Democrats for Equality President Will Rodriguez-Kennedy
Will Rodriguez-Kennedy is running for California Young Democrats president. Photo by Ken Stone

San Diego Democrats for Equality has become a “political powerhouse,” boasts the club’s 30-year-old leader, citing success at the ballot box and bank account.

William “Will” Rodriguez-Kennedy, in two years as president of the major LGBT group, has won grants totaling $186,000 from billionaire Tom Steyer (of the Impeach Trump commercials) and his NextGen PAC.

The 600-member club based in Hillcrest takes credit for Georgette Gómez being elected to the San Diego City Council and lifting other Democrats to victory.

San Diego Democrats for Equality spending report for the second half of 2017. (PDF)

Last April, the San Diego County Democratic Party named Democrats for Equality its affinity Club of the Year.

But the club’s most recent financial disclosure has angered at least one member and led experts to question how NextGen and other donor money is being spent — including nearly $14,000 from longtime member Toni Atkins, soon to be state Senate leader.

Fallout from the document, being circulated privately, also could hamper Rodriguez-Kennedy’s campaign to become the next president of California Young Democrats at this month’s party convention, and potentially derail his own City Council ambitions.

Under its original name of San Diego Democratic Club, Democrats for Equality says in its Form 460 that in the last six months of 2017 it spent about:

  • $6,600 on hotels.
  • $4,400 on restaurant meals, bar tabs and refreshments.
  • $4,200 on office furniture.
  • $3,900 on 129 Lyft and Uber fares (plus $760 on rental cars).
  • $1,640 on California Young Democrats.
  • $1,260 on airline tickets.
  • And $1,060 on Apple Store goods.

Rodriguez-Kennedy and club treasurer Craig Roberts vigorously defend the spending, saying all of it was approved by the club’s executive board. Lyft tabs were cheaper than paying staff mileage at a projected $200 a month, for example.

Democrats for Equality board response to Times of San Diego questions on recent spending. (PDF)

And the furniture? Roberts said the club needed it for a new office at 1238 University Avenue.

“Last year, we approved a budget of $15,000 to assist ALL 57 California Young Democrats from the South State Region with travel and costs associated with CYD events,” Roberts said via email. That included events in Sacramento, Anaheim, Milbrae and a biennial retreat in South Lake Tahoe.

Jennifer Sosa, South State Regional director of CYD running on a slate with Rodriguez-Kennedy, said the Young Democrats typically raise money for such travel through a regional PAC but couldn’t this year “because we no longer have a treasurer to manage the account.”

“We were ecstatic to hear that the Democrats for Equality approved part of their budget to help continue our efforts to increase millennial engagement in our party,” said Sosa, a 2014 UC San Diego graduate now working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In a phone interview last week, Rodriguez-Kennedy chalked up the restaurant tab (with visits to places like Flicks, BabyCakes, Gossip Grill and India Palace) partly to “team-building.”

“I’ve explained every single expenditure (to NextGen),” he said. “When you have 600 members and a [paid] staff of eight, team-building events … are essential and a part of doing business.”

The club bought two iPad minis for voter registration, but because of glitches ended up using them only at meetings to “check in members, and go paperless. Also for membership renewals.”

On Monday, NextGen California issued a statement in response to a request for comment.

NextGen said its $108,000 grant, made in August 2017, was to be used for voter registration and engagement.

“NextGen worked closely with San Diego Democrats for Equality to get regular updates on their progress towards those goals, but did not monitor their spending of the grant purchase-by-purchase,” the group said via email.

William Rodriguez-Kennedy email to Times of San Diego reporter. (PDF)

“We’re disappointed to hear that some of the funds may have been mismanaged, and are working directly with the organization to ensure all terms set forth in the grant agreement have been met, and will take action accordingly.”

Rodriguez-Kennedy said the club fell short of its NextGen goal of registering 2,500 voters in 2017.

“We only got to about 2,000-something, because it was an off-year,” he said. “And we didn’t have as much support from the [county] party, so we focused specifically on high schools.”

The Bronx native, who works as a lead manager for the telemarketing fund-raising company GSI, noted that the NextGen grant — which he said forbids spending on candidates — was only about half of the nearly $226,000 the club took in as monetary contributions in 2017.

He hailed the “young kids in San Diego who put their hearts into this organization, and who don’t have the money to get [to CYD events]. … I come from a background where I didn’t have a lot of money, so if I have the ability to provide institutional support [for similar people]… I’m going to do it.”

A club member contacted by Times of San Diego said Democrats for Equality never endorsed Rodriguez-Kennedy for president of CYD.

But Rodriguez-Kennedy said his club would back him if asked.

“What you’re probably going to force me to do is go to the club meeting and make sure that they understand exactly what we’re doing so that this [story] isn’t a shock to them,” he said.

Rodriguez-Kennedy gives kiss to Councilwoman Georgette Gómez at a 2017 meeting of his club. Photo by Ken Stone

He said coalitions that include the Young Democrats (ages 14-35) build “power for our movement.”

“If I say [to the club]: ‘Look, this is what we’re doing. This is why it’s important, are you with me?’ I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a pretty solid support,” he said.

Asked for comment on recent club spending, Sen. Atkins told Times of San Diego in a statement: “I’ve supported the club and their events over the years because, in the past, they have helped educate thousands of voters about elections with a significant number of volunteers.”

A spokesman for Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who followed Atkins as District 3 council member, said: “As a longtime member of the San Diego County Democrats for Equality and a donor to the club, Assemblymember Gloria looks forward to hearing from the board about the nature of these expenditures from the last reporting period.”

Another club member is Lori Saldaña, the former Assemblywoman who lost the club’s endorsement for county Board of Supervisors to fellow ex-Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher. (His wife, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, made a $1,000 donation to the club last April through a campaign committee.)

Saldaña recalled club leadership last summer being very excited about the NextGen windfall.

“The club held an event at a restaurant in Hillcrest to announce the big news, along with their regular monthly meeting,” she said.

“Those of us who attended were impressed that they had been entrusted with this grant. We anticipated they would invest the money in voter outreach, recruiting and organizing volunteers, and supporting progressive candidates in the 2018 election cycle.”

But Saldaña said she was surprised to see that a majority of the funds have been spent “so early in the process” and looked forward to hearing “how they plan to fund activities as we approach the June 5 primary election.”

One club member, who asked not to be identified, said: “I’ve had an eyebrow raised when they got the grant the second time — because they didn’t meet their goals for the first grant. And that was a well-known fact.”

The club member, suspicious of the spending, prepared a spreadsheet to tally up the expenses. “There’s a bunch of Democratic elected officials who are aware [of the spending], who are angry and who are just kind of waiting,” the club member said.

Defending the club and its president is Jessica Hayes, San Diego County Democratic Party chairwoman, who saluted Democrats for Equality for its engagement of teens and its “fantastic job” of registering new voters.

“Young people have to become politically literate, and that takes experience,” she said. “They have to learn about the system and how they can impact it. … It is this experience that is so important to teaching them not to throw up their hands and walk away but to stay and fight.”

But Hayes said the county party takes no position on Rodriguez-Kennedy’s bid to move up from CYD vice president of operations, his role in the 2016-17 term.

“We do not get involved as a county party because it is a state party function,” she said. “We don’t ever have positions on caucus chairs at the state party level.”

Former club president David Warmoth, 64, celebrated Rodriguez-Kennedy’s achievements, including reversing the “graying of the club.”

“Will has attracted new members and new sources of revenue (far beyond what I thought possible for a local Dem club),” Warmoth wrote, “and built a campaign team that rivals any organization in the county. I’m guessing that this has made others feel less secure with their own position.”

He said he’s seen nothing that would indicate anything “other than above-board expenditures related to a higher level of activity.”

NextGen’s donations in 2017 to California parties and political action groups. (PDF)

Daniel Weiner, 38, is senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program tied to NYU School of Law. He reviewed the Form 460 for signs of any improper spending.

“It’s really hard actually to tell from reports like this whether anything illegal has taken place, because you don’t know the context,” he said in a phone interview from his office in Washington, D.C. “It is not unusual for campaigns to spend large amounts of money on transport, parties, … particularly for party building.”

He noted: “I’m a young gay Democrat. It’s perfectly reasonable that they would have an event at a bar. Right? That’s what you do.”

But the Harvard-educated election-spending expert said it’s “always a bit of red flag when you see a campaign finance report and virtually all of the expenditures appear to be for entertainment or meals … Normally you might see political vendors. … So it’s a little weird.”

He said “another huge flag” is when staff salaries take up an overwhelming amount of the budget.

“Usually a local club like this would not have … a big staff. [Eight paid staffers] seems like a lot to me for an organization with a budget of only a couple hundred thousand dollars.”

California has a history of irregularities in political spending, Weiner said, so “if I were running an organization like this I would want to be as transparent as possible — precisely because of that. There’s a real risk here.”

Also wary is Carl Luna, the veteran local politics observer and San Diego Mesa College political science professor.

Does he think the spending report suggests any illegitimate spending?

“Without details … I really can’t say,” he said. But numbers lacking documentation can lead to questions of efficacy/efficiency, he said.

“Why $4,500 for restaurants and $4,000 for car hires? for example,” Luna said via email. “If these are normal overhead costs that track with similar organizations, then no harm or foul. That there doesn’t seem to be a lot of expenditures clearly supporting candidates or causes, however, might raise an eyebrow or two.”

Luna said donors like NextGen want to see results.

Councilwoman Georgette Gómez swore in new officers of San Diego Democrats for Equality in March 2017. Photo by Ken Stone

“If the money has been spent on overhead without really adding to the capacity of [Democrats for Equality] to move the political needle, then donors may end [up] having a problem with it,” he said.

Jay Wierenga, a spokesman for California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, said his watchdog agency has received no complaints about the club’s spending or about Rodriguez-Kennedy.

(But in the first half of 2017, the club paid a $200 fine for late filing of a Form 460, said the Secretary of State’s Office.)

Rodriguez-Kennedy, a Marine veteran discharged under the old “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, recalls how he lived in “the poorest congressional district in the country” in New York.

He says he knew poverty himself and a period of homelessness.

So in reply to a question about his rumored interest in the San Diego City Council seat now held by Chris Ward, Rodriguez-Kennedy said:

“Because of that struggle, and because of the way that it’s led me to have working class values and an aspiration toward justice, I would be foolish not to consider such opportunities if they were to open up for me.”

He called himself “a really strong supporter of Councilmember Ward.”

Still, he said: “We’re going to have to start thinking about it soon…. I’ve already spoken with a bunch of people in the LGBT community about timing and stuff like that if I were to do that. But as of now, it’s very premature. We should be focusing on the 2018 elections.”