San Diego’s ruling class has no class — and worse, no shame. The well-heeled developers, hoteliers, and casinos that manipulate the mayor and his fellow puppets do so in broad daylight. The overlords collect slush funds, and if city council won’t do their bidding, they threaten to spend the loot on initiatives to achieve their self-enriching ends. It’s bullying by big money. “It’s very reflective of what’s wrong with San Diego,” says mayoral candidate Steve Francis.
Not surprisingly, the current tyranny threat is on behalf of Mayor Jerry Sanders. Local lawyer/power broker John Davies, whose law firm represents a slew of real estate developers, is cochairman of a grossly misnamed slush fund, San Diegans for City Hall Reform. Davies was also chairman of Sanders’s charter review committee, which was packed with lobbyists, lawyers, and assorted lackeys representing developers. That committee recommended that the voters give various autocratic powers to the mayor, such as the ability to appoint the auditor.
This committee also wants an arrangement whereby the council would need a three-fourths vote to override a mayoral veto. There are very few precedents for such an authoritarian threshold. “And they want it now,” says Norma Damashek, president of the League of Women Voters. “Their major push is for this veto override. And they want the mayor appointing the auditor. It is the mayor’s books that the auditor audits.”
Last month came what Damashek calls “the real low point” in recent city council history. Davies told the council that his group of insiders “had reached the end of their threshold of pain.” Davies’ group didn’t like council thwarting its totalitarian designs. He threatened that his San Diegans for City Hall Reform might have to go the initiative route to do an end run around council.
The group had done this before. It was formed in February of 2006. Its initial interest was in passing Propositions B and C in November of that year. It thought the council was moving too slowly. Proposition B was a good measure: voters would have to approve new benefits for city workers. It passed overwhelmingly. Proposition C was not noxious in theory: it mandated that private companies could compete with municipal departments for City work. This approach can work in a clean city, but it’s questionable that it will work in a corrupt and cronyistic city like San Diego. It, too, passed overwhelmingly.
To muscle B and C into enactment, San Diegans for City Hall Reform raised $1.2 million through December 31 of 2006. From whom? Silly boy. Here are some of the donors: the Lincoln Club of San Diego (the Republican money machine); the Associated Builders & Contractors of San Diego; San Diego Board of Realtors; Atlas Hotels; Barratt American; H.G. Fenton; Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, casino operators; San Diego Lodging Industry Association; Grubb & Ellis real estate; Murphy Development; M.W. Steele Group (architectural wheeler-dealers); ConAm Management; San Diego Restaurant & Beverage trade group; Pardee Homes; Collins Development; La Jolla Development; Doug Wilson Companies; John Burnham commercial real estate; Corky McMillin Cos.; Viejas Tribal Government (another casino operator); and to no one’s surprise, Sunroad Enterprises.
Among the law firms chipping in were Neil Dymott, Luce Forward, Milch & Wolfsheimer, and Higgs Fletcher. Among individuals plunking bucks into the pot were Roy Bell, Arthur Brody, Mel Katz, Nicole Clay, and Malin Burnham. The heavy hitter for 2006 was the Republican Party’s Lincoln Club, donating $94,000.
“When John Davies went before the city council with his recommendations of the Charter Review Committee, he was saying, ‘Here’s what we want. If you don’t pass these, we will do an initiative,’” says activist Mel Shapiro. “It’s basically saying, ‘We’re the Republican Party, we run the City, we will do exactly what we want because we have the money. The Republican Party [and the Lincoln Club] is basically a laundry for the developers and hotels. They call their goals ‘reforms.’ I call them ‘power grabs.’”
Once the election was over, the group declared it was now a “general purpose” committee and raised another $94,168.05 in 2007. Almost 20 percent of the money raised in 2006 and 2007 went to two groups that work for Sanders, fundraiser Freelove Consulting and campaign strategist Tom Shepard & Associates.
Francis is listed as a big donor to San Diegans for City Hall Reform, but that’s misleading, he says. “I gave money initially. I was a supporter of B and C. Then I discovered it was nothing more than a fund to promote Jerry Sanders,” he says. He gave $10,000 to the committee, then another $110,000 outside the committee. “I saw Freelove and Shepard taking 20 percent off the top. They are running the Sanders campaign.”
Nor does he approve of Davies making threats to give the mayor dictatorial power. “It’s outrageous,” says Francis. “Davies was head of the mayor’s committee that [was packed with] lobbyists. Then Davies hooks on with the committee that raises unlimited developer, hotelier, and casino money and uses that to push through the mayor’s program. Connect the dots. It is the height of arrogance.”
Francis has appeared before the council to denounce the proposal for a three-fourths veto override, noting, “A 75 percent mayoral veto override would hand to the mayor an executive power greater than [that enjoyed by] President Bush.”
At the end of last year, the San Diegans for City Hall Reform Committee had $36,826.42 in cash. On January 31 of this year, it said its new mission is promoting “accountability, checks and balances in city government.”
“That’s a joke — like saying war is peace and black is white. What they want is checks written to themselves and the balances in their checking account,” harrumphs Steve Erie, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, who is writing a book, Paradise Plundered: The Crisis of Growth Politics in San Diego. “Their agenda is to gouge the public. This is the best little town that money can buy.”
In 1958, J. David Greenstone, then a young political scientist, studied San Diego’s political structure. His one-word description: “adolescence.” Back 50 years ago, Los Angeles was run by the Committee of 25, a group of power brokers working for their own financial aggrandizement rather than the good of the city. But Los Angeles changed and now has democratic representation and true checks and balances giving average people a voice in government. “But San Diego hasn’t changed,” says Erie. “This is the most gullible town I have ever known. I can’t believe that voters actually swallow this stuff.”
Explains Jim Mills, former president pro tem of the California State Senate, “The developers are in control of San Diego, and they know it. If they don’t get things the way they want them, they will take other means to achieve their ends.”
“It is naked,” says Francis. The developers, hoteliers, and casino operators “don’t care. Their arrogance is stunning.”