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Father Joe Carroll: death of a transactional cleric

"Thanks, Papa Doug. I'll keep coming back for that wallet."

Father Joe became a familiar political pitchman.
Father Joe became a familiar political pitchman.

A Last Hurrah of sorts comes tomorrow morning, July 20, at St. Rita's Catholic Church with a funeral Mass to be presided over by San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy.

Father Joe Carroll, long a key player and behind-the-scenes kingmaker of San Diego politics, died July 12 at 80.

A montage featured the future mayor walking East Village streets with the priest.

Along with the July 2019 passing of George Mitrovich, called the minister of Padres politics, at 84, Carroll's departure from the scene likely marks the end of an era.

Father Joe, however, was a true man of the cloth. Though nowhere mentioned in the U-T's lengthy front-page obituary, Carroll was proud but discrete about his distinct role as a powerful mover and shaker in an often-unseemly realm.

Often called the "hustler priest," the sobriquet transactional priest might have better suited him. If he made a difference by providing food and shelter for the poor, he saw those efforts as resulting from his willingness to play a rough-and-tumble game, giving succor to wayward politicos.

They ranged from fallen port commissioner David Malcolm, who was on the board of St. Vincent de Paul Management, to Illinois ex-governor and convicted felon Dan Walker, a resident of the facility after his fall from grace.

As the years wore on, Carroll became a familiar political pitchman, popping up on glossy direct mail pieces and TV commercials, and later Facebook videos, around election time, touting ballot measures and candidates favored by his benefactors.

Backers included hotel developer Doug Manchester and other Republicans fighting to hang on to power at city hall. In early 2014, Carroll told TV viewers about his preference for the mayoral candidacy of Kevin Faulconer.

Labeled "Father Joe's Choice," the 30-second video used the priest's reputation as a provider of homeless services in an implicit endorsement of Faulconer's promises to clean up downtown.

"I've seen this city go through all kinds of turmoil, all kinds of mayors, who didn't finish their term, who became mayor and was looking at being a senator, who became mayor who was looking at being governor," related Carroll.

A montage featured the future mayor walking down homeless-filled East Village mean streets with the wheelchair-bound priest. "Kevin is a council member who wants to be mayor to make this a better city. I like that."

(Republican Faulconer went on to defeat city council Democrat David Alvarez in a February 2014 special election. Now a candidate for governor, Faulconer is still trying to live down the homeless hepatitis crisis that hit the city under his watch in 2017.)

Carroll was a formidable player in the efforts of the downtown establishment to build and expand the convention center.

"In June 1998, for instance, [Tom] Shepard picked up a swift victory when the tourist industry chose him to run the convention-center-expansion campaign against opponents with no money," we noted here in a 1998 retrospective entitled "Who owns the Bay?"

"Close to a million dollars' worth of TV spots featuring the endorsement of Catholic monsignor 'Father' Joe Carroll flooded the airwaves, and the Measure passed handily."

Last year's heavily funded drive to convince voters to approve a tax hike for convention center expansion favored by Doug Manchester used Carroll's reputation as a champion for the downtrodden.

"Measure C will provide urgent funding for housing and mental health services for our neighbors in need," Carroll said in a 15-second spot, failing to mention that the convention center project would consume much of the cash.

Many longtime observers credit Carroll's role in these high-dollar campaigns as making the difference in whether a political cause won or lost. In the case of Measure C, which barely failed to achieve a required two-thirds vote, the current San Diego city council is pursuing a court case to declare the margin sufficient.

Big money direct mail endorsements played a key role in Father Joe's political saga. In the spring of 1990, Carroll rode to the rescue of Assembly Democrat Pete Chacon using targeted mail pieces to help bring down primary challenger Celia Ballesteros, who found herself pitted against the well-monied organization of Speaker Willie Brown.

"Chacon, guided by state Democrats, sent out a volley of targeted direct-mail pieces. Voters who lived in generally black neighborhoods received a letter from Jesse Jackson. Hispanic voters got a card from Father Joe Carroll praising Chacon for his work with immigrants," we noted here in January 1991.

"Ballesteros found it difficult to match Chacon's money and his brain trust of Sacramento political operatives and was easily defeated in what otherwise might have been a close race."

"He was a 'connector,'" wrote John Dolan, an auxiliary bishop for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, in the days following Carroll's death.

"He would go out of his way to make sure other people got to know one another because they might find a fast friend or they might be able to help each other," said Dolan in the Union-Tribune op-ed.

"It wasn't about him."

But Carroll himself expressed other sentiments in a December 2013 video tribute to convention hotel magnate and then-Union-Tribune owner Manchester, with whom he had long mixed money and politics.

"He was donating to me back in the Eighties," said Carroll on the occasion of Manchester's Nice Guy of the Year award from a developer-backed charity. "He just sent another check the other day.”

Concluded Carroll: "Thanks, Papa Doug. I'll keep coming back for that wallet."

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Father Joe became a familiar political pitchman.
Father Joe became a familiar political pitchman.

A Last Hurrah of sorts comes tomorrow morning, July 20, at St. Rita's Catholic Church with a funeral Mass to be presided over by San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy.

Father Joe Carroll, long a key player and behind-the-scenes kingmaker of San Diego politics, died July 12 at 80.

A montage featured the future mayor walking East Village streets with the priest.

Along with the July 2019 passing of George Mitrovich, called the minister of Padres politics, at 84, Carroll's departure from the scene likely marks the end of an era.

Father Joe, however, was a true man of the cloth. Though nowhere mentioned in the U-T's lengthy front-page obituary, Carroll was proud but discrete about his distinct role as a powerful mover and shaker in an often-unseemly realm.

Often called the "hustler priest," the sobriquet transactional priest might have better suited him. If he made a difference by providing food and shelter for the poor, he saw those efforts as resulting from his willingness to play a rough-and-tumble game, giving succor to wayward politicos.

They ranged from fallen port commissioner David Malcolm, who was on the board of St. Vincent de Paul Management, to Illinois ex-governor and convicted felon Dan Walker, a resident of the facility after his fall from grace.

As the years wore on, Carroll became a familiar political pitchman, popping up on glossy direct mail pieces and TV commercials, and later Facebook videos, around election time, touting ballot measures and candidates favored by his benefactors.

Backers included hotel developer Doug Manchester and other Republicans fighting to hang on to power at city hall. In early 2014, Carroll told TV viewers about his preference for the mayoral candidacy of Kevin Faulconer.

Labeled "Father Joe's Choice," the 30-second video used the priest's reputation as a provider of homeless services in an implicit endorsement of Faulconer's promises to clean up downtown.

"I've seen this city go through all kinds of turmoil, all kinds of mayors, who didn't finish their term, who became mayor and was looking at being a senator, who became mayor who was looking at being governor," related Carroll.

A montage featured the future mayor walking down homeless-filled East Village mean streets with the wheelchair-bound priest. "Kevin is a council member who wants to be mayor to make this a better city. I like that."

(Republican Faulconer went on to defeat city council Democrat David Alvarez in a February 2014 special election. Now a candidate for governor, Faulconer is still trying to live down the homeless hepatitis crisis that hit the city under his watch in 2017.)

Carroll was a formidable player in the efforts of the downtown establishment to build and expand the convention center.

"In June 1998, for instance, [Tom] Shepard picked up a swift victory when the tourist industry chose him to run the convention-center-expansion campaign against opponents with no money," we noted here in a 1998 retrospective entitled "Who owns the Bay?"

"Close to a million dollars' worth of TV spots featuring the endorsement of Catholic monsignor 'Father' Joe Carroll flooded the airwaves, and the Measure passed handily."

Last year's heavily funded drive to convince voters to approve a tax hike for convention center expansion favored by Doug Manchester used Carroll's reputation as a champion for the downtrodden.

"Measure C will provide urgent funding for housing and mental health services for our neighbors in need," Carroll said in a 15-second spot, failing to mention that the convention center project would consume much of the cash.

Many longtime observers credit Carroll's role in these high-dollar campaigns as making the difference in whether a political cause won or lost. In the case of Measure C, which barely failed to achieve a required two-thirds vote, the current San Diego city council is pursuing a court case to declare the margin sufficient.

Big money direct mail endorsements played a key role in Father Joe's political saga. In the spring of 1990, Carroll rode to the rescue of Assembly Democrat Pete Chacon using targeted mail pieces to help bring down primary challenger Celia Ballesteros, who found herself pitted against the well-monied organization of Speaker Willie Brown.

"Chacon, guided by state Democrats, sent out a volley of targeted direct-mail pieces. Voters who lived in generally black neighborhoods received a letter from Jesse Jackson. Hispanic voters got a card from Father Joe Carroll praising Chacon for his work with immigrants," we noted here in January 1991.

"Ballesteros found it difficult to match Chacon's money and his brain trust of Sacramento political operatives and was easily defeated in what otherwise might have been a close race."

"He was a 'connector,'" wrote John Dolan, an auxiliary bishop for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, in the days following Carroll's death.

"He would go out of his way to make sure other people got to know one another because they might find a fast friend or they might be able to help each other," said Dolan in the Union-Tribune op-ed.

"It wasn't about him."

But Carroll himself expressed other sentiments in a December 2013 video tribute to convention hotel magnate and then-Union-Tribune owner Manchester, with whom he had long mixed money and politics.

"He was donating to me back in the Eighties," said Carroll on the occasion of Manchester's Nice Guy of the Year award from a developer-backed charity. "He just sent another check the other day.”

Concluded Carroll: "Thanks, Papa Doug. I'll keep coming back for that wallet."

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Comments
1

The U-T's designation of Father Joe Carroll as a "hustler priest" seemed disrespectful to me, while the Reader's obituary is closer to the truth of the man. Father Joe was a transactional priest who seemed to enjoy the politics of supporting causes and people who would bring in money for his homeless enterprises -- none of which existed before he came on the San Diego scene and which have benefitted many lost souls. His associations may have been iffy, but his handiwork transformed lives. RIP.

July 27, 2021

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