What is it like to be called San Diego's most despised person?
The appellation is now commonly aimed at Chargers chief Dean Spanos and his wing man, former Bill Clinton aide Mark Fabiani, who continue their Hamlet-like mulling-over options for moving the multibillion-dollar pro-football operation to Los Angeles.
Two decades ago the target was the pair’s longtime nemesis Bruce Henderson, who dared declare that then-mayor Susan Golding’s stadium expansion plan and taxpayer-backed ticket-sales guarantee to keep the Chargers here was a sham. “I was told, ‘No, Bruce, you’re wrong, the fact is we’ll make money on the ticket guarantee.’ That is, ‘We, the city, will make money on the ticket guarantee,’ which was just a ludicrous claim,” recalls Henderson today.
Few but Henderson realized the city’s long big-money football nightmare was just beginning.
In a lackadaisical beach city where most public officials rarely crack a book, much less inspect the legalese of city contracts, Henderson had spent his free hours carefully parsing the stadium agreement, approved by the city council in May 1995.
“I read it and almost literally started to cry,” the former city councilman told the Reader in a December 1999 interview in which he predicted a series of dire outcomes for the city.
“I believe this is the only NFL franchise that can, without any fear of breaching its contract, start asking people to make offers to them to move their team,” said Henderson, who shared his concerns with the city council in a December 24, 1996 letter.
The lopsided deal, Henderson wrote the council, “makes the city responsible for selling 60,000 tickets a game (6 million tickets in over ten seasons). Yet, it has the Chargers setting the prices. That gives the Chargers a cost-plus contract.
“For the ten seasons starting in 1997, the Chargers can raise ticket prices to whatever price required to cover their costs, passing all financial risks to us. If the prices are too high for the fans, the City buys the tickets.”
Henderson was also the first to warn of the consequences of the contract’s so-called “team-shopping” clause.
“Starting in the year 2000, the agreement allows the Chargers the chance to shop the team to other cities. If they get an offer, San Diego has merely the right to meet it.
“It means that the Chargers have everything to gain from shopping the team, again and again, but nothing to lose. It means we San Diegans have everything to lose and nothing to gain.”
“We all know the one location that the NFL covets the most in the United States is Los Angeles,” he observed in 1999. “I mean, there’re about six million TV families up there. I guess, second to New York, it’s probably the largest TV market in the United States by far.”
Almost 20 years later, Henderson says that a vivid memory of his discovery still lingers.
“It was almost sickening,” the former city councilman recalled in an interview last month.
“And then eventually John Witt, who was then the city attorney, admitted that he’d never personally read the agreement, and then claimed, well, maybe, maybe another attorney in his office who had by that time died had read it, but the truth is it was clear that there wasn’t one word of city input into the ’95 agreement.”
Henderson’s unwelcome revelations drew torrents of abuse from then-mayor Susan Golding.
“I have a clip of Susan Golding screaming at me at the city council, I think in ’97, saying ‘Bruce, you’re lying, there is no team-shopping clause,” he recalls.
“All the San Diego Union-Tribune right now reports to people,” observed Henderson in 1999, “is this claim by the Spanos family that, ‘Well, we don’t have the slightest intention to ever move out of San Diego.’”
“In which case, anyone who has read the agreement would ask, ‘Well, how do you explain the presence of Section 31 of the Chargers’ agreement, this team-shopping clause. Why is the team-shopping clause in the contract?’”
Henderson — who lost his 1992 electoral battle for city attorney to incumbent Witt by less than two percentage points — soon felt the sting of political retribution from the city’s moneyed establishment, led by U-T publisher Helen Copley and Herb Klein, her editor-in-chief and Richard Nixon’s ex-press secretary.
Klein, a friend of Kyle Palmer, the L.A. Times political editor who with Klein and San Diego Union-Tribune publisher Jim Copley helped orchestrate Nixon’s rise in the 1950s, had masterminded the political career of Chargers quarterback Jack Kemp, steering the Republican into an Upstate New York congressional seat.
Critics of the football team’s deal with the city, especially Henderson, a Harvard graduate and alumnus of UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall school of law, who was able to marshal a series of embarrassing facts, were persona non grata at the U-T.
To hell with Henderson
February 17, 1997, was a brisk midwinter day as thousands of Chargers fans began streaming into the sprawling parking lot of what was then known as Jack Murphy Stadium to vilify Henderson.
“Jim Brown, who chairs the host committee for the 1998 Super Bowl, whipped the crowd into a frenzy when he declared from the stage, ‘To hell with Bruce Henderson!’” the Union-Tribune reported.
“Lured by free food, sports heroes and the chance to boo expansion opponents in absentia, the crowd braved bracing breezes and occasional rainfall and cheered wildly for personalities from the Chargers, Padres and San Diego State Aztecs,” said the paper’s account. “Crowd estimates ranged from 5,000 to 10,000 at its 5 p.m. peak, when dancing Charger Girls and a blaring band surrendered the parking lot stage to a string of speakers.”
Linebacker Tiaina Baul “Junior” Seau Jr. was the star of the show.
“Seau introduced Mayor Susan Golding as a personal friend ‘and just a great leader’ and drew wild cheers when he suggested that Bruce Henderson, a leading opponent of the renovation, would be a good linebacker — for the Oakland Raiders, the Chargers’ arch-enemy,” the U-T reported.
“Do you want to keep the Chargers here? I do!” the mayor, clad in a new powder-blue Chargers windbreaker, shouted to the crowd. “This is a good deal for the city; this is a good deal for our teams.”
More anti-Henderson invective erupted, as a phalanx of sign-carrying fans paraded in front of the podium.
“Henderson was absent but far from forgotten, his name pilloried in bumper stickers and placards,” noted the U-T. Golding was quoted as saying that those who questioned her deal to provide the Chargers with a decade-long taxpayer guarantee of selling 60,000 tickets annually were “just insane.”
The mayor said that if Henderson and his allies prevailed in a pending legal action to put the subsidy agreement on the ballot, the National Football League was poised to take away Super Bowl XXXII, scheduled for the city in 1998, and move it to Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.
“I’d like to see Bruce Henderson show his face here and explain to us why he’s causing all this uproar over nothing,” fan Charles Moore told the paper.
A few miles away, more abuse was hurled by Radio XTRA Sports 690, run by John Lynch, an ex-NFL player later to briefly co-own the U-T with developer Douglas Manchester.
The station “wasted no time in erecting a billboard on I-8” announcing “reserved seating for the Bruce Henderson party,” wrote the paper’s Diane Bell.
“Six orange stadium seats are bolted to the sign.”
Some observers saw the real target of the anti-Henderson vitriol as San Diego Superior Court judge Anthony Joseph, soon set to decide the legal merits of the ex–city councilman’s case against the Chargers’ stadium expansion and ticket deal.
In the face of unrelenting opposition by the U-T, Henderson and his backers had gathered 59,093 signatures to force a referendum on $18 million worth of stadium-expansion bonds, a key part Golding’s deal with the Chargers; 46,979 had been determined valid, with 28,046 required for a ballot.
Said a January 12, 1997, U-T report, “The money men financing the petition drive to put the Chargers to a public vote were veteran political activists James Holman and John Cheney.
“Cheney, a Linda Vista real estate investor, financed the ‘Dump Ed’ campaign that helped unseat Councilman Ed Struiksma in 1989, as well as the cable-access talk shows of perennial political candidate Peter Navarro.
“Holman, publisher of San Diego’s Weekly Reader [sic] and San Diego News Notes by and for Lay Catholics, was a key opponent of downtown redevelopment.”
“I will move quickly to do everything I can to get it on the ballot as soon as possible,” Golding told the U-T on January 23, 1997, shortly after Henderson’s measure was pronounced qualified for a vote.
But the mayor soon changed course, announcing a month later that she and Qualcomm had concluded “a deal” for the giant cell-phone chip-maker to cover the $18 million gap in exchange for two decades’ worth stadium naming rights, acknowledged by all as a fire-sale price.
“I’m super excited about it,” said Qualcomm’s founder and then-chairman Irwin Jacobs of the company’s windfall. The deal also included renaming nearby Stadium Way to Qualcomm Way, giving the company a lucrative plug on Interstate 8 exit signs, viewed by hundreds of thousands of drivers each month.
Without the need to sell additional bonds, there was no requirement for a vote of the people on the balance of the $78 million expenditure, already approved by the council, insisted Golding, and the council quickly rescinded the bond measure, removing the issue from the ballot.
Henderson filed suit in Superior Court to give voters their say in the complicated financing plan tied to the ticket guarantee and team-shopping clause.
Under pressure from the NFL and screaming U-T headlines, the case was expedited and sent to Judge Joseph in February.
“Prior to the ruling, there were editorials and full-page ads in newspapers, a retired appellate court justice opined for the San Diego Union-Tribune that the city should win, the president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce made speeches, and 5,000 fans circled the stadium demonstrating their support for continuing construction,” recounted then–San Diego County Bar Association president Eric T. Lodge in a September 1997 U-T op-ed piece.
“Lord, from frivolous lawsuits please deliver us,” intoned Monsignor I. Brent Eagen during the benediction at a welcoming lunch for new Chargers coach Kevin Gilbride a few days before Joseph was to make his decision. Eagen had been holding a private pregame mass each Sunday for the team since 1978.
Lodge voiced faith in the resilience of Judge Joseph’s integrity in the face of the public relations onslaught, but others weren’t so sure, noting the ferocity of the U-T’s attacks on Henderson.
On February 20, 1997, three days after the rally, Joseph threw Henderson’s case out of court, holding that no election on the stadium matter was legally necessary, despite the electorate’s widespread expression of its desire to vote.
“I was pleased,” wrote Lodge, “because we were spared another public outcry about how everyone has lost faith in the justice system, which translated usually means: ‘My side lost.’ The vocal segments of the community were clearly pulling for a decision in favor of the city.”
Had Joseph ruled otherwise, Lodge noted, “the 5,000 Bolt Heads who circled the stadium... would have been circulating a petition to recall Joseph the following day. Instead of being hailed as a pillar of justice, the judge would have been pilloried by his critics.”
Meanwhile, U-T sports editor Tom Cushman executed a mea culpa.
“Where were I and others in the print media when people needed to understand potential implications of a 60,000-ticket guarantee, or how the Chargers’ contract compared with those in competing NFL cities?” asked Cushman in a February 21 column.
“All of us should perform at a higher level when similar issues take root in the future, which they will.”
The trap is sprung
In March 2000, freelance writer Evan Weiner approached Alex Spanos in the lobby of the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. The Chargers owner told Weiner that the team would soon be looking for a new stadium, three years after the city had spent $78 million to upgrade Qualcomm and ostensibly keep the team from wandering.
“The Chargers owner has gone public with something he and his son, club president Dean, have been talking about in private for quite a while,” reported U-T sports columnist Nick Canepa following the freelancer’s scoop.
“It also is something Dean, especially, wasn’t near ready to discuss on the record. But his dad, apparently, has had enough and couldn’t hold it in any longer.”
Added Canepa, “Instead of expanding the old stadium, why didn’t they ask for a new one?”
That would come soon enough.
“If at some point playing in Qualcomm Stadium prevents the Chargers from remaining economically competitive with other teams, the team will have to explore the possibility of a new stadium in San Diego,” wrote Chargers spokesman Bill Johnston on the team’s website in December 2001.
Dean Spanos quickly reversed him, saying in a statement, “There has been some gossip lately about the Chargers going to Los Angeles. That’s all it is — gossip. We have not talked to the City of San Diego or any other cities about new stadiums or moving. We’re focused on trying to win football games. As we’ve always said, our intention is to stay in San Diego.”
The ruse ended three months later with the arrival of Mark Fabiani in the spring of 2002, announced by the U-T as the team’s new stadium point man.
“We’ll do everything we can to stay here while also convincing the people that the stadium issue must be tackled — and may have to be tackled sooner than expected,” Fabiani told the U-T’s Canepa in May 2002.
Then 44, the former Clinton aide stressed he had “left the White House after Clinton won re-election in 1996 — long before (Monica) Lewinski.”
After years of prevarication, Dean Spanos promised to finally start telling the truth.
“I’ve had discussions with Mayor (Dick) Murphy — the last one about three weeks ago. Basically, I’ve told him that I’m not telling him what to do. There’s stuff going on in L.A. that I have no control over. I told him, if we get an offer from another city, I don’t want you sitting around (unaware of what’s going on).”
Unbeknownst to the public, the trap had already been sprung.
“I firmly believe it is in the best interests of both the city and the Chargers to begin negotiations now, rather than forcing the Chargers to trigger the contractual renegotiation right,” Spanos had written in an April 22 letter to Dick Murphy four days after Spanos and the mayor lunched in the Westgate Hotel’s Fontainebleau Room, according to a May 29 U-T report.
Having kept the letter secret for more than a month, Murphy had been forced into releasing it a week after the newspaper filed a request for the city’s Chargers documents under the state’s public records act.
The new era of transparency was over before it started.
On March 4, 2003, as Henderson had long predicted, the Chargers pulled the team-shopping trigger, asserting the right to talk with other cities about moving the team.
“I am personally outraged,” Murphy said. “My guess is they either don’t care or they have the most inept public relations operation in San Diego. What they’ve done is probably the most counterproductive that they could do.” (Murphy would ultimately resign from office two years later under the cloud of a pension-funding scandal.)
Once again, Spanos denied he wanted to move the team: “While the Chargers have the ability under the lease to have discussions with other cities, we have no intention of talking to any other city as we begin a negotiation process with the City of San Diego.”
“What idiots,” then-city councilman Jim Madaffer told the U-T. “This is a real slap to the citizens of San Diego. I’m disappointed, disgusted and still question whether they can trigger in the first place.”
The Chargers sued. When the legal battle with the team concluded in a July 2004 settlement agreement, Spanos had surrendered what little remained of the city’s ticket-guarantee money in exchange for an assured exit route to Los Angeles, free of further city legal interference.
“Let the talks begin, sooner rather later,” opined a July 11, 2004, Union-Tribune editorial about building a new taxpayer-funded stadium to replace Qualcomm.
“And, finally, can Bruce Henderson be detained at Guantanamo until all this is over?”
To many, the editorial was brimming with bad karma, harkening back to the long-ago stadium parking-lot rally and its ugly placards and catcalls, designed to intimidate a judge and stir fear among critics. And still, the city was no closer to keeping the football team.
The U-T’s owner, Helen Copley, who died a month after the editorial, on August 23, 2004, would not live to see an end to the stadium struggle. Neither would her son and successor, hard-partying publisher David Copley, who perished after crashing his Aston-Martin in downtown La Jolla following a heart attack. The paper’s editor-in-chief Herb Klein, architect of much of the anti-Henderson campaign, died at age 91 in July 2009.
Linebacker Seau, star of the February 1997 rally against Henderson, was traded by the Chargers to the Miami Dolphins for a conditional first-round draft choice in April 2003. Beset by injuries, he later played for the New England Patriots before announcing his retirement in January 2010. On May 2, 2012 at age 43, he killed himself with a .357 magnum in his beachfront home in Oceanside.
The next year, Seau’s family released the findings of post-mortem brain studies showing he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a concussion-related ailment afflicting dozens of former NFL players.
One disaster after another
The U-T changed hands three times. Its current owner, Chicago-based Tribune Company, beset by declining San Diego readership, has taken to attacking Spanos and Fabiani for the possible departure of their team for Inglewood.
“We don’t expect to change Spanos’ mind about leaving, but we do want the NFL owners holding San Diego’s fate in their hands this month to field facts,” the paper editorialized January 5.
“As we cautioned after NFL owner Bob McNair fumbled the truth three weeks ago by saying half the San Diego City Council ‘went to jail,’ let the Chargers leave for logical reasons instead of lies.”
Henderson takes a longer, less personality-based view of what he and many others regard simply as a local tragedy. Now a deputy city attorney, he notes his views regarding the stadium and its tortuous saga are his own and don’t represent the current city administration’s take on the matter.
“From any perspective, the city’s fiscal perspective, the perspective of fans in San Diego, it was one of the saddest aspects of San Diego history,” he says.
“You go back and you just shake your head.... It’s just been one disastrous negotiation after another....
“The only thing government can do is get out of the business of providing a venue for sports teams,” Henderson says.
“And the interesting thing is that L.A. has understood that, and actually San Francisco came to understand that. Just telling them, ‘No, we aren’t going to do business with you because we can’t.’
“There is no way we can do business because a politician has a terrible problem when they’re trying to deal with a sports team. It’s called fans. You can’t get tough with sports teams because of the fans — you get fifty, sixty, seventy thousand people out there that say, ‘We wouldn’t vote for you over a dead horse. You are hated by us, because you’re giving our team grief.’
“And you can’t negotiate with anybody unless at some point in time you can give them some grief,” he notes. “You just have to say, ‘Here’s reality, and you’re going to have to come to the table with a more reasonable proposal.’ As a politician it’s almost impossible. And what will happen is Mark Fabiani will go out and make some comment about you [being] an impediment to keeping the Chargers here in San Diego, and you can’t be that. So, you can’t bargain with these people.”
Henderson adds, “What you should do is say to a team, look, we’ll lease Qualcomm to you for 30 years, at market rates, and we have nothing to do with it. It’s just like we own a piece of land somewhere and you want to farm it. ‘We’ll lease it to you to farm, and all you do is make lease payments and obey the law. If you make money, fabulous. If you lose money, don’t look to us.’
“‘If you want police to come and manage anything on the site, you pay the going rate for having the police there. We don’t have anything to do with maintenance, we don’t have anything to do with operation, period.’
“And that’s the only negotiation.
“Anytime you have that much acreage,” Henderson says of the city-owned site currently occupied by Qualcomm Stadium, and coveted by many for future development, “you have people who see huge dollars. If you can go to Mission Valley and get the government to allow you to build a 60-story high-rise building there, and they don’t require you to put in a billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure because of the politics, you potentially could make a hell of a lot of money.
“So, there always are going to be people sniffing around that land, because they see an opportunity to pay less than market value because it’s government.
“That gets back to the leadership. They have to understand that they’re not very good at negotiating with business people, and they need to have some mechanism in place [to assure] they actually get market value.”
The potential departure of the Chargers, Henderson predicts, is likely just the beginning of the Qualcomm Stadium end-game.
“The real problem with the Mission Valley property is there is an extraordinary amount of infrastructure improvement that’s required if you’re going to put a lot of density down there. Right now that area just barely works because Qualcomm is almost never used.
“But you put in the sort of density that a lot of people would like to put in there to make a billion for themselves, you’re going to have traffic almost 24-7....
“It isn’t that the city couldn’t make money off of it; the real issue a lot of people would say is, ‘Do you want more redevelopment in Mission Valley or do you want to create a beautiful river park down there?’ It’s public space. I mean, just convert it into a huge park and you’d create this tremendous value for everybody in the region.”
(corrected 2/18, 11:40)