Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Democrats’ big split could cost them San Diego mayoralty

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

San Diego’s Democrats waited 20 years to reclaim the mayor’s office, but last year’s euphoria proved short-lived when Bob Filner resigned after nearly 20 women stepped forward with lurid tales of sexual harassment.

Now, with a special election to fill the mayor’s office just days away, a deep split among Democratic politicians, labor unions and other liberal groups threatens to sink the party’s chances of electing another Democrat.

Most Democratic politicians, including Gov. Jerry Brown, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, and some unions, lined up behind Nathan Fletcher, a former Republican assemblyman who switched parties.

But Fletcher’s standing in the polls has been eroded not only vis-à-vis his putative Republican rival, City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, but because another Democrat, City Councilman David Alvarez, has gained, thanks to support from other unions and Democratic politicians, including state Democratic Party chairman John Burton.

This week, Burton dispatched an email to Democrats on his mailing lists, asking them to help Alvarez who, he said, has “made double-digit gains” and has a chance of becoming San Diego’s first Latino mayor, citing his endorsement by the local Democratic Party committee as making him the official candidate.

“His family’s hard work and progressive ethics gave him early, consistent, democratic values that fueled his community activism at an early age and placed him on a path to become a city council member,” Burton wrote in his email.

The infighting among Democrats has become sharply personal in some instances, raising the distinct possibility that Faulconer will not only finish first in next Tuesday’s election but that his runoff rival, either Fletcher or Alvarez, will have a badly fractured party.

The big-name Democrats attached themselves to Fletcher because they believed that as a former Republican with a military background, he stood the best chance of keeping the mayor’s office in a city with a nominal Democratic registration majority but a history of voting somewhat conservatively – especially in a low-turnout special election.

But Fletcher’s political flip-flops have become a liability and a third Democrat, former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, will draw at least a smattering of votes away from the other two.

There’s little doubt that San Diego’s powerful, Republican-oriented business establishment is joining Burton in rooting for Alvarez because he is viewed as a weaker runoff foe for Faulconer, a moderate in the mold of most recent GOP mayors, than Fletcher among the city’s many independent voters.

If, indeed, the Democratic split winds up helping Faulconer become San Diego’s mayor, it will be a big black eye for a party that sees itself dominating California politics forever.