SAN DIEGO.- There are only 13 days left in this special-election campaign for a new mayor of San Diego, and the latest polls show the race going into the dead heat, according to one poll out by Public Policy Polling, and a 5 point race in another one.
In the end it will come down to turnout, says David Alvarez during an exclusive interview in the closing days of the campaign. We sat down with the young Democrat who could be the first latino mayor of San Diego, and already a four year city council member, to talk about his vision for a unified city that doesn't forget both those who have, and those who have less, that works with its Mexican neighbors and how is it that he decided to take the opportunity to become the next mayor of San Diego.
At his house's garage in Barrio Logan, where he has been living in for years with his family and now has a small campaign office (one of many), Alvarez called on citizens to get out the vote and take an active role in the democratic process, warning that staying at home is the main obstacle for a "real change" in the city this coming February 11, the day of the election.
Indeed, Jay Leve, founder and editor of SurveyUSA says that "It's like voters south of Interstate 8 suddenly woke up and realized there is an election going on and that they can make a difference," when commenting on the recent surge of support for Alvarez.
"We're going door to door, to churches, at several community events, since voting is what will be the voice for the future of San Diego. And the future IS in the hands of the people who are going to vote. If few people go out and vote, the decision making will be handled by a small group of people", but the opposite will give way to real change in the city. His campaign is confident that polls will soon show his true support for his policies and candidacy.
He never really planned on having a political career, he answers when we questioned him about why he decided to run (we discuss his actual decision further below). "I actually never planned on entering politics", he says, reminding us he studied psychology in school in the hopes of actually being one. But he has also always lived with a passion of being active in the community, in his church, in schools and in public life in general, a passion that has taken him all the way from Barrio Logan to the City Council and possibly now to the Mayor's Office of the eight largest city in America.
Is he simply the Latino candidate?
We asked him about some of the more fringe attacks against his candidacy, about him being the candidate for unions or only interested in minority populations, labeling them "special interest". The attacks come from groups linked to Republicans, his opponent's party.
"Honest people, those who know the truth about what is happening in San Diego, all of them recognized that there are some communities... that haven't been treated equally when it comes to the city's services. And they want to see that all of us have the same opportunities. And obviously, minoritiesbe it Latinos, African Americans or others have not been receiving that attention they need for those opportunities", for businesses or participating in the city's political structure.
"We are all looking for the same thing" in their interest, like trying to get their families and communities get a better life. "That's the change we are looking for", that everybody, no matter where they come from, is able to participate in this democracy and not being represented by the same people as always. "We are ready for a real change here in San Diego."
The Interstate 8 division
Politically and socially, San Diego is considered to be divided between the region north of I-8 (Mission Valley) and the region south of it, which can be seen in electoral maps of the city. What would you do to close that gap?
Continue to fight for equality in all communities, he answers, like making sure response times for 9-11 are the same for all neighborhoods in the city, civil protection services attend all needs without mattering where one lives. His opponent, argues Alvarez, represents the same as always, which is a reality in which city services are not equal to all, "and development is nonexistent, affordable housing isn't either, middle-class jobs are scarce... we need to give the system a "shock" in order for those changes to come."
On the issue of the city's service and infrastructure backlog, which some studies have said represents almost a billion dollars worth of necessary projects, and on the proposed "megabond" in order to invest in them, he fully supports interim mayor Todd Gloria's vision of more infrastructure spending, adding that "as soon as those resources come into the city, I proposed that those resources coming into the city in the next few years are invested in infrastructure" that will overall help lower the city's debt. Moreover, he warns that even with the proposed "megabond", there will still be many new projects, and not just pending ones, that will need to be planned and executed, especially for long-term planning, something the city has lacked in recent years, says Alvarez.
For these new projects, San Diego will need to look towards the state and federal governments in order to acquire grants, funds or loans for public investment programs.
Deportees in Tijuana, and the overall relationship with Mexico
While we were on the issue of local problems that need federal help, we asked about how he would respond to the growing problem in Tijuana and along the border of deportees being left with nothing on the streets of Tijuana, abandoned by both countries. "Just like we did with the San Ysidro expansion project and El Chaparral. We went to Mexico City, we were in Washington D.C. asking for congressional funding" and that is the way he plans to continue with other issues like deportees, building collaboration between both countries in order to support migrants in Tijuana. "We need to find a better way for these people to return home."
Another problem is that many San Diegans and Americans still have a very negative opinion about Tijuana, something that Alvarez admits and seems to be ready to follow in the footsteps on the previous three mayors, who have began to personally increase communication between both cities and countries.
"I was in Tijuana a couple of days ago with some businessmen, and talked about this issue. How are we going to get San Diegans and Americans to have confidence in Mexico? That starts from the top and by setting an example... of erring my support for any ad campaign...they might want to do, like I do with my family [traveling down to Mexico for leisure]", after all, he points out, a good relationship benefits us all, being reminded of times when tourist visited San Diego mostly to all enjoy a quick visit to Mexico, as a "two-for-one" deal that visitors took advantage up, willing to promote such tourism once more.
We also get back to the issue of accusation of simply being the "Latino" candidate, telling us a story about how "the other day I got a message, asking 'why do you have those Mexico and California flag pins, is it because you're Mexican and only like Mexicans'" and I had to make it clear that no, it is something beyond that, it is about our region and how are we going to compete with globalization...and about the possibilities that exist for our region, knowing that if all goes well on one side, it's better for all of us...there isn't just something for Latinos, it is for all of us who live here."
Back to the issue of binational relations, he promises that the San Siego city office, first set up by former mayor Bob Filner, will be fully staffed and given more resources and the power to function independently of any administrative changes that come and go with different mayors.
Has he had any contact with the current Tijuana mayor? Alvarez confirms that he's talked with mayor Jorge Astiazarán, they've met in person and have been in contact, although he didn't specify what they talked about.
The decision to run for mayor
Curiously, he was in Ensenada during the weekend that Bob Filner resigned as mayor, setting off the electoral machine once more in San Diego. "I left for a weekend with my family with the hope and almost assurance that Toni Atkins [state assembly majority leader] was going to run for mayor. I left very happy because we had a very good candidate in her, and left to go campaign with my family to Ensenada. But, Toni called me and said no, she wouldn't be running, so that left me with some despair about what will happen to our city", adding that he was already aware Todd Gloria wasn't going to run. So that was the real motivation for him considering to run, out of a need to have someone in the race with the same ideals as he has. I interrupt a bit to ask him, did you ever think about supporting Nathan Fletcher?, the other Democratic candidate in the race that ha already made clear his intentions to run, even before Filner's resignation.
Yes, in fact. Twice I sat down with him for a couple of hours, talked with him, but, well, I didn't see the connection. I didn't see that the issues important to me were going to be important for his agenda, so I want out and decided to run after thinking it through, at least in order to get policies and issues important to me into the campaign, which I'm now running on.
"And I believe I've been successful in that regard, because my opponent now talks about those same issues I've been talking about for a very long time. He now wants to invest in neighborhoods, even though he never has, he now worries about the binational economy even though he knows little about it and has never actually spent time there, he wants to invest in small businesses, even though, again, he never has. Things that in my campaign have already been talked about."
He previously mentioned the influence of his involvement in church communities as part of his activism (Alvarez is Catholic) and its importance for local change. Has there been any conflict between his ideals as a Democrat and his religion? He accepts that, there are some issues that can come into conflict with his party, but overall, he says, there are many other values like social justice, protecting the environment, economic justice that he sees as being compatible with his politicos and party, along with his personal values, noting that Pope Francis has also given issues like inequality, the poor and social justice more prominence, making the link between his political vision and church activism all more stronger.
Not worried about perceived youth or inexperience.
"I ran for City Council without much help from the community" he remembers, listening to commentaries like how there wasn't a chance at winning, he was an unknown, without resources or support from the people that "normally decided who gets those posts", but in the end, he decided to go for it, succeeding despite challenges like those.
He sees the mayoral campaign as a repetition of sorts, with similar challenges and criticisms. But he believes his victory in the first round was due to "the values my parents taught me: keep fighting, work hard and show who you are", getting a positive response from all people, "be it latino or not, from southern San Diego or the north, but they are answering with calls of seeing real change", and not more of the same, like his opponent Faulconer, he says.
A real change to the "social and political structure of San Diego...where voices are heard, new technology is used to improve our economy, the border is more important, that we worry more about the environment, about affordable housing, about working with our young and giving them the opportunities they need", and in general, were they address important issues that weren't addressed before.