By Ken Williams | Editor
Senate District 39 race splits Democrats
A news analysis
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill liked to say that “all politics is local.” Nothing could be truer than what’s happening in the Senate District 39 race between the incumbent, Marty Block, and fellow Democrat Toni G. Atkins, the Speaker of the Assembly who is termed out.
Both Democrats have their fair share of supporters, especially at the grassroots level where local political clubs endorse their favorite candidates.
Take, for example, the Uptown Democratic Club, which conducted its endorsement for the Senate District 39 race on Tuesday, Oct. 27, at Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest.
Passions ran high and tempers flared during the meeting, with the membership split between Block supporters and those favoring Atkins. Each candidate was given five minutes to speak, followed by a moderated question-and-answer session with the audience.
Block argued that he should win the endorsement largely because he is the incumbent. He said he still had important work that needed to be done in the Senate, citing the desire to broaden his bill, which passed, that brought four-year degrees to some community colleges. Block said he wanted all of the state’s community colleges to be able to offer four-year degrees at an affordable tuition, so California could fill job vacancies that require advanced education.
With a slap at his opponent, Block said the Speaker’s entry into the District 39 race was “tearing the community apart.”
Later on, he went on the attack again, noting that the Los Angeles Times gave Atkins only a “C” grade as Speaker of the Assembly.
“I’m still waiting for a good reason [from Atkins] on why I should be replaced as your senator,” Block said.
Atkins had her game face on as she sat next to Block, looking sternly at the audience and rarely smiling. She opened with a human-interest story about growing up poor in rural Virginia and sharing how that struggle fueled her desire to help other people through her service to the community.
She proudly touted her achievement as the first person in history from San Diego to attain the powerful position of Speaker of the Assembly. She also listed her leadership on environmental issues, support for the military and LGBT rights, and help in passing the state’s water bond and the earned income credit for California’s poorest residents.
Atkins took her first potshot at Block over the middle class scholarship legislation, saying, “which my opponent tried to kill.” They argued back and forth on that issue, with Atkins trying to shoot down Block’s explanation that he had gotten a letter opposing the proposed legislation from the California State University system chancellor. Atkins said that she is a CSU trustee and would have known about any such letter. “Toni is creating a wedge issue that isn’t there,” Block retorted.
Many in the room were angry over “patio-gate,” which was explained in an op-ed written by Howard G. Singer, president of the Uptown Democratic Club, that was published by San Diego Uptown News [Volume 7, Issue 22 or at bit.ly/1M2bOut].
On Sept. 29, Atkins campaign aide Laura Fink left a $500 check on a table in the patio of the club’s treasurer. The check noted “25 new members,” meaning it was to pay the $20 dues for 25 people to join the club. A note accompanying the check listed the names of the 25 people who were seeking membership.
To put this into context, adding 25 Atkins supporters to a small club like the Uptown Democratic Club would certainly influence any future vote, as you will see later. But Singer returned the check to Fink, in effect rejecting membership to the 25 people listed in the note.
Fink is the same Atkins aide who had challenged a “friendly endorsement” of Block at the Sept. 22 meeting of the Uptown Democratic Club. Sensing that Block was trying to win an endorsement without any input from his Democratic opponent and worrying that some club members might not even be aware that Atkins was newly entered in the race, Fink urged club members to postpone the voting until Atkins could arrive later that night to speak to them. Atkins then successfully persuaded members to wait until the October meeting so she and Block could make their cases to the club members. Read more about “In-fighting: inside the political endorsement process” [Volume 7, Issue 20 or at bit.ly/1KFUZjD].
In his op-ed published Oct. 23, Singer ripped into Fink: “This blatant attempt to stack the deck in the matter of the Uptown Democratic Club’s friendly endorsement in the 39th Senatorial District race by the Toni Atkins campaign is unconscionable and insulting, especially considering the fact that the club bent over backwards to be fair to the assemblywoman. Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, your campaign is not going to bully the Uptown Democratic Club.”
At the Oct. 27 meeting, Atkins told club members that she “takes full responsibility” for what happened. “I know some people are upset,” Atkins said, apologizing.
Later, Block blasted Atkins over “patio-gate,” saying that “I don’t buy seats on clubs just to win endorsements.”
On the other big issue, Atkins defended her run against a Democratic incumbent, stressing that Block told her years ago that he would not run for re-election. Jess Durfee, a Democratic National Committee member from San Diego who is supporting Atkins in this race, told fellow club members that Block also told him that he would be a one-term senator.
“I stepped aside four years ago so that Marty could run,” Atkins said.
Block did not deny that he said that he wouldn’t run for a second term, and one of his supporters told club members that people change their minds all the time.
One club member, who was so upset that she had tears in her eyes, expressed her concern that the race was dividing Democrats. She said that the costly contest would take money away from other Democrats who are fighting to get elected against Republicans. She expressed her fears that the drain on money in the Senate race could cost Democrats a majority on the City Council, for example.
Both candidates indicated that they each might have to spend more than a million dollars to wage a successful campaign.
“This race is going to November ,” Block warned. “The Republicans are thrilled about this. They love it when we take money away from other races.”
Just prior to the endorsement vote, Singer allowed several prominent club members to speak on behalf of their chosen candidate. Termed-out City Councilmember Todd Gloria, who hopes to replace Atkins in the Assembly, endorsed Atkins. Nancy Casady of the La Jolla Democratic Club said Block wields influence in the Senate and that Atkins would be just a new face there. Durfee called Casady’s comments naïve, saying that Atkins as Speaker of the Assembly has worked with Senate leaders to craft many bills. “They will know her on day one,” Durfee retorted.
Then it came time to vote. Members could vote for Atkins, Block or “no endorsement.”
Two club members counted votes with two witnesses representing the candidates. Fink witnessed for Atkins. An endorsement required 60 percent of the votes.
A hush came over the room as the votes were counted out loud. Block got 25 votes, and Atkins got 17 votes. Nobody voted for “no endorsement.” But Block only got 59.5 percent, just shy of the requirement.
By club rules, the lowest vote-getter is dropped off the ballot. Atkins was out.
The second round of voting was between Block and “no endorsement.” Again, the room was quiet as the votes were counted. Block got 26 votes and “no endorsement” got 15 votes. One ballot for Atkins was thrown out, since Atkins was no longer a choice. Block won the endorsement with 63.4 percent of the votes.
So go back to those 25 people who Fink had submitted for membership, by dropping off a check on that patio table. Had the Uptown Democratic Club accepted those 25 Atkins supporters, Atkins likely would have won the endorsement on the first ballot. Assuming that all 25 people would have showed up at the endorsement, Atkins would have had 42 votes to Block’s 25 — or 62.7 percent of the vote.
Speaker O’Neill was so right. Politics is local.
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and Mission Valley News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at KenSanDiego, Instagram account at KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.