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Race In The Race: Discussions Of Difference in San Diego’s Mayoral Election

Above: City Councilmen Kevin Faulconer and David Alvarez.

Aired 2/10/14 on KPBS News.

The San Diego mayor’s race has opened up a debate over inequality, revealing a city that is starkly divided.

The freeway that splits San Diego between north and south is one many of us drive over every day. Interstate 8 is part of my, and many others, routes to work, to the store, or to school.

But beyond being a road that helps us get around, the I-8 has also become a symbolic dividing line between red and blue, white and brown, rich and poor.

San Diego City College labor studies professor Jim Miller said the simple fact is that the city is demographically different south of the highway. “It has long been traditional more working class more black and brown area of San Diego and it’s politically and historically been under-represented,” he said.

But according to Miller that is changing. “What you are seeing with the change in the population and the character of the city is really south of 8 rising.”

Miller is the author of “Under the Perfect Sun” a history of class and power that looks at the underbelly of the city. Miller also has a clear horse in this special election — he is helping to organize students who are campaigning for David Alvarez.

Miller said for a long time there has been two San Diego’s circling other each as if in orbit — almost never touching. But he said that is changing: Look no further than the political narrative that neighborhoods have been in the shadow of downtown development.

“Just the fact that Kevin Faulconer has to, at least rhetorically, run on essentially a neighborhoods message — which was Bob Filner’s message — means that they see that the landscape has changed quite significantly,” Miller said.

I put the question of neighborhoods to former mayor and Faulconer supporter Jerry Sanders, asking him if this new emphasis on neighborhoods change the power dynamic in the city.

Sanders answer: “No, I don’t think so at all.”

Sanders said it makes sense for neighborhoods to feel a bit raw. The city was on the edge of bankruptcy for years and during that time a lot of maintenance was deferred. But Sanders said that is being addressed as potholes are filled and libraries are opened.

And Sanders does not believe the new focus on neighborhoods signals a larger paradigm shift.

“I think that’s a false assumption,” Sanders said. “Saying that the emphasis is going to be on neighborhoods and jobs will magically be produced in a neighborhood — they’re not.”

The man who calls Sanders a model mayor, fellow Republican Kevin Faulconer, is campaigning on returning services to neighborhoods. To spread that message Faulconer is spending time south of Interstate 8.

Outside his Southeastern San Diego campaign office on a sunny day in January, Faulconer squinted into the sun and told reporters that if elected he will focus on “neighborhood improvements throughout the entire city of San Diego.”

Applauding him are members of San Diego’s Latino American Political Association. The vice president of the non-partisan group, Delores Chavez, said her group is not blindly supporting the Latino candidate, they are supporting the candidate they feel will do the most for Latinos.

“People are waking up,” Chavez said. “Not all Hispanics are voting the way that unions are telling them to.”

Still polls show a majority of Latinos support Alvarez in this election. Some in the Latino community are also concerned about a mailer sent out by the conservative Lincoln Club. The mailer depicts an unflattering image of Alvarez photo-shopped with his hand raised while gripping giant wads of cash

University of San Diego Chicano studies professor Isidro Ortiz said underneath the image lurks a dangerous, and racist, message.

“From a Chicano critical perspective that’s a play on the gang banger image that many people still have about Chicanos and Latinos,” Ortiz said.

But as Latinos become a growing part of the mainstream their image is rapidly changing. In the 2010 census, almost 33 percent of San Diego residents identified as Latino. They make up one half of what Ortiz calls a growing “grey/brown divide” — the other half being aging baby boomers.

“In San Diego historically, who have been the voters? Basically the grey,” Ortiz said. “Especially in these kind of special elections where the turn out is low. And so the question then becomes, will the brown turn out?”

That is the question on which this election hinges. Polls give Alvarez an advantage with young and Latino voters, in other words with voters who live south of I-8. But the same people who might support him are also those least likely to show up to vote.

No matter who is elected on Feb. 11, the issues of growing inequity will remain on the table. San Diego is changing, and those south and north of I-8 have begun a conversation that promises to continue.

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