Jan. 7 2015 11:19 AM

A crucial vote on the party’s future happens this month

Steve Rivera, speaking in July to the Point Loma Democratic Club
Photo by Patrick Schultheis

“Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.”

—Heraclitus of Ephesus

It’s been 20 years since the San Diego County Democratic Party faced a contested battle for the party chairpersonship. But in 1995, that post was an open seat. Come Jan. 20, however, current party Chair Francine Busby will face a vote of confidence, in essence, following a couple of years in which Democrats—despite an edge in registered voters over Republicans countywide—came up short in several marquee races.

Her challenger, Steve Rivera, told Spin Cycle that Democrats need to have a conversation about what ails the party when it comes to big-ticket local campaigns.

“Republicans consistently get their base out to vote,” said Rivera, for 10 years a regional director for the California Democratic Party. “That’s one of the biggest issues: The Democratic Party, at a minimum, should be able to turn out the base, and that was something that was really lacking this election cycle.”

Rivera, a Golden Hill resident and event coordinator for the Interfaith Center for Worker Justice, pointed specifically at the San Diego City Council District 2 race as a battle Democrats had no business losing. “We have a majority on the ground there,” Rivera said. “To me, that shows a serious disconnect with how the party operates and promotes itself.”

One of the problems, he argued, is that the Democratic Party holds its Central Committee elections during non-presidential election cycles, when Democratic-voter attention—for whatever reason—seems to wane. “I think it’s a big opportunity that’s lost,” Rivera said, “if we don’t have a way to bring in new people to the party at that point in time, when the interest is highest: during a presidential election.” Correction: While this was true prior to the advent of California's "top-two" primary system, the county's Democratic Central Committee members are now elected during presidential primaries. Spin Cycle apologizes for the error.

Rivera said Busby, a four-time unsuccessful congressional candidate from North County who was elected party chair in 2013, should be given some credit for her attention to grooming the party’s candidate farm system. But in terms of engaging voters, “I haven’t seen much of that,” he said. “Our social-media presence is almost nonexistent. We don’t trumpet the achievements of our electeds. I just don’t see that sense of trying to bring everybody together.”

About 75 Central Committee delegates—including elected officials—will determine the fate of Busby during the Jan. 20 vote, and Rivera acknowledges his quest is an “uphill battle.” While some delegates privately root for Rivera, no one Spin Cycle contacted would speak openly about the contest.

As one delegate put it, “No one wants to look bad if Steve loses. You don’t want to draw the wrath of Francine.”

In a statement, Busby expressed confidence she would be reelected: “Based on 10 years of successful results in building the Democratic Party, I was elected as Chair. I’m running for reelection on my record.”

Busby, in a previous interview, acknowledged that the party’s social-media outreach could be better and vowed to improve that. The complaints, however, have not subsided. “I am the first to admit that I could do better with communicating the party’s mission,” she said.

In an interview this week, Busby kept repeating, “What has Steve done?” when told of his concerns about her leadership. She called the attempt to unseat her a “hostile takeover” by a small core of dissidents “in a year when we should be planning for a big presidential year.

“I’d like to see us just get through 2016, and then we can talk about making a change,” she added.

Busby also lamented the public airing of divisions within the local Democratic Party, including a proposal by the newly formed Democratic Woman’s Club of San Diego County to hold a debate the night before the Jan. 20 vote. Busby said she would not attend because “the organizers of that group are campaigning against me.”

Those divisions—particularly with the party’s labor allies—have bubbled up from time to time. The most recent scuffle came when San Diego City Councilmember Sherri Lightner, a Democrat, took to the shoulders of council Republicans to wrest the council presidency away from Todd Gloria.

Mickey Kasparian, president of the Labor Council of San Diego and Imperial Counties— which declined to endorse Lightner in 2012—went to Twitter after the vote to bash the party: “I hate to say I told u so. But I told u so. Just can’t endorse ANY Dem!!” 

When former party Chair Jess Durfee responded with “that’s a good sound-bite” but questioned how Lightner losing in 2012 to give Republicans a council majority would have been better, Kasparian snapped back, “A Democrat just aligned herself with 4 Reps. I’d say there are few things that are worse.”

When Durfee suggested that a Republican majority would have meant no Council President Gloria and no minimum wage / sick leave ordinance, Kasparian tweeted back: “Heres [sic] the disconnect…Youre [sic] justifying weak Dems. Thats [sic] why workers get screwed.”

On Facebook, Busby congratulated Lightner on her victory. But when asked about how she earned that seat, Busby would only say, “Sherri is not active in the party. I have to trust that she stands with us on important issues.”

Kasparian, a Central Committee member, declined to talk about the upcoming chair vote, noting only, “The success we’ve had in politics has come from labor. I’m continuing to focus my energy in that direction.”

In a letter sent to delegates this week, Rivera wrote, “Under the current leadership, the San Diego Democratic Party simply does not LEAD or even show up to advance progressive causes, policies or candidates” and “has failed to take active leadership on increasing the minimum wage, protecting civil rights, or voter rights. Instead, we wait for our natural allies or elected officials to take the lead on these issues.”

Rivera wrote that the key to that effort is “working with our allies to energize our grassroots during the off years.” He also pledged to create a “standing audit committee” to “provide a full accounting” of party expenses to Central Committee members twice a year.

“I think it’s time for the party to take it up a notch or two and start winning again,” he said.

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