As He Leaves City Council, David Alvarez Turns Attention To Border Relations
San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez is leaving his job representing southern communities such as Barrio Logan and San Ysidro after eight years.
It's unclear what he'll do next — he ran for the San Diego Community College District board and lost.
On a rainy morning last week, Alvarez's office was a mess. He had pulled everything down off the bookshelves, and it was now covering his desk.
He and his staff worked to box up the documents that had passed through their office in the past eight years to all be archived by the City Clerk.
Alvarez took a break from packing for this exit interview.
Q: How do you feel like your district has changed over the last eight years?
A: We've seen a lot of change. I came in to this seat as council member really focused on the communities and every single one of them and I have a lot. It varies by the location from literally the busiest port of entry in the world in the community of San Ysidro to some of the first historical communities of San Diego in Logan Heights and Sherman Heights. So it's a little bit of everything. And so every community really had a different need. And so my goal has always been to focus on the individual needs of the communities and as a community organizer, which people often forget that was my background, that's where I came from. I wanted to make sure that the community was empowered, that they felt empowered, but also that they actually were empowered to be able to create change, because as a community organizer I knew that unless the community gets involved, change doesn't really occur naturally. It doesn't just happen because government says, 'Oh, let's go and do this good thing for the community.' You have to be involved. You have to be engaged. And that's what we're going to do throughout the entire district.
Q: And when you look back on your time on the council do you have one thing that stands out as your biggest accomplishment?
A: I've been asked that question a lot and it's I have two kids — and just this morning as I knew you're going to ask that question to me today I thought about that — and I can only compare it for those kids as picking one of your favorite children and then say this is the one that I know I love the most. Because every community was different and a small project to a woman who lives on Imperial Avenue who wanted a stop sign for the last 20 years and it took that long to get that. That was a big deal for her, it changed her life. She was a little bit older, so mobility and crossing the street was a big issue for her and her family. But building a brand new library in San Ysidro, taking the oldest library in the entire city of San Diego making it state-of-the-art to serve such a much larger population than what it was in the 1920s when it was built. That's a big deal for San Ysidro. A crosswalk over at the Southwest Middle School. The kids in the community of Otay, focusing on advocating for better crossings for our workers and for our economy to work better border crossings whether it's at San Ysidro, going on those trips that are so long — and sometimes disappointing — to Washington D.C. and Mexico City to lobby for our community so that we can have this efficient transportation system, so we can have our economy moving. That was a important thing. So all those things really, really matter. Chicano Park, and now having our own space to share the history of the Chicano movement, that was so important to the history of San Diego in the museum that is now going to be opening. And so all those little things were really significant to people in different ways.
Q: Do you have a biggest regret?
A: I think what the biggest challenge going forward for San Diego is really going to be the issue of housing. I wish we could have done more to continue to build housing and create opportunities for housing for people at all income levels. And I think that is going to be the challenge for San Diego leadership going forward. If we want an economy that works for everybody, we want a place for our kids to grow up and be able to live in this great city, this great region. We really have to get more serious than we have been. We've tried, but I wish we would have accomplished more.
Q: Have you seen changes in how the council works together over your last eight years?
A: It has varied time to time. I think the dynamics of who the mayor is, what has happened sort of politically, electorally, changes the council from time to time. I still believe the council has not found its voice and its power in this coequal branch of government with a strong mayor a strong council form of government. I think we've had little stints of strength in the council, but for the most part a council that hasn't really had a vision for the city to try and have that balance of power along with the mayor and it's good to have that tension. It creates for better conversations and solutions to problems. And I think it's been a lot of go along to get along still in this town and I don't think that's good — definitely not for our communities. That's good for the big interests, the people who want to see stadiums built and convention centers expanded and things like that. But people want potholes filled and sidewalks fixed or built, it doesn't really speak to them. And I think that's where the council really, when it finds that strength, we're going to see a huge shift in San Diego.
Q: And why do you think it's been like that, go along to get along?
A: Well, because once you come into this building that you're in, into this floor that you're sitting here with me at, it becomes very insular and it's like group-think. And people just talk to the same people, often forgetting who they represent and how they got elected and what they were asked to do when they got elected. I think there's a lot of that. You saw that in some of the election results. Honestly, I think once that mentality changes — and I think electorally we're seeing that the people are demanding more of their representatives — then the response will be there.
Q: You mean the election results. Some people were voted out of office.
A: Some incumbents. That hasn't happened in decades in San Diego. And if you're doing a really good job you get re-elected. I found that out four years ago when I got re-elected because I had been so committed to the communities and when you're not so focused on the neighborhoods and you're focused on what's happening at City Hall and how you play politics with the powers that be, you leave your community behind. And I think we saw the results.
Q: In the election the Labor Council and some of the unions backed Council President Myrtle Cole who ended up losing, and Antonio Martinez who ended up losing. Do you see a change in (the Labor Council's) influence in the city?
A: I don't know that I see a change. I think they represent voices that are important for us to listen to, every voice is important for us to listen to and they certainly represent a voice that is important. But, I think the message is how do we always put community first and how do we work with community as employee groups, labor unions, businesses, the corporate folks who were more involved perhaps in another election like in District 2, how do we really listen to the voice of the community and work with that rather than impose our views and impose what we believe is best for them. I think that's the message from this election.
Q: So you feel like those groups are maybe not in tune with the communities that they were involved in those in those elections?
A: I would say they need to listen to the community a lot more. And not try to again force upon communities their views. It's more about a conversation, it always has to be. At least that's the way I see the world, that you need to talk to those who you're trying to work with. And I think it was a pretty big power play, an attempt, and it didn't go that way. The community spoke pretty loud and clear about what they wanted to see happen. And I think going forward that's the council that we're going to see. I'm hopeful that that's the council that we're going to see that's going to stand up for the community and absolutely working with allies and organizations that want to work together on those things. But how do we put communities and neighborhoods first is now more clear now more than ever.
Q: Do you feel like because the Labor Council backed these losing candidates and the communities almost over-rode them, does that show some kind of diminished power on the part of the Labor Council or a change in how elected officials will respond to their communities?
A: I think the latter more than the former on that. I think elected officials, certainly if I would continue to be on here and I saw the results of the 2018 election, it would be a wake-up call that communities are speaking up, they're standing up and we better start listening to them. That's always been my philosophy from day one. But I think this election, the results probably sent the message to folks who sometimes forget that.
Q: Last year you said that you were running for a seat on the Board of Supervisors and started raising money. Later you told Voice of San Diego that you were reconsidering. So where are you at now?
A: I know, people ask me since last year about that, and I stopped the campaigning last year actually. What it comes down to for me is, can we have government that really reflects community? Can we have a government that's going to function? I have to say, since I've been here and it's only been eight years, but a lot has changed in terms of how people treat each other. A lot of respect has been lost and when you disagree there has been a lot of behavior that we wouldn't think is OK of our children in school, on school grounds, backstabbing and bullying. And I'm not saying I was a victim to that, but I certainly don't ever want to be associated with that. I come from a pretty humble background. My dad just became a U.S. citizen. He's 85 years old. He came to this country as a farm worker and a janitor. We were poor my entire childhood. I'm just trying to raise my kids, my family and my wife works at a school with middle-schoolers trying to get them on their path to college as first in their family to go to college. For me it's really about making the community a better place and for a lot of people it's become almost like a game of, 'how do I win and how do I gain power over you?' And that's not what it's about for me. And so I am hoping that my time away, which is going to be seriously away from this, allows me to just reflect on whether I can be part of re-establishing that ethic that I think is required in government and can I be effective at it. And lastly and most importantly, is it worth the sacrifice that my family has to go through with the long hours and the weekends. I've got two kids, one who most certainly is going to be starting her teenage years by then, a son who's now only four years old. But they're growing up and this job, if you want to do it right, you've got to sacrifice, you've got to spend a lot of time away from home. And that's a decision that is probably the one that weighs the most on me.
Q: So you're still considering it?
A: I haven't closed the door completely to it. I think I've got several months to make that decision and I'm pursuing a different pathway at the moment. I'm going to focus on border affairs. It's something that I'm passionate about. It's something that I think our country needs to hear a positive message, especially in light of what recently has happened here in our own border. Those images of the migrant caravan and the tear gas and the federal police agents are now all that people think about when they think of the border. But you and I and San Diegans know that's not what the border is like on an everyday basis. And now more than ever I think we need to talk about what it's really like to be a border town, how co-dependent we are on each other to be successful, the generation of economic activity that it creates, all the positive things that we've been working on for so long that with literally an image can change the future of this region. And so before even this happened I was already focused and going in that direction and so now I'm even more fired up about how do we get that message out to the rest of the country.
Q: Do you have a specific role that you're going to be doing that in?
A: So I don't have a job with anybody. I'm actually starting on my own. I'm opening a small business, first one in my family to do that. I was the first in my family to go to college, the first one to be a politician and now I'm going to be the first one to open my own small business focusing on enhancing the border relations through public affairs, public relations with anybody who wants to do good along the border and helping them spread their message, attracting more investment to this region, creating more economic activity. I think the potential is really infinite for our region and I really want to work on that.
Q: So the city council will now have a six-to-three veto-proof majority of Democrats. Are there specific things that you think they should use that for?
A: I think the most important thing is the budget. Billions of dollars that go into our neighborhoods throughout the year get determined by the budget priorities. Unfortunately a couple years ago we saw the mayor veto a council budget that was more community focused and neighborhood focused and because we did not have the votes to override that veto, unfortunately that went the way it went. But I think now the power with the council, we can have a budget that's very neighborhood-centric with the needs of every neighborhood being included. And I think that's where a lot of the power is, keeping our communities clean and safe and activated with opportunities for young people in our libraries and recreation centers and our pools and all of that stems from a budget decision. It's the most powerful tool we have. And I think that's what the council really should focus on very early on is how are we going to deploy the billions of dollars to actually help improve our communities.
Q: And how should they listen to their communities to determine that?
A: Well, I think the fact that we just came off the heels of an election, certainly three of the council members who just got elected are going to have a lot of priorities. They walked and knocked on those doors and talked to those voters. They're going to know what is needed out there and then the ones that remain, they've spent time in communities as well. So it's just taking what the community has given as far as information and converting that into projects, into funding, into programs. The information is all there. Now the council can craft a budget that's really focused on the needs of each of these neighborhoods and be able to have veto-proof approval of that budget.
Q: Who do you think should be the council president?
A: I believe that the best person to take on this job with this message that came from the voters from the electorate of putting communities first and who has the experience is Georgette Gomez. I think she is a straight shooter. She will tell it like it is, she is not about cutting backroom deals. She is about having a very transparent process, which is so important for people to gain trust in government especially these days. So I think she has the best ability to do that. And I fully trust that she has the best interests of San Diegans above anybody else at heart. Doesn't have a political agenda, isn't someone focused on the next political office. That's always good for an institution like this one that you want to care about what's happening with the city and the city only. So I think she would be the most qualified and certainly the ideal candidate to lead the council and have a vision. We haven't really had a council with a vision of much of anything the time I've been here. It's been very reactionary, very just matter of fact, not really with an agenda. And I think she can have an agenda that's community focused, centered on neighborhood development and economic development in communities that need jobs. I mean there's just a lot there. And I think she's ready to take on that job.
Q: Are there any funny city council stories that the public wouldn't know about?
A: Funny — that's a different question. I've never been asked that. Jeez, I don't know I'd have to think about that a little bit. I mean there's been some interesting things that have happened over the years. Funny — what is funny. We actually have some pretty we have some funny folks. The mayor is really funny when he's not so scripted as he often is, when he's ad libbing, he's actually a very funny guy. The council for the most part actually gets along and you see those votes that go down party lines often and sometimes not even party lines but you see the division. And for the most part people, I mean I know I respect everybody on this floor and so it's not what sometimes it appears to be to the public. Maybe that's not a funny story but that's the reality of what happens here. I try to find odd partnerships on different things with different people, I think that's just the best way to serve others is, OK, who who might not be aligned with my interests on a normal basis is interested on this topic, and it ranges the gamut from scooters, some people you think would be pro scooters because it's an alternative mode of transportation aren't big fans of them. It's all different all the time. It's been a great eight years for me being able to work and grow as a person, as a professional and to see where we were with $170 million budget deficit in year one, the brownouts with fire stations where Bentley Do, I remember the little boy that died because we had browned out a fire station, to where we are now I just feel we've had a lot of progress and I hope that continues.
Q: Is there anything else you want to add?
A: No I just want to say thank you to, well certainly to you all for always being thoughtful about the issues and thankful to San Diegans as well for the opportunity to serve my constituents, the people of my district who have believed in me over the course of time and worked with me. Everything we accomplished was with the community, it wasn't just me trying to do something, it was always in concert with the community. And it's been a real pleasure to be able to do this and to serve the city of San Diego.