Artist's rendition of proposed stadium
Ex–car dealer and real estate magnate Steve Cushman is a powerful member of the local Republican establishment who has left his fingerprints on everything from the Mission Valley master plan to the costly 1996 taxpayer-backed GOP convention.
Now he can count another distinction: a political bull’s-eye on his back placed by Mark Fabiani, Bill Clinton’s one-time master of disaster and longtime lobbyist for the Chargers and a new stadium.
"Over the entire time we have been working with Mayor Faulconer and his staff, we have only ever asked for one thing – and we asked for it at the very first meeting we had with the Mayor’s staff: ‘Please do not assign Steve Cushman to work on this issue; instead let’s try to find some new voices and fresh perspectives to add to this 13-year-long process, '" says Fabiani in an interview posted on the team's website.
"So hopefully the community will understand our disappointment when the one and only specific stadium initiative the Mayor announced in his State of the City speech was the appointment of Steve Cushman to be in charge of devising a financing plan."
Argues Fabiani, "If you were going to line up the people in San Diego who have done the most to block a new stadium over the years, there is no doubt that Steve Cushman would be near the head of that line….
"When the Chargers were exploring a joint-use stadium/convention center facility downtown, Cushman again told the Chargers to stay away because of the contiguous convention center expansion plan. Again, under Cushman’s leadership, the courts decisively invalidated the financing plan for the convention center project.
"And when some in the community wanted to explore Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal as a stadium location, Cushman pushed through a ban on everyone at the Port of San Diego from even so much as discussing the issue," Fabiani says.
"The fact that Mayor Faulconer has now assigned Steve Cushman — the architect of so many of San Diego’s civic failures — to work on the stadium is discouraging."
In a forest of speculation about the motives of the Chargers-owning Republican Spanos clan — and whether they may have already decided to pull the plug on the team's location here — the roots of Fabiani's discontent are traced by insiders to September 2011 and the team's professed desire to locate a dual-use stadium and convention center in the East Village section of downtown.
"The idea is to make room for convention uses in the end zones and cover the grass as needed to provide exhibit space," reported U-T San Diego at the time. "The stadium also would include restaurants and meeting spaces."
Mike McDowell, an executive with Mission Valley’s Atlas Hotels, run by big GOP donor Terry Brown, rejected the proposal out of hand, saying it relegated the convention industry to second-class status. “Who wants to sit at the little kids’ table?” U-T quoted McDowell as saying.
The hotel moguls' resistance to the team's dual-use scheme ended up with the Chargers trying to convince the California Coastal Commission to kill off the city's expansion plan, a battle Fabiani lost in October 2013. Showing up to testify against the Chargers was Faulconer, then on the city council.
"The result is no surprise, given the influence of the powerful groups supporting the project," Fabiani told the Los Angeles Times after the commission's vote. "Still, it was disappointing to see the Coastal Commission ignore its own staff's recommendation."
Then in August of last year, a state appeals court held that a hotel room tax to fund the $520 million expansion enacted by the city council was unconstitutional because it had not been put to a public vote.
The mayor and the tourist lobby has been scratching its head about what to do next ever since.
In his online interview, Fabiani also has scathing words for Faulconer and Democratic councilman Todd Gloria, who counts among his major financial backers Evans Hotels, run by one of the city's top three hotel moguls, Bill Evans.
"There were many people and organizations around town that predicted right from the outset that the Cushman convention center financing plan would be struck down as illegal.
"But Cushman and the City — with the strong support of then-downtown area Councilman Kevin Faulconer and then–City Council President Todd Gloria – decided to forge ahead anyway.
"The result: Years and years of wasted time and effort, and millions and millions of dollars of wasted tax dollars — all expended on behalf of a financing plan that was doomed from the outset.
"In light of this track record, we are not encouraged that Steve Cushman will somehow come up with a workable solution to the stadium problem that has eluded everyone else for 13 years.
"If Steve Cushman does come up with some kind of plan, our strong view is that it will be a plan designed to provide political cover — not to actually result in the building of a stadium."
Still, Fabiani insists in the interview, the team is not leaving town — yet.
"The Chargers will remain open-minded about any idea presented to us," he says.
"And we know what it means to work with a City task force and City experts because we’ve worked with many of them over the years. Mayor Murphy appointed the Citizens’ Task Force on Chargers Issues, and subsequent mayors retained — at significant taxpayer expense — two separate outside consultants.
“Whether yet another task force — which will undoubtedly hire other experts — will come up with ideas that haven’t been thought of by everyone else over the last 13 years is, of course, a real question.”