that are critical to public safety. We also must put in place new laws that protect the privacy of citizens; neither will happen until we can come to a bipartisan agreement that can pass both the House and Senate. That’s why I supported the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act in March, a product of bipartisan effort in the House to work out legislative disputes. I will assess my vote on a final bill when I know what’s in it.

Bella Ross was a great intern. She will do journalism well. We have been proud to feature her in the greatest political report newsletter that comes out on Saturdays in San Diego. Jesse Marx is also good and has had a lot of success overseeing our interns — no small task. Andy Keatts is fine. If you want to reach us email scott.lewis@voiceofsandigo.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org. 

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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