San Diego is a wired city, not by telephone lines or fiber-optic cables, but by a small group of insiders: men and a few women who, by virtue of birth, marriage, enterprise, cunning, guile, or simple longevity, control the direction of the region's economic and political life. This loose network, made up primarily of Republicans but including some old-time Democrats as well, exerts a subtle but strong influence over such matters as who runs for public office, what news and opinion appears in the city's only daily newspaper, what land should be re-zoned for higher use, and whether public money is spent on stadiums or libraries. Because of their connections, members of this circle are rewarded with wealth and power far greater than their numbers, or public profile, would suggest.
Many cities have such an old-boys' network or so-called establishment, but few are as small and inbred as San Diego's. Some attribute the exclusivity of the group to a sort of natural selection in reverse, a perverse "survival of the unfittest" that has come about after a series of untoward economic and political events and coincidences, leaving the community leaderless and without intellectual or moral compass.
Much of San Diego's currently robust prosperity is tied to the fate of low-wage manufacturing plants across the border in Tijuana and small, highly speculative computer and biotech start-up companies in the Sorrento Valley that could crash and burn at any time. With the failure of two major hometown savings and loans in the 1980s and the departure of aerospace giants like General Dynamics in the early 1990s, the city's old-line industrial and financial base has ceased to exist.
Indeed, as the city's population has grown over the past four decades, from about half a million to more than 1.2 million, its ruling class has shrunk. In the 1960s, the godfather of San Diego's political and economic scene was C. Arnholt Smith, a friend of Richard Nixon and a titan of the Republican party who was brought down in the early 1970s by his looting of the city's biggest bank, which he owned. In the late 1980s came the fall of Republicans Gordon Luce and Kim Fletcher, icons of San Diego business who each controlled a savings and loan that collapsed during the financial scandals of the Reagan era.
San Diego Democrats met their own disgrace in Richard T. Silberman, the multimillionaire aide to Governor Jerry Brown and spouse of Republican county supervisor Susan Golding. Silberman went to jail after being caught in an FBI money-laundering sting and is reported to be living with a girlfriend near San Francisco. Finally, there was Democrat M. Larry Lawrence, who until his death from cancer two years ago was a bulwark of the region's power structure. Wealthy owner of the Hotel del Coronado, Lawrence helped bankroll Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns and was appointed United States Ambassador to Switzerland, where he died. After Lawrence's young wife pulled strings with the White House to have him buried at Arlington National Cemetery, it was revealed that his war record was phony and his body was unceremoniously exhumed and returned to San Diego.
Thus was the barren political landscape encountered by another of Bill Clinton's connections to San Diego, Alan D. Bersin, when he arrived here in early 1992 to take over the Arkansas governor's San Diego County presidential campaign operation. But in the apparent wilderness of San Diego politics, Bersin seemed to have discovered instant opportunity. In what other major city in America could a Los Angeles lawyer, who had lived for years in the fancy Los Angeles enclave of Marina del Rey, quickly relocate, set up shop as a visiting professor at a prominent law school, and soon insinuate himself so completely into the heart of the local establishment?
Then, within months of Clinton's election to the presidency in November 1992, Bersin went from that visiting professorship at the University of San Diego to United States Attorney, and in 1995, thanks to an appointment by Clinton's Attorney General Janet Reno, to the newly created post of Southwest "border czar," a sort of ambassador without portfolio to both sides of the border region. Seemingly overnight he became the darling of the nominally Republican San Diego Union-Tribune, which barely mentioned the fact that the civil litigator had arrived in the city just a year before and whose government experience consisted of a brief tenure as junior counsel to the Los Angeles police commission. He had never been a prosecutor.
Bersin came to San Diego with two major entrées. Clinton was the one most known to the public. After graduating from Harvard in 1968, Bersin attended Oxford's Balliol College on a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship from 1969 to 1971 and graduated Yale Law in 1974. That put him one class behind Bill Clinton, who Bersin says he met while they were at Oxford. Although Bersin isn't mentioned by noted Clinton biographer David Maraniss in his book about Clinton's formative years, First in His Class, the new United States Attorney from San Diego talked frequently of his personal relationship with the first president of the Baby Boom generation. There was no doubt Bersin had been a Clinton supporter for a long time. In 1986, more than six years before Clinton's run for the presidency, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Bersin had given $500 to the campaign of the then-governor of Arkansas. In the account, Bersin was listed as a "businessman" from Marina del Rey.
Much of Bersin's later legendary ability to cut deals regarding trade and development along the border purportedly stemmed from these direct personal ties to the White House. "A look at his appointment schedule for 1995 shows that Bersin spent about 60 days out of town, most of it in Washington," the Union-Tribune reported in August 1996. It added that Bersin said First Lady Hillary Clinton had "introduced him to his first wife."
But Bersin's links to the president and the first lady were only part of the story. Bersin had another, far more local relationship that seemed to guarantee quick entry to San Diego's cozy good-old-boy network and favorable treatment by the Union-Tribune. His father-in-law was Stanley E. Foster, son-in-law of one of San Diego's most respected and richest businessmen, the late Abraham Ratner. Bersin's second wife is San Diego attorney Lisa Foster, daughter of Stanley and his wife Pauline. Bersin and Lisa Foster, who Bersin says he met while they were doing pro bono legal work together for the homeless in Los Angeles, were married in the summer of 1991.