Some people divine the future in tea leaves, others in pork bellies. Campaign contributions are also a way of seeing what is on the horizon. Greg Cox has been a San Diego County supervisor since 1995, and he will be a candidate again on the June 3 ballot. He represents District 1, the southern part of the county, which includes Chula Vista, where his wife is mayor, and Otay Mesa. Cox’s opponent, Howard Johnson, says his campaign has only $20,000. The total amount Cox has collected for his war chest, $280,000, is remarkable because it is so unnecessary. Why are people donating sizable amounts to a shoo-in? A look at Cox’s campaign donations between July 2007 and March 2008 is equally remarkable for what they reveal about what’s going on in his district.
Cox has never had to fight for his position as supervisor. In 1986, when he was mayor of Chula Vista, the Union-Tribune published a story titled “ ‘Brats’ Push South Bay to Forefront.” The brats were Greg Cox, David Malcolm, Steve Peace, and Brian Bilbray. At the time, Malcolm was a Chula Vista city councilman and California coastal commissioner, Peace was a California assemblyman, and Bilbray was county supervisor for District 1. Their titles have changed, but their connections remain. In 1995, Bilbray resigned as supervisor to take a seat in the House of Representatives. Instead of calling for a special election, the board of supervisors appointed Cox to the empty seat. There are no term limits. In 1996 and 2000, Cox ran unopposed. In 2004, Cox was challenged by Petra Barajas, who had less than $100 to spend on her campaign. Perhaps most curious is that Cox is a Republican, yet only 31 percent of his constituents belong to his party.
Sunroad Enterprises strikes the eye immediately on Cox’s disclosure statement. Five individuals employed by Sunroad gave Cox’s campaign a total of $1500, including the maximum $500 donation from owner Aaron Feldman and $250 from Tom Story, whose name was prominent in news stories about the notorious office building Sunroad put up near Montgomery Field in defiance of an FAA height ruling.
As far back as September 11, 2000, a Sunroad spokesperson told a Union-Tribune reporter that he “expects the East Otay Mesa area to be developed” and that “Sunroad will be there to capitalize on it.” In 2007, the paper reported that Sunroad owned 200 acres in Otay Mesa.
Cox has played a formative role in the creation of a business and industrial park in Otay Mesa. In 1999, Cox said San Diego needed a place where the area’s biotech firms could build production facilities and a place for NAFTA-related assembling and distribution. Otay Mesa was the place. Cox called for special tax incentives. In 2000, then-senator Peace fashioned SB 207 to give local authorities along the border the ability to sell bonds for infrastructure without the approval of two-thirds of the voters. A number of incentive programs have since been put in place in Otay Mesa. The Otay Chamber of Commerce website identifies them as the Enterprise Zone, which gives businesses income tax savings and other benefits to spur job growth; the Foreign Trade Zone, which “offers duty free warehousing and distribution services for importers, exporters and manufacturers”; and a Recycling Marketing Development Zone, which “allows manufacturers of recycled products and other recycling companies to take advantage of permit and financial incentives [and] low interest loans.” The Recycling Marketing Development Zone is funded by the California Integrated Waste Management Board. Cheryl Peace, Steve Peace’s wife, sits on the board.
Recently, a turf war has been playing out in Otay Mesa. On one side is the push to maintain industrial zoning. On the other side are companies such as Sunroad and McMillin Land Development that want to bring in large residential developments. Mark and Scott McMillin, who run the Corky McMillin Companies, and their wives each contributed $500 to Cox’s reelection campaign.
As NAFTA development increases along the border, a third border crossing has been proposed in East Otay Mesa, as has a toll road, SR 11, leading to it. According to a press release from the supervisor’s office, Cox traveled to Washington in 2007 to lobby for this crossing.
A border toll road in Otay Mesa can only enhance investment opportunity. In May 2007, the Kearny Real Estate Company, along with Pacific Coast Capital and Judd Halenza, acquired 311 industrial-zoned acres in the area. According to the Kearny Real Estate Company’s website, their land “has a tentative right-of-way reservation of 94 acres for the future SR 11…and a new international crossing.” The website goes on to say that “Kearny professionals will use their experience to bring the Federal Government, the Mexican Government, the State of California, the County of San Diego and SANDAG to a timely resolution of the numerous challenges involved in garnering approvals and financing for the new border crossing.” The company plans to “sell land to users and other developers” as well as to build its own projects. John V. Bragg Jr., a vice president at Kearny Mesa Real Estate, contributed $250 to Cox’s campaign, and Judd Halenza Jr. gave $500.
Another 162 acres adjacent to the proposed toll road and port of entry are owned by Paragon Real Estate Investments, in partnership with Shamrock Holdings. Six members of the Jinich family, who founded Paragon, each gave $500 to Cox’s campaign; Daniel Berkus, an investment manager at Paragon, gave $500; and Mark Schaffer, a managing director of Shamrock Capital Advisors, gave $500.
Sudberry Properties has developed the Ocean View Hills Corporate Center, a 663,000-square-foot, six-building industrial project, in Otay Mesa. Five members of the Sudberry family and four Sudberry employees contributed a total of $3150 to Cox’s campaign.
Otay Mesa is home to four correctional facilities, three government owned. The fourth, an immigrant detention center, is operated by Corrections Corporation of America. Last September, Bradley Wiggins of Corrections Corporation of America gave Cox’s campaign $250. Six months later, on March 20, 2008, a Union-Tribune article announced, “Corrections Corporation of America is proposing a mega-prison that would eventually replace the immigration detention center it now operates on county-owned land.”
This month, San Diego Metropolitan magazine refers to the Coxes as “powerhouse mates.” Campaign contributions demonstrate the entanglement of that power. While Mayor Cheryl Cox heads up redevelopment of Chula Vista’s bayfront, Supervisor Greg Cox has collected thousands of dollars from the parties involved with a piece of potentially lucrative bayfront property. The land is owned by a group of investors led by Adnan Zakkout, who gave the maximum amount to Greg Cox’s campaign. Iman Zakkout also donated $500. The land is leased by Pacifica Companies, which is hoping for government approval of development plans before the lease runs out in December. Pacifica was founded by Ashok Israni. Supervisor Cox collected a stunning number of contributions from the Israni family: 11 members each gave the maximum for a total of $5500. Also contributing were the vice president of Pacifica Companies, Naresh Kotwani, $500, and Sindhu Kotwani, $500.
Prior to becoming supervisor, Greg Cox was a lobbyist for the San Diego County Disposal Association. Allied Waste has an exclusive trash-service contract with the City of Chula Vista, and the Otay Landfill, a subsidiary of Allied Waste, is located in Chula Vista. Edco, another collection service, picks up trash in many South Bay communities. Edco employees donated $2250 to Cox’s campaign, and Allied employees donated $800.
Allied has become the second-largest trash-handling company in the nation. Revenues in 2006 were close to $6 billion. Nevertheless, in January 2007, the San Diego board of supervisors voted to approve an Allied Waste request that the California Municipal Finance Authority “issue and sell up to $250,000,000 in tax-exempt obligations (the Bonds) and lend proceeds to Allied Waste to finance improvements,” according to the board of supervisors’ minutes.
In the second half of 2007, employees of San Diego Gas & Electric and its parent company, Sempra Energy, gave Greg Cox $6150. SDG&E has been pushing hard to get the Sunrise Powerlink project approved. Supervisor Cox and Mayor Cox have given strong public support to the controversial project.
Worth mentioning is that the Coxes have investments in three companies located on Otay Mesa: Medtronic Inc., Copart Inc., and Ethos Environmental. Disgraced former port commissioner David Malcolm is a major stockholder in Ethos Environmental.
Do campaign contributions affect the future? Ask the Coxes. A February 1995 Union-Tribune article reported, “In the six weeks before Greg Cox was appointed to the Board of Supervisors, he and his wife made campaign contributions to three of the four county supervisors who would select him to the coveted position.” Dianne Jacob, the one supervisor who did not receive contributions, said she would not have “accepted money under circumstances like that.… It carries the wrong message.”