How Can Progressives Gain Influence? Throw Everything We've Got Behind David Alvarez in San Diego

I really like San Diego. And not just because of Ron Burgundy (although his "legend" makes a truly funny, and surprisingly feminist movie). It's also a great place to visit, what with the San Diego Zoo, LegoLand, and more. But for the next few months, San Diego is -- or at least ought to be -- the center of the universe for progressives, because its mayoral election is likely the biggest opportunity we'll get between now and the 2014 midterms to flex our muscles within the broader Democratic coalition, and to move our body politic to the left.

San Diego is going to be getting lots of love between now and February, when the general election to replace the disgraced Bob Filner takes place. When Filner finally resigned, Republicans were salivating at the chance to take back the mayoralty in a city they had, until Filner's election at least, largely dominated -- winning six mayoral elections in a row.

Three major candidates emerged: Nathan Fletcher, a former state assemblyman and Republican turned independent turned Democrat (all within 12 months); Kevin Faulconer, a Republican city councilmember; and David Alvarez, also a councilmember and, given that he is a progressive Democrat, our candidate in this race.

The race had a non-partisan first round, after which the top two candidates advanced to a final reckoning at the ballot box. It was long assumed -- and confirmed by polls done early on--that Fletcher would certainly be among the final two. Alvarez, however, beat Fletcher by running strongly to the left, as a progressive with serious backing from labor groups (to the tune of $1 million). Here's what Francine Busby, the San Diego County Democratic Party chair, had to say about Alvarez (whom the Democratic Party endorsed over Fletcher):

"David Alvarez ran with a strong conviction to represent people who have been traditionally underserved by this city ... He made it very clear that taxpayer dollars need to serve communities and neighborhoods, not big developers and special interests that have truly governed San Diego for decades."

Alvarez embraced a populist, progressive message. His critics and doubters specifically said he was "too liberal." Vote for Fletcher, they said, he's more electable, he can get the votes of centrists and Republicans. In other words, even though this wasn't an official Democratic party primary, left of center voters had a clear choice between a liberal and a middle-of-the-road kind of guy.

I wish I had been more paying attention to this race before this week. I'm sure paying attention now.

Above are the unofficial results of the open primary that took place last Tuesday. Lo and behold, "too liberal" David Alvarez appears to have advanced to the final round, which will be held in February (Fletcher has conceded the race and endorsed Alvarez).

On the one hand, Faulconer looks pretty solid at 43.5 percent, however, the combined vote of the three most prominent Democrats (including former City Attorney Michael Aguirre) adds up to 54 percent of the vote. Assuming he gets virtually all of Aguirre's vote, Alvarez has to get about 3/4 of the centrist Democrat Fletcher's vote to put him ahead of the Republican Faulconer. Of course, Alvarez can also hopefully bring out Democrats who stayed home last week, in particular base Democrats who will come out and vote for someone who poses a clear contrast to a Republican.

We progressives have talked a lot about how to move our party to the left, about supporting -- in the words of the late, great Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota (and later repeated by Gov. Howard Dean) -- the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," a wing now represented best by folks like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown at the national level.

In San Diego, the voters in an open primary chose the liberal over the centrist Democrat. This is what we progressives have been trying to get voters to do. But the key now is to make sure that liberal David Alvarez doesn't end up as our side's Christine O'Donnell/Richard Mourdock/Sharron Angle (man, there are a lot of them) -- nominees who were so far to one end of the political spectrum that they lost winnable races.

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway), that those tea party-backed candidates were not only incredibly ideologically extreme but also, well, just nuts. Alvarez is neither of those things. He is a strong liberal, but we have to keep in mind that--as Eric Alterman documented--strong liberal views actually are the American mainstream.

Primaries are really where we progressives can make our mark, where we can fight for the candidate who best represents our values. But when our guy wins the primary, as happened in San Diego, we've got to do everything we can to make sure he wins the general election, otherwise progressive candidates will be dismissed with the tag thrown at David Alvarez, that they are "too liberal."

Instead, we've got to ensure that progressive candidates in competitive races get elected. The more times we do that, the more influence we will gain in our party, and the more we will move governance in our country in a liberal direction.

And isn't that what we're all here for?