When the Barons were Born
THIS IS THE STORY OF A CITY losing her virginity and one of her sons facing mortality. It starts and ends in the austere cab of a pickup truck on the Semper Fi Highway, coursing through the veins of a downtown magazine building and 350 years of living memory in between.
It’s one saga in a larger history with no beginning and no end; one rife with fault lines, long plateaus and sudden shifts. One of those occurred in San Francisco in 1906, when a teenage girl emerged from the rubble of that city’s worst earthquake with her health, natural beauty and a fiery constitution.
Within two years she’d found and decided to marry a handsome and well-off lumberjack, a man 30 years her senior.
The man took her to Oregon, where he was a cruiser—one of the men paid to scout the forests for prime logging areas. The girl with the steely determination and fierce temper woke up one morning to find herself in a small town, in an isolated house, with two children and a man who was far less prosperous than she’d been given to believe.
There were arguments, and the girl—living emblem of the type who should not be scorned—made an impulsive decision. She took her kids and her great beauty and left for the sunnier climes of San Diego. In that small but thriving Navy town she caught the attention of one of the area’s more soughtafter bachelors—an admiral named Brotherton. She moved into the society pages as her children began to lay down roots.
The son, a tall drink of water named William, borrowed his mother’s good looks and developed a sharp mind. The tail end of the Roaring ’20s found him at San Diego College on Normal Street and Park Boulevard— current administrative home of San Diego City Schools. In 1930, the college moved to its present home, east of the city, and William enjoyed a newfound popularity.
On the Road “I had a Chrysler 75 Roadster,” the 94-year-old Brotherton exclaims in a raspy voice, one that carries a tone claiming the implications are obvious. “All leather upholstery, canvas top and fold-down windshield—it was a real racy car. The college was way out on El Cajon Boulevard, off a dirt road, and most people had to walk, so it got to be a lot of them waited for me every day to come by.”
That was 75 years ago. On this day, in the back of the pickup, a folded wheelchair lays obediently behind a walking device. In the cab, Brotherton, dressed stylishly in a gray suit, wanders through a lifetime of memories. Outside, a stream of pre–rush hour traffic pours by.
“Now, what are we going to talk about?” he queries the driver, tilting his head for optimal hearing. “We have you, Lionel Van Deerlin, Lucy Killea and George Walker Smith,” the driver responds. “And we want to hear from you all—some living archives—about San Diego. Its history, how it’s changed, its current debacles and where we go from here.”
“Good lord,” Brotherton says, considering a group well up in years, “I hope you have a paramedic handy.” Both men chuckle, and Brotherton grabs for a door handle as the truck speeds around the Interstate 8 entrance ramp. “Know what we had for food on the new campus?” Brotherton asks. “Just this little hut called the Ham Shack. It was the meal house the construction workers used. That was our cafeteria.” He pauses with a wistful grin. “I had to drop out,” he says. “It was the Depression, you know. And my parents split up. I had to get a job.”
“Why did your parents split?”
Brotherton pauses in thought, his alert eyes gazing through the windscreen.
“My mother was beautiful,” he states emphatically. “She really was a fine-looking woman.” He pauses again in reflection. “But she was feisty. She made rash decisions, and once she decided to leave Brotherton—the admiral—there was no changing her mind.”
“So you weren’t named after your real father?” Brotherton shakes his head.
“She’s dead now,” he says, “just a memory. That’s what happens, you know. You die, and then all you are is what people remember of you.”
Growing Pains By 1933, the grapes of wrath were in full bloom. Woody Guthrie was scrounging for a couple of spuds to give his kids a thin, Northern California dinner while Roosevelt’s inaugural address told a nervous nation “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In San Diego—with a population that had yet to break 150,000—William Brotherton had begun a spate of jobs as a bank messenger. Those banks, he says, had begun issuing Los Angeles–printed money vouchers that were honored by local businesses, part of the national effort to avert a devastating run on the country’s capital savings.
In the cab of the pickup, Brotherton recalls the local politicians of that era. The names of former mayors tumble out in a comical dance of car crashes, stabbings, dalliances and fiduciary foibles, which continue as he’s wheeled down a spiraling ramp and around a set of steps onto the ground floor of the San Diego Magazine building. Entering a high, glassed conference room, he spies George Walker Smith on the other side of a dark table.
Dressed in a stylish three-piece suit, Reverend Smith exudes a sense of quiet dignity. At 76, the iconoclast and social commentator has become a citywide institution. He was the first black member on the city’s board of education, was later appointed to the national board of education and has chaired dozens of local civic organizations. He also founded the Colored People’s Club, now called the Catfish Club, an organization recognized as one of the city’s preeminent generators of important political dialogue.
Asked if the two men know each other, Smith responds first.
“Oh, for about 50 years now,” he says.
The two old friends shake hands and take seats in front of microphones. Lionel Van Deerlin arrives shortly behind them. The columnist and nine-term U.S. congressman is casually clad in slacks and a USC pullover. One gets the impression the SC Trojan, the symbol of his alma mater, might be a fixture in the man’s wardrobe. Amid greetings and smiles he recounts to his friends a litany of confirmation calls for today’s gathering.
“When you get past 80,” Van Deerlin says, “they call you two days before, the day before, and then three times the morning of, to make sure you haven’t forgotten. I told the caller today, ‘My God, man, I took a shower and everything . . . you’d better not be calling to cancel.’ ”
Before long, Lucy Killea arrives. The energetic Ph.D., former San Diego city councilmember and retired state senator apologizes, amid hugs and smiles, for not matching the fashionable decorum of her counterparts.
“I’ve been out poll-watching,” the San Antonio native says, referring to her volunteer duties at voting stations in two of San Diego’s districts. “So I had to wear my walking outfit.”
Politics, as any Texas Democrat will tell you, never leaves the blood.
The Counsel of Elders With San Diego’s fiscal reputation in the toilet, its pension board in front of a grand jury more often than in session and two of its councilmembers in tears, the time seems ripe for the direct and sagacious guidance of elders. In three hours of discussion, much is covered in the conference room at San Diego Magazine. One notion—that somewhere in the wake of the contentious 1960s, San Diego began experiencing her first subtle pangs of maturity—becomes a leitmotif.
“That election in 1970 was sort of a watershed,” Van Deerlin says. “It was an unusual election. There were, I think, eight or 10 candidates for mayor, and five of them had never lost an election. That’s where Pete [Wilson] first emerged. . . . I would have to think that’s when San Diego began to mature a little bit in its local politics.”
The Wilson era, 1971-1983, is referred to at different times in the discussion as a period of critical change on several key fronts. For starters, the nature of politics in the world’s self-professed strongest democracy changed noticeably during the Vietnam era.
“In the old days,” Brotherton says, “all the people that ran for city council and mayor were people who didn’t live on the income. One of the councilmen showed me his check [one time], and they each got $5,000 a year. He told me, ‘I’m getting less than the janitor in this building.’
“They all were men who were either retired or were running a business and had time. They were doctors, lawyers, CPAs.
They took the job because it was an honor . . . not for the money. That all changed when it began to be full-time mayors and councilmen —they lived on the money. The other ones were a grand bunch of people. Like the head of the mortuaries and the head of Union Title Company—all people who were retired or semi-retired and would come and give their time.”
Brotherton later expands on his thoughts, charging that with the advent of the paid politician, a new type of character was lured into the public service arena.
“One thing I’m noting is that there was a big change when the criminals became part of the government,” he says. “Before, most of the criminals were like [Ponzi schemer J. David] Dominelli and [fallen financier Dick] Silberman; they were people outside the government. We were called Newark of the West at one time, because we had so many criminals. . . . It started out when the principals in the city government began to live on [salaries] and make money with it.
And with that money, they began to cross the line of legality.”
“Human nature hasn’t really changed much,” Killea remarks. “When [being a politician] was an honorary thing, where you got paid very little, you didn’t have as much at stake there, you could make those judgments fairly independently of your living, of the business you were doing.”
“It’s not worth being a criminal if you can’t make any money,” Brotherton interjects. “It’s the power that comes with the office,” Killea rejoins. “Because there was no really great power when it was a part-time job and it was a smaller city. . . . My other theory is that people start out, whether in business or some kind of public service, with all the right intentions in the world, but once they get some power, they begin to think they can do anything they want.”
“Power corrupts,” someone says.
“Power corrupts more than anything,” Killea agrees. “They talk about money being bad, but it’s the power. So you get those two young guys, [former Councilmembers Ralph] Inzunza and [Michael] Zucchet. They just got carried away with the power. . . . I think part of the reason we view these things as so terrible is that we’re a pretty pure bunch of people here in San Diego,” she continues. “We’re not Chicago, we’re not St. Louis, we’re not any of those places where the corruption and the use of the political system for personal gain—”
“So we’re doubly resentful,” Van Deerlin interjects.
“Yes,” Killea says, “When it comes along, we’re horrified.”
“When I came here in ’56,” George Walker Smith says in a deep, lilting voice still marked with his Alabama heritage, “there was an identifiable power base made up of the barons downtown, basically controlled by [businessman/ banker] C. Arnholt Smith. And I have since wondered whether there was more good than bad in that setup. I remember serving on the school board, in the ’50s, when we had to dedicate a couple of schools a month to keep up with the growth. [That] power base would meet downtown, invite [School Superintendent] Ralph Daillard and me to come and present to them the bond issues we wanted.
We would go in there, and they would speak up, [Andy] Borthwick and George Scott and others. That was the power base then. After we would present what we were asking the citizens to approve, they’d tell us, ‘You get the hell out of it, because you go to the public, they know what you want— money. We will take care of this.’ And never was there a school issue defeated.
“Something else about that power base was that those folks were dedicated to the welfare of this city. That symphony would have never gotten into trouble. They would have gone into a back room, and when they came out there would be a solution. But many of those indigenous corporations have sold out to outside interests. How many real banks do we have in San Diego that are San Diego banks? Those that have bought the corporations of these power brokers of years gone by don’t bring the same kind of civic or political commitment to this community.”
“You used the term ‘barons,’ George,” Lucy Killea says. “And when the barons were in charge, I think there was no line between civic and political. In other words, it was all right, because they were pretty much in control of everything . . .”
“They had the same agenda,” Brotherton says.
“They could do something civicminded that would also benefit their business,” Killea continues, “but it wasn’t considered wrong or illegal, because it was a good thing they were doing. In other words, I think there was a coziness there that everybody accepted, until we got into another time.”
Myopic Centrality That coziness was status quo in a much smaller San Diego of a different era. The identifiable power structure—the barons—made the city’s decisions, for all intents and purposes, from the 12thfloor offices of downtown high-rises and between bridge hands at the Cuyamaca Club.
“If you were looking for orderly civic life, maybe you got it,” Killea says. “If you were looking for participation, you didn’t.” She nods to Van Deerlin and continues, “You referred [in an aside] to district elections, and I think things were somewhat different after that, because it wasn’t that same group choosing [candidates], like they chose me, as a ‘safe’ Democrat.”
“District elections are just like national elections,” Brotherton says.
“When the national government puts up a billion dollars for the 50 states, everybody gets a piece. It’s the same way here in the city. When you have eight districts, whenever money comes from the federal government, they each get a piece. In other words, nobody gets a chunk of money to do anything big for the city as a whole. Nobody thinks of the city as a whole. They think of only their district.”
“But it’s democracy,” Killea counters. “I think what you need is the strong leadership, and that’s what we’ve lacked.”
“I think the pluses in [district elections] override the negative,” Smith adds. “But I, for the life of me, cannot understand why a city this large has not gone to district elections on the school board . . . We had to change the process for me to get anywhere, because up until that time, the board of education was made up of representatives from La Jolla, Point Loma and Mission Hills. The rest of the city didn’t even matter.”
It was a myopic centrality of geographic control that echoed the power structure of the time; the midcentury collateral fallout of that resolute means of leadership demonstrated by a benevolent group of barons. It was that insular federation that made the smokestacksversus- geraniums decisions that determined the big-city future of a cluster of valley dairies next to a thriving port and sprawling naval infrastructure.
“To show you how [business titan] C. Arnholt Smith wielded his power,” Smith says, “Dick Silberman—and Dick and Bob Peterson were basically responsible for me getting elected to the board of education; they provided much of the wherewithal, and the League of Women Voters provided the manpower. Dick set up an appointment with Frank Thornton, [who] worked for C. Arnholt Smith, [as his] political money-giver, [to discuss my 1970 run for the county board of supervisors].
“Dick and I went to the office of Thornton, [who] basically gave Smith’s money to the Republicans. The guy at Hotel del Coronado—Carl Lichty— he gave the Democrats C. Arnholt’s money. We got up there, and Frank— who knew me well—walked into the room and sat down and said, ‘George, some of us downtown here are worried about your election. Supervisors Jack Walsh and Harry Sheidle are going around town saying, ‘Wait till George gets on this board of supervisors, we’re gonna shake this county up.’
“Frank and C. Arnholt Smith were against that. So I stood up. I said, ‘Listen, Frank, damn it, if you don’t know I’m my own man, I am very disappointed. Because you know how long I have been in this city.’
“‘Oh no, George, we’re gonna support you’ [Thornton quickly replied]. Dick and I said goodbye, and Dick told me [downstairs], ‘George, C. Arnholt Smith knows that if you got on that board, his days of controlling all of the commissions and committees of the county are gone. Now he’s gonna give you some money, but he’s gonna give [Jim] Bear, the [moderate] Democrat, more.’ And it came out just like he said it would.”
Smith lost that bid for supervisor by 811 votes. He talks of dirty campaign shenanigans used in the election and recalls that part of his own strategy lay in using the testimony of community leaders to support his candidacy. He says he never put a picture of his African- American countenance on campaign literature.
“Do you think you would have lost, had you done that?” someone asks.
“Oh, let’s face it,” Smith says. “One of the things we’ve all got to face up to in this nation is that that’s still with us. When I came here, George Smith, as a black person, almost had to live south of Market Street.”
Van Deerlin comments, “George was elected to the school board in 1962, four short years after [African-American contralto singer] Marian Anderson was denied a room at the U.S. Grant Hotel.”
“I mentioned that [C. Arnholt Smith story] so that we can look at San Diego as it was, as it is now, and where we want it to go,” Smith says. He goes on to say that, in eight successful elections to the board of education, he spent a total of $38,000. That sparks a discussion on a modern political atmosphere that’s markedly different from the one that existed in the days of the barons.
“There’s something that feeds on itself,” Killea says, “and it’s something that, unless you’re very careful, if you’re an elected official, you can’t control— [it’s] the whole campaign mania. People that support you, honestly support you, they get caught up in the idea that they’ve got to make a big hit, they’ve got to do it well. I don’t know how many people we’ve got in the state of California that make their living off campaigns.”
“Much more than it used to be,” Van Deerlin says.
“You get advice from people,” Killea says,” who tell you, ‘You’ve got to raise all this money, you’ve got to send out umpteen flyers and posters and mailings . . .’ ”
“And they’re getting a cut of it,” Brotherton says.
“Fifteen percent,” Van Deerlin interjects. “And then the more you get elected,” Killea says, “the more you think it’s really your right. There’s an arrogance that comes out, that people really think, ‘I’m indispensable, look at all the people supporting me.’ You could walk down the halls of the Capitol in Sacramento —and I’m sure it’s the same in Washington—being a senator, [people say to you obsequiously] ‘Good morning, Senator, how are you?’ I said, ‘Look, there are 49 other people you call Senator; there’s only one Killea. Can’t you call me Lucy?’ It was like you had a toga on, or something.”
“Another telltale sign is laughing at your jokes,” Van Deerlin says. “I never was so funny as when I was in office.” Discussion moves on to local government, and Van Deerlin says that 50 years ago, current City Attorney “Mike Aguirre would have gone absolutely ape. There were five councilmen then, and they would meet in what they called ‘council conference’ in advance. They’d take up every bit of business and decide what they were going to do—and the press attended this. There wasn’t anything secret about it. It was in violation of state law, because no notice was given .. . [but] it seemed to be perfectly all right. [Later] they’d go into the council chamber and go through the motions of everything they’d already decided to do in private.”
“One of the things that happened under Pete Wilson,” Killea says, “and I kind of wondered at the time, frankly, but I did support it, was his designating Torrey Pines for the technical side of our economy [biotech and hi-tech]. That, with the University of California, San Diego, and more recently the Salk Institute, the combination has made this a different city. But the city government hasn’t caught up with it yet.”
“See, for a long time it was just a Navy town,” Brotherton says. “The only industry we had was the Navy [and defense] and farming. I was on the board, for 20 years, of the San Diego Army/Navy YMCA. And we used to get 8,000 people a day there. That’s how big a Navy town this was.”
“Was it still a territory then?” Van Deerlin quips before bringing the conversation back around to the Wilson era. “Some acknowledgment should be made of the way the city government subtly became more environmentally minded [then].”
“He was an environmental mayor when he started out,” Killea says.
“I would say that 1970 would’ve represented the time that—it’s easy to talk about the developers as if they’re quite apart from everybody else, which of course is not true—but I’d say that was about the time when developers realized that this was not their playground.”
Epilogue During the Pete Wilson era, as the old system of barons began showing serious signs of erosion—San Diego Union-Tribune publisher James Copley succumbed to cancer in 1973 (his ally Nixon fell from office the same year) as C. Arnholt Smith’s business and banking empire came crashing down—ostentatious wealth began infiltrating all levels of politics in the country. Amid the zealous fervor surrounding the almighty dollar, the politician—infused with newfound public and campaign riches—developed into a new cult of personality. And public service took a back seat to both personal profit and election-time war chests.
Despite dramatic technological and social change, aside from that new cult of the politician, the landscape of yore looks oddly familiar. Looking back to the city’s last bankruptcy (1852), C. Arnholt Smith’s criminal demise, jailed mayors, the financial schemes of Dominelli and the Roger Hedgecock campaign debacle, one realizes the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same.
A new contemporary threat lies with that cozy partnership that’s come to fruition—here and nationally—between corporate America and the corporate media, a symbiotic relationship that’s entered a triumvirate with the developing cult of politics. A new breed of watchdog pups may have been born of the Internet experience, but they’re finding little breathing room under the fat, listless bulk of the corporate American media machine.
All of which means little to William Brotherton as he watches the world speed by from the cab of an austere pickup truck, on a highway that didn’t exist for the better part of his life.
“I’ve got to call my wife,” he says, while punching numbers into a cell phone, “or she’ll start to worry.”
“How long have you been married?”
“Sixteen years, to this one,” he says.
“And the first?”
“Forty years,” he says with a pause. “After 40 years, we found out we weren’t compatible —how does that happen?”
“Do you think people are meant to live together for a lifetime, Mr. Brotherton?”
“Nothing’s supposed to happen for a lifetime,” he says.