For years, Helen Copley, her son David, and the other powers that be at the San Diego Union-Tribune have wanted to replace Lindbergh Field, no matter how much money it might cost, no matter how much it might impact the environment, no matter how inconvenient it might be for travelers, and no matter whether county taxpayers wanted to pay for it or not. The paper has already made up its mind, such that its lust for airport relocation was almost palpable. "The single greatest threat to San Diego's economic fortunes is the lack of a full-service passenger and cargo airport to sustain the country's sixth-largest city in the 21st Century," thundered a January 2000 U-T editorial marking the dawn of the new millennium. "The sooner we choose a site for a bigger airport, the brighter San Diego's economic prospects will become."
Though other voices called for caution and recommended continued use of the venerable airport, citing its convenience and the historic difficulty and acknowledged expense of finding another location, the Union-Tribune has kept up its inexorable editorial drumbeat. By July 2001, the paper was aggressively pushing a proposal to take Lindbergh away from its traditional overseer, the Port of San Diego, and put it into the hands of a new regional "super agency," all the better to build a giant "mega-port" in parts as yet unknown.
"With a single, relatively short runway, Lindbergh Field is plainly inadequate to serve the region's air transportation needs in the 21st Century. Within a decade or so, access roads serving San Diego's bantam airport will reach gridlock," the editors warned.
The new airport authority was needed, the Union-Tribune said, to circumvent local troublemakers who had long stood in the way of progress. "Because of predictable parochial opposition to any potential replacement site, this region has failed for nearly half a century to come to grips with its airport dilemma."
The new superpowered airport authority would "overcome chronic NIMBYism," the editorial went on to say. The paper wanted a hand-picked board of directors that had already made up its mind that the airport should be moved and would brook no opposition from those who said, "Not in my back yard."
"For starters, the new airport authority would be composed of nine private citizens representing every corner of the county -- three named by the City of San Diego, one named by the Board of Supervisors, one named by the San Diego Unified Port District, and one each from inland North County, coastal North County, the South Bay, and East County. Significantly, the authority members would be appointed, rather than elected, and serve long five-year terms.
"The aim is to insulate the board from political pressures that for years have paralyzed local elected officials on the airport issue. Appointed, rather than elected, members are essential for the airport board to make decisions that serve the broad interests of San Diego County as a whole."
For months leading up to legislative consideration of the proposal, sponsored by Democratic state senator Steve Peace, the Union-Tribune flogged the issue in editorial after editorial. "The need for stronger regional decision-making is too glaring for this issue to go away. San Diego's legislative delegation should not try to hide it under the table," the paper argued in August 2001.
Then in September: "For San Diego County, one of the most important bills to be heard in Sacramento this year would create a regional airport authority to find a replacement for overburdened Lindbergh Field."
Less than two weeks later, the paper wrote, "Although this legislation certainly is not flawless, it is a significant first step. It deserves passage by the Assembly and the signature of Governor Gray Davis."
And again on September 29, after the bill cleared the Assembly, "For San Diego, the most critical measure on Governor Gray Davis's desk awaiting signature or veto is Assembly Bill 93. This legislation would create the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, whose mission would be to find a replacement site for cramped Lindbergh Field."
In the end, most local political observers agreed, it was no surprise that Gray Davis signed the U-T's favorite airport bill, given the local muscle that the newspaper and its allies in the local chamber of commerce had put behind it.
And Steve Peace, the termed-out, badly discredited Democrat who had also authored the state's disastrous utility-deregulation bill, had been all too happy to fall in behind the U-T-led juggernaut, especially when he was rewarded with a series of flattering columns cranked out by the paper's Neil Morgan.
In October 2002, Morgan, just back from a European vacation, described one of his frequent lunchtime "roundtables" with San Diego's would-be power brokers. "Chasing San Diego politicians after chasing Rail Europe's high-speed trains, I find Mayor Dick Murphy and Steve Peace, the retiring state senator, seated amiably around a luncheon table. Antennae shoot up when a powerful lawmaker is at liberty.
"Our Republican mayor is hoping Governor Gray Davis will appoint the Democratic senator to one of the three salaried jobs on the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which takes over Lindbergh Field on January 1," Morgan went on to report, and then ended by quoting Dick Murphy:
" 'Steve is a strong figure,' Mayor Murphy says, 'and that's why I hope we get him on the airport authority. If those appointees aren't strong, they won't get any more done about an airport than we have for the past 50 years.' "
In the end, neither Peace nor then-city councilman Byron Wear -- who also coveted one of the three top spots on the new airport board, each of which pays $139,000 a year under terms of Peace's bill -- made the final cut. Peace chose to return to Sacramento, where he became state finance director in the disastrous, debt-laden final days of Governor Gray Davis. Wear, termed out of his city-council seat and battered by ethics charges, was forced to pull out of the running and to leave public life.