EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to correct the photo caption which incorrectly stated that the event was a fundraiser for Olga Diaz. The event was actually a fundraiser for Lorena Gonzalez.
REGION — When Jeff Griffith declared his candidacy to run for the District 3 County Supervisor seat, he started with idealism.
Now, just months into the race, he finds himself disillusioned.
A fire captain and member of the Palomar Health board of directors, Griffith said he is concerned about underlying moves within the San Diego County Democratic Party that favor just one of the three Democratic nominees: Escondido Councilwoman Olga Diaz.
“I believe in the political process and believe everybody should be involved,” Griffith said. “Inclusivity is important because it introduces new concepts and ideas and ways of governing. But (Diaz) doesn’t want that competition, she doesn’t want to compete. She just wants to be the chosen one like she’s been as a Democrat in Escondido.”
And while the District 3 primary election isn’t until March 3, 2020, another vote that could shape that race is only two months away: the Democratic Party endorsement.
Multiple sources, speaking to The Coast News on the condition of anonymity, said that behind the scenes, powerful county Democratic Party officials are aiming to “fast-track” the endorsement process to benefit Diaz.
Some critics believe that a hasty endorsement process could invite large amounts of outside money into the race and shape perceptions about candidates before voters get to know them on the campaign trail.
And much of that money could flow from Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego).
The chair of both the Latino Caucus and Appropriations committees, Gonzalez is the wife of the lone Democratic county supervisor, District 4’s Nathan Fletcher.
“Supervisor Fletcher and Assemblywoman Gonzalez have both publicly endorsed my campaign for supervisor, and they are co-hosting a fundraiser for me later this month,” Diaz told The Coast News. “They are longtime friends and have also offered me advice on the campaign.”
Fletcher did not directly answer a question about his involvement in the race.
“I fully support Olga because I have worked closely with her and know she is a proven leader with a passion for protecting our environment, expanding educational opportunities and taking on Trump’s inhumane immigration policies,” said Fletcher.
Local party activists who have followed the race said they are perturbed over the nuances of the local Democratic Party endorsement process.
For District 3, this process begins with a nomination recommendation vote scheduled for Aug. 17 within the Democratic Party’s North Area Caucus, followed by an endorsement vote on Sept. 17 by the Central Committee.
Generally, the Central Committee defers to the North Area Caucus vote, according to North Area Caucus activist and former Vice Chair Melinda Vasquez.
The four county Democratic Party area caucuses exist as local voices on electoral races and policy issues impacting their respective quadrants.
The Central Committee members represent a broader slice of Democratic Party leadership and activists, including Toni Atkins, president pro tempore of the California Senate, U.S. Reps. Susan Davis and Scott Peters, Gonzalez and others.
The strategically critical party endorsement will take place in September, which was determined by the North Area Caucus in May.
According to the party’s bylaws, the “strategically critical” status allows for early party endorsements in political races that could tip the balance of power in the Democrats’ favor. If Gaspar loses, the Democrats could hold a majority on the Board of Supervisors.
But the status also means the party can start spending money on behalf of the endorsed candidate.
Vasquez — who has endorsed and campaigned for Diaz — advocated for accelerating the timeline for a North County endorsement from August to July, at the June 15 North Area Caucus meeting.
“The longer Democrats are allowed to compete against one another, it will create a level of divisiveness and toxicity in the race,” Diaz said of her support of moving the party endorsement date forward. “When we’re allowed to compete for a year, what we’re doing is running our hardest and by extension, we are creating teams and sides. My team, Terra’s team, Jeff’s team.”
But Griffith disagreed and said it was a move meant to benefit Diaz.
Earlier this month, Griffith turned down an invitation to appear at an Escondido Democratic Club forum because he said it was rushed and would exclude Democratic candidate Lawson-Remer, who could not attend.
“I know there’s a lot of background movements and pressures to change this,” said Griffith. “It seems like the whole strategy is to get as many endorsements to try to make other candidates rethink their campaigns.”
Fletcher denied any involvement in the fast-tracking strategy. But a Democratic Party source familiar with local political dynamics, who requested anonymity due to proximity to the race, said that Fletcher would likely know and advise about it.
“Lorena and Nathan are probably talking to Olga and Olga is probably the one talking directly to Melinda,” the source explained.
Vasquez, too, said Diaz had asked her to introduce the eventually affirmatively voted on motion to give the race the “strategically critical” tag.
Further, Vasquez said she was not aware of any direct involvement in the race by Fletcher and Gonzalez. But she pointed out the relationships they had within the Central Committee.
“Nathan just won the endorsements for the County Supervisors race and he lobbied people when he was running,” said Vasquez. “So, they both have (Central Committee) relationships and Lorena’s been a darling for the last six years (within the Democratic Party) since 2013 (when she won the Assembly seat). So, I’m not privy to know who they called and what the conversation looked like, but I will say it’s absolutely normal for people with relationships to then call members of the Central Committee and ask them to support a candidate.”
Campaign “money laundering”
According to an open letter posted by African American community advocate Rosalind Winstead, the county Democratic Party was “paranoid” and rushed to give Fletcher an early endorsement in 2017, a decision “unduly” influenced by his spouse, Gonzalez.
“All were dealt a significant blow at the meeting when one, received the coveted early endorsement despite efforts by party members to allow voters to decide in a June 2018 primary election,” Winstead wrote. “The decision, while not yet final, provides a significant advantage to the endorsed candidate, Nathan Fletcher, and a significant disadvantage to the other candidates in the race.
“It appears that an open and transparent process has been successfully undermined by a ‘rush to judgement’ paranoia on the part of the County Democratic leadership — and the undue influence of a politically potent spouse whose bias and prospective economic benefits can hardly be denied.”
After securing the early nomination of the county’s Democratic Party, Fletcher received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Gonzalez’s campaign coffers to fund his race.
And much of that money came from corporations.
Fletcher, a well-greased former Republican assemblyman, eventually won the general election by 9,000 votes over his closest Democratic Party competitor, former California Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña.
San Diego County campaign finance laws ban political action committee (PAC) contributions and allow a maximum $850 individual contribution and a $55,200 contribution limit from the local party. But no limits on political party spending on “member communications” exist in California on electoral races.
Campaign contributions are also not limited to donations flowing to political parties by the PACs of members of the California Legislature, which means that corporate PAC money can, and still does, enter into county races.
Gonzalez raised $1.46 million for her Assembly campaign during the 2018 election season, a race in which she gave over $800,000 in campaign contributions to other candidates.
Nearly half of those campaign donations to others — or over $355,000 — went to the San Diego County Democratic Party during the primary season in support of her husband.
Those campaign contributions came from corporate PACs, such as Chevron, Sempra Energy, Anthem Blue Cross, ExxonMobil, California Independent Petroleum Association, private prison company CoreCivic and others.
This year, Gonzalez has also raised $245,000 in “behested” payments on behalf of the Latino Caucus, ranging from $5,000 from Sempra Energy, $1,500 from oil company Phillips 66, $13,000 from BNSF Railway Company, $4,500 from AT&T and $10,000 from Verizon.
She also moved over $600,000 in campaign contributions into her 2020 Assembly race account during the first quarter of 2019.
Gonzalez’s legislative and campaign offices did not respond to a request for comment.
During the District 4 race which saw record amounts of money flow to Fletcher during the primary season, Gonzalez wrote on Facebook that those raising questions about the spousal campaign finance strategy were either “petty, sexist or simply have a different, unfortunate view of the world.”
Fletcher denied there was a strategy in the works to steer money from Gonzalez’s campaign account into the local Democratic Party and then into Diaz’s race.
“I support campaign finance reform but know from experience the Republican Party will spend millions of dollars of special interest money attacking the Democratic nominee,” said Fletcher.
But Fletcher’s campaign would actually go on to raise $1.76 million dollars for the general election in the District 4 race, compared to the $1.17 million raised by Republican Bonnie Dumanis, according to county campaign finance data.
Diaz said her relationship with Fletcher and Gonzalez goes back a decade, before the two were married, and that “member communications” about campaign finance are out of her control.
“Candidates don’t get to control party money,” said Diaz. “So, I don’t get to coordinate, I don’t get to ask where it came from, I don’t get to ask how much is spent.”
Diaz also said she supports a “clean campaign,” but that it is not realistic in the current electoral landscape.
“There’s this expectation on local elected officials that somehow we can change politics and money while we’re running and that’s interesting,” said Diaz. “But that’s not the reality that we’re working under.”
Saldaña — an Assemblywoman from 2004 to 2010 — gave a more blunt analysis, pointing to an article calling it a new form of campaign finance “money laundering.”
“The motivation for an early party endorsement is to enable massive corporate money laundering to take place ASAP,” Saldaña wrote on Facebook. “Here’s how it works: Once the party endorses, it opens the floodgates for unlimited corporate funds to come into a campaign that — under local regulations — does not allow corporate money.”
Caption: Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez at a fundraiser event alongside District 3 County Supervisor candidate Olga Diaz. Photo courtesy of Lorena Gonzalez
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.