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Roundtable: The U.S. Powers Down, Obamacare Powers Up, Mayor's Race Powers On

October 4, 2013 1:14 p.m.


Alison St. John


Dean Calbreath, San Diego Daily Transcript

Sandhya Dirks, KPBS News

Scott Lewis, Voice of San Diego

Related Story: Roundtable: The U.S. Powers Down, Obamacare Powers Up, Mayor's Race Powers On


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: San Diego has more federal employees than almost any other county in the nation. The shutdown hits harder than most. The rollout of Obamacare was not delayed by the hard-ball tactics in Washington. How did the first act of affordable care play out in San Diego? And the mayoral candidates have lined up. We'll check in. The roundtable is next. Joining me at the KPBS roundtable today are Scott Lewis, CEO of voice of San Diego, Dean Calbreath of the San Diego daily transcript, and Sandhya Dirks, KPBS metro reporter. An interesting thing about the federal shutdown is that some people are hardly affected at all. And others are having their very livelihoods threatened. In some cases, the immediate is impact. In other, the pain won't come unless the impasse going on for a while. There are plenty of stories in San Diego. Dean, give us an overview of how the shutdown will be affecting San Diego specifically.

CALBREATH: Right now there are about 33,000 San Diego civilian employees out of work. Active military are exempt. A lot of the support goes on, a lot of the training goes down. Training classes are shut down for the military. Right now, it's 33,000 employees. And the rippling effect is the money being spent in the economy and things like that. But it builds with time. We could see the shutting down of head start programs, meals on wheels for seniors, and in the following weeks -- right now federal contractors here are and I have gone on money that's already in the pipeline. Eventually that money is going to dry up. And within two or three weeks, there could be some halt to their operations as well. Or some impediment. You

ST. JOHN: We just heard that all the people getting furloughed will get paid eventually. They're just getting paid late. So it'll cost more rather than less for the government. What do you think the political strategy in that is?

CALBREATH: Well, they're trying to force leverage. They don't have a lot of people in the House of Representatives with the votes to get something done. But they do have this as leverage. And I think a lot of people are saying well, they're not getting anything done. But look at the changes that have occurred because of these standoffs in the past. Sequester, the new cap on spending in different ways, and I think they think these are accomplishments. So the accomplishments don't necessarily mean a left version of accomplishment, which is getting programs implemented and spending out. Accomplishments to some means stopping the government from doing things.

ST. JOHN: And we know that the military is a very big presence. And a lot of the federal employees are military, and they're getting their pay. But talk about the people that are really being hurt.

DIRKS: Well, there are programs, particularly those to help low-income working women and children that have stopped entirely. So this isn't just a no-harm shutdown. This is a shutdown that is actually affecting some of the most vulnerable citizens. And a question that I had was about -- in terms of veterans' benefits, we already know there's a huge backlog there in terms of veterans being able to access benefits. And that is going to affect San Diego where we have a lot of vets. And how is that going to help with the backlog?

CALBREATH: That's another one of those social services that we could see an effect in the next week or so. A slowdown in veterans' healthcare, benefits. And in early its of the 33,000 people laid off, they might get their salaries back eventually, which does add to the cost because they'll be paid for having done nothing. But if it goes beyond the 15th when their paychecks would come in, then it really has an impact on the amount of money they'll be able to spend. It's something that really will directly impact them and the surrounding community when that happens.

ST. JOHN: The San Diego economy has been perhaps disproportionately affected by the sequester already. Is this like a double whammy? Is this going to sort of add to that impact especially with defense contractors for example?

CALBREATH: Absolutely. The federal sequester has really driven the economy and economic growth here to a halt. Employment growth has totally frozen over the past three or four months. Largely due to federal layoffs as well as cutbacks in military spending. So that has really slowed the economy. Added to that, San Diego has about four times the amount of federal employees than the national average. So we're going to have four times the impact of this closure.

LEWIS: San Diego had a delegation from the Chamber of Commerce, local City Council, a lot of --

DIRKS: Even the interim mayor.

LEWIS: Were in DC this week. So I don't know what they said caused this. But they were making the case to military leaders too. And these aren't people who believe that government necessarily is the economy. But on the other hand, it's remarkable just how passionate they are about lobbying the government for spending more here because everyone right, left, is on the same page. San Diego depends on federal dollars. We're really not much of a town without that kind of investment.

DIRKS: The irony being that we of course just hired back lobbyists to go to DC and now DC is lights out.

ST. JOHN: It's interesting that perhaps the people who have the lobbyists are more the military, the defense contractor, the cities. But there are a lot of people, aren't there who are hurting who don't have lobbyists.

CALBREATH: Yeah, there are a lot of people. Especially the people, the women and children you're talking about, the elders not getting their meals on wheels. And they don't necessarily have lobbyists. And who are they going to be lobbying when Republicans and Democrats aren't talking to each other? I talked to interim mayor Gloria, talking about his trip to DC, and he was mentioning how people seemed to be past each other instead of to each other. So it's going to be hard for any lobbyist to get a message across to Congress right now.

ST. JOHN: Do we know about what our own congressional representatives are saying about this?

LEWIS: Well, there's three Democrats who are saying basically -- the Democrats have been remarkably united in the house and the Senate. And they're just saying we're not going to talk about Obamacare. That's not something we're going to consider changing. And Issa and Hunter have been united with the Republicans.

DIRKS: That's a very funny thing to say.

LEWIS: The little interest parties.

ST. JOHN: Hunter hasn't even put out a statement. Do you think he's distancing himself from this situation?

LEWIS: I don't think anyone wants to take ownership of this situation. Carl DeMaio who's running against Scott Peter, he had a waffling statement saying let's get this behind us and maybe we can take care of Obamacare later. But try to have a conference now, try to make some negotiations now. But he did separate Obama area, even though he reiterated his own concerns about it. He separated that from the larger thing and basically said we need to fix the budgeting process so this can't happen again. And a lot of middle ground is trying to be found. But I don't know where it is.

ST. JOHN: This is happening because of the attempts to block Obamacare, and in the meantime, that program is rolling out as planned. Dean, tell us about how the rollout has gone for San Diegans.

CALBREATH: Statewide, there have been tens of thousands of people who have been calling the state. We have the same kind of glitches in terms of getting into second call centers, onto the website that many other states did. We're actually much more prepared than many other states. But this is a ton of interest of people getting onto these programs.

ST. JOHN: There were, like, 500,000 calls or hits on the website.

CALBREATH: Exactly. And that was the initial --

ST. JOHN: On the first day.

>> Right. But it is not directly funded by the federal government, so it's not directly funded by the shutdown. That's the irony of this. It is one of the government programs that is zooming on while the shutdown which was designed to stop it has stopped everything else.

LEWIS: I think what's interesting about Obamacare, it's not like Medicare or Social Security where it's just one big thing that's being implemented. It's a series of 12 things. So I think the Obamacare label doesn't do it justice in the since that it acts like they're just one benefit that's coming out. What we're watching roll out this time is the exchanges. This is the opportunity to purchase health insurance in the same way that you might buy an airplane ticket or something. So is this really only supposed to be for people who lose their insurance or don't have it from an employer or are self-employed, and this is their opportunity to see what kind of options there are and purchase it. It doesn't actually go into effect until January 1st. And it doesn't provide benefits until then. But a lot of other parts of Obamacare have been rolling out. One of the other things that happened, and I think local hospitals are focused on the lowering of payments from Medicare and other sources to hospitals. Hospitals get money from Medicare when a patient comes in. That money has gone down. And the reason the hospitals accepted that was because they would have more insured patients coming in to make up that difference. Now they're waiting to see does that really happen. Do they get insured? One question I have for Republicans is if they shut this down and try to gut Obamacare, are they going to throw people off who have signed up in the next few weeks with these exchanges? How does it work? It doesn't seem realistic. The one thing they might delay is the requirement that people buy insurance.

ST. JOHN: If that requirement to buy health insurance were to be nixed, the whole system was incredible, would it not?

CALBREATH: It would be severely -- it would be impacted. It wouldn't be severely impacting it because like you said, there are actually inexpensive ways of opting out of this. So some people are going to choose, especially healthy young people who think oh, gosh I don't need any insurance. They would pay a minimum $95 fee, much less than an insurance plan to opt out. And that money goes into the insurance pool. So if they abandon that requirement, take away the fees. But you would still have a lot of demand for these services because the offer -- it's pretty cheap. I was doing a check online for a family of four with $50,000 income, you could get healthcare for $4 a month.

ST. JOHN: That's after you've gotten your tax --

CALBREATH: The tax credits and the subsidies.

DIRKS: And even in those cases where you're paying more, I have several friends who are self employed or free-lance. So they're talking about paying more for health insurance. But the coverage they have now is pretty much if their head gets knocked off, then they get covered. Compared with covered California, what they'd be looking into would be much greater benefits. So some people are willing to pay more to get benefits that actually count as health insurance. So I think a lot of this has to do with a huge desire to stop Obamacare from rolling out on the part of Republicans. They failed to do that. So the question is will their argument that the American people don't really want Obamacare actually be able to hold water after you see people actually seeing what Obamacare is? Or the Affordable Care Act.

ST. JOHN: It's soon perhaps to say how is it doing. We heard about the glitches. I don't know whether you know those are going to have any long-term impact on people's support of the program.

CALBREATH: Well, it's funny. I never understand people who line up for hours in front of a store to get the latest Xbox. And that's what happened on Tuesday. People jammed the system on the first day it was available. You don't have to --

DIRKS: It's the black Friday of healthcare.

CALBREATH: Exactly. You don't have to get this until December 15th. You can wait two months and still get the same thing you would have on Tuesday. So I think that was a lot of the problem. Everyone all signed on at once. Now the glitches were a lot less.

LEWIS: And one thing to remember with Obamacare and the whole Affordable Care Act, we do have a system right now of national healthcare without this in the sense that every hospital is required to take care of any person who walks in there, regardless of their status or who they are and what's wrong with them. So we pay for that in different ways through all kinds of indigent care, Medicaid, and Medicare issues. What this is is a rearrangement of that whole system, trying to get people so they don't just go to the emergency room when something's wrong. Get them health insurance so they can go to a doctor first. One of the questions to watch for next year is are there enough doctors for all this demand? There's plenty of emergency rooms, and they've figured out how to handle there. But are there going to be enough doctors? There's a lot of questions like this. And the Affordable Care Act will need to be tweaked. But it's like I said, all the different parts are now starting to come together after years of various parts of them rolling out.

CALBREATH: That's funny. When you ask people on a poll, what do you think of Obamacare? Most Americans oppose it. But when you ask them subject by subject, what do you think of this plank of Obamacare? What do you think of that? Without Obama's name being connected, it gets 60% or 70% support.

DIRKS: In addition to that, are I just want to say that, yeah, the varying degrees of voter approval or poll approval for Obamacare have gone back and forth. But fundamentally, there was an election in which Obamacare was very much the name of the game. And you had ironically the guy who kind of created the Affordable Care Act in Massachusetts going up against it. And Obama was reelected. In a sense, you do have a pathway where this thing has been approved time and time again through the political process, through what voters have had to say, and now we have this final sticking point where you have a small segment of Congress right now who will do anything to prevent this law from going forward.

ST. JOHN: And I think the next question is watching how it rolls out and affects the next special election. Let's move on.


ST. JOHN: We need to get to the mayor's race. And one of the best ways to access candidates' political views is to watch who is endorsing them. Endorsements in the race have been flying high and fast. One of the most interesting questions, labor has been very split over this race. You wrote a very interesting article about how different aspects of labor are really enforcing different people.

LEWIS: I'm not sure it's fair to say labor is split as much as there are few unions who have gone with Nathan Fletcher, the Independent turned Democrat, and there are a lot of unions and a lot of their money that have gone for David Alvarez. Alvarez, when the city tried to pass a law against Walmart Super Centers, saying you couldn't build these unless you could prove it wouldn't have a negative impact on other businesses, Walmart challenged the law, then it went back to the City Council, and David Alvarez refused to stand up for the law and basically said we see two special interests here fighting it out. And that's a special interest, people didn't use that term in a nonpejorative way. And yet now the special interest, in particular the united food and commercial workers, are the guys who represent the workers in it Vons and Ralph's, they're going hard core for David Alvarez along with a couple other who is have put tens of thousands of dollars already in the race. He's already got ads up, trying to introduce himself to the community. Compare that to Nathan Fletcher who has a lot of individuals in different groups supporting him, and then of course the Republican coalition is united almost perfectly with Kevin Faulconer.

ST. JOHN: You wrote interestingly about Mickey Kasparian, and how he has switched courses.

LEWIS: He was very welcoming to Nathan Fletcher coming in.

>>> He's of course the big labor leader.

>> Right, he runs the united food workers. He's president of the labor council. And he's very welcoming, said welcome your commitment to working families, Nathan. Then when it came down to it, he decided he couldn't trust Nathan as a friend like he says to the working people. And he went with David Alvarez instead. He searched for other candidates, are he found David Alvarez who was willing to do it. Now he's given him every possible inch of support he can. Some things David Alvarez has said about the main focus this commercial group has, which is Walmart. So it's politics breeds interesting friends.

CALBREATH: Lorena Gonzalez was his predecessor at the labor council, and is totally with Fletcher. And almost the opposite story where she said when he was in Sacramento, I didn't even think of dealing with him because he was a Republican. I don't think he would support us. But whenever I did talk to him, he was very supportive, which is why she's endorsing him now.

ST. JOHN: So KPBS is doing interferes obviously with the top candidates. And we have here a little clip about David Alvarez.

(Audio Recording Played)

NEW SPEAKER: I'm running for mayor because we need to make sure that the city prioritize neighborhoods first. It's been my model since I ran for City Council. I'm a neighborhood activist first, then I became a politician. And that's my main priority, making sure that infrastructure needs are met in the city would be second.

ST. JOHN: This is interesting. Neighborhoods seem to be cropping up, and all the candidates are claiming to be the candidate of the neighborhoods. Can you say something about how they're distinguishing themselves?

DIRKS: This is I think so fascinating. This is the Filner sort of narrative which has retained after the disaster of the summer. And that is this rhetoric of neighborhoods first. And everyone is using it. Whether it's the Republican Kevin Faulconer who's saying neighborhoods first, or Fletcher who's using this term. And what's really interesting is this issue with the Barrio Logan community plan. You have here an incident in which neighborhoods is actually coming to the fore. It's about neighborhoods. It's about how they look, who controls zoning in the neighborhood, and each of these three candidates is doing something very different in terms of addressing this. So while we've heard the talk of neighborhood, I think Barrio Logan really puts it into reality.

ST. JOHN: Well, one of the most surprising things was that we saw that David Alvarez had brokered a deal in the Barrio Logan controversy over whether to increase land use restrictions on the shipyards. And then Barrio Logan leaders come out in favor of Fletcher.

DIRKS: Well, when you say Barrio Logan leaders, there were some. Butt they were also the guys who were behind Weses on, the denounced Senator. So they were already factionalized away from him. So it wasn't as if they switched over at the last minute to Fletcher. They were already on a different side.

LEWIS: In south bay, there's no Republican versus Democrat, really. The real break there is between the tree of supporters from the branch off of family like Juan Vargas. And then on one side there's the Alvarez and Ducheny world. So that's south bay politics.

ST. JOHN: I think it's difficult for people who are not intimately involved in this race to figure it out because it breaks in so many different ways. But another way that it broke interestingly at one of the debates was you would expect the two Democrats to be against the Republican. But instead you've got Faulkner and Alvarez, are both council members on opposite sides of the isle appearing to in some ways gang up against Fletcher.

>> This is the big challenge for Fletcher. He's going to get attacked. He's the frontrunner, pretty much. All the polls have shown him ahead. He's going to get attacked from both sides, from the left, labor who don't trust him, he's going to point out all the stuff he did as a Republican. And of from the right, it feels like he's betrayed them and also can't be trusted. So it's going to get pretty hot and ugly for him. And that's what he struggled with before. As an Independent, he got hit from both sides, and Filner was able to squeak in as the second candidate in the primary. The downtown thing is a big deal too. Jerry Sanders last year in office shows this video with a young African American kid running out of his poor area in San Diego and runs downtown to see all these gigantic buildings getting built, the stadium and the convention center, and he's running away from this crime-ridden neighborhood and come into all this downtown beautifulness. And the downtown people loved this.

DIRKS: But the people in the neighborhood say why are you exiling our communities?

LEWIS: Yeah, why would we have to run to the stadium for a ticket we can't afford?

ST. JOHN: And here we've got the candidates all going strong for neighborhoods. But what about the business community? How are they managing to balance that?

CALBREATH: Well, I think the business community is sort of -- a lot of ties to Fletcher, especially among the high-tech community. Employment by Qualcomm and everything. And then a lot of more traditional business goes to Faulkner. I think David Alvarez is more separated from that. Of it's more of a 2-way race in terms of the business community I think that both men, Faulkner and Fletcher have pretty strong business ties.

DIRKS: Where Fletcher and after Alvarez are splitting the labor and union you've got the same thing between Faulkner and Fletcher. I want to add a little about the seeming bromance between the council members. And that is I think the point they're trying to make is that you have to stand for something before you compromise. So while everyone is struggling to be the candidate of compromise, their attack on Fletcher is that they don't know where he stands.

ST. JOHN: Okay, thank you very, very much. Here is a program note. David Alvarez appeared on KPBS midday and evening edition this week. Next week, Nathan Fletcher will appear on both, and KPBS radio and evening edition on Monday. Mike Aguirre will appear on Wednesday, and Kevin Faulconer on Thursday.