In-fighting: inside the political endorsement process

Posted: September 25th, 2015 | Communities, Featured, News | No Comments

By Ken Williams | Editor

The first debate involving the three Democrats running for San Diego city attorney took an unusual twist Tuesday night when the Uptown Democratic Club found itself caught up in the looming in-party battle between incumbent Marty Block and Toni G. Atkins for the Senate District 39 nomination.

Block had come before the Uptown Democratic Club at its August meeting to tout his accomplishments and seek what is known as a “friendly incumbent endorsement.” Block returned Tuesday, greeting club members during the social half-hour that preceded the September meeting. He left before the meeting and debate began.

But when club member Gerry Senda called for a secret ballot on whether to support a friendly incumbent endorsement for Block, Laura Fink, a staff member for Atkins, the Speaker of the Assembly who is termed out, challenged the endorsement process. Fink questioned whether the club had followed its bylaws by posting proper notice of the vote. That stirred up a hornet’s nest among the membership. Fink also said that Atkins was on her way to the meeting and urgently requested to speak to club members before any endorsement vote would be taken.

(l to r) Mara Elliott, Rafael Castellanos and Gil Cabrera, Democratic candidates for city attorney (Courtesy of Susan Peinado, Point Loma Democratic Club)

Club president Howard Singer responded positively to calls from some members to wait to hear from Atkins, and then let the city attorney debate begin. The moderator, Carl Luna, allowed Gil Cabrera, Rafael Castellanos and Mara Elliott to give their opening statements. But when Speaker Atkins arrived, the debate was interrupted and she was given two minutes to speak.


Atkins pleaded her case for a “no decision” vote so that she and Block could return to the Uptown Democratic Club’s Oct. 27 meeting for a full debate. Atkins said that was the fair thing to do.

The Senate District 39 race recently took a dramatic turn when Atkins announced that she was going to run for the seat. Atkins told the Los Angeles Times in an article published Sept. 19 [] that Block had told her he was only going to hold the seat for one term, so she had decided to run in 2016 even though she had already formed a 2020 campaign effort for District 39. But Block — who told the LA Times: “We discussed it, but there was no backroom deal at all. I wouldn’t be a part of any backroom deal.” — has been actively seeking friendly incumbent endorsements.

After her two minutes were up, Atkins was excused from Tuesday night’s meeting, and club members began arguing about how to proceed. Howard Wayne’s motion to postpone indefinitely any endorsement vote was passed by a sizable margin.

After all the dramatic maneuvers involving Block and Atkins, the city attorney debate seemed tame by comparison. The three contenders agreed on most issues during the debate, although Elliott did gently sling one shot at her two rivals by pointing out that she is the only candidate who knows exactly how the city attorney’s office works: She is a chief deputy city attorney who has worked alongside City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, who is termed out.

Castellanos, who serves on the Port Commission, touted his expertise as a community organizer and an attorney heavily involved in Latino issues as well as real estate law. He noted how his campaign has financially outraised his opponents.

Cabrera — who has been endorsed by high-profile Democrats such as Todd Gloria, Kevin Beiser, Nathan Fletcher and Donna Frye — said his experience as a high-stakes litigator and former chair of the city’s Ethics Commission would serve the office well.

All three candidates agreed that the city attorney’s office should be non-political and non-partisan. Castellanos said the city attorney “represents the city; the mayor, who is essentially the CEO; the City Council, which is like a board of directors; and the people, who are the stockholders.”

Cabrera said the city attorney should “give the best legal advice whether the boss likes it or not.” And Elliott expressed her support for having the city attorney elected by the people, since that protected the city attorney from being fired for providing legal advice that might be contrary to what the mayor or City Council would like to hear.

Castellanos took a pot shot at former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, calling his management style of the office “a little rogue.”

As for making changes to the city attorney’s office, Elliott said she would like to go back to community courts to rehabilitate petty-crime offenders and do a top-down assessment of how the office does business. She would add more neighborhood prosecutors to work side-by-side with local police officers and firefighters to make the streets safer. She also said her office would be more pro-active and more transparent to the public.

Castellanos said the city has made a string of bad deals, citing the Chargers stadium and the Convention Center as prime examples. He said the city attorney needs to be versed in real estate law, and he has that experience to bring to the table. He said he would work to avoid legal disputes and lawsuits by mitigating risks and resolving conflicts.

Cabrera said he wants to return the Family Justice Center to its golden era when it was viewed as a national model for a “one-stop shopping” approach to dealing with domestic issues. He also would beef up units that deal with consumer and environmental protections. He promised to negotiate good deals for the city while being more transparent than the current officeholder.

All three agreed that it was a good thing that the city had reformed taxi permits to allow cabdrivers the opportunity to compete against ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft. They also agreed that privatizing of city services was a bad thing and that raising the minimum wage was a good thing.

After the debate was over, the Uptown Democratic Club conducted two secret ballots before announcing the results of the endorsement vote, which required 60 percent in favor. Castellanos has 18 votes, Cabrera had 9 votes and one member voted for a “no decision.” Castellanos won with 64.3 percent of the vote. Elliott had been dropped on the second ballot after getting the least votes in the first round.

Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and Mission Valley News and can be reached at or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at KenSanDiego, Instagram account at KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.

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