San Diego La Mesa mayoral candidate Craig Maxwell is the kind of guy people used to describe as strapping. He's over six feet tall, trim through the middle, broad and muscular in the chest and shoulders. The sleeves of his T-shirt stretch to contain his buff biceps. Though he's 43, his neatly cut sandy blond hair shows no gray. Looking at him, you'd guess he was a physical trainer. But looks deceive. He owns Maxwell's House of Books, a three-aisle store within the four-block stretch of La Mesa Boulevard known as the Village. "It is a general store," Maxwell explains, "but with a special emphasis on scholarly and academic titles. I have a really strong selection of philosophy, political science, physics, sociology, biology, literary criticism. That's the emphasis, but I still consider myself a general shop. I have over 50 categories in the store, and there is probably something for everybody who spends enough time looking around."
Nobody would mistake 71-year-old incumbent mayor Art Madrid for a physical trainer. Still, the tanned, white-haired mayor exhibits youthful vigor as he chats with the proprietors and customers of Jitters Coffee Shop. Dressed in jeans and a yellow polo shirt, he assures the shop's owners that the rumor of a Starbucks going in across the street are unfounded. "Did you hear the latest rumor?" he asks. "Apparently, I'm gay."
And judging by the pace at which he sets off walking east through the Village, the mayor hasn't slowed down. Asked about the gay-mayor rumor, Madrid chuckles, "Rumors like that always pop up around election time."
By way of clarification, he adds, "I was married for 45 years. My wife passed away 4 years ago."
Art Madrid has served on La Mesa's city council for 26 years, the past 16 as mayor. In La Mesa, the mayor is just another vote on the five-member council. Despite that fact, Madrid's name is practically synonymous with La Mesa politics. And walking through La Mesa with him is akin to being part of a rock star's entourage. People come running out of antique stores, jewelry stores, and restaurants to shake hands and talk with their mayor. On their mind this warm Wednesday morning in late May is the April parking-meter rate hike, from 25 to 75 cents an hour.
Though Maxwell says the parking was "only one of the straws that broke the camel's back" when it came to deciding whether he'd run for mayor, he has very decided views on the parking increase. "The parking changes were enormous, and they hurt the businesses here," he says. "It greatly increases the likelihood that you will get a ticket, as before you could shell out 50 cents and know you were safe for two hours. Now you have to have more change, and they are a lot more aggressive about handing out tickets. And they don't issue any warning citations, which they used to do. All of those things were such nice features; they made La Mesa seem so homey. And they made La Mesa seem so appealing, and almost everybody who came into the shops said, 'How nice to come here and be able to park two hours for 50 cents.' And, 'Oh, I got this warning citation on my car. This is such a wonderful little place.' Now people are walking down the street cursing, saying they are never going to come back."
Maxwell continues, "We [merchants] have a hard time making a living here, especially with the [Grossmont Center] mall nearby, where you can park all day. We have a tough time with it. La Mesa is a little out of the way anyway -- we are not exactly Mission Valley or downtown. To get people to come out here is something of an accomplishment by itself. So making the place hospitable, making it friendly, is really important to us. We went to [the mayor] looking for some kind of reasonable compromise. If you must raise it, just raise it 100 percent, go to 50 cents. Nothing. There was absolutely no willingness to compromise."
Asked if he believes the parking-fee increase has hampered business, Madrid says, "No, not at all. We don't have paupers and people exclusively on welfare buying and stopping at the Village. They are pretty wealthy people. This is the price of doing business."
Terry White, a goldsmith and owner of Golden Artistry, near the east end of the Village, comes out of his shop to greet Madrid. One of the first things he tells the mayor is, "I think the parking thing backfired on the downtown merchants. Isn't this the only area in La Mesa that has meters? So what's happened is, people aren't just saying, 'Oh well, it costs more in San Diego.' They're saying, 'Screw this place, I am going to shop elsewhere.' "
Madrid starts to argue this point. White gently interrupts him. "You know what, I am here every day," he says pointing to the seven empty parking stalls in front of his store. "There are many, many spots like this, and there never used to be."
Madrid counters, "I respect you, Terry, but I am going to use this as an example. What would happen if I went into your store and said, 'I love that piece of jewelry or that artwork, I want it for free'? You'd go out of business. Well, La Mesa is a business, and that's what we were doing during the courtesy citations. We lost over $200,000 over 12 years that we could have collected. Instead of giving somebody a ticket, we gave them a parking citation. It got to the point where people weren't paying meters at all because they knew they'd only get a warning citation."
"But," White replies, "it singled out the Village unfairly because none of the other shopping areas in La Mesa are metered. I supported the increase, but it is hurting the Village. It is not going to hurt me as much, but I am worried about people who have merchandise for $2 or $3."
As White and Madrid argue the point, Arlene Moore, owner of Park Estate consignment shop and a building owner in the Village, walks across the street calling, "You hold him down, Terry, and I'll pummel him."
After some laughs and Village gossip, Moore brings up the parking issue again. "I supported the increase, but it's turned into a nightmare. Look at it," she points to the empty parking stalls. "It's been like this every day since we did it. And I hate to even say it, but yesterday we had our lowest sale day in ten years of my life. And I hate to even say it, but it is true."
Later, back in her shop, Moore says, "I think the raise was warranted because a lot of employees were parking out there and pumping their meters all day. Because at 25 cents an hour, it wasn't that expensive. But the raise was too much too soon, especially combined with gas prices recently."
As Madrid continues his walk through the Village, he points out the state of the sidewalk -- which he describes as "crap" -- and comments on certain businesses he passes. Outside Pete's Place, a bar that's been in La Mesa even longer than Madrid has been in La Mesa politics, he comments, "Scott inherited that place when his parents passed away. He doesn't do an effing thing to improve it. But it has its own bunch of loyalists who go there."
Outside of parking, the issue garnering the most attention in the La Mesa mayoral race is what's come to be known as the Chris Tanner incident. Earlier this year, a La Mesan named Chris Tanner, frustrated with the blasting going on at a large development site near his home, spoke at a meeting of the city council and hinted that councilmembers were weakening regulations to help the developer. In response, Madrid, with the blessing of three of the other four councilmembers, requested the city attorney to draft a letter to Tanner. The letter threatened litigation unless Tanner publicly retracted his remarks. The issue blew up in their faces when Tanner went public with the letter, claiming that the council was trying to deprive him of his right to free speech. The story was reported across the country. First Amendment attorneys contacted by media outlets agreed that Tanner had the right to say just about anything in council meetings.
At a subsequent council meeting, the three councilmembers apologized. Madrid refused to apologize. Instead he said, "I'd do it again." Asked how he feels about it now, he answers, "I am not going to vacillate. The allegations were so serious that some kind of action had to be taken. I had two colleagues of mine say, 'Just apologize and get it over with. It will go away.' But Mr. Tanner made very serious allegations. And even though somebody may think his First Amendment right was being abridged, by the same token, my integrity was being thrashed. So where do you draw the line?"
Maxwell describes Madrid's unapologetic attitude as "shocking," adding, "Beginning at perhaps the most fundamental level, we have a mayor who disrespects the Constitution of the United States. The Chris Tanner affair brought to light Art's contempt for the First Amendment. He was given a chance to apologize for what was clearly a violation of the First Amendment, and he decided not to do it. He said not only will I not apologize, but I would do it again. And this after the councilmembers who had followed him down this road apologized profusely. It gives you an indication of the man's chutzpah, his confidence that he will be reelected. And Art is a very good politician, and he hasn't been wrong about everything. But an extended tenure in office does things to people. And now I believe La Mesa has the burden of Art Madrid. People need a choice, especially after something as egregious as the Chris Tanner affair. That is why I stepped forward."