PERSPECTIVE: Insiders Stunned by Alvarez Outcome in Special Election 

Arturo Castañares

San Diego has had its share of special elections to fill political office vacancies, and most of them were won by the candidate with the most money and endorsements.

But in few of those races, underdogs defied the odds laid out by jaded insiders and so-called experts.

Special elections occur when an officeholder resigns, is removed from office, or dies during their elected term, and usually see very low voter turnout compared to regularly-scheduled elections.

The most high-profile special in recent years took place in 2014 after San Diego Mayor Bob Filner resigned over accusations of sexual harassment. The campaigns each spent millions of dollars and, in the end, the more establishment candidate, Councilman Kevin Faulconer, won the job.

But the majority of special elections are for smaller offices and don’t usually garner the attention of a lot of voters, setting up opportunities for underdog candidates to upset the expected frontrunner.

In 2005, for example, a special election was held in San Diego’s Eighth Council District when Councilman Ralph Inzunza resigned after being convicted of political corruption charges for his part in a conspiracy with strip club operators.

Inzunza’s resignation set up a special election in the council district with the lowest average voter turnout in regular elections, much less in specials.

13 candidates filed to run, with one emerging as the so-called favorite. The Democratic Party and other groups endorsed that candidate, and the Republican Party endorsed one of their own, but the registration numbers heavily favored a Democrat to win.

Labor unions and other powerful groups lined up behind the Democratic Party’s candidate, and her victory seemed assured.

But, on election night, an upstart candidate with a grassroots campaign upset the expectations, and went on to win the runoff, and, later, two full terms on the City Council.

The low number of votes in special elections gives challenger candidates opportunities to connect more directly with the smaller pool of likely voters and helps level the playing field against better-funded or establishment-backed favorites.

The same dynamics just played out last week in the special election to replace Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher who abandoned her seat abruptly in January to take a job running the state’s largest labor union organization.

Two former San Diego City Councilmembers jumped into the race: Georgette Gomez and David Alvarez.

Gomez, who served as Council President during her one term on the Council, gave up running for re-election in 2020 to run for Congress. She ultimately lost that election and found herself out of office.

Alvarez, who served two terms on the City Council, later lost a campaign for a seat on the County Community College Board.

Gonzalez Fletcher endorsed Gomez as her heir-apparent, and helped her win the backing of the California Democratic Party, the San Diego Labor Council, and even Gonzalez Fletcher’s new patrón, the California Labor Federation.

Gomez also counts San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, Gonzalez Fletcher’s husband, County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, County Supervisor Nora Vargas, and dozens of other state and local politicians as supporters.

Alvarez was endorsed by National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo Solis, former State Senator Denise Ducheny, and Councilmember Vivian Moreno, among others, in addition to two employee unions; the National Union of Healthcare Workers and Southwest Carpenters; and our own newspaper, La Prensa San Diego.

Gomez was clearly the establishment candidate with high expectations of leading, if not winning outright by garnering more than half of the votes.

In late February, Gomez campaign consultant, Dan Rottenstreich, sent out a press release touting the results of their internal polling.

“Gomez is clear frontrunner”, “Gomez has a 13 point lead”, and “Alvarez in 3rd place,” the campaign claimed.

With three candidates in the race, including a Republican, only the top two finishers would advance to a runoff election in June one of them would be eliminated.

The conventional expectation for Alvarez was that he just had to make the runoff to have a chance to face off directly against Gomez in June.

Just two weeks before the election, politicos in Sacramento who were closely monitoring the campaigns thought Alvarez would get edged out by the only Republican in the race, essentially ensuring a victory for Gomez in the heavily-Democratic district.

But Alvarez and his camp ran a grassroots effort, knocking on door and connecting with voters in a district that partially overlaps San Diego’s Eighth Council District he represented from 2010 to 2018.

On election night, the first results from the Registrar of Voters proved that Alvarez had delivered an upset by all accounts: he topped Gomez by nearly 500 votes.

But the amount of the lead wasn’t the headline; it was that he had defied the odds and expectations. He didn’t come in third and missed the runoff, or even a distant second to the “clear frontrunner”. He lead the field.

Two days later, when more voters were counted, Gomez overtook Alvarez by a handful of votes, and now leads by 149 votes with several hundred still left to count.

Some of Gomez’s biggest supporters have now moved the goal posts to claim they expected a close outcome, but the damage was already done.

The candidate without the Party’s endorsement, without the support of the largest labor unions, and without the institutional support of incumbent Assemblymembers and lobbyists, virtually tied the favorite in the race, proving that conventional wisdom is not always right.

This wasn’t just a victory for Alvarez and his team, but it’s a win for democracy.

All elections should be left to the voters to decide, not egghead political observers who try to call elections before Election Day because they think they’re smarter than the voters.

Whoever wins the special election will go to Sacramento to represent all of the residents of the 80th Assembly District, even the ones who didn’t take the opportunity to vote at all.

And the beautiful magic of our democratic system -with a small “d”- will again prove that voters are smarter than politician consultants give them credit for. They can see through partisan attacks, special interests’ smears, and, generally, come down on the right side.

In our little slice of America, along the Mexican border and representing lots of underserved communities, it’s important that voters get a chance to learn more about the candidates and, even more crucial, that they actually exercise their right to vote without being told the fix is already in for one candidate over the other.

This election is just one of several important races to determine who will represent us at the local, state, and federal levels, but it’s up to voters to decide who will win them.

Your vote is your voice. Be heard. Adelante.

(Update: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the League of Women Voters had endorsed a candidate for City Council. The League of Women Voters does not endorse candidates for office.)

Castañares is the Publisher and Editor-at-Large of La Prensa San Diego. He is the 2021 winner of the prestigious Ruben Salazar National Award for Excellence in Journalism in Print presented by the California Chicano News Media Association, the oldest Hispanic journalists organization in the US. He can be reached directly at

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