National Leaders Council Fellow Promotes May 18 Fundraiser
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
You may never have heard of the New Leaders Council (NLC), but you’re probably going to hear plenty from the people who’ve been part of it. NLC is a nationwide nonprofit corporation which provides emerging young progressive leaders with exciting opportunities, including political entrepreneurship (and if you’re wondering just what that is, that’s all the more reason for you to go to their events!), mentoring, networking and professional advancement opportunities to equip them to be civic leaders in elective office, in their communities and in their workplaces.
Doug White is a politically and professionally aggressive young man who gets to call himself a “Fellow” of the NLC because he attended their training last year. This year he’s helping host a fundraiser for NLC Wednesday, May 18, 6 to 8 p.m. at URBN Coal-Fired Pizza, 3085 University Avenue in North Park. For a mere — a low-ball price for any political fundraiser these days — you’ll get to help support the 2012 San Diego NLC Fellowship Class.
You’ll also get to see the San Diego chapter of NLC give a Community Collaboration Award to Community HousingWorks, a nonprofit whose slogan is “Helping People Live in San Diego.” Community HousingWorks is a San Diego non-profit that helps people and neighborhoods move up in the world by providing a full range of housing options combined with training and support. They build and own beautiful affordable apartments; provide unique first-time homebuyer loans; and provide support and training that strengthens communities and helps families build a wealthier future. For more information visit their Web site at http://www.chworks.org
“We’re shooting to have about 300 people there,” White said of the May 18 event. “It’s going to be a great time because there’s going to be a lot of young professional folks that are Fellows, but also stakeholders and representatives from all sorts of community groups and organizations and corporations from the San Diego region. This could be an evening filled with stimulating conversation and a good show. I really would welcome everyone to join, particularly those who care about the progressive cause.”
As for White himself, in addition to his involvement with NLC he’s also the recently elected (about two months ago) youth caucus chair of the San Diego Democratic Club. And if his skill, shown in the interview below, in staying “on message” despite every edgy and sometimes confrontational question this reporter could throw at him is indicative of the quality of the NLC’s training, then it’s a worthwhile organization and should be considered by any progressive young person interested in a political or community-service career. NLC’s Web site is www.newleaderscouncil.org
Zenger’s: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself — your history, your background, how you got into politics?
Doug White: I’ve been in San Diego just about two years. I grew up in southern California and then went east for undergraduate and graduate school work, and bounced around the Eastern seaboard before returning to San Diego two years ago to accept a job as public affairs manager for an alternative energy nonprofit here in San Diego called California Center for Sustainable Energy.
I’ve always really been passionate about environmental issues, equality issues, energy issues. I cut my teeth on that with my first job out of school, which was with the Gray Davis administration. I was working in the Washington, D.C. office of the governor’s staff. That was a short-lived experience, because I was one of the lucky 300 or so who were summarily terminated by the Terminator in the recall election. So I bided my time in Washington, D.C. and did a short stint with the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) in their Office of Government Relations before moving up to New Jersey and attending grad school at NYU in public policy and public administration.
I jumped back into politics working for the Speaker of the General Assembly of New Jersey, and that’s where I got involved with telecommunications and utilities, managing that committee as well as two other committees, military/veterans’ affairs and agriculture/natural resources.
I left the California Center for Sustainable Energy last year because they were having some difficult financial times. I landed on my feet with Cricket Communications, where I am now government affairs manager. That encompasses tracking and monitoring legislation across 50 states, and liaising with local and statewide elected officials and regulators on issues that may affect the company.
Zenger’s: I think being public-affairs director for a cell-phone company probably puts you at the same popularity level as a used-car salesman. People are going to read that and wonder, “Is he the guy who persuades the legislators to let them put all that fine print in the contract, so the phone ends up costing three to five to 10 times as much as they told me it would?”
White: I won’t get too sales-y on you, but Cricket is an unlimited, no-contract cell-phone provider. A lot of folks who have an iPhone will readily recognize that costs 0, 0/month, whereas Cricket, with comparable products — BlackBerry Android phones — are only /month. So half the price, the same functionality, and a great product without being locked into a one- or a two- or any kind of a long-term contract. And everything’s unlimited: unlimited voice, unlimited text, unlimited data for the most part.
Zenger’s: How did you get involved in the San Diego Democratic Club?
White: I owe all the thanks in the world to Craig Roberts, who’s a fellow board member of the club. He knew I was pretty activated to get into politics. He and I met through the Toni Atkins [for Assembly] campaign this past spring, where I was a volunteer helping out and traipsing around the L.A. Convention Center for the Democratic [state] convention, and again this year, this past weekend in Sacramento for the state convention where I was a delegate.
Craig was also a party delegate for the 76th Assembly District, so we got to know each other from there. I learned about his activities with the club, and I know Toni’s long-term commitment and involvement in the club. That really got me excited about getting involved with a community that’s activated on issues I care about, and when they say something they mean it, and they get it done.
Zenger’s: Someone who’s been around long enough to have worked for the Gray Davis administration is, shall we say, unusually old to be the youth caucus chair of the San Diego Democratic Club. I was wondering how that happened.
White: The Gray Davis stint was actually my first job out of college. It was definitely an interesting foray into politics.
Zenger’s: What exactly is the New Leaders Council?
White: The New Leaders Council (NLC) is a progressive political entrepreneurship program. It’s a six-month seminar-based institute where they take the next generation of progressive leaders and equip them not only with the framework but the tools and the networking capabilities to make a difference in the progressive community, and to grow that community. That’s particularly important here in San Diego, in this region, where the chapter is only in its second year.
NLC started with one chapter in San Francisco five years ago, and it’s grown to 15 chapters nationwide. Everyone who goes through this process is a Fellow, so there are now hundreds of Fellows who create a nationwide network of progressives who are pushing the envelope politically and in their communities with different stakeholders to move the ball forward in a progressive manner.
At the Institute we learn about policy, platform development, communications, grass-roots advocacy, organizing, and issues-based learning. We bring in speakers from the equality, labor, and environmental communities. But it’s a non-partisan institute, so we do get alternative viewpoints from folks who are on the other side. It’s equally valuable to understand those viewpoints and where they come from.
Zenger’s: My immediate reaction is that the people on the other side have plenty of this infrastructure of their own, and they don’t let us in. Why should we let them in?
White: That’s interesting. We need to develop our infrastructure, and that’s the niche that NLC is serving. We talk a lot about the progressive community being a big tent, the Democratic Party being a big tent, and we need to have everyone be on the same page. We need to gather all these seemingly disparate entities together to move the entire agenda forward, and move it forward in a progressive way. NLC is attempting to do that at the grass-roots level, getting front-line elected officials and civic leaders into positions where they can effect a positive contribution.
Zenger’s: In addition to being involved in the San Diego Democratic Club, I also work with organizations like Activist San Diego, where the membership is distinctly to the Left of the Democratic party and has a great deal of suspicion as to the validity of electoral activism at all. One common complaint that I hear is the Democrats are really no different from the Republicans; they talk a good game, but when they get in office they do basically the same things. Every issue on which Obama has let down the progressive community, from the Employee Free Choice Act to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA] to the failure to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act [DoMA], gets cited as, “See? See? There’s no point in working with the Democratic Party.” How would you respond to that?
White: I don’t see that same point. NLC is a non-partisan nonprofit, but the ideals and the aspirations they have are progressive. We believe in equality, in environmental protection, in energy self-sufficiency and sustainability. That kind of leaves truly Democratic, Left-of-center issues, but it’s nonpartisan. The first class last year, there was a self-avowed Republican who was a leader of a local group called Republicans for Choice. She was a member of Planned Parenthood. So we’re attempting to peel back the onion and understanding where you have allies and where you can reach across and gather a larger support network to further your goals and to further those causes we believe in.
From an Assembly District 76 delegate perspective, and coming from the state Democratic party convention in Sacramento this weekend [April 29-May 1], it was a victory lap of sorts. California was the only state in the country that [the Democratic party] picked up seats in the state legislature in 2010. In California, all the constitutional officers are Democrats. In California, the Republicans tried to buy the Senate office and they tried to buy the Governor’s office, and neither attempt was successful. And I think those are great things that the Democratic party, both locally and statewide, can hold on to.
Zenger’s: But so what? The Republicans are still running the state. They’re still controlling the state budget. They’ve successfully blocked any election to extend the emergency taxes that were put on two years ago. And it looks at this point like they’re going to force Governor Brown and the Democrats in the legislature to accept a draconian budget that will slash social services and slash education. So even though the Democrats have won the election, the Republicans seem to be winning the war, and it looks like Jerry Brown is going to be forced from a position of practicality to do many of the things [Wisconsin governor] Scott Walker has done by conviction.
White: We were there at the convention, and nobody would walk away from there saying that people are not hurting right now. Our unemployment rate is still incredibly high — at least the third highest in the country, if I’m not mistaken — and people need jobs. People need access to social services. People need to have that safety net in place, and it’s terrible that we have that tyranny of the minority, where we need two [Republican] votes in each house to get things done.
One of the speakers over the weekend was Speaker [John] Pérez, and he promised us delegates that they would not have an all-cuts budget. Like much of everyone else, not only here but statewide, I’m waiting with bated breath to see how this all shakes out.
Zenger’s: Well, he can promise that they won’t have an all-cuts budget, like I can promise that I can walk on the surface of Mission Bay. But the one may be as impossible as the other. So what does it matter to elect Democrats if Republicans win when they win, and Republicans win when they lose?
White: Well, you have to start somewhere, right? The San Diego County Democratic Party, under Jess Durfee’s leadership, really has brought it back in terms of the percentage of registered Democrats from a huge deficit to neck-and-neck with registered Republicans. That’s a partisan gain, and then on the other side you have the NLC, an institute that’s trying to put together an infrastructure, a framework for how you get that next generation of leaders to step into these positions, to run an effective and successful political campaign so they can begin to institute these progressive ideals at a local level, and not have to rely all the time so heavily on state elected officials’ leadership. Because the tides of the electorate could change, and if we have strong locals and they grow up to be strong statewides, then all the better.
Zenger’s: I was at the San Diego City Council redistricting hearing last night [May 2], and one of the comments made there is that both Democrats and Republicans are losing shares of the electorate. More people are registering decline-to-state, not affiliating with either of the major parties — or, for that matter, with any of the minor ones. How does that complicate the task of building these kinds of coalitions and winning elections?
White: I think it comes back to articulating your message and understanding and providing what people need and want. Folks are really upset about education. Folks are really upset about social services being cut, about education being cut, too many kids in the classroom. These are stalwart Democratic ideas and protections. Folks are going to fight for that, and they rightly should. So getting your communication out about why that’s important, and tapping into the emotional element that’s going to reach people, needs to happen more and needs to be more effective.
Zenger’s: The same polls show that voters are strongly against new taxes. This has been a contradiction for decades now in American political discourse. It’s one reason we have such a huge federal budget deficit. People want all these things from government, but at the same time they don’t want to pay for them. I like to think of it as people who wouldn’t dream in a million years of stealing a food item from a grocery store, but nonetheless expect all these government services without being willing to pay for them. How do you address that?
White: Speaking for myself here, when I hear the word “taxes,” I think “services.” It’s unsustainable to think that governing bodies can continue to provide a level of services they have historically provided without increased revenues. There are more people living here, there’s more of a burden on the system, and you need to have the ability to provide the services people want most, which means they have to pay for it. Taxes equal services.
If you think about the larger statewide picture, where our tax revenue base is not at all as stable as it could be, it’s because the vast majority of the state’s income comes from the income tax. That is a pretty volatile variable that more or less comes and goes with the tide of the national economy. Right now we’re in a down time, and individuals’ incomes, particularly at the top, are down. That’s vastly affecting the intake by the state. And there’s a trickle-down effect as to how that affects the counties, cities and local government.
Zenger’s: Maybe you hear the word “taxes” and think of “services.” What’s it going to take — and it seems like your experience is relevant to answering this ¬— to get more voters to think of taxes equaling services, rather than thinking of taxes as this horrible burden the government imposes on them and that they don’t see anything back from it?
White: There’s certainly not a panacea for this. It starts by having a conversation and explaining what folks get for their money, that it’s an investment in your community. If they start to think in terms of that, and you frame it that way, I think people will understand or come to grips with, “Hey, I want to invest in my community. Therefore, I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to have a tax extension.” At the same time, we live in a [world of] elected representation. We vote folks in who are supposed to be conceivably making these tough choices. If you don’t like the choices they are making, then don’t vote for them.
Zenger’s: Indeed, that’s one of the most frequent complaints about California government. Because of the initiative process, and because of the extent to which we have used it and the extent to which moneyed interests have been able to play it, we’re not delegating this power to elected representatives. We’re taking a lot of it for ourselves, and passing things that may seem good on paper but don’t work very well, especially in connection with all the other initiatives that we’ve passed. So how do you get elected representatives the power they need to make the tough decisions without having them constantly second-guessed by voters, often voters who’ve been manipulated by very expensive campaigns from special interests?
White: I agree. We should ask the Republican State Assemblymembers and State Senators why they don’t want to allow a vote of the people to see if we can extend the taxes for another five or six years. They’re conceivably elected to go there and make decisions. By not allowing that process to take place, they’re denying their elective citizenry their representation.
Zenger’s: Well, one of the responses the Republicans would say is, “I’m not denying anything. The people who elected me, the people in my district, don’t want higher taxes and don’t want it on the ballot.”
White: In every district, there’s going to be folks on both sides of it, and they represent both viewpoints — or they should be representing both viewpoints.
Zenger’s: What’s your outlook for the 2012 election, both nationally and here in San Diego?
White: Well, from a 76th Assembly District delegate perspective, we have to feel good about our gains. There’s a push right now for something called Dem 2012, and folks are already in campaign mode. They’re already thinking about the next fight, and trying to grow the pie for all Californians and how we can do that through greater representation in both the houses [of the state legislature].
Zenger’s: And how about San Diego? Do you think we’ll have a strong Democratic candidate for Mayor?
White: I hope so. I hope any Democrat that throws their hat in the ring is going to be a strong Democrat. I know that the coalition of groups that are interested in seeing that happen will end up rallying around whoever that individual ends up being.
Zenger’s: That was something one of the people pointed out at the last San Diego Democratic Club meeting [April 28]: that while some of the potential Democratic candidates have been rather removed from the city, [Right-wing Gay City Councilmember] Carl DeMaio has been taking himself to all these community planning groups, all these business improvement districts, building a real local base of support, and obviously doing all this stuff outside his district in preparation for a mayoral bid. Isn’t this a case where the Republican is doing the grass-roots work, and the Democrat is hoping for name recognition and big money?
White: My experience with him, which is very small, is that I’ve been told Councilmember DeMaio is a very tenacious campaigner. There’s a lesson from that to be learned by everyone.