We Need Better Democrats

For the past couple of weeks in my city, one our City Councilmembers has been getting a lot of praise—and rightly so. Councilmember Monica Montgomery was elected in 2018 to represent the 4th Council District here in San Diego. A criminal justice advocate and former City Hall staffer, Montgomery ran on an explicit platform of police reform, vowing to use her time in office to champion efforts like banning chokeholds and establishing an independent Commission on Police Practices. Since taking office, she has done exactly that. Since the protests began in our county just over a week ago, we have seen both the mayor and most of the city council come out in support of a ballot measure to establish that Commission, we have seen the police union back off of opposing it, and every police department in the county has now banned neck restraints. Of course, we cannot give all of the credit for these changes to Councilmember Montgomery, but she was and is an important part of it.

It’s on my mind, though, that Montgomery was not expected to win in her election, because her opponent was the incumbent Council President, Myrtle Cole. I mentioned that Montgomery had previously been a City Hall staffer; in fact, she had worked in Cole’s office, but resigned after Cole made remarks arguing that police were justified in racially profiling Black people. Despite those remarks, Cole received the backing of both the local Democratic Party and all of the major labor unions. With that kind of institutional support, the power of incumbency, and close ties to the Mayor’s office, Cole was expected to easily hold her seat. According to her own statements, she didn’t even really mount a campaign. Instead, she came in second to Montgomery during the primary, and then again in a Dem-vs-Dem general election that November.

What this highlights for me, and what’s on my mind as I think about the organizing around the next few elections, is that it’s not enough just to have a D next to a candidate’s name. That not all Democrats are the same. That it matters which Democrats we elect. Both Montgomery and Cole are Democrats. Both are Black women. They do not stand for the same things, and did not have the same priorities in office. This November in San Diego County, three of the five San Diego City Council races, one of the County Supervisor races, one of the State Assembly races, and one of the US House races will have two Democrats facing off. In these elections also, the candidates are not all the same.

It strikes me, too, that the organizations we trust to help us make these decisions don’t always have our best interests in mind. As I mentioned, Myrtle Cole was endorsed by the San Diego County Democratic Party and all of the major labor unions. On the most recent episode of Matt Strabone’s podcast Show in Progress, back in March, Party chair Will Rodriguez-Kennedy said that the Party is required to defend incumbents, which explains their support for Cole. I don’t know why labor backed Cole over Montgomery, and I don’t want to speculate as to the reasons. But it is worth taking the time to understand that both political parties and labor unions are organizations that exist to accrue political power unto themselves, not to do “what’s right.” Often times, both parties and unions will come out against good reforms, and while I’m not privy to their decisionmaking processes, it has struck me that those reforms are often the ones that might decrease their own influence over elections, even while helping marginalized communities or candidates. You can make your arguments about whether or not that’s a good thing, and it makes complete sense to me that a political party or a labor union would want to protect and increase their political power. But if the cost of this is undermining necessary changes, is that worthwhile?

This year, many of the downballot elections that I get to vote for will be Democrats facing off against Republicans. And I will and must vote for the Democrats in these cases, and I will urge everyone I know to do the same. Part of the work I do with grassroots organizations here in San Diego is legislative research and tracking the votes of our state and federal representatives, so I am intimately aware of how much it matters to have Democratic majorities in our legislative bodies that can and do stop the worst offenses of the Republican Party. I also know that even the most centrist Democrats are almost always much more susceptible to pressure from their constituents to move left than moderate Republicans are. I’ve seen this personally with my State Assemblymember, whose voting record flipped dramatically after he left the Republican Party to become a Democrat. Part of that came from pressure from the state Democratic leadership, and part of that came from pressure from his Democratic constituents. Having met over a dozen times with my right-leaning Democratic Congressmember, I also know how many bills we’ve been able to bring to his attention that a Republican would have ignored—if we’d even been able to get a seat at the table in the first place. So I will obviously be voting to keep those Democrats in office, to defend their seats from their Republican challengers. And for the exact same reasons, I’ll be voting for Joe Biden, too.

And yet, in a time when more and more people are realizing that incremental changes and targeted reforms are wholly insufficient to meet the issues we face as a nation, whether that’s racist policing, healthcare, or climate change, as I look toward 2022 and beyond, it is on my mind that simply defending Democratic incumbents is not enough. The Assemblymember that I and my colleagues have been able to push on a few issues also routinely abstains from controversial votes, and is mostly known for introducing bills about pets. The Member of Congress who I mentioned frequently meeting with prioritizes working with Republicans and fundamentally believes in small, incremental bills as the appropriate and most effective kind of legislation. Both of these men are personable and, I think, mostly well-meaning, but their approaches to government cannot and will not give us the changes we need, and neither the Democratic Party nor the local labor unions are at all likely to support a more progressive primary challenger in the future. Just today, Joe Biden’s campaign made it clear that he does not support defunding police departments. We need Joe Biden right now, because as the Democratic nominee he is the only viable alternative to Trump, and four more years of Trump would be a disaster, and lethal to so many people in vulnerable communities. But when we look to 2024 or 2028, what could we accomplish with a President who truly understands and enthusiastically advances the systemic changes we need, instead of one who we merely hope we can push to the right side of history?

If we are serious about making change, then I think we need to do more than just exhorting people to vote. By the time we get to a general election ballot, the choices we have are constrained, sometimes to trying to figure out the lesser of two evils. Even in a primary election, our choices are still often constrained by a candidate’s money or lack thereof, by the way institutional pressure and obstacles are deployed to defend incumbents and insiders. It’s not that a candidate can’t win without the establishment—Councilmember Montgomery is proof of that. But it’s an uphill battle even in the best of circumstances. We need to do better at keeping the issues and real solutions front and center in the public’s minds, and finding and supporting candidates who will enact those solutions. Because, yes, it matters who we vote for, but it matters, too, who we have the opportunity to vote for. I don’t know exactly how to do all of this, but I know we need it. I hope we can get there.