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When then-Councilman David Alvarez ran for mayor in 2013 and 2014, the region’s established business interests lit up, and contributed millions to political action committees like the San Diego Jobs PAC, Protect Our Jobs, San Diegans to Protect Jobs and the Economy and Stop the Jobs Killing Tax to oppose Alvarez or policies he supported.
Now, eight years later, Alvarez is running to represent the 80th Assembly District, and business groups from across the state are sending millions to committees like the California Jobs PAC, Keeping Californians Working, and California for Jobs and a Strong Economy.
But this time, they’re all trying to put him in office.
In 2014, San Diego politics were different. Alvarez was running against a White Republican in the mold of San Diego mayors before him, and on a promise of combatting racial and geographic inequity in the city.
Now, he’s running against a long-time political ally and friend who was by his side in his mayoral race and in the policy fight that has defined both of their careers – combatting industrial pollution in Barrio Logan, where they both grew up.
Since Alvarez’s run for mayor, the Republican Party has collapsed as a viable contender in the region. In all but the most conservative seats, local elections now pit Democrats against each other, and force private groups with interests in public affairs to form new coalitions around each candidate.
And that’s how Alvarez went from a job killer looking to deprive White neighborhoods of road repairs, to the guy willing and able to change Sacramento and protect brown neighborhoods from crime.
The race between Alvarez and former Councilwoman Georgette Gómez may offer a preview of the Democratic races to come. As Democrats increasingly run against other Democrats, the factions that used to arrange themselves across the political spectrum could instead cluster around candidates who, in the not-so-distant past, used to seem the same, highlighting their differences in the process.
In the race for the 80th Assembly District, though, the Democratic hegemony in San Diego didn’t just reveal a distinction between two candidates of such similar backgrounds, it also ended their friendship.
“For me, it was a real relationship, but now it’s become, ‘who is the real David Alvarez?’” Gómez said. “I thought I knew him, and I thought he meant well for our communities. Seeing him as a different person, I wouldn’t refer to him as a friend now, not because we’re running against each other, but because it’s someone I’m not aligned with. Why would he push industry into a community he claims to understand? He lived it. I don’t devalue that. We came from the same place. But I’m utilizing an ability to be elected to heal communities, not for personal gain. I don’t see that from him. The person I thought I knew, I feel like I was blinded, and now I’m seeing the truth.”
Alvarez declined an interview request for this story. He did not reply to an opportunity to respond to Gómez’s comments.
“David is currently focused on running a positive campaign and talking to voters, therefore he will not be available for an interview at this time,” said Chris Jonsmyr, his campaign manager.
What a Difference Eight Years Makes
Martin Wilson, executive vice president of public affairs at the California Chamber of Commerce, said the difference between Alvarez the assembly candidate and Alvarez the mayoral candidate eight years ago is as simple as the office he’s running for.
“We don’t have a litmus test,” said Wilson, who works with two PACs that have spent over $70,000 on the race. “His story stood out. It fits this district very well. He grew up in a tough part of town, made something of himself, went to SDSU and went into public service and continued to do very well in the private sector.”
Wilson grew up in San Diego and worked for former governors Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He said a lot has changed since 2014, when the local business community lined up against Alvarez and behind former Mayor Kevin Faulconer, whom he considers a friend.
“That was nearly 10 years ago,” he said. “Ten years is a pretty long time. We look at each race individually. Kevin, we thought was an outstanding mayor and the right man for that office, but for this one, David is. Gómez, she has tried to run a race based on more progressive issues, like defunding the police, and other things that we don’t believe the voters in that area want to see.”
Indeed, no issue has changed as much as policing during the time that Democrats took over local government, which coincided with Alvarez and Gómez’s political careers.
Since his first Council race in 2010, Alvarez has been calling for a larger police presence in District 8, citing resident dissatisfaction with response times. As recently as 2016, Alvarez was more critical of the San Diego Police Department than any other city elected. His chief criticism, though, was that the mayor and chief had not done enough to put more officers on the street, putting neighborhoods at risk of rising crime.
There was no Defund movement to his left. To his right, former Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman attributed the department’s hiring and retention problem to media scrutiny of police misconduct.
“If this were true we would expect to see similar retention problems in most other agencies,” Alvarez’s office wrote in a report on city hiring and retention problems. “However … SDPD’s retention problem seems to be much worse than other agencies.”
Four years later, Alvarez was out of office and Gómez presided over a hearing in which hundreds of residents demanded a $100 million cut to police spending. She voted for a budget that increased SDPD spending by $27 million.
Days later, she said she supported cutting police funding, but didn’t have the votes.
“I’ve been calling for restructuring since the beginning,” she said of the police budget. “So I think that really is a conversation that we need to have. Does that lead to less money? That’s a possibility. But we need to look at it.”
Now, police unions are spending money opposing her and supporting Alvarez.
New Factions in a One-Party City
As San Diego has become a one-party city, many have expected a clean break in Dem-on-Dem races, with labor-backed progressives squaring off against Chamber-backed moderates. That mostly hasn’t happened, though Gómez-Alvarez seems to fit the bill.
What Lorena Gonzalez – who opposed Alvarez in his first Council race when she ran the Labor Council, and again in his mayoral race against her now-husband, and who resigned from the 80th Assembly District to open the seat in the first place – didn’t expect was a moderate alternative to get support from the Republican Party.
“The Republican Party doesn’t have a pot to piss in, and are spending money on a Democratic seat for a Democrat with no way to help a Republican,” she said. “It makes you wonder what he told them, or what he had someone else to tell them.”
She’s referring to a nearly $10,000 expenditure by the Republican Party of San Diego County last month, on mail pieces attacking Gómez sent to registered Republicans. Since either Gómez or Alvarez will be elected in June, it’s hard not to see that expenditure against her as one for Alvarez.
The party’s bylaws restrict it from spending on member communications for someone who isn’t in the party. But Jordan Gascon, executive director of the party, emphasized that the special election coincides with a primary election for the new 80th Assembly District, which voters will have to again weigh in on in November. For that primary, Republican Lincoln Pickard is also on the ballot. Pickard took 24 percent of the vote in the special election’s April primary.
“We do not support Democrats under our bylaws, however, the member communication piece focused on the horrible policies of Gomez,” Gascon wrote.
Alvarez, though, has always been an idiosyncratic political figure. The Labor Council opposed him in his first Council race, then supported his mayoral race three years later following a leadership change. He later feuded with that Labor leader over control of the Democratic Party’s governing body – with significant financial support from a major donor to the conservative group that savaged him during his mayoral run. In his final years in office, he worked arm-in-arm on housing issues with Scott Sherman, the Council’s most conservative member.
Gonzalez, despite opposing Alvarez three times since 2010, thinks Alvarez is attracting different supporters now because of the work he’s done since leaving office.
Both Alvarez and Gómez started public affairs firms when they left office.
One of Alvarez’s clients was Austal USA, a shipbuilder, who he lobbied the Port of San Diego to let open a shipyard just south of Barrio Logan, in National City.
Fighting industrial pollution from shipyards in Barrio Logan was maybe the defining policy fight of both Alvarez and Gómez’s careers. Alvarez grew up in Barrio Logan and cited his asthma as a result of growing up there, on the way to pushing the city to adopt a new set of development regulations in the neighborhood before city voters threw the plan out amid a campaign by the business community arguing the changes would kill solid, blue-collar jobs in the community. The city last year passed a virtually identical plan with support from the shipbuilders, and silence from the business community.
Alvarez’s ally in that fight, which coincided with his mayoral run, was Gómez, then an organizer for the Environmental Health Coalition. EHC fought against the proposed shipyard in National City – and after Gómez left office, she signed a contract with the nonprofit to work with them there.
But Alvarez, in a 2020 interview, said his lobbying for Austal USA was proof of what he said throughout the Barrio Logan fight: He was never against shipbuilders, their argument just didn’t make any sense.
“I wouldn’t call it ironic, though maybe to the outside world it is,” he said. “But as time goes by, and I’m still young, it’s just fascinating how everything is interconnected in this world.”
Gómez said Alvarez’s work for a shipyard – and other work he did helping San Diego Gas & Electric pursue an energy substation near Barrio Logan – is what forced her to question whether she ever knew him the way she thought.
Gómez has also gone into lobbying since leaving office. In contrast to Alvarez, she said, she kept pushing in the same direction as when she was on Council.
And yes, most of her consulting business has piggybacked on her work in office – or capitalized on it.
Beyond EHC, the former San Diego Association of Governments board member who advocated in office for the agency’s regional transportation plan also got a contract from SANDAG to work on its regional transportation plan. She worked with the nonprofit group Groundworks to influence the city’s parks master plan, which began working its way through the city while she was still Council president. And she has a contract with Monarch, a developer behind the HomeTownSD bid to redevelop the Sports Arena. On the Council, Gómez voted for a community plan that has helped facilitate a Sports Arena redevelopment, but voted against a measure on the 2020 ballot that would have lifted the 30-foot height limit on new construction in the area, arguing the city should have required more low-income housing as part of the move.
The race between two former friends and allies has gotten rough – with groups supporting him tagging her a tax cheat, and those supporting her hitting him for his work for SDG&E – but neither are making starkly different promises about how they’ll legislate once in office.
Alvarez, though, has vaguely positioned himself against the status quo in a Capitol run by a Democratic supermajority, with a Democratic governor, and a district until recently represented by a Democrat who will soon run the state’s most powerful labor union.
“It’s time to change Sacramento for our kids, neighbors and communities,” he said in one January Tweet.
“Sacramento politicians are out of touch,” he said in a May commercial.
But in the end, Gonzalez argued, the voters in her old district are not ideologically moderate – even if they end up taking that side in the kind of race San Diego could be seeing much more of soon.
“It’s a progressive district, very pro-labor,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not like he’s publicly running a pro-jobs race. The Chamber, the Democrats who are standing next to him, maybe they’ll get one over. But can he act like a moderate once elected? No, it won’t be tolerable in that district.”