By Ken Stone
Feasting on catered tacos last Saturday, 40 current and former members of UFCW Local 135 and spouses celebrated the dawn of a new year and the destruction of an old foe — Mickey Kasparian.
The longtime San Diego labor leader with clout among county Democrats had recently been voted out as president of the 12,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers union chapter based in Mission Valley.
Todd Walters, the new president, and his wife, Beth, joined a group party photo with “Tres Hermanas” — three former Local 135 organizers whose lawsuits accused Kasparian of sex harassment, gender bias, wrongful termination and other misconduct, stirring #MeToo outrage in labor and political circles.
The three accusers — Sandy Naranjo, Isabel Vasquez and Anabel Arauz — posed with pride behind balloons spelling out si se puede in the Spanish-style 1928 home of Naranjo and her husband, Andrew McKercher, in National City.
Kasparian has denied all accusations (including those in a fourth woman’s gender-violence suit that alleged six sex assaults) and settled the suits in early 2018.
The settlements included nondisclosure agreements, but the trio’s body language Saturday spoke only of triumph. Kasparian had earlier been booted as leader of the powerful San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council and forced to resign as an alternate to the San Diego County Democratic Party Central Committee (although he says he quit on his own).
The kingpin was dead.
But who fired the kill shot?
Responsibility is assigned to many, including accusers’ attorney Dan Gilleon, about 50 activists who signed a letter demanding the Dems and labor groups suspend Kasparian amid investigations, and rival labor leaders who called on the AFL-CIO to expel him from the Labor Council.
But the key player may have been a human BB gun who hasn’t been a UFCW member for 30 years.
Brent Beltrán calls himself a “nobody” from Barrio Logan. Partially paralyzed from a car accident at age 18, Beltrán walks with a slight limp. His right hand is floppy and weak.
Yet despite having to type with a pinkie, the twice-married 48-year-old father of four lent a strong hand to Kasparian’s critics.
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He led 17 mostly street-side protests. He launched a Facebook page supporting the women. He created and collected racy “UFCW memes.” He publicized legal documents, including X-rated depositions, and “channeled his inner dirtbag” with a humorous but epithet-filled Twitter feed called @RatFaceMickey — revealing his alter ego publicly here for the first time.
“Brent’s efforts … took the cause of Las Tres Hermanas outside the realm of an internal union matter,” said Doug Porter, a former editorial board colleague of Beltrán at San Diego Free Press, the recently shut-down website. “Once the discussion spilled over into progressive/Latino/feminist circles, the rest of Kasparian’s activities came under scrutiny.”
Porter called Beltrán the perfect person to take up the fight because Kasparian and his defenders couldn’t retaliate. Going into battle, Beltrán wasn’t even a registered Democrat (he was a decline-to-state).
“It was about right vs. wrong for Brent, and he’s the type of person who just won’t quit,” Porter said.
Chris Lopez, a fierce Kasparian critic recently elected as a Local 135 vice president, said Beltrán’s social media work was an “absolute necessity.”
“There is no way this movement would have been successful without Brent,” Lopez said. “Brent was instrumental in organizing rallies, protests and creating a sense of virtual camaraderie using social media.”
Said Sara Kent, who helped organize the activist letter asking Kasparian be put on ice: “Brent’s relentless exposure of the claims against Kasparian made it so nobody at the Dem Party or within the structure of UFCW Local 135 could ignore his egregious misdeeds.”
As the plaintiffs became absorbed in litigation and began losing their ability to speak freely, Beltrán was the “primary champion who carried the nonlitigation justice forward,” Kent said.
“He was instrumental in providing the new leadership of UFCW Local 135 with information — based on his more than two years of activism — that they were then able to more thoroughly communicate to the members that voted Kasparian and his team out in December.”
How did Beltrán come to spend two years as a Kasparian archnemesis?
It goes back to a quiet act of friendship.
In 2014, Beltrán called for help in protesting a press conference of shipyard executives who had engineered a citywide vote on Barrio Logan’s community plan. (Execs saw proposed zoning rules as “a dangerous first step toward elimination of San Diego’s shipyards.”)
“When they brought the community update plan to a vote to the entire city of San Diego, that really pissed me off,” Beltrán said. “What other community would let the rest of the City of San Diego vote? Would La Jolla let residents of Barrio Logan vote on their community plan?”
So Beltrán led a five-person protest, including his 2-year-old son, 70-year-old mother-in-law, San Diego State chicano studies professor Roberto Hernández — and Sandy Naranjo.
“Sandy had (seen) my plea on Facebook …. She came out on a work day to support us,” he said. “There were maybe 50 to 100 shipyard workers plus about 20-30 executives from different shipyard companies as well as former Mayor Jerry Sanders (head of the chamber of commerce). We didn’t care that we were outnumbered.”
Wearing dust masks to evoke pollution fears, they disrupted the press conference with chants of liars, liars, mentiras, mentiras, and “it kind of brought the cameras to us.”
Though his side lost — the Barrio Logan plan went down to defeat — “I never forgot Sandy — what she did for us that day,” Beltrán said.
Despite having a favorable impression of the labor leader, Beltrán later heard that Kasparian told Naranjo she could no longer take part in similar activities as an employee of the local.
Beltrán grew more troubled by reports that Kasparian opposed Escondido Councilwoman Olga Diaz in her failed 2014 run for mayor (she was a decisive vote in favor of letting a nonunion 99 Cents Only store come to town). “She wanted to do something for her community — a store that would service the poor, working-class community that she represents,” Beltrán said.
Kasparian was behind a flier opposing Diaz, he said, “attacking the only Democrat, the only pro-union person on that City Council. That put a bad taste in my head. … Later on, he attacked my councilman, David Alvarez, who in my opinion has been the best District 8 city councilman since I’ve been in District 8.”
So when Beltrán found out in December 2016 that Naranjo — a former Local 135 Organizer of the Year — had been fired, he reached out to her.
“She called me up, and we had a conversation,” he said. “I told her: Whatever you need. I’m here to help organize. … whether it’s to help get your job back or take out Mickey Kasparian.”
Beltrán considered himself retired — living off monthly payments from his age-18 settlement in his Ides of March 1989 crash on the way to San Diego Mesa College. (He was a UFCW member at the time, working as a Vons courtesy clerk.)
But in his eight years in the bayside Latino community, he’s carved a reputation as a savvy street fighter.
An activist since 1992 — involved with Chicano Park about 15 years, putting out the annual Chicano Park Day program — Beltrán started a small publishing company called Calaca Press. His memberships included Barrios Against Stadiums, M.E.Ch.A., Unión del Barrio and Balboa Park’s Centro Cultural de la Raza. Until spring 2018, he was vice chair of the Barrio Logan Planning Group. He’s also been on the Environmental Health Coalition board.
He helped found the performance space Voz Alta, which jump-started a vibrant arts scene in the 6,000-resident Barrio.
Ironically, Beltrán is not fluent in Spanish. His paternal grandfather was born in coastal Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico. His father, born in America, lost his Spanish fluency but regained it working for a tortilla company. Beltrán’s mother was born in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia.
But Beltrán says he can “sloganeer [in Spanish] with the best of them.”
And so began his Kasparian capers, stalking the powerbroker with his merry band of sign-holders.
Four protests targeted what he called Democratic Party inaction — three at their meetings and one at the April 2017 Roosevelt Dinner at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. (Labeled a “Silent Vigil to Demand Dem Party Take Action Against Kasparian,” it became loud when McKercher fired up a bullhorn.)
Sara Kent — a Democratic environmental activist — says protests outside Democratic Central Committee meetings led to county Chairwoman Jessica Hayes moving the meeting locale to limit protests.
Hayes, who steps down as party chair in a few weeks, told Times of San Diego that she has no idea who Brent Beltrán is.
“I doubt this person was instrumental [in toppling Kasparian] as they would have worked and taken orders from higher powers and were likely paid by them,” she said Friday via email. “The unions are not the [Democratic] Party. Mickey was a member of the party as an alternate, and, at that time, we did not have something in place in our bylaws or policies and procedures to take any action other than removal. We do now.”
She repeated that “Mickey’s issues” were brought before the full Central Committee, which she said voted in favor of due process, “a pillar of the Democratic Party platform.”
But Hayes now says she privately and repeatedly asked Kasparian to “please step down, or to at least not go to meetings.” But “he did what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it.”
(In response, Beltrán concedes he’s never met Hayes, “but she definitely heard about us protesting.” He also denies ever being paid for protests, accusing Hayes of being “Kasparian’s puppet the entire time she was chair up until his ouster” in December 2017.)
Saturday morning, Hayes took strong exception to the puppet allegation, calling it hurtful and asking for proof. She also disputed remarks by Sara Kent, noting that she wasn’t a Central Committee member with knowledge of party decision-making.
Beltrán’s rallies against the Democrats ceased at that point. His social media barrages continued.
But one volley was a dud.
He created a group called Community Against Kasparian, but “The Facebook Team” notified him via email Jan. 12, 2017, that it had been “unpublished” for violating terms of service.
“Within hours of finding out our page was taken down, I created the We Stand With Sandy, Isabel and Anabel page,” he said. “Which has hundreds of posts and continues to this day.”
In December 2016, Beltran went live on Twitter as Mickey Ratsparian, aka Mickey the Rat or Ratface Mickey, an “accused sexual harasser who loves the ladies.” He made sure to add the disclaimer: “Parody.”
“We wanted to use humor to attack him, use satire,” said Beltrán, who has never met Kasparian. “To get through this process, we had to laugh about the situation. Otherwise, we’d be just so pissed off and … not [do] anything.”
Even though Beltrán’s allies would throw ideas his way, the tweets were “strictly me,” he said. “He embodies the stereotype of a dirty union boss. I was trying to channel that.”
Every sentence ended with an exclamation mark — “because Mickey’s always yelling at people,” he said.
At first, Beltrán as Ratface Mickey tended toward more misogynistic language.
“And that started to bother me, because I don’t speak that way. Eventually I toned it down,” he said. “Some people said: ‘Aw, man, why’d you do that?'”
Beltrán said amid his effort to channel his inner Mickey, “I have a conscience. I didn’t want to go too far to the dark side. … I wanted to attack him. Not the women.”
Sometimes he took a break from tweeting.
“At times it kind of got to me,” Beltrán said. “I’m not a bully. But I had to bring out my inner bully. In over two years, I became kind of like Mickey in a way. So I [had] to reconcile that within myself…. But I will step up to people if I have to — because that’s the Barrio Logan way.”
Fewer than 100 people are followers (their names visible to Kasparian as potential opponents), but Beltrán and others assume many more people view the tweets.
“Almost everybody in labor was reading that thing,” he said. “I’m sure Mickey read every single one, even though he blocked it. I’m sure he read it through other accounts…. And I know it got to him. That’s the whole point.”
(Kasparian, who didn’t respond to a request for comment on Beltrán, knew the Barrio Logan activist was the mystery man behind @RatFaceMickey because Naranjo disclosed his identity during a deposition Kasparian attended.)
The rat-a-tat-tat of social media snark took a toll on Kasparian, Beltrán insists.
Mickey the Rat got served again by that dirtbag lawyer @dangilleon. I’m gonna get you, Gilligan! Mickey the Rat runs this town!
— Mickey Ratsparian (@RatfaceMickey) January 8, 2017
— Mickey Ratsparian (@RatfaceMickey) October 13, 2017
Mickey the Rat is going to tell a story in tweets! So pay attention #UFCW!
My assholery started way before I fired that broad Sandy. Goes back to my campaign against Norm Bell and goes on and on! But I’m going to start in 2014! Ain’t got that much time!#2018ufcwCON
— Mickey Ratsparian (@RatfaceMickey) April 24, 2018
“Every single tweet, every single post in that Facebook page, every single press release, every single protest affected him,” he said. “Because that’s the kind of person he is. He takes everything personally.”
Thinking to himself “Game on,” Beltrán said he found how to “bug this guy. I talked with Annabel, Isabel and Sandy about: What is his personality? What upsets him? So we used that against him.”
“At heart, I’m a propagandist,” Beltrán said in a 45-minute interview at the Naranjo home. “I know how to get the information out there, like any good PR person. …. I know how to push buttons. And Mickey was the easiest buttons to push. It was almost too easy.”
He recruiting Local 135 retirees for protests, who even traveled to the international UFCW convention in Las Vegas last April to harass Kasparian — though re-elected as a vice president.
“None of us were getting paid,” Beltrán said. “We spent two years of our lives taking out Mickey Kasparian without getting paid. He got paid the entire time.”
Even though he expected Todd Walters to win the Local 135 presidency, Beltrán said, he still had worries about election fraud.
“You corner a cat, and the cat is going to scratch and lash out and attack,” he said. “We knew that going in. So that’s why we had to continuously, over and over, poke at him, poke at him, poke at him. And because we were poking, we thought: ‘Well, maybe he’s going to cheat.'”
Also a concern: that UFCW President Anthony “Marc” Perrone and other local UFCW presidents who backed Kasparian would somehow cook the results.
But Beltrán says a fair election was conducted, with Team Todd’s slate of 12 officers beating Kasparian’s crew 2-to-1 in mid-December voting.
Kent, girlfriend of labor lawyer Ricardo Ochoa, agreed that social media worked.
“While the @RatFaceMickey Twitter account didn’t often have much engagement with other Twitter users, the content posted at the account showed up for other users whenever they tried to engage with Marc Perrone, Mickey Kasparian or UFCW 135 via Twitter,” Kent said via email. “Brent also targeted the national [UFCW] conference in 2018, having learned the hashtag for the event, and tweets would appear on monitors at the conference.”
She said Beltrán encouraged other Twitter users to share criticisms of Kasparian in a targeted fashion that week.
“As far as social media and earned media in general goes, Brent did the lion’s share of work to ensure that whenever anybody Googles ‘Mickey Kasparian,’ the articles exposing his abuses crowd the top results,” Kent said.
Porter, the former San Diego Free Press blogger, said Beltrán told him the identity behind the Twitter account shortly after its creation.
“At that point, there was a discussion between the editors and Brent about keeping some space between his propaganda campaign and the SDFP,” Porter said. “We supported the cause, but weren’t willing to get so personal in fighting this battle. Brent had no problem with that.”
Still, the website took up Beltrán’s cause, with the editorial board deciding early on to offer the platform to those fighting what they saw as injustice.
“I wrote stories about the court cases,” Porter said. “Other contributors wrote about the political struggles. And we made sure to publicize activist events connected with this cause in our events calendar. This was a controversial decision in some progressive circles. Many of us had friends on both sides of this cause; our refusal to back down came with consequences.”
Collateral damage came in the form of Lori Saldaña’s candidacy for county supervisor.
“Prior to the Mickey K. controversy, she would have been the logical choice for our support,” Porter said. “I started our coverage by interviewing Lori, Nathan Fletcher and Omar Passons. Once we found out about her ‘wink, wink’ alliance with [Kasparian’s breakaway] Working Families Council and the [business friendly] Lincoln Club, there was no way we could back her.”
San Diego Free Press backed Passons in the primary, Fletcher in the general election.
“Saldaña and her supporters took to Facebook and other social media, trying to shame us for not being progressive or pro-woman or pro-Latinx. We ignored them,” Porter said, “and despite the fact that eight months have passed since the primary, I’m personally still caching flak, as this — since deleted — tweet from last weekend indicates.”
On Twitter, Saldaña retweeted a Porter remark with the accusatory word “Misogynist.”
Kent also faulted Saldaña — even though she signed Kent’s letter.
“I attracted the ire of some of [Kasparian’s] sycophants, including Lori Saldaña and her ardent supporters, as she initially stood with his accusers but then turned against them when she wanted Kasparian’s endorsement and union members’ financial support for her latest failed political campaign,” Kent said.
“They actively turned justice on its head in self-serving narratives that were full of lies and destruction. They, in return for my truth-telling, slandered and tried to destroy those close to me in retaliation. They will likely try to attack me and my loved ones again in the future, because they have massive moral blind spots.”
Despite the ugliness of the fight, Kent said: “I regret nothing.”
Another Beltrán backer was Irene McCormack, the first of nearly two dozen women to publicly accuse Mayor Bob Filner of sexual harassment. McCormack and former Councilwoman Donna Frye joined an anti-Kasparian protest outside a Kearny Mesa union hall in January 2017.
In response to a Facebook post by Kent after the UFCW election, McCormack said she wrote: “Taking action, telling truth, seeking solace with friends and family. Persistence in the face of non-believers and denialists is a path with many boulders and quick sand. Congratulations on the vanquishment.”
She added: “It left scars and allows others to hope. My love and admiration to Sandy the Brave, Isabel the Stalwart, Anabel the Honorable, and to you, the Siren, who never backed down and for years has supported women who tell the truth to power. Love you forever.”
McCormack, who was briefly Filner’s communications director after a Port District PR and San Diego Union-Tribune career, tied her 2012-13 experience to the Harvey Weinstein-triggered #MeToo movement that followed.
“The actions of all who have told their #MeToo stories, before the volume of personal experience made it a worldwide media phenomenon, set the stage for others to hope and find success and personal peace,” McCormack told Times of San Diego. “The event changed the course of my life, as I’m sure it did for Sandy, Isabel and Anabel.”
She said the lesson learned in the Kasparian case was “truth and justice outran lies and deniers.”
“As I know well,” she said, “publicly accusing a person who uses power like a guillotine leaves one fearful and inspired: fearful of the consequences, inspired by the support, love and helpful action others bring to the fight.”
Frye, who helped bring down fellow Democrat Filner, recalls how she met with three of Kasparian’s accusers and heard their stories.
“It was both heart-wrenching and stomach churning,” she said. “He took full advantage of his position and hurt so many people that it was necessary to speak out in public, which we did when we called for his resignation in January 2017. It was really difficult to watch Mr. Kasparian remain in his position for as long as he did.”
Her hope today is that “all the people who were subjected to his abuse of power sleep easier knowing that justice has finally prevailed.” Also: “that new policies and procedures are established that would allow all employees and members to report problems to an outside and objective third party.”
The former president of the open-records group Californians Aware added: “It’s important to speak out because silence is not always golden.”
Dan Gilleon, attorney for the four accusers, said Kasparian’s fall could be seen as a repudiation of his sexism, exposed by the underlying cases.
“But I’m more cynical than that, especially in the Trump era,” said Gilleon (called “Gilligan” by @RatFaceMickey). I’m too cynical to see this as a repudiation of Mickey’s Trump-like echo of the ‘they’re all liars’ defense, which did nothing but dig Mickey a deeper hole (and make ‘the wart’ [on his genitals] an issue in our case!)”
Gilleon said he’s so cynical that he somewhat sees a repudiation of #MeToo itself.
“I’m pretty sure Mickey would have survived but for the happenchance of a courageous, highly qualified white male coming along and dealing Mickey an old school political ass whipping,” he said of Walters. “So the lesson to learn is that beating sexists, racists and their ilk is a war and that battles like this will be won and lost along the way, but don’t be deluded — the fight goes on.”
Beltrán isn’t backing off yet either.
“Justice has been done for Sandy, Anabel and Isabel. But justice has not been done for the members of UFCW Local 135,” he said.
The grocery workers, Beltrán said, want justice for what they allege are financial crimes.
“From what I hear, they’re looking through the books and stuff,” he said. “They’re finding some crazy stuff.”
Despite three crushed vertebrae in his neck and five vertebrae fused together, Beltrán has adapted in life.
“I don’t have any major health issues right now — other than I just have a limp; I walk around funny,” he said. He’s supported by Olympia Beltrán, his “activist nurse wife.”
But he’s walking proudly now.
“Everything the crew set out to do we accomplished,” he said. “We wanted to get him kicked out of the Labor Council. Check! We wanted to get him kicked out of the Democratic Party. Check! We wanted members to kick him out of UFCW Local 135 presidency. Check! We wanted justice for Sandy, Isabel and Anabel.”
He boasted a cadre doing this with no resources other than their own wits, skills and ability to organize the community.
“And Mickey had millions of dollars at his hands. Mickey had members, representatives that could go out there and counter us,” Beltrán said. “He had contacts with politicians, contacts with the media. He was the kingmaker for the Democratic Party of San Diego. He got took out by a bunch of nobodies, a bunch of people who don’t matter in labor circles anymore. He got took out by us.
“He didn’t know who Brent was. … Now he knows who I am.”
Updated at 10:40 a.m. Jan. 12, 2019
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