Norma Damashek is not a household name. A longtime citizen of La Jolla, graduate of Barnard College of Columbia University, mother of three, and married to a prominent physician, she is largely staying clear of the spectacle going on at San Diego's city hall. She also prefers not to be photographed. But the sixtysomething Damashek, who is well-known within the small inside circles of the city's progressive-leaning grassroots politics and who once worked as a staffer in the city council's tenth-floor offices, is far from being out of the game. As vice president of the League of Women Voters, she has been bird-dogging the city's long march toward a so-called strong-mayor form of government, a version of which was finally adopted by voters last fall after a campaign eclipsed by the hurly-burly three-way race for mayor. After the election -- with the mayor and council distracted by investigations, indictments, and an electoral challenge -- Damashek has remained focused on how the city will go about the tricky business of making the transition. She recently sat down for an interview about her take on what is going on.
How did you get into public duty?
I went back to school as a mature individual and got a master's in city planning at San Diego State.
When was that?
This was in the late '80s, and up until then I was really involved in community-planning issues, environmental issues. But once I got through that program, I got an internship, just quite accidentally, at the city council, in the city council office.
District 1, Abbe Wolfsheimer.
I did land-use issues. That's when I became very interested in city government. I hadn't been all that knowledgeable or interested before. I became very interested in it, especially the interaction of political decisions, planning processes, how decisions get made.
Land use is a major issue that the city council deals with. It's probably one of its most important issues. Land use is really important because it decides who gets rich. It's very political and has everything to do with who makes it.
And so I stayed on for a couple years after that at the planning department, while I was writing my thesis. My thesis was about the decision-making process in land-use planning in the future urbanizing area, power of politics and planning. And I became very involved with the League of Women Voters at that point and have been vice president of the league for years.
When was your thesis published?
That published in '92, maybe?
What specific topics did you address?
I was very interested in the role of lobbyists and the decision-making process, because it was, again, why decisions get made the way they get made. I was interested in the way community groups were used to legitimize and validate the government decisions, the way they're manipulated. And those were my primary interests, why the way things got done wasn't good for planning purposes.
Were there specific parts of town or specific projects that you were working on?
I was working with the future urbanizing area, which is now Carmel Valley, Black Mountain Ranch, everything that is going on that filled out the northern part of the city.
Was a lot of money spent on lobbying in that process?
Well, it was one of the last very big undeveloped areas in the city in the late '80s. And it needed to go back to the voters to decide what kind of development would be there, because we had passed an initiative in the '80s to keep the future urbanizing area open unless there was a vote of the public. So there was a lot of need to sell projects to the voters.
The developers got their way then?
They know what they want to build, and they get to build it that way.
Was that a bad thing?
Is it a bad thing? That's a good question. Is it a bad thing that they build what they know how to build and what they can make the most money from? Yeah, sometimes it's a bad thing. Up there it probably was a poor use of the land; the freeways are absolutely clogged up there. It's a disaster to drive. There are real issues with it, but it's a typical suburban community and very upscale.
The only very good thing about it was that at the very last minute some of the affordable-housing advocates were able to insert a clause into the contracts which said they had to include low-income housing -- 20 percent, which is very high. And that was a very important issue, and the developers at that point just wanted to get it over with, and they agreed.
It just set a good precedent so that we were able, 15 years later, to get inclusionary housing legislation -- it was somewhat unprecedented. It took a while, but it was a good move.
At any rate, since I was involved with the future urbanizing area, I became much more involved in local citywide issues and have been doing the public policy issues for the League of Women Voters in the city.
I worked on setting up the ethics commission. That brought me into this strong-mayor issue around 2000. I began attending the meetings of the committee of 2000, which had been [formed to promote] the [new] baseball stadium.
Who was responsible for that?
Well, there were a lot of people who were in on that. George Mitrovich was a major organizer. He tends to organize for the power elite in the city.
Was he representing the Padres?
No, once the stadium deal got accomplished the same group moved on and took up this strong-mayor issue.
Who were the other members?
Well, Malin Burnham was a major player. Anybody who had had any executive power -- Mayor Golding -- anybody who was serving on any of the commissions downtown, many of the lobbyists who I knew from the days I was at city council were there. It was like a reunion. I hadn't seen some of these people in years, and there we were, all together in one big room.