Though the teachers' union remained neutral in the 2004 Mitz Lee race, Butkiewicz's labor council joined the chamber of commerce and the Lincoln Club in backing Republican Reff. "Our members really care a lot about education," he told reporters, who asked why the labor council had dumped more than $26,000 into independent expenditures on Reff's primary and general election campaigns. "Most of our members don't make enough to send their kids to private schools."
Others noted that Butkiewicz had long ago formed a close alliance with the downtown business establishment and the San Diego chamber of commerce, on whose board he sits. He and chamber executive director Jesse Knight were lobbying to get San Diego city taxpayers to subsidize a new football stadium for Chargers owner and Republican billionaire Alex Spanos of Stockton. He also backed John Moores in his quest for the Padres' downtown baseball stadium, the convention center expansion, along with hundreds of millions of dollars of other public-works projects.
In turn, the chamber agreed not to get in the way of unionized contracts and so-called "living" wages for public construction, both dear to the labor council but expensive for taxpayers. With the San Diego Unified School District mulling another multimillion-dollar bond issue to continue its rebuilding program, a board majority could be called on by labor and the chamber to hand out contracts for owners and construction workers.
The chamber and labor shared another agenda, their critics charged: liquidation of the school district's "surplus" real estate. Early in his tenure, Bersin had set up a real estate advisory committee, run by his father-in-law Stanley Foster, who had made a fortune in San Diego real estate by investing his wife's family money in South Bay property deals.
In a 1991 interview with Dirk Sutro of San Diego Executive Magazine, Foster, then 64, was quoted as saying he bought his first Chula Vista real estate, a 17-acre tomato field, in 1962, when he was 35, and turned it into an industrial park, earning a tidy return.
Foster was quoted as saying that he owned 17 industrial properties, with a total of one or two million square feet, "mostly in South Bay," many of which were leased to an assortment of border-related businesses, such as freight forwarders and maquiladora-support operations.
After his marriage to Foster's daughter Lisa, Bersin became an investor in the family real estate business. On January 24, 1992, according to county records, Stanley Foster, his wife Pauline, and Bersin and his wife, as well as a family-owned general partnership known as Marliskar, were listed on a fictitious business-name statement for an entity called Otay Terminal.
Four years later, in a document recorded on October 2, 1996, the Fosters and the Bersins were listed, along with Marliskar, as general partners in a statement of partnership for Otay Terminal. County real estate records showed that the market value of the four industrial parcels owned by the partnership, purchased between 1992 and 1998, including one directly across from the border, exceeded $12 million.
At the time, Bersin was serving as United States attorney here, having been appointed to the post by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Then-attorney general Janet Reno subsequently named Bersin to the dual position of "Border Czar," with the responsibility for stemming illegal immigration and drug trafficking along the Mexican border from San Diego to the Gulf of Mexico.
In a September 1998 interview, Bersin described his family's real estate holdings. "It's a partnership in which my wife and I have an interest. I don't know when we made it, but it's something my father-in-law organized. It's a truck -- Consolidated Freight -- transfer point."
The Otay border acreage was the initial property purchased by the partnership, he added. "That's why it's called the Otay partnership.... And then there were other investments made in other properties. Kearny Mesa is one -- actually two in Kearny Mesa. I guess there's one in Vista. My wife and I invested in the partnership in cash, that's what the investment was." Bersin pointed out that the Otay Mesa purchase was made by Stanley Foster in 1992, "before I was U.S. Attorney."
While serving as U.S. attorney, Bersin became an outspoken proponent of the so-called Gateway of the Americas, a commercial shopping development near the Tijuana border crossing being assembled by Sam Marasco, a developer whose partner had once been Ron Hahn, son of Ernie Hahn, the Horton Plaza and Fashion Valley developer.
Bersin explained in the September 1998 interview that he had backed the project because he believed it would benefit the entire San Diego region. "Tijuana and San Diego and Customs and INS and GSA are all trying to develop the San Ysidro gateway between Tijuana and San Diego so that it reflects the kind of region that we're developing and lets the region, San Diego and Tijuana, take charge of their destiny because if we wait for federal governments to do it, we will never get the kind of port of entry that we need to build this U.S.-Mexico border region."
Bersin took over as city schools superintendent in March 1998. The ratification by the school board of his four-year contract and starting salary of $165,000 was unanimous, although boardmember Zimmerman abstained on the vote approving Bersin's appointment, saying that the selection process had been too swift and secretive.
''I am deeply troubled by the narrow, hurried, pressured, and secretive process that the board experienced in making its final decision,'' Zimmerman told a reporter for the Union-Tribune. "For me, an informed and thoughtful judgment on this most crucial matter was made impossible under such circumstances.''
Other critics included Latino lawyers, who criticized his get-tough immigration policies as U.S. attorney. "Frankly, we're astonished that a fellow lawyer with no proven interest in education could be named to head the second-largest school district in California," Esther Sanchez, president of the La Raza Lawyers, said in a written statement to reporters. "It appears to have been a result-oriented selection process in which politics, not qualifications, played a major role."