At its peak in the mid-1970s, Ratner Manufacturing, as the company came to be known, was said by San Diego Magazine to be the fifth-largest menswear maker in the country, employing 2500 people, with sales of $57 million. But the domestic garment industry was rapidly changing.
In April 1977, Foster told a crowd gathered at Ratner’s annual shareholder meeting that “the crash in the men’s leisure suit market” had been responsible for the first loss in the firm’s history, the Union-Tribune reported. The next year, the company returned to profitability, but new trade laws and the lifting of tariffs allowed foreign manufacturers to undercut the cost of goods produced in America.
With Ratner’s work force having shrunk to 500, Isaac Ratner’s heirs were worried. Along with other members of the family, Foster had taken the company private again in 1977. In 1989 he bought out his in-laws, merging Ratner Manufacturing into his Foster Investment Corp.
In 1999, one of Isaac’s grandsons, Harry Ratner, sued Foster for fraud, claiming Stan had cheated Harry out of $16 million by failing to disclose the true value of Hang Ten and Ratner Manufacturing’s lucrative real estate before he sold his interest to Foster.
In October 2000, the jury sided with Foster. “There was never anything brought before us to say he did anything illegal,” foreman Barry Hudson told the Union-Tribune. Foster called the verdict “a vindication.” His lawyer, the paper said, “attributed the company’s turnaround to Foster’s business savvy.”
By then, Foster’s personal fortune had expanded dramatically, due in major part to his interests in real estate tied to the border. In a 1991 interview with San Diego Executive Magazine, Foster said he acquired his first parcel in Chula Vista, a tomato field, in 1962, and never stopped buying.
“Through a variety of partnerships Foster has a hand in 17 industrial properties, most of them in the South Bay,” the magazine said, adding that the holdings totaled between 1 and 2 million square feet, though Foster “won’t give an exact number.” His office hallways, the story noted, were “lined with photos of his buildings.”
“Companies that take space in buildings such as Foster’s are drawn to the area for obvious reasons,” the magazine said, including “border access for businesses with Mexican ties” and “low-cost labor in the South Bay and nearby Mexico.”
“Our primary goal was to move our manufacturing facility into Mexico,” William Cleveland, vice president of Troxel Cycling, an exercise-equipment maker, told the magazine. “Then it was a question of where to locate our distribution center and offices in relation to Mexico.” Troxel leased 10,000 square feet in a Foster-owned business park, the magazine reported.
Like Foster, his future son-in-law Alan Bersin would be given great opportunity through marriage. Like Foster, he would also prosper in the realm of the border.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 15, 1946, Bersin went to public schools and received a scholarship to Harvard. Though notably short of stature, he was scrappy enough to become an All–Ivy League linebacker. One of his teammates was actor Tommy Lee Jones. Upon graduating in 1968, Bersin went to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship.
That put him in the company of 22-year-old Bill Clinton, the future president of the United States. After Oxford, Bersin entered Yale Law, where he was Hillary Clinton’s classmate and married one of her best friends. They were later divorced, but Bersin’s personal and professional bond to Hillary grew deeper as the years progressed. Upon getting his law degree in 1974, Bersin moved west, joining the big downtown Los Angeles law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson.
In 1991, while still in L.A., Bersin met and married second wife Lisa Foster, a daughter of Stan and Pauline Foster, owners of a large local garment factory and acres of South Bay real estate, with longstanding ties to the Democratic Party and connections along the Mexican border.
In 1992, as Bill Clinton ramped up his campaign for the presidency, Alan Bersin and Lisa Foster left their home in Los Angeles and moved to San Diego. Bersin took a sabbatical from Munger Tolles, ostensibly to manage the local Clinton campaign and teach law part-time at the University of San Diego, a Catholic school financially supported by many of the city’s wealthy Democrats, including the Foster family. To many, it appeared Bersin was being groomed for power.
Four months after his inauguration as president, Clinton announced he would make Bersin U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, the country’s busiest port of entry with Mexico. Those familiar with the often-murky world of the border economy took note. “Bersin carries the carpetbagger tag,” wrote Tom Blair, a columnist for the San Diego Union. “Still a partner in an L.A. firm, he’s been here only eight months while teaching one class at USD.”
As his father-in-law had done at Ratner, Bersin shook up the U.S. Attorney’s office, firing five top prosecutors. The head of the financial institution fraud task force, Gay Hugo, who had handled the high-profile J. David Dominelli fraud case, quit her job. The Union-Tribune later reported that Hugo “was critical of Bersin as she left” but declined to elaborate.
Unlike San Diego U.S. Attorneys of the past, Bersin became a magnet for national publicity, chiefly because of his carefully cultivated association with the economically burgeoning, increasingly troubled border region. In October 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno named him “border czar,” ostensibly to run herd on Operation Gatekeeper, the Clinton Administration’s program to stem the growing torrent of illegal immigration.
The job was a public relations bonanza for both Clinton and Bersin; during Bersin’s tenure, Washington flooded the San Diego sector with Border Patrol agents, and a host of fences and expensive electronic devices were installed. Bersin boasted that illegal crossings dropped in San Diego. Reality was different. Human traffic was forced east, into the San Diego County backcountry and Imperial County, where many of the illegal crossers died of thirst and exposure. Smugglers, known as coyotes, collected ever higher fees to shepherd their desperate clients.