Jose Caballero
Jose Caballero held a Veterans for Bernie sign at a Sanders presidential rally in May 2016. Photo by Chris Stone

Jose Caballero hopes to be the next AOC — in terms of Congress shockers.

The 33-year-old Democratic political consultant says he will file papers Wednesday to challenge Rep. Susan Davis, a 10-term incumbent who has never faced a serious Democratic primary opponent.

A Talmadge resident who ran a third-place District 7 race for the San Diego City Council in June 2016, Caballero says Davis, 75 in April, can be defeated from the progressive left.

Jose Caballero, shown in 2016, says he did well against a Democratic-endorsed council rival that year despite spending only $30,000.
Jose Caballero, shown in 2016, says he did well against a Democratic-endorsed council rival that year despite spending only $30,000. Photo by Ken Stone

He hopes to borrow from the playbook that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used to upset 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District in June 2018.

Caballero thinks Davis has squandered chances in her “leadership district” — having such a wide voter-registration lead (about 20 points as of Feb. 28) that she never has to worry about losing to a Republican.

“If you’re not taking bold action, then you’re not using this district the way it’s intended to be used,” he said Monday. “The fact is, she has not really done anything in Congress since she’s been there.”

Conceding her advantage (“people know her”) in the 53rd district, Caballero says Davis has stood frozen politically while “the rest of the political left has moved far from where she stands now.”

Caballero, a Bernie Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, sides with the Vermont senator, and AOC, on the Green New Deal, healthcare-for-all, college “education-for-all,” student-debt forgiveness and a less-costly military.

“For me, she’s the perfect foil for a candidate like myself that is not only going to be voting for these ideals but also fighting for them,” he said in a phone interview.

So Caballero wants to go “toe-to-toe” with Davis in debates.

“Her political consultants are going to say: ‘Just ignore it. He’s nobody,’” he said.

But a spokesman for Davis on Tuesday said the congresswoman has debated every opponent “who has ever asked. It makes sense to debate close to the election when voters are most focused.”

“Rep. Davis runs proudly on her strong record of representing the constituents of the 53rd district,” said the spokesman, Aaron Hunter. “In fact, she was just recognized as a ‘Best in Congress’ for constituent service. Time and again, the voters of the 53rd district have clearly indicated that Rep. Davis is their choice.”

How is Davis appealing to the Bernie/AOC/Justice Democrats cohort?

“Rep. Davis agrees that we need to tackle climate change immediately and find a way to provide universal healthcare coverage for all Americans,” Hunter said via email. “The Green New Deal represents an important step to emphasize key issues and Rep. Davis is excited to work toward a legislative solution that particularly addresses the national security realities of climate change.”

Caballero, a San Diego State University graduate, calls himself “a proud democratic socialist,” which he proffers as an ideology, not a party.

He says examples of democratic socialism are fire and police departments, freeways, Social Security and Medicare.

“We already have democratic socialism here in this country,” Caballero says. “We just need to start bringing more of the pillars into it, so we can continue to function as a government, because right now at this rate we’re suffering.”

Caballero’s candidacy was no secret. In fact, the San Diego County Democratic Party website has listed him as a rival to Davis.

He says he made a “soft announcement” a week ago Monday at the club he helped launch — San Diego Progressive Democratic Club. They met at Elijah’s restaurant in Clairemont Mesa.

He made his race known to discourage other possible Democratic rivals.

“It seems I’m in the clear right now,” Caballero said. “Maybe a Communist [might run] but no Democrat to the left of me.”

Caballero — who boasts being the only person who told council candidate Monica Montgomery from the beginning she was going to defeat incumbent Myrtle Cole in the District 4 race — spent about six months of 2017 and 2018 working in Connecticut for then 38-year-old governor candidate Dan Drew as fundraising director.

(Democrat Drew dropped out in January 2018, saying: “It became very difficult to raise the required funds to qualify for public financing.”)

He said it helped him “get out of the San Diego bubble and see how other people do politics.”

Caballero says he’s taking the Justice Democrats pledge of refusing money from corporations and billionaires.

He says he’ll build his campaign from individual donors, accepting labor union “organizational support” but looking for laborer donations.

He won’t make Davis’ age an issue, but said: “She’s been there for 20 years. I think that’s a little crazy. I want term limits (six or eight terms). Keep Congress fresh.”

Caballero concedes that Ocasio-Cortez had a different path to Congress — holding more rallies in the geographically confined eastern Bronx and north-central Queens.

“Overall, [my] message is pretty spot on,” agreeing with Ocasio-Cortez, he says. But he’ll try to raise more money early on to make a dent in the more suburban 53rd District, which sprawls from Allied Gardens to La Mesa and Lemon Grove through the heart of San Diego and down to parts of Chula Vista and Bonita.

On Friday, Caballero hopes to meet his hero — Bernie Sanders — for the first time. The presidential candidate will be at an evening rally outside the County Administration Center.

Caballero doesn’t expect an endorsement from Sanders, or AOC, just yet. First he hopes to gain the backing of Justice Democrats.

But he said: “It’s looking very likely, considering that the Justice Democrats are really focused on getting out incumbents who aren’t following through with the Democratic platform.”

He thinks getting the Justice Democrats endorsement will help him net Sanders’ endorsement, “and AOC will also come with that Justice Democrats endorsement.”

For now, though, he’s focusing on assembling his campaign team — talking to campaign networks and the “professional class.”

“Basically building a kitchen cabinet and getting my campaign team solidified,” he said. “I’m more focused on getting my team together than focusing on going for the big endorsements right away.”

A fellow traveler on the left is Doug Porter, the former San Diego Free Press columnist.

“I like and respect Jose,” Porter told Times of San Diego. “He’s paid his dues in the trenches by working hard for candidates and causes. He’s smart and approachable.”

Porter says that given the deep-blue nature of her district, and her longstanding ties to the community, he expects Davis will run a “stand alone” campaign — “she’s running for the job rather than against an opponent.”

He said Caballero is wise not to make age an issue since it can easily be turned against him.

“He’s a young looking 33, and it would open up the door as to whether or not he’s experienced enough,” Porter said.

The blogger (now at Words & Deeds) said elevating progressive agendas is the best strategy for him.

“Aside from winning or losing, these are discussions that can’t wait,” he said. “I’ll always remember Rep. Davis being willing to expose herself to the Tea Party types in a town hall back in the early days of the Obama administration. She was not intimidated by some very scary people.”

But the odds are long for an AOC-style upset, Porter said.

“Davis prizes constituent service and stays in contact with her district,” he said. “Making predictions in the age of Trump is never easy.”

Carl Luna, the San Diego Mesa College professor and veteran local political observer, doubts a debate will take place.

“She’s got a lock on the primary unless she fumbles the ball in a debate, so why take risk?” Luna said Tuesday.

He says in the age of Dianne Feinstein, Donald Trump and Sanders, Davis at 74 is “like the new 50.”

Luna doubts the 53rd district breaks hard enough to the left to cost Davis a critical amount for not joining the leftward tilt — “at least for the next election cycle or two.”

A bigger question is how spending might split the Democratic vote, he says.

“Davis got 69 percent in 2018 (against GOP millennial Morgan Murtaugh’s 31 percent),” Luna noted. So “even if Caballero got one-third of that in primary (23 percent?), GOP gets 30 percent and it’s Davis vs. Unknown Republican.”

“Unless the Democratic turnout skews far more left than we’ve seen in San Diego in recent years, Caballero defeating Davis seems unlikely,” he said.

Luna also likens the 53rd contest to East County’s 50th in 2018.

“It reminds me of the Ammar Campa-Najjar race against [Rep. Duncan] Hunter — unlikely to produce a victory but establishes the candidate as a possible contender for the future,” the political scientist said. “Coming from the left wing of the party, Caballero is a candidate looking for a growing base of support and possible future office down the road.”

In any case, Caballero has already swapped out logos on his old City Council Facebook page, and expects to launch his website soon.

And drawing on his Navy veteran background, he plans to detail his “Hero’s Promise,” which he terms a service member Bill of Rights.

Caballero, who says he first thought of running last fall, suggests a formal candidacy launch will be in April.

He plans “a fairly large announcement … It’s going to be a good turnout.”