kile Morgan: “We have focused on business because we had to build a (sales] tax base. You cannot operate a city on a property tax base alone."
People in National City still shake their heads when they talk about the mailer. And if, after the mayoral election two years from now, the mayor of National City is no longer Kile Morgan — the same Kile Morgan who has been the city’s mayor for the last eighteen years, who has been called the most secure politician in the county, and who is referred to by various residents of National City as the city’s father, mentor, high priest, and benevolent dictator — it will be at least partly due to the mailer.
Mike Dalla: "The issue comes down to power."
Morgan sent the mailer to about 10,000 voters in National City January of this year, at his own expense. It detailed Morgan’s unhappiness with the city manager, Tom McCabe. The city council had recently given McCabe the authority to supervise the city’s finances, but Morgan claimed that McCabe had bungled contracts for a number of city improvements, resulting in extra costs to the city of several hundred thousand dollars. He complained McCabe was spending money without the authorization of the city council. “I have lost confidence” in the city manager, Morgan wrote.
The response to the mailer from the four other members of the city council was decisive and swift. Over the last two decades members of the council had almost never defied Morgan, but they defied him now. They sent out their own mailer, at their own expense, refuting Morgan’s charges point by point.
It was true that several city contracts had experienced cost increases, the councilmen said, but the increases were not McCabe’s fault and were approved by a vote of the city council. Kile Morgan had voted to approve the changes in the contracts along with everyone else. “The city is not in the bleak state indicated in the mayor’s recent brochure,” the councilmen emphasized.
Mile of Cars
At the next council meeting the response to Morgan’s mailer was even harsher. The council passed a resolution that commended and supported McCabe, and denounced Morgan’s complaints as “appalling, improper, and totally without merit.” The vote for the resolution was 4-1, with Morgan opposed. In the discussion that followed. Councilman George Waters noted that “the city manager has no power to spend a dime without getting it approved before this council. But [Morgan] thinks that you, the general public, are not smart enough to figure that out. . . . What dignity that has been established by this man [Morgan] has been tarnished.”
George Waters says Morgan “has done a heck of a good job” but complains that Morgan has gotten personal credit for many things that were not his own ideas.
Councilman Mike Dalla said, “It’s my conclusion that the problems between the mayor and the city manager have nothing to do with [either job performance or a personality clash). . . . The issue comes down to power. The mayor has been in office for eighteen years. He’s been on the city council for twenty-three years. During that time he has come to expect that things happen that he’s involved in; things don't happen if he’s not involved in them. ... It is difficult for him to accept, I believe, the fact that a number of positive things occur without [anyone] having to consult him.”
Augie Bareno: “Kile Morgan doesn’t get mad — he just gets even.”
After the mailer and the council’s response to the mailer, the atmosphere around National City’s city hall was “tense, very charged,” according to Dalla. And since then, the council has taken steps to exert a greater influence on the city’s affairs — at Morgan’s expense. The council has held firm on letting the city manager supervise the city’s finances, a situation Morgan still bitterly opposes. Resolutions have been passed that give the city council the power to make appointments to the city’s many committees and commissions, a process that was formerly handled almost exclusively by the mayor.
Jess Van Deventer. Insiders say it is Van Deventer whom Morgan is most eager to see defeated.
The vote on nearly all of these resolutions has been 4-1, with Morgan providing the lone dissenting vote. In other words, for the first time in nearly twenty years, younger politicians are successfully wresting away control of National City from Kile Morgan.
Some residents laud the councilmen’s actions for at last “bringing National City's government into the Twentieth Century.” But others are more reserved. “Most of these councilmen are two-edged swords,” says Cheryl McKinnon, a reporter at the National City Star News. “They all feel that Morgan is out of date, that he’s been in office too long, that his way of governing is outmoded. All of that, to some extent, is true. But the fact underlying it is the strong desire of most of the city councilmen to be mayor.”
To the victor of this political wrestling match will go control of this vibrant but often overlooked city of 54,000 people, just a few minutes by freeway from downtown San Diego. And there could be more than that at stake; mayors of South Bay cities have a tradition of running for election to the county board of supervisors and other higher political offices. For the time being, Morgan seems content to watch and wait while his rivals maneuver to strengthen their positions, but there is not a politician in the county who has shaped and controlled his community more completely than Morgan has, and almost no one in National City expects him to stay in the background for long. It’s a situation summed up by Augie Bareno, president of the National City School Board and a resident of National City for more than twenty years: “Kile Morgan doesn’t get mad — he just gets even.”
For years it was called “Nasty City,” after its strip clubs and pornographic movie theaters that cater to sailors, or “The City of Balmy Breezes,” a reference to the sewage treatment plant that used to be located there. Singer Tom Waits, who grew up in National City, described the average age of its citizens as “dead.” It is the second-oldest city in the county (incorporated in 1887), but ever since San Diego beat it to the distinction of being the oldest. National City has languished in the shadow of its giant neighbor to the north. To most San Diegans, National City is just a dreary strip of motels and warehouses that you pass through on the way to and from Mexico, or a place where aggressive salesmen along the “Mile of Cars” explain to you how you can afford cars that you can't afford. The city has had a negative image for as long as anyone can remember. According to Councilman Mike Dalla, National City “used to be the place where they put things that people didn’t want anywhere else” — things like a Navy firefighting school that sent out billowing clouds of black smoke across the city almost daily, soiling laundry as well as the air. More recently, San Diego city and county officials tried to place a trash-to-energy plant called SANDER in National City, until the threat of a public vote on the plant caused the officials to withdraw their plan.
In the 1960s, when San Diego was developing Mission Valley and housing tracts were beginning to spill out across the hills of North County, National City was limping along with unpaved streets on its west side and sewage and drainage pipes that were on the verge of collapse. Every time it rained, large tracts of the city would turn into temporary swamps. Businessmen and bankers avoided the place — and so did their money. And then suddenly there was Kile Morgan. “When I first come in here this city was pretty well down on its knees " he says. “Someone had to just take it and turn it around, get it a-goin’.”
As Morgan tells me this he is steering his big Oldsmobile Ninety-eight through the streets of National City. He is conducting a tour of his town — one of his favorite things to do, by his own admission. He is a big, square-faced man, sixty-fhree years old, with a Southern drawl straight from the hills around his native Sneedesville, Tennessee. The son of a sharecropper, he grew up in Missouri and “went to bed hungry more often than not.” His schooling was sporadic; Morgan says he only completed his junior year in high school before dropping out for good. In 1941, after living in Santa Maria, California off and on for three years, he moved to National City, drawn by a brother who had married and settled nearby. He rented a room in a boarding house on E Avenue (“My room was right upstairs, on that side right there,” he says, pointing to a small, two-story wooden house near Third Street as we drive by), and got a job at Rohr aircraft as a crane operator for thirty-eight dollars a week. “Boy, I mean that was money."
Morgan soon took a better-paying job in a National City shipyard, again operating a crane. Since he worked at night, he rented a lot on National City Boulevard and began selling cars during the day. “I’d do anything I could make money at,” he declares. “I’m a moneymaker.” Later he moved his auto business to a lot that was “located right next to a [grocery store], and when the wives would come down to shop, the men would wander over to look at the cars. Man, they sold like hotcakes.” He made as much as $300 profit on each car, but the auto dealership was only the first of several successful businesses for Morgan. He branched out into real estate, bought his first house in National City for $3000 and sold it for $4000, bought the next one for $7500 and sold it for $10,500. Then he began building houses and commercial buildings in Chula Vista, San Diego, and National City. As we drive by a row of houses on K Avenue near Fifteenth Street, Morgan proudly explains that he built them all and sold them for $9500 to $12,000 each. “Isn’t this a cute little project?” he asks. ‘‘They good houses.” In 1955 he built a house in National City for $25,000; it was a little bigger than the rest, and stood high on a hill looking westward across San Diego Bay. Morgan and his wife still live in it. “I never did figure movin’ anywhere else,” says Morgan, now a millionaire who owns property and restaurants in National City (Jimmy’s) and Chula Vista (Aunt Emma’s). “This little ol’city been good to me. I never went hungry in National City.”
Morgan’s folksy personality, his Southern accent, and the childlike enthusiasm he brings to his job have always appealed to the people in National City who vote — namely, blue-collar workers and senior citizens. The city’s population is nearly forty percent Hispanic — far more than the county average of fifteen percent — but the Hispanics have never voted in significant numbers and, for the most part,exist outside the political process. As Augie Bareno notes, in the city’s long history there have only been two elected officials who were Hispanics — himself and Louis Camacho, a city councilman who recently retired.
“To be elected to office in National City, there’s a particular value system that you have to articulate. You have to make the old business community comfortable with you,” Bareno explains. He describes National City as a small town with simple, conservative values: America, the flag, the family.
“It could be in Montana or Missouri or something. If the Pony League has a big game, everybody goes. The city shuts down for the May Time Parade. There are people who have gone to Sweetwater High School’s football games since the 1950s — they haven’t missed a game.”
National City elected Kile Morgan as its mayor for the first time in 1966. He won the greatest percentage of the vote (fifty-five percent) of any mayor in the city’s history, and no one has seriously challenged him for the office since then. In the last election in 1982 he ran unopposed. His first priority, back in the 1960s when he originally became mayor, was to infuse life and money into a city that had long been neglected. “I ran as a streets and drainage man,” he explains as he maneuvers his car through one of the city’s residential sections. “This city needed help.”
He swings his Oldsmobile onto National City Boulevard and cruises down the Mile of Cars. Lots filled with rows of gleaming vehicles line both sides of the street. Banners wave in the afternoon breeze from high atop poles, as if we are nearing the castle of some feudal lord. Bored but nattily dressed salesmen stand in clusters, talking to each other and glancing anxiously at every passing car. Morgan tells me that from the start he wanted to increase business sales in the city so that the amount of sales tax returned from the state would increase substantially. (Under state law, one-sixth of all sales tax collected in a city is returned to that city.) With the increased revenue. National City would be able to fix up its run-down streets and neighborhoods and provide badly needed city services such as parks, fire protection, a library. The only trouble was. National City was in such poor condition that banks wouldn’t lend money to people who wanted to go into business there. The Mile of Cars, for instance, wasn’t yet built; it was a mile of dilapidated government housing. “So we went to the federal government,” Morgan explains with relish, “and we told them we wanted ten million dollars to redevelop this [area] down here. And they said, ‘We’ll give you that ten million dollars.’ And we took that ten million dollars and we put this in here,” he says, gesturing at the car dealerships. With the federal money, National City knocked down the old housing, paved the streets, put in new sewerage and drain pipes. Then the land was sold to car dealers and other businesses. Sales taxes increased; things began to look up.
The Mile of Cars and the area west of it constituted one of the first urban redevelopment projects in San Diego County, but other such projects soon followed in National City. On his tour Morgan drives me past them all, one by one. Along the city’s waterfront, shipbuilding companies mingle with industrial storage yards (“There was nothing but jack rabbits over here when I was first elected,” Morgan says). To the east, commercial and industrial parks have replaced clusters of aging houses. South Bay Plaza and Sweetwater Town and Country, two shopping centers, have been built on unused land that used to flood every year. “When I was elected mayor in National City, we sold $70 million worth of taxable items. And that brought in $700,000 worth of sales tax,” Morgan intones. “This year, in sales, we will do somewhere between six and seven hundred million dollars. And that will bring us six to seven million dollars in sales tax. That sounds like progress, doesn’t it?”
“Kile likes to talk about how when he was elected mayor, the streets were unpaved and raw sewage was running in the streets,” says reporter Cheryl McKinnon. “And it’s true — absolutely, positively true. But now this city is in the best financial shape of any city in the county. It has four million dollars in the bank.” In fact, in 1978, when cities all over California were clamoring for “bail-out” funds from the state to help cope with the financial crisis brought on by Proposition 13, National City was one of the few cities to turn down the extra money (Morgan and other officials felt there were too many strings attached). Morgan takes the lion’s share of the credit for bringing in new revenues and spurring the city’s redevelopment. At the same time he gives credit for his accomplishments to his strong religious beliefs (he is a devout Baptist, and neither drinks nor smokes). “There’s no way, with my background and my experience, there’s no way I could come in here and do the things I’ve done without a Higher Power helping me. . . . When I’ve got heavy stuff here to study, like how we’re going to get this business in here, I get up every night at about two or three when it’s quiet — when there’s not even a bird a-hollerin’, you know — and the first thing I do is read a chapter of the Bible. And then I sit there and figure out how we’re going to do it. And then I come down here [to the office] and try to put it together, what I’ve figured out. That’s the way I’ve run National City. . . .”
Morgan also fancies himself a populist leader and has become well known for the surveys he sends out to National City voters periodically at his own expense. The surveys cost about $1100 each and are sent to roughly 10,000 households. One survey asked voters what they thought of a plan by the city to acquire a privately owned water company, for example, and another asked their opinion of an ordinance to reduce the potential for more apartments in the city. Morgan claims that such surveys have enabled him to stay in touch with the desires of the people of National City. In addition, all of the city’s major redevelopment plans have been submitted to the voters for advisory votes.
Nevertheless, Morgan is not shy about pointing out that he has a helpful talent for getting along with bankers, developers, and government officials who have the money the city needs. “When I’m one-on-one [with someone], they think they’re talking to an honest man. Over the phone I’m not very good. When I’m on the phone, people think they're talking to an Alabaman.” He laughs. ‘‘But if I can get ’em in my office . . . they know they’re dealing with an honest man. And [bankers and developers] have to have a lot of confidence in you before they’re going to come in and develop. . . .” Not everyone agrees that Morgan’s ability to establish a rapport with important moneymen is at the root of National City’s financial success, but as Bareno notes, “You have to give Kile credit for giving [redevelopment] the impetus, and for making it a priority. He gives off confidence. Frankly, he’s not that articulate. But you believe that he'll get things done.”
By the mid-1970s National City was starting to look good. It had several new parks, a library, a new city hall, and a petting zoo (‘ ‘The only zoo in the county outside the big zoo,” Morgan likes to point out). It had streetlights and fire protection. It had more car dealerships than jack rabbits. And then came the plum of plums — Plaza Bonita. National City badly wanted to build a major shopping mall where the Sweetwater River passes under Interstate 805. There was a golf course on the site, but its owners were willing to sell the land to National City. So, led by Morgan, the city declared the golf course a blight. (The city did not have enough money to buy the land outright, and, under the complex laws governing redevelopment, it also did not have the authority to sell bonds to finance the purchase of the land for redevelopment. The city’s redevelopment agency did have that authority, but could proceed only if it could prove the area to be redeveloped was “blighted.”) Neighboring cities, the county, and the home owners around the golf course all protested, and their protest finally wound up in the state supreme court. After listening to both sides, the court ruled 7-0 that there was “no evidence of blight.” (‘‘How much blight can you find in a beautiful eighteen-hole golf course with a clubhouse?” one National City official recalled recently. ‘‘We did what we could. . . .”)
Undeterred, National City formed a parking authority, an agency which under state law could raise money to buy part of the golf course and turn it into a parking lot. Morgan worked out an agreement with May Company officials to buy the rest of the land and build the $100 million shopping mall. Plaza Bonita opened in 1981, and it is still the only major shopping mall south of San Diego. “Have you ever seen a mall like this one?” Morgan asks me, parking his Oldsmobile and leading me inside the two-story, enclosed plaza. “Look — Florsheim Shoes, Montgomery Ward, a toy store. . . . That’s Mervyn’s over there. And look at this,” he says, leading the way to an area of the mall where fast-food counters abound. “You can get most anything you want back here — a baked potato, cookies, orange juice, hamburgers. . . . Why, we worked years to get this thing in here.”
A few minutes later Morgan stands at a railing overlooking the center of the plaza. Below, a fountain splashes noisily, while on all sides escalators carry package-laden shoppers up and down from level to level. “Isn’t that a beautiful sight?” he asks, turning to me. “Why shouldn’t a country boy who couldn’t even get enough to eat a few years ago, who can promote and do all of this, why shouldn’t he be proud of it?”
Mo one knows precisely when the city council began to feel that National City had been run by one man for long enough, but at least two city councilmen, Mike Dalla and Jess Van Deventer, remember that one of the first issues that divided Morgan from the rest of the council concerned chain-link fences. Morgan wanted to prevent construction of any more of the fences, which he found unsightly and which abound in National City. But, as Dalla points out, there are plenty of young parents in the city whose incomes don’t allow them to build brick or redwood fences that would keep their children from wandering into the street. For these parents, chain-link fencing can be an economical alternative, even if it doesn’t make for fancy decoration. About a year ago, Dalla recalls, “Mayor Morgan introduced a resolution that would have banned all chain-link fences in the city, but nobody [on the council] supported that. Then he wanted to ban them in back yards, but no one went for that. Then he wanted to ban them in industrial uses, and no one went for that." Dalla still views the chain-link fence issue as an example of Morgan’s persistence as well as his inability to compromise once he has decided on a particular course of action.
At thirty-five, Dalla, a husky man with a reserved manner and cool, intent dark eyes, is the youngest member of the city council. Raised in National City, he was elected to the council in 1974. He is currently working to complete a master’s degree in public administration at San Diego State University, a relatively unremarkable accomplishment except that it will give him two college degrees while no one else on the council can claim even one. (Councilmen in National City work part time and earn $435 per month; the mayor’s position is full-time and pays $21,000 per year.) Dalla criticizes Morgan regularly, but he gives Morgan credit for bringing beneficial developments and services to the city. Morgan, Dalla says, “is rightfully credited with being the catalyst, leading the charge. A number of things — Plaza Bonita, the Mile of Cars — you can attribute primarily to his tenacity. . . . But Morgan likes to believe that everything that has happened that is positive in this community is a direct result of his efforts. I don’t think any politician can claim that."
According to Dalla, one of the reasons Morgan has been successful at getting his way over the years is because the mayor “is very shrewd in his ability to develop and maintain his own coalitions [on the council). The coalitions would change from issue to issue, but . . . if you weren’t part of the coalition on any given issue, that was just too bad.”
Former city councilman Louis Camacho, a strong Morgan supporter throughout most of the last sixteen years, likewise describes the mayor as a savvy politician. Camacho recalls that Morgan was masterful in his use of one issue in particular — the issue of police retirement. The police were hoping to get the council to approve a retirement plan in which officers could retire at the age of fifty, with their pension based on the number of years they had served on the force. If they had served twenty-two years, they would get forty-four percent of their full salary as a pension; if they had served twenty-three years, they would get forty-six percent, and so on. “The police department wanted this real bad,” explains Camacho, shaking his head. “Every year they lobbied us to get it. And every election time Kile would tell them, ‘As soon as we get the money, you’ll have your pension plan.’ So naturally the police would get out and really beat the bushes for him, drive people to the polls. . . . After the election Kile would say, ‘No money.’ ” When Camacho ran for mayor against Morgan in 1978, Camacho supported the police retirement plan, and found himself being pilloried by Morgan for supporting an expensive plan that the voters of National City could ill afford. “He told them they’d be paying for it for the rest of their lives, even though it’s the state public employees retirement system, not the city, that would have paid the pensions,” Camacho says with a chuckle. ‘‘That’s a politician.”
National City hired Tom McCabe as its city manager in 1979, and for a time everything seemed to run smoothly. But gradually friction began to build between Morgan and McCabe. ‘‘McCabe is a modem city manager,” says Bareno. “In the old days, if Kile wanted to act, the city managers would find a way to justify it. McCabe’s view of things is more complex, and he’s more systematic.” Nearly everyone but Morgan gives McCabe credit for being a competent and efficient city manager, but one source who follows the city’s politics closely claims that McCabe can at times be tactless. This source, who also requested anonymity, recalls that McCabe once hired a personnel director for the city without, apparently, telling Morgan about it. According to the source, Morgan saw the new official at city hall, asked a secretary who it was, and was told, “That’s your new personnel director.” For a man used to knowing what is going on in every comer of National City, it was not a pleasant revelation. In addition, McCabe tended to respond to the requests of all of the members of the city council, and not just to Morgan’s.
By 1983 Morgan was making it clear around city hall that he had trouble working with McCabe. But as Camacho notes, “That wasn’t anything new. Kile hasn’t liked any of the city managers. It says right in the charter that the city manager is the boss [of the city], and Kile doesn't like that.” In fact, Morgan had called for the firing of previous city manger Harry Gill in 1979, claiming to a reporter from the San Diego Union that Gill ‘‘just doesn’t do the job. ... He is a high-and-mighty guy.” (The city manager prior to Gill, Bob Bourcier, resigned in 1976 over what he called “personality conflicts.”) But as Dalla points out, it takes a new city manager a year or two to learn his way around and to begin working closely with the city council, and, historically in National City, just about the time that happens, Morgan makes it clear that the city manager must go. “It takes the next man a year or two before he’s in a position to effectively accomplish the same thing, and in the interim you have to go to the only other source of power” to get information or see to it that projects are carried out, Dalla explains. He didn’t say it, but the only other source of power in National City is Kile Morgan. “Firing the city manager is the ultimate expression of power,” adds one well-connected, long-time city resident, who spoke on condition that his comments not be attributed to him by name. “You’re saying, ‘I don’t like the guy, so he’s out.’ ”
In December of 1983, the city’s treasurer for the last thirty-five years, Ida Mae Kerr, announced she was resigning. Kerr was a close associate of Morgan’s and had held the dual title of city treasurer and finance director; in the latter role she was responsible for investing the city's surplus funds and performing all of the city’s accounting tasks. Almost immediately the city council announced that, in accordance with a law passed in 1966, the offices of city treasurer and finance director would be separated, with the finance director to be appointed and supervised by the city manager. No one had been unhappy with Kerr’s performance, but as several council members point out, people can be elected to handle the city’s finances without, in fact, knowing much about financial management. Every other city in the county has a nonelected financial expert to manage its money, and the council felt Kerr’s resignation provided a good excuse to modernize the city’s management.
Morgan was furious. The council’s announcement meant not only that McCabe, whom Morgan didn’t like, would be directly overseeing the city’s finances, but that Morgan’s influence in picking the next city treasurer would be of little value because the office would have far fewer responsibilities. The mayor didn’t like it, and within a few weeks he sent out the mailer, attacking McCabe’s performance and arguing that an elected official would be more accountable to the voting public when it came to investing and managing the city’s funds. “I don’t regret sending the mailer; a person needs to say what he thinks he should say,” Morgan said recently. “I want the city treasurer to take care of (the city’s finances]. I’d have more faith in a city treasurer that would be elected to look over that financing.” Under the current system. National City’s finance director approves checks and invests the city’s funds with the approval of the city council and the direct supervision of the city manager, but Morgan claims an elected city official would have to be more prudent about handling the city’s funds because he or she would have to face the public at election time.
None of the members of the city council agreed with Morgan (“I think there’s more danger in having someone in charge of the city’s investments who doesn’t know how to deal with money,” says Dalla), but they particularly resented what they felt were scathing and completely unsupportable charges against McCabe. Almost before the stamps were dry on Morgan’s mailers, a coalition had formed on the council, a coalition whose key members were Mike Dalla, George Waters, and Jess Van Deventer. (“The flap over McCabe drove them together,” says the long-time resident of National City. “I think the council realized that if Kile can fire the city manager whenever he wants to, there’s no reason to even have a city council.”) The coalition drafted and passed the resolution supporting McCabe and denouncing Morgan’s attack on him, and in the following weeks moved to gain more influence over city matters, particularly appointments to city commissions and committees. “The law says the council will run the city,” says George Waters. “But the council has not been running the city. The mayor has been running the city. . . . When it came time for appointments, we would never know [who was to be appointed] until the day of the appointment. There was no time to check out whether this person was okay or not. It was right then and there vote against him, or vote for him. Nine times out of ten you’d vote for him, because you didn’t want to embarrass the individual. There’s people serving on commissions I don’t even know. And I’m an elected official; I’ve helped appoint them.”
The fifty-two-year-old Waters has served two separate terms on the city council: from 1970 to 1974, and from 1978 to the present. A rather stout, jovial man who owns a jewelry store and an office machines franchise in National City, he ran unsuccessfully against Morgan for mayor in 1972. Currently he is the city’s vice mayor, and he almost never appears in public without a badge on his shirt or jacket pocket that reads, “George Waters — Vice Mayor.” The source who observes the city’s politics closely describes Waters as “about as close to Napoleon as anybody could ever get. He likes to be in charge. But he's a powerful man in National City.”
Waters says that in general Morgan “has done a heck of a good job” running the city, but complains that Morgan has gotten personal credit for many things that were either not his own ideas of were a result of joint action by the city council. Redevelopment could not have taken place without the support of the council. Waters points out, and nearly everyone in National City agrees that Heritage Plaza, a Morgan-led project that made use of federal funds to restore and display several of the earliest houses and buildings in National City, came about largely because Waters got extensive support and publicity when he led an effort to restore the 1896 Granger Music Hall. As Louis Camacho notes, “When you’re the mayor you get all the glory and catch all the hell,” but there is no denying the fact that there has been a lot more glory getting than hell catching in National City over the last twenty years. Repeated profiles in the San Diego Union and San Diego Magazine have portrayed Morgan as a rough-cut diamond who has personally steered his city to new heights of prosperity. “I think the council wants credit for what they’ve done,” says Waters. “Kile has wielded a lot of power; I blame it on all of us for not doing something about it a long time ago.”
The controversy over Morgan’s mailer had faded only slightly in March of this year when Morgan took an active role in the elections for city council. Jess Van Deventer was up for re-election, and insiders say it is Van Deventer whom Morgan is most eager to see defeated. Morgan urged one of Van Deventer’s opponents to make an issue out of the fact that Van Deventer had purchased a lot in the city’s redevelopment area (Van Deventer claims that the law regarding conflict of interest was amended to allow city coun-cilmen to purchase a limited amount of property in the redevelopment area if they had owned other property in the area three years prior to the establishment of the redevelopment boundaries). Morgan contributed money to the campaign of another candidate who had a chance to unseat Van Deventer, but Van Deventer won re-election handily.
Van Deventer, forty-six, is a pleasant-looking, balding man with a belly that bulges out contentedly over his waistband. He graduated from Sweetwater High School in National City, and now owns property and a chain of auto parts stores in the South Bay. Like Morgan he has the unpolished speech of the city’s blue-collar voters, and like Morgan he is a self-made businessman. Van Deventer, on the city council since 1977, has also copied Morgan’s tactic of sending out surveys to the public at his own expense. The similarities between Morgan and Van Deventer are not lost on Augie Bareno, who says of his close friend Van Deventer, “Jess is a lot like Kile. He’s got money just like Kile, he’s used the mailers just like Kile. I think the reason they don’t get along is because Kile sees a bit of himself in Jess.’’
Van Deventer claims that in spite of Morgan’s opposition to him over the years, he genuinely likes the mayor. “Some people criticize his approach [to running the city]; I don’t criticize it,” Van Deventer insists. “I think that’s the only way the city would be in the spot it is today. Kile’s love and desire for this city cannot be questioned. He lives for it night and day. He could have been a very, very wealthy man by [staying out of politics and pursuing business], but his desire was to see National City grow, and he made that his lifetime ambition.
“Mr. McCabe and the mayor don’t see eye to eye ... but McCabe gets along excellent with all the members of the city council. We feel he’s very qualified, and there’s no reason to go to another city manager. Kile doesn’t have the total control that he had before ... if the council feels he’s wrong, they vote against him. That hasn’t always been true. And any man who has had the power that he had for so many years would not change. But down deep the City of National City is the most important thing to him.”
If you ask someone in National City what the major issues facing the city today are, one of the first things you are liable to hear about is an issue that usually boils down, one way or another, to the phrase, “business versus the neighborhoods.’’ But as Bareno points out, “business versus the neighborhoods’’ is by no means a clear-cut topic. “It’s more of a feeling,” he explains, “but it’s not even a unified feeling. It means different things to different people. To some people it means Kile has been more responsive to the needs of business than he has been to fixing up the neighborhoods.”
Bareno told me this as we were driving around National City one night not long ago. I had asked him to give me a tour of the city; to point out the things that residents of National City are proudest of and the things they are most embarrassed by. One of the first things Bareno showed me was the large number of cheap, plain-looking apartment buildings that have sprung up in the city, often in the midst of older houses (National City is one of the few communities in the county with houses that date from the late 1800s and early 1900s). “Look,” Bareno would say, pointing to a boxlike apartment complex unadorned by landscaping, with a small parking lot for a front yard. He would say nothing more, as if the edifice spoke for itself.
National City has an inordinate amount of such rental units (64.1 percent of the city’s occupied housing is rented, as opposed to 50.9 percent in the City of San Diego), and rents paid there are on the average about fifteen percent lower than they are in San Diego. Most of these units were built in the 1960s and early 1970s, before the city toughened up its zoning laws, but they have helped change the face of the city and have led to charges that Kile Morgan, a former building contractor himself, let a lot of contractors and builders get rich at the expense of the city's overall appearance. “I think people over the years have used Kile to get where they’re goin’,” says George Waters. ‘‘Kile never did have a top education . . . (and | the people that surrounded him were mostly construction people, the type of business people that made fortunes and left this town. Few of the city council members I know of get big donations from contractors, but Kile does. He was very much involved with contractors.”
Morgan scoffs when asked about such charges. ‘‘Used by developers?” he says. ‘‘No, I think we've used the developers here in National City. I think those people (who are making those charges] have got that backwards.” Even Waters does not suggest that there was anything illegal about the manner in which the apartment complexes were approved; but when asked if builders took advantage of Morgan’s tenure to flood the city with cheap apartments, Bareno, who lauds Morgan “for being effective, and for doing a lot of good,” replied, ‘if you look at the design, the quality, the numbers, and the ease by which (the apartment buildings] were approved, one could draw that conclusion.”
As he continued his tour of the city. Bareno took me to quiet enclaves of residential homes where the streets are lined with trees, and the car dealerships and neon signs that one usually associates with National City seemed far away. He took me past Plaza Bonita, and showed me a boat-launching ramp on the bayfront next to a small city park that includes a fishing pier. We drove down the Mile of Cars, which Bareno conceded “might not give the city the best image. But it’s an important industry.” And then we drove through the west side.
The west side, which is bounded by the Mile of Cars on the east and Interstate 5 on the west, was included in the city’s original redevelopment project — the one that brought about the Mile of Cars back in the late 1960s. Although the area was rezoned industrial/commercial, many of the old homes were allowed to stand until such time as they became unsafe or their owners decided to sell. The result has been that many of these homes now exist in an awkward partnership with car dealerships, machine shops, taxi stands, and other businesses. The situation is almost tailor-made for conflict, and some residents of the west side complain frequently to the city about too much traffic, too little parking space, and such things as oil and antifreeze being dumped in the gutters near their homes. Much of the current talk about ‘‘business versus the neighborhoods” has come about because of problems on the west side.
“You’ve got to give Morgan a lot of credit,” says Don LaCroix. “He’s done a lot for the city, and big business pays sixty percent of the tax base of the town. But in recent years he’s kind of gone overboard in promoting more business at the expense of the citizens, and there’s got to be a point to where it stops. They've built building complex after building complex, but the streets weren’t designed for (the increased] traffic flow, or the noise, or the pollution. . . . The Mile of Cars is patrolled frequently by police, but dark neighborhoods nearby are not. That’s why people are unhappy with the mayor.”
LaCroix is the director of National City’s Citizen Action League, the local branch of a statewide consumer activist organization. Best known for its efforts to combat utility rate increases, the league opened a branch in National City three years ago, and the local office quickly made residents’ discontent and conflicts with local businesses one of its priorities. The league has managed to get the ear of several city counci I men (“One of the areas where the city council differs from the mayor at present is that the council wants to see more emphasis put back into the communities, the residential areas,” says Jess Van Deventer. “A lot of people come here to shop, but we’d like to see more and more young people come here to live”). But Cheryl McKinnon of the Star News points out that none of the councilmen “paid any attention to the neighborhoods until this year. They all supported business growth in this city. I think that many council members see (this issue) as a way of getting in with the voters.”
Morgan refuses to criticize the league directly, but he has avoided meeting with them recently on several occasions, and he claims that criticizing him for overemphasizing business is grossly unfair. “We have focused on business because we had to build a (sales] tax base,” he says. “You cannot operate a city on a property tax base alone. And we have built five new parks in National City, we have built a senior high-rise building here. We have buses for seniors to ride in. that the city pays for. We have built all the streets, all the drainage, and three community buildings that are used for seniors’ dances. We have built ball fields in National City, soccer fields, tennis courts. . . . This year I’m going to push for spending $800,000 just for paving and maintaining streets. Then we’ll use $200,000 for curbs and sidewalks, and $100,000 just for alleys. But if we didn’t have the tax base, we wouldn't have the money to do it.”
Many of the public works projects mentioned by Morgan primarily benefit senior citizens, who traditionally constitute the city’s largest block of voters. But the city continues to be plagued by complaints about too much traffic and a lack of such things as curbs and street lights, and many of these complaints are coming from the city’s growing populations of blacks, Filipinos, and Hispanics. The city’s constituency is slowly changing, a fact that is undoubtedly contributing to Morgan’s current political problems. ‘‘Five years ago Kile would have stamped out the Citizen Action League,” says the long-time resident of National City. “He would have discredited the shit out of them. Now they’ve become effective in raising issues, even if they’re not effective in carrying them out. Something is changing. Three hundred and sixty-eight families (the league’s claimed membership is actually 500] who have organized without his official acknowledgement — that’s what has Kile worried.”
Morgan seemed anything but worried as he maneuvered his golf cart around the San Diego Country Club’s golf course in Chula Vista one morning not long ago. A member of the club since 1957, he usually plays at least twice a week and often squeezes in a third round before church on Sunday morning. Golf is Morgan’s main form of relaxation. ‘‘I come out here to get away from my job,” he explained, steering us down a dewy fairway under a cloudy sky. “Politics is a nerve job, that’s what it is. A nerve job. I couldn'a stayed in politics without golf.” Morgan conceded, however, that the golf course has also provided him with a convenient means of talking over various city projects with potential developers and government officials. “Most of the |business! people we want in National City play golf, so they get to know you out here — get to know what you stand for. It's been very helpful for me.”
Teeing off on the fifth hole ahead of his two partners, Morgan stared down at his ball, tucked his tongue firmly into his cheek with concentration, wound up and smacked a low drive 150 yards or so off the fairway to the right. “Ohhh, I shoulda rolled my wrist over,” he groaned. A seventeen handicap now, Morgan claimed he used to shoot par on the clubs course until advancing age began to catch up with him. “I used to drive them right down the middle, but 1 can’t do that anymore,” he said ruefully, getting back into his cart and motoring off to look for his ball.
Morgan’s tight control of National City has likewise slipped, and the mayoral election in 1986 promises to be a free-for-all. “The politician in me says that a lot can happen in two years,” says Mike Dalla. “But I would consider (running for mayor] as a real possibility.” Asked if he would run for mayor whether or not Morgan also runs, Dalla replied simply, “In any case.”
Waters indicates he will likely seek the office, too, and has dropped broad hints that demonstrate how ruthless the election race could eventually become. “Over 1000 people have asked me to run,” he says. “I’d say today that I believe I wouldn’t lose. ... I don’t believe this [current coalition on the council | would have ever come off if I hadn’t joined them. And I wouldn’t mind taking each and every one of them on.
“Mike (Dalla] voted against the senior high-rise building here — the seniors would love to know that, if he runs for mayor, wouldn't they? Mike also voted against Plaza Bonita. . . . So I don’t worry too much about Mike Dalla. Jess Van Deventer? It’s pretty well known that he bought property in the city’s redevelopment area . . . and even though he’s sayin’ it’s perfectly legal, that doesn’t make it legal. He’d have a hell of a time explaining it, the way I'd present it. I don’t shoot these big guns now, but I might someday.”
Van Deventer, for his part, is being more cagey, saying only that “I will not run against Kile Morgan.” But as the unnamed long-time resident of National City points out, “The best measure of who’s the strongest challenger is who Kile hates the most, and the one he hates the most is Jess Van Deventer.’ ’ Among the members of the coalition on the council. Van Deventer has been the least critical of the mayor publicly. Whether this is out of genuine respect or the hope that a lack of enmity toward the city’s long-time leader will make Van Deventer look better to the city’s voters in the next election (or both), is difficult to tell. He does say of Morgan that “it’s like a ballplayer who hits .400 one year, and one day he’s down to .285. He’s got to move over and let some of the younger players throw some of their power around.”
Many political observers in National City expect the coalition’s current unity to fall apart as the mayoral election approaches, and the long-time resident says that “as Kile’s coup de grace, he will have a hand in that.” As he played the front nine at San Diego Country Club, however, Morgan fumed at one point that the coalition “wants me to be just another member of the city council. Heck, that's easy. That means I can just play more golf.” Thanks to his strong putting Morgan was two strokes up on his partners after nine holes, but his lead disappeared quickly as the threesome played on. Another major redevelopment project is getting underway in National City: After twenty years of discussion and planning, the city has moved to acquire a two-block section downtown, an area of bars, pornographic bookstores, and movie houses often referred to by residents as the “Mile of Bars.” The city hopes to resell the land to developers who will build motels and restaurants. Because the area is one of the main entryways to the city, the redevelopment project is an important one in terms of changing National City’s perennial negative image. But in spite of the fact that work has already begun downtown, Morgan com plains that the coalition on the c» council “has just grind this city to a halt. We should be workin’ to bring in headquarters of big companies — San Diego Federal, Holiday Inn, ITT. That’s what we should be workin ’ on,’’ he told me as he steered his golf cart down one of the fairways. “There is the least going on in the city that there’s ever been since I've been down here. And that’s bad.”
On the final hole Morgan sank a fifteen-foot putt to finish one stroke ahead of one of his partners and one stroke behind the other. “It’s a difficult balance that has to be struck in National City between the business interests and the neighborhoods,” Augie Bareno has said, voicing the feelings of many of the city’s residents. “I don’t think Kile has the vision for that. It’s not in his makeup.” And in a recent interview in his office at city hall, Morgan told me, “I don’t know if I’ll run or not. It’ll be a harder pull this time than it ever has, and I’m not gettin’ any younger.” He was vague about whether he would be content to leave politics. But a few minutes later, after listing his accomplishments in office and recalling the victories he has had in the last four mayoral elections, Morgan laughed. “They haven’t ever been able to beat me,” he said. “And they can’t beat me next time.”