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North County Democrats: ‘No endorsement’ for county supervisors race

SAN MARCOS — A long-anticipated endorsement vote for San Diego County Board of Supervisors District race within the San Diego County Democratic Party’s North Area Caucus ended in a stalemate, with none of the candidates reaching the 60% mark needed to secure an endorsement recommendation.

The District 3 seat is seen as the swing one for the partisan balance of power of the Board of Supervisors. On Aug. 17 at the Laborers International Union hall in San Marcos, Escondido City Councilwoman Olga Diaz fell just short of the mark, getting 37 votes to 28 “No Endorsement” votes, or about 57% of the vote. Two more votes would have put Diaz over the 60% line.

In the end, by an overwhelming majority voice vote, North Area Caucus members voted to rate both candidates “acceptable.” The final tally was achieved after multiple rounds of procedurally mandated votes in the race between Diaz and Terra Lawson-Remer, a research scholar at the University of California-San Diego.

The previous round of voting saw Diaz land 36 votes, Lawson-Remer get 21, seven take a “No Endorsement” vote and another one voting “No Position,” with Diaz again failing to clear the 60% hurdle. That vote triggered a recount, though, because Diaz achieved a vote of above 50% for that round.

The North Area caucus recommendation now goes to the county party’s Central Committee on Sept. 17, where it will be placed on the Consent Calendar for ratification or pulled for further discussion and even a potential new vote if a motion for reconsideration passes at a rate of over 50% among Central Committee members. Unless successfully overturned from with 60% of Central Committee members voting on behalf of either candidate, neither Diaz nor Lawson-Remer will receive a party nomination before the March 3 primary election.

County Democratic Party insiders have pointed to the North Area Caucus and Central Committee votes as particularly important for Diaz, who sits in third place in fundraising for the primary behind both fellow Democrat Lawson-Remer and the incumbent Republican Kristin Gaspar. An early endorsement by the county Democratic Party would mean outside political action committees, or PACs, could give unlimited amounts of money to the party to be used on behalf of a selected candidate.

Two of the influential Democrats pushing the early party endorsement strategy behind the scenes — Democratic County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and his wife Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez — attended the meeting. Both spoke on behalf of Diaz prior to the vote.

In 2018 for the District 2 primary race, Fletcher won a controversial Central Committee early endorsement vote, allowing $355,000 from a PAC controlled by Gonzalez to pass money through to the party and filter it to Fletcher. Fletcher would go on to win the primary and then the general election.

County campaign finance law only allows for a $850 maximum campaign contribution from individuals, while allowing for unlimited spending from outside “independent expenditure” groups, such as those organized by real estate developers and unions. Parties also can also spend unlimited amounts of money on races in the form of “member communications.”

A July 12, 2018, syndicated column published in newspapers throughout California called the money-passing technique from state-level politicians to county parties for “member communications” a form of legal “money laundering.” That article pointed to the District 2 primary race as the “most dramatic and clear-cut example of political parties’ power to launder cash and pass it along to intended recipients.”

Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, the chairman for the San Diego County Democratic Party, wrote in a Facebook post on Aug. 19 that he intends to push for a close of this campaign finance loophole.

“A contribution to the Democratic Party is to advance the candidates, issues and programs we support within our sole discretion and shall not be earmarked for any particular candidate,” he wrote. “If you give to the Democratic Party, you are giving to allow us to use that money to advance OUR issues, OUR candidates and OUR policies. You will not buy me, you will not buy our Party, (and) we are/I am not for sale.”

According to campaign finance disclosure data reviewed by The Coast News, 16 of 49 maximum contributors to Diaz’s campaign overlap with top-flight donors from Fletcher’s successful 2018 campaign.

As individuals, both Fletcher and Gonzalez also gave maximum contributions to Diaz. Further, Gonzalez Chief of Staff Evan McLaughlin gave a $100 contribution, while Fletcher Special Advisor Susan Guinn gave a maximum donation. Fletcher staffers Emily Wier and Gabriel Gutierrez gave $100 and $150 contributions, respectively, to the Diaz campaign during the first half of 2019.

A high-ranking state-level Democrat —Toni Atkins, senate leader pro tempore — also spoke on behalf of Lawson-Remer prior to the vote. Carl Luna, a professor of political science at the University of San Diego and the Director of the Institute for Civil Civic Engagement, said the juxtaposing endorsements “underscore a rivalry between two San Diego Democratic power-centers.”

“Unions that supported Fletcher are now supporting Lawson-Remer, who comes from a longtime San Diego power family and has strong state and national support,” said Luna. “Diaz, with local elected office on her resume, has the support of San Diego’s newer power couple, Fletcher/Gonzalez.”

The third Democrat in the race, fire chief and Palomar Health board of directors member Jeff Griffith, announced his departure from it at the meeting. He subsequently endorsed Lawson-Remer, saying she “has the integrity and temperament to do a fantastic job.”

“Even though I believe that I am best positioned to defeat Gaspar in the general election, an uphill primary battle would not serve our party well,” said Griffith. “I call on Terra and Olga to avoid a bitter, bruising battle that could only help Gaspar.”

Lawson-Remer said she was “honored” to have landed Griffith’s endorsement..

“And I am enormously proud to have received the support of the Democratic Party’s North Area Caucus with ‘acceptable’ ratings for both me and my Democratic primary opponent Olga Diaz.” Lawson-Remer told The Coast News. “These are both tremendous votes of confidence for our campaign, and I will continue spending the upcoming months talking to voters. Congratulations, as well, to Olga.”

Diaz, interviewed after the vote, said that “clearly I’m the strongest candidate.” She also did not rule out the possibility of appealing the vote or doing a motion for reconsideration at the September Central Committee meeting.

“I’m by far the preferred candidate,” said Diaz, pointing to her vote tally in the room. “But there are party rules about the threshold I needed to meet … I came very close and a couple more votes, I would have had it. It is what it is. I continue to work hard and she presumably will, as well, and now Jeff is out of the race, so that is one less complication and so we just keep going.”

Rodriguez-Kennedy, who observed the proceedings overseen by North Area Caucus Chairman Jason Bercovitch, said he sees a bright future for the party no matter which candidate gets through the primary in March.

“The San Diego County Democratic Party is laser focused on our strategic goals, which include taking back the County Board of Supervisors and executing our SANDAG strategy,” he said. “We have two formidable in Olga Diaz and Terra Lawson-Remer and are well positioned to beat Trump Republican Kristin Gaspar in 2020.”