Queer Democrats Split on 79th District Assembly Race

author: 
Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club revealed itself dramatically split in the Democratic primary race for the 79th Assembly District. City Council president Ben Hueso is running a classic “insider” campaign, relying on major endorsements and fundraising clout. His principal challenger, Sweetwater Union High School District board member Pearl Quiñones, is seeking the office in a progressive grass-roots campaign in the tradition of Assemblymember Lori Saldaña (who endorses her) and City Councilmember Donna Frye. The club was unable to reach the 60 percent threshold needed for an endorsement, and ultimately voted to rate both candidates “acceptable.”

Queer Democrats Clash Over 79th Assembly District Race

Incumbent Councilmember Hueso, Challenger Quiñones Both Rated “Acceptable”

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Ben Hueso, Pearl Quiñones, Kevin Beiser, Katherine Nakamura, Patrick Finucane, Jim Morrison

When the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club at its January 28 regular meeting debated whom to endorse in the 79th Assembly District primary — San Diego City Council president Ben Hueso or Sweetwater Union High School District board member Pearl Quiñones — there was little to choose between them based on the issues. Quiñones scored 100 percent on the club’s issues questionnaire and Hueso got 98.7 percent only because the club’s vice-president for political action, Alex Sachs, docked him for firmly supporting marriage equality and therefore declining to back legal recognition for same-sex couples outside of marriage.

Instead, the debate turned mostly on personalities and political styles. Hueso’s supporters pointed to his experience as a Councilmember, his name recognition and ability to raise money for a general-election campaign, the number of endorsements of elected officials he’d attracted and his willingness to stand up for marriage equality against the formidable opposition of the local Roman Catholic church. Quiñones’ backers saw her as an insurgent candidate in the tradition of City Councilmember Donna Frye and Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, one able to stir the passions of the grass roots and also someone more likely to take risks for progressive issues once in office.

The club was originally supposed to debate the issue at a November meeting, but Hueso was unable to attend due to a death in his family, so club members voted in November to delay the endorsement until January. After extensive discussion and debate, the club failed to endorse either candidate and instead agreed to rate both “acceptable” — an option under its rules when members feel more than one candidate is supportable but neither is clearly superior. But even that vote, usually an act of conciliation at the end of a long and sometimes bitter debate, itself became charged with emotion after Jess Durfee, former club president and current chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, demanded separate votes on the “acceptable” ratings for Hueso and Quiñones.

The discussion of the race began with presentations by both candidates. Hueso’s combined a defense of his work on San Diego’s financial problems with ideas on how he would handle similar issues as a state legislator. “We’ve had an issue with the city, trying to restore our credit rating,” Hueso said. “I’m running to make quality education accessible and affordable. I’m also working on a local jobs initiative. We are putting together bonds on a water-use project. We have to spend local money locally and employ San Diegans instead of people from Arizona and Nevada.” Hueso also recounted how he voted to put the city of San Diego on record as supporting the legal right to same-sex marriage “even though the bishop of my diocese held Masses in my district to pressure me to vote against it.”

“I am your local grass-roots candidate,” said Quiñones. “I believe education is the strongest power to open doors of opportunity, and the best equalizer. Everyone has the right to an affordable public education.” She said that since 2000, when she first ran for the Sweetwater board, it has started the largest capital-improvement program in the district and all its new buildings are certified as environmentally “green.” “We have the lowest dropout rate in the state and have passed a balanced budget every year since 2000 without laying off teachers,” she said. “Last year we were hit with an $11 million budget shortfall, and next year we will have to cut $22 million. How can we continue to provide a quality education for our children with all these budget cuts?”

When the club debated the race, Hueso had the benefit of celebrity endorsements from openly Queer politicians, including State Senator Christine Kehoe — who became the first “out” Queer ever elected to public office in San Diego County when she won the District 3 City Council seat in 1993 — as well as her two successors in that office, Toni Atkins and current Councilmember Todd Gloria. Kehoe and Atkins sent letters of support and Gloria appeared personally to speak for Hueso. But Quiñones had a celebrity endorser of her own — Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, who ran a grass-roots campaign for her own Assembly seat in 2004, beat two better-funded primary opponents and won.

“As chair of the Assembly’s Women’s Caucus, we need Pearl,” Saldaña said. “Pearl is a progressive. Pearl’s heart is in the right place.” Saldaña said one reason she was supporting Quiñones is that Latina women in office tend to be more progressive than Latino men. “The moderate Latino caucus holds up votes time and time again,” Saldaña explained. “The women are the progressives right now, and we need more of them.”

“I’m here acknowledging the choice between two good candidates, and I know something about that,” said Gloria — referring to his own 2008 City Council race against former San Diego Democratic Club president Stephen Whitburn. “I have seen Ben close up, and he is always with us. Ben is a progressive Democrat on housing and environmental issues. In a city with a strong-mayor form of government, we have kept there from being cuts in police and fire services and we have kept every library open.”

The debate over the race split the club’s former presidents — Andrea Villa spoke for Quiñones while Durfee endorsed Hueso — and also the two openly Queer people who have actually chaired the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee. Former chair Maureen Steiner praised Quiñones’ willingness to endorse Mary Salas, the outgoing Assemblymember she and Hueso are running to replace, for State Senate even though Salas isn’t supporting her. (Hueso said he is also supporting Salas.) Durfee said the club “must” endorse Hueso, partly because he expects Hueso to win the nomination anyway (“you can look at the numbers and the fundraising”) and partly because “we’ve never supported him yet — and he’s always supported us.”

The Hueso-Quiñones race not only took the club two ballots but impinged on the next election up for consideration, the District B seat on the San Diego Unified School District board. Incumbent Katherine Nakamura and challenger Kevin Beiser had to sit patiently at the table in front of the room while procedural debates over the Hueso-Quiñones endorsement swirled around them. On the first ballot, Hueso got 41 votes and Quiñones 34 to seven for no endorsement. On the second ballot, on which Quiñones wasn’t considered (as the second-place finisher she was dropped), Hueso got 38 votes to 31 for no endorsement. Eventually both candidates were rated “acceptable,” with Hueso winning that designation by 50 votes to seven against and 10 abstentions, while Quiñones’ “acceptable” rating passed with 47 votes to one against and seven abstentions.

The Nakamura-Beiser race was a much easier one for the club. Though the club had supported Nakamura in the past, it went for challenger Beiser by 65 votes to one for Nakamura and 10 for no endorsement. The key issue appeared to be whether the school district’s construction projects should be covered by Project Labor Agreements (PLA’s). PLA’s are under major attack from Republicans and libertarians who regard them as giveaways to organized labor — and Nakamura shocked her audience when she said, “I am vehemently not in support of PLA’s,” and added that they had been foisted onto the district by a new board majority elected two years after her.

“I wholeheartedly support PLA’s,” Beiser said. “They set up guidelines for contractors who want to build our schools that we need to pay workers a fair wage, offer benefits including health care, and hire workers from San Diego. Katherine and I have a difference. I think it’s so important to hire local workers and keep San Diego’s money in San Diego.” The two also battled over teacher layoffs, with Beiser saying that Nakamura had “voted to fire 900 teachers two years ago,” while Nakamura said no teachers had been fired — they had simply been sent layoff notices until the state legislature restored the school district’s funds, whereupon the teachers were brought back.

The club also considered an endorsement in City Council District 2, currently held by Republican Kevin Faulconer. Democrats Patrick Finucane and Jim Morrison appeared before the club and talked about the city’s general problems as well as one specific to their district: the proliferation of loud, noisy bars in Pacific Beach. Any hope Morrison might have had for winning the club’s support was dashed when, after the candidates had finished presenting themselves and had left the room so the club could debate the race, political action vice-president Alex Sachs read the answers to the club’s questionnaire on which Morrison had disagreed with the club’s positions.

According to Sachs, Morrison had said he did not support lifting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and allowing Queers to serve openly in the U.S. military “because they might get hurt” (later he quoted Morrison as saying “they might get injured,” which led one club member to wonder what Morrison thinks the military is for). Morrison also said on his questionnaire that Medi-Cal funding for abortions should be used “sparingly” and it would be “too costly” for women to serve on military submarines alongside men. Finucane won the endorsement with 63 votes to four for Morrison and 11 for no endorsement.

In addition to the endorsement debates, the club also heard presentations from Gayl Jaaskelainen on how to apply for the California Redistricting Commission, which will draw new districts for the state legislature after the 2010 census; and from former president Jeri Dilno about the current status of the Pride organization and events. Dilno announced that former Pride board president Philip Princetta and the two other members who approved Princetta’s controversial (and since returned) $5,000 stipend have resigned. Before they quit, Princetta and the other members appointed Suanne Pauley, Debra McEntee and Joe Mayer to form a five-member Pride board, and that group in turn added Judy Schein, Chris Shaw, Jeri Dilno, Andrea Villa, Bob Leyh and Larry Ramey to fill out the board. (Pride’s bylaws state that the board can have any number of members between four and 20.)

“My first statement is don’t believe everything you read in the papers,” Dilno joked about Pride. She commented wryly that the San Diego Democratic Club is not “taking over” Pride — despite the presence of two former club presidents, herself and Villa, on the new Pride board, along with current club development vice-president Leyh — and expressed confidence that the 2010 Pride events will take place on schedule (the celebration is scheduled for July 17-18) and be “a good Pride.” Dilno refused to comment on whether the new board will rehire executive director Ron deHarte — whose January 5 firing by the Princetta-led board led to a community controversy over Pride and its future — or the two other Pride staff members, Ken St. Pierre and Jeff Rolando, who quit in support of him.

Finally, the club re-elected the full slate of officers from 2009 to continue in 2010. They are: Larry Baza, president; Alex Sachs, vice-president for political action; Jeri Dilno, executive vice-president; Bob Leyh, vice-president for development; Brad Jacobsen, secretary; and John Gordon, treasurer.
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