You may not have heard much about Tuesday’s election for mayor of San Diego, the nation’s eighth largest city, but liberals and union bosses have been focused on it for months. “San Diego is — or at least ought to be — the center of the universe for progressives, because its mayoral election is likely the biggest opportunity we’ll get between now and the 2014 midterms to flex our muscles within the broader Democratic coalition, and to move our body politic to the left,” writes the Daily Kos’s Ian Reifowitz.
Since then Democratic candidate David Alvarez has been the beneficiary of some $3.8 million from independent-expenditure groups — 90 percent of it from unions. He has raised only $750,000 on his own. Overall he will outspend Republican Kevin Faulconer — like Alvarez a San Diego city-council member — by several hundred thousand dollars. “It’s astounding the amount of money that’s being poured into this race from government unions,” Faulconer told Politico. “Many of these employee unions were the ones that brought the city to the verge of bankruptcy ten years ago, when we were ‘Enron by the Sea.’”
In fact, so much money has poured into the race that Tijuana, the Mexican city just across the border from San Diego, is now flooded with Spanish-language billboards and signs touting Alvarez’s candidacy, some with the slogan “Hayamos Historia” — “Let’s Make History.” The advertising says it’s paid for by a group called “Amigos de David Alvarez,” which is not registered with any government entity in California. Why all the south-of-the-border effort? Many Tijuana residents have friends or family who live in San Diego, and at least 3,200 registered voters with an address in San Diego also have a mailing address in Mexico or another country.
While union spending has boosted his candidacy, Alvarez is weighed down by his associations with disgraced former mayor Bob Filner, who in 2012 became the first Democrat in a quarter century to be elected San Diego mayor. The liberal Filner left office after less than a year, hounded by sexual-harassment lawsuits and a shambolic management style. That set up Tuesday’s special election to select a replacement.
What worries many in San Diego is that, as the San Diego Union-Tribune reports, “Alvarez was Filner’s closest ally on the City Council.” He once agreed to block his own nominee for the powerful Port Commission in order to please Filner. He even went so far as to help his pal with his videotaped apology as the sexual-harassment scandal began to mushroom. In the end, Alvarez came out in favor of Filner’s resignation as the facts of the scandal made any alternative politically untenable.
In policy terms, Alvarez appears to be a down-the-line supporter of the liberal agenda — he wants to increase the minimum wage and reduce carbon emissions, and he makes endless references to income inequality. On the city council, he supported Filner’s effort to suspend competitive bidding between the city and private contractors for the delivery of some services — a bête noire of local-government unions. Faulconer, a moderate Republican, has pledged to govern in the same business-friendly manner that characterized past San Diego mayors such as Pete Wilson (who then served as governor of California from 1991 to 1998) and Jerry Sanders.
The latest poll over the weekend by the San Diego Union-Tribune shows Faulconer with a statistically insignificant 47 percent–46 percent edge.
Faulconer leads among male voters by eleven points, but trails among women by nine points. Alvarez has a 61 percent–22 percent lead among Hispanic voters and a 3:1 lead among African Americans. Faulconer leads among whites by 3:2 and has a narrow lead with Asian voters. Dan Walters, a veteran columnist for the Sacramento Bee, says the race has significance beyond the city’s limits: “Should Faulconer win, he would immediately become — for a party badly in need of a fresh image — a potential candidate for governor, senator or other statewide office.” Given the changing demographics, a GOP win in San Diego would be meaningful. In 2012, Obama beat Romney about 313,000–186,000 in the city.
If Alvarez is elected, he will become the first Latino mayor in one of the nation’s most populous cities. Even more important, he will show that the Democratic model of Obama’s 2012 reelection — flood-the-zone spending and an awesome turnout machine — can still deliver the goods after the failure of the Obamacare website and the dip in the president’s approval ratings.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.