San Diego Recently, Padres owner John Moores complained of "a huge streak of populism in San Diego" that, he claimed contemptuously, had contributed to ballpark delays.
Similarly, in early 1997, when Herbert G. Klein, then top editor of Copley Newspapers, was trying to stop me from opposing the Chargers' first sweetheart stadium deal, he complained that I was listening to those execrable "populists."
Of course, both Moores and Klein were promoting the most anti-populist, anti-citizenry, anti-taxpayer corporate welfare scam of all: the pro-sports-facility extortion. Economists have shown definitively that there is little or no economic benefit -- and possibly a negative effect -- from taxpayer-subsidized sports palaces. Of course, they are a windfall for team owners, stadium beer suppliers, mainstream media, and sports-service suppliers.
The pro-sports racket -- an egregious example of redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class, to the superrich --is one big reason why San Diego desperately needs a streak of populism. With luck, the next mayoral election could serve as a referendum on how much corporations are milking the public and lining the pockets of politicians who do their bidding.
To save itself financially, San Diego could glean some insights from Populism (the political movement that flowered in the late 19th Century) or populism (the generic kind).
After reading Moores's condescending quote, San Diegan Dan Toleno rushed to his dictionary. He found that populism was defined as "a political philosophy directed to the needs of the common people and advocating a more equitable distribution of wealth and power."
In their platform of 1896, the Populists proclaimed, "Executive power and patronage have been used to corrupt our legislatures and defeat the will of the people, and plutocracy has thereby been enthroned on the ruins of democracy."
It's true again today. Corrupt corporations and Wall Street own politicians of both parties. Wealth is more unequally distributed than at any time since the days of the robber barons.
In his preface to last year's great best-seller, Wealth and Democracy, author Kevin Phillips, who writes for Time and Harper's magazines and has been observing the politcal/economic landscape for more than three decades, sees today as a Second Gilded Age with a staggering concentration of wealth and political manipulation by the upper class that even dwarfs the original Gilded Age of a century ago. Phillips points to today's "policies of market extremism, corruption, and a politics ruled by campaign contributions." The last two decades of the 20th Century "echoed the zeniths of corruption and excess -- the Gilded Age and the 1920s." This trend continued into the new century.
Says Phillips, "By 2000... the United States was not only the world's wealthiest nation and leading economic power, but also the Western industrial nation with the greatest percentage of the world's rich and the greatest gap between rich and poor."
William Jennings Bryan couldn't have said it more eloquently 106 years earlier. (Incidentally, one of the reasons Populist Bryan lost his bid for the presidency in 1896 is that his opponent, Republican William McKinley, had a fundraising edge of 20 to 1. And that 20 to 1 just happens to be the minimum advantage that pro teams enjoy in local stadium and ballpark elections all across the country. Some bulges get to be 200 to 1 or more.)
Today, San Diego is run by a new kind of robber baron. Real estate developers get whatever they want from politicians who devote most of their time to land-use decisions. Your road rage is the direct result.
The government-subsidized Naval Training Center desecration is only one example. It is no coincidence that the asinine Chargers stadium proposal is tied to promised real estate miracles. Alchemists of the Middle Ages claimed they could change base metals into gold. The Chargers and their supporters propose to turn Qualcomm asphalt into a platinum real estate development. The Padres made grandiose promises for real estate development that would purportedly provide the money to service the ballpark bonds. Once voters were suckered into the deal, Moores's JMI Realty operation, backed by city government, changed the terms.
In the next mayoral elections, San Diegans could well vote on how much influence businesses should have over local politicans. Mayor Dick Murphy's flip-flop came after business drafted him and promised campaign funds. A good question is whether mainstream media also agreed to smear his opponent, whoever it might be. Hopefully, Murphy's opponent will raise a critical question: In his first campaign, was Murphy in the pockets of the Chargers and Padres even as he promised to sue the former and not give the city away to the latter? If so, this is no kindly judge; his campaign would have been as cynical and disingenuous as campaigns get. Murphy's staff did not return numerous calls for comment.
"I would say in the last 10 or 14 years the public's interest has taken a back seat to the corporations' interest," says Donna Frye, a city councilperson dedicated to fighting the special corporate interests that own most of the rest of the city council.
"Basic services are going unmet, quality-of-life issues are not addressed, but we see $12 million of interest payments going next year for a ballpark for a multimillionaire," says Frye. She especially remembers battles over increases in water rates. "The chamber of commerce lobbied hard on the [city council] floor, and big corporations got less of an increase," as the burden was disproportionately slung on the backs of "the average citizen and small business."
Frye is a Democrat. But populists come in all varieties: conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans. Historians have debated for years whether Populists were conservatives or liberals. Newt Gingrich proclaimed himself an anti-establishment populist. Kevin Phillips, who authored the 1969 best-seller The Emerging Republican Majority, saw populist leanings in Richard Nixon, whom he once served. Of course, Republican Progressives of the early 20th Century such as Teddy Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette, and California's Hiram Johnson adopted populist ideas for their platforms.
In San Diego, leading the battle against the latest proposed giveaway to the Chargers are Republican Bruce Henderson and Democrats Mike Aguirre and Frye. Henderson says Hiram Johnson's championing of the people's right of initiative, referendum, and recall was an important step forward, because it was the only method to threaten the power of entrenched business interests in California. When Prop. 13 passed in 1978, "Populism in California quickly became associated with conservatism," says Henderson.