War and Peace at City Hall
By Michael Bowler
Peace has broken out at City Hall. For the first time in recent memory, San Diego’s City Council members aren’t at each other’s jugulars. The confrontational "Gang of Five" of the 1980s appears to have evolved into a ’90s "Mutual Admiration Society of Nine." No more the automatic skewering of no-growthers by pro-growthers. Council environmentalists no longer seem to regard pro-business types as agents of the Evil Empire. Even an ambitious long-range plan to preserve open space wins the unanimous backing of the council.
And if all that is not cause for amazement, consider: This apparent lovefest comes at a time when half the City Council members could find themselves challenging one another in a battle to be San Diego’s next mayor. Meanwhile, city politicos find themselves facing some of the most important issues to confront San Diego in half a century: a battle over the expansion of San Diego’s convention center and the future of its visitor industry; the next big step in the redevelopment of downtown with the push for a downtown baseball park; the development of a bay-to-bay park; and the rebuilding of the abandoned Naval Training Center and the Naval Base on Nimitz.
All this is happening following the imposition of term limits, which means that by the year 2002, the city will have a new mayor and an entirely new council. That may explain some of the new civility among the councilmembers; most of them will soon be looking to run for new political offices. And in such races, the support of former council colleagues could come in handy. Political back-scratching is being elevated to high art.
These days, the biggest challenges to incumbent councilmembers come from outside City Hall. The most visible: independent efforts to recall First District Councilman Harry Mathis and the Fifth District’s Barbara Warden, both of whom have earned potent enemies for not opposing the relocation of Marine helicopters to Miramar.
Warden and Mathis take these challenges seriously. Warden has hired political consultant Tom Shepard to handle her campaign; Mathis has retained McCarty’s longtime political strategist, John Kern.
"It became obvious," says Mathis, "that the Marines were not going to leave Miramar, so we took the approach of working to lessen the impact of the helicopters coming. But apparently that was not good enough. I think the recall effort is a way to get people elected to office who would not normally be electable," he says, suggesting the recall proponents are politically ambitious.
If either Warden or Mathis is recalled, a potential successor need only win a plurality to replace them. "All a potential candidate has to do," Mathis says, "is wait six months after an election, call for a recall, get a lot of unknowns to run to split the vote, and step in."
Warden agrees. "These people didn’t run against me in 1996," she says, "and I was sworn in during December 1996. Then three months later, they file for a recall. Now they begin gathering signatures in June, and they can draw out the procedure six months. At that time, I’ll tell them to either put up or shut up."
Computer salesman Marc Kornheiser leads the charge against Warden; homemaker Evalyn Drobnicki is taking on Mathis. Both believe that once they have the necessary signatures, or 15 percent of the registered voters in their districts (a little more than 12,000 signatures in each district), the recall is a done deal.
"There’s a lot of people really angry at Harry Mathis," says Drobnicki. "They [Mathis and Warden] must be desperate. Instead of confronting the people, [Mathis] went out and hired an expensive political expert, paid with money from outside of the district. And this isn’t just a noise issue. It is also a safety and pollution issue."
Mira Mesa’s Kornheiser feels he was deceived by Warden.
"I was in contact with her office nearly every day," he says, "and she kept on telling me she was on our side. Then I learn through the Freedom of Information Act that she signed a letter sent to the Pentagon [along with Judy McCarty and Harry Mathis] telling them not to pay attention to our complaints and that we don’t represent the beliefs of our district."
Such outside threats tend to unite the political insiders. Despite the nonpartisan nature of the City Council, traditional Republicans Judy McCarty, Barbara Warden and Byron Wear seem the most natural allies. Although Harry Mathis is a Republican, he seems the least politicized of all councilmembers, sometimes aligning with Democrats Christine Kehoe and Valerie Stallings. Republican Mayor Susan Golding may support Kehoe and Stallings on some issues, or go with the traditional Republicans, depending on the prevailing political winds. The council’s only Latino, Democrat Juan Vargas, is the least predictable member, changing sides from issue to issue. And Democrat George Stevens, the sole African-American on the council, is the ultimate maverick, generally following his own agenda.
The Seventh District’s McCarty, after 13 years the senior councilmember (she’s sometimes referred to as the "den mother"), has been around long enough to understand the council’s vagaries. When she steps down next year, she will hold the longevity record on the San Diego City Council. "I’ve been an incumbent so long," she says, "that it will be good to [move on and] see some new faces.
"At first I was for term limits, but I changed my mind after I was in office awhile," says McCarty, who once vowed to step down after two terms but is now in the middle of her fourth. "I’ve been here long enough that I have been able to remind people that things they’re suggesting now, we tried in the past. And they failed. It’s good to have someone with a little bit of history, like me."
McCarty also opposed the recent switch that moved council elections from odd to even years. "It helps Democrats," she says, "and that’s why I voted against it." Even-year elections, especially during presidential election years, draw a considerably larger turnout from the inner city and other Democratic strongholds, she notes. And even though council races are, by state law, nonpartisan, the candidates’ party affiliations are well known.
Including Mayor Golding, McCarty is one of five Republican councilmembers. The four others are Democrats. Some suggest that even-year elections could upset that balance, depending on who replaces Golding—should she defeat Barbara Boxer in next year’s U.S. Senate race. (If Golding fails in her bid for senator, she will have served her maximum two terms by the year 2000 and move on anyway.) With the even-year elections, and the growth of the area’s primarily Democratic Latino and Filipino populations, local Democrats could find themselves in a better position to challenge San Diego’s traditionally Republican stronghold.
Meanwhile, as district-only elections have made council districts even more politicized and inward-looking, Mayor Golding and City Manager Jack McGrory are pushing a plan to try to unite often disparate interests throughout the city. The two are supporting the recommendations of the Renaissance Commission, which seeks to give new independent power to neighborhood groups while bringing them together to form a consensus on the larger issues facing the city.
McGrory says the Renaissance Commission suggestions are three-pronged: One, expand and intensify common city services, such as street sweeping and lighting; two, create a superfund to rebuild the inner city; and three, create new community action groups with some authority to act independently. The third aspect is what concerns some councilmembers, because it would create supergroups and could give nonelected community leaders control over taxpayer money.
While this plan seems to be catching on with the council, support is not unanimous. McCarty, whose diverse district ranges from the College area to Tierrasanta, is one who expresses reservations. "It would divide the city into about 26 areas or communities," she says, "and set up one supergroup in each of the 26 communities to deal with a variety of issues. Where now just one of the several communities in my district—Navajo, for example—might have 10 or 15 different groups dealing with a variety of interests, they would all be squished into just one group. And a lot of noses are going to be out of joint when they try to do that. These existing groups concern many diverse interests, and that’s good."
McCarty, one of the few councilmembers who doesn’t seem to have her sights on the mayor’s job, isn’t so sure who should succeed Golding. She is, however, one of the few councilmembers who has criticized the mayor openly, perhaps because she has no further political aspirations of her own.
While McCarty feels Golding has done much in recent weeks to keep the council informed and involved, it was not always so, she says. "The battle over the stadium is a good example," says McCarty. "A lot of people around here learned some important political lessons. You have to make sure people are behind you at the beginning of an issue and that you still have their support at the end of an issue."
If McCarty were to support anyone to succeed Golding, she says, it would probably be Byron Wear.
Wear, another Republican, represents District 2, which includes Point Loma, downtown, Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and Mission Hills. The former lifeguard and former executive director of the U.S. Lifeguard Association has been a surprise to many on this council who underestimated his political energy.
His boyish smile, affable personality and widening midsection seem to belong more to an aging fraternity brother than an ambitious young politician. But Wear is clearly issue-oriented and seems genuinely concerned for his district.
"I like district elections," he says, "although originally I opposed them. I see the most important issues confronting my district to be the expansion of Lindbergh Field, the future of the Naval Training Center site and the building of a bay-to-bay park, which could include a canal joining San Diego Bay and Mission Bay."
Wear pulls out a 4-by-4-foot relief map showing what has been suggested for the area encompassing the now-abandoned NTC and the Midway District. Basically, plans for the NTC and the old General Dynamics site include two hotels, Navy housing, market-rate civilian housing, an expanded Lindbergh Field, an expanded golf course, an intermodal transportation site, a public-safety academy, a bay-to-bay park and (of course) a least tern nesting site. The intermodal transportation site would have stops for the train, trolley and buses, parking for cars, and possibly a canal, providing connections to downtown, Lindbergh Field, Mission Valley and Mission Bay by rail, boat, shuttle or bus, depending on destination.
"We have to be practical," Wear adds. "Even though we’ve been trying to move Lindbergh Field for decades, it won’t happen in the near future. And either the city or the federal government owns all of the property from Kurtz Street to Mission Bay. I look at North Bay [redevelopment] as the most significant issue I will work on during my tenure as a councilmember."
Although Wear is sharp on district issues, he’s vague on wider issues. He says he believed in the Renaissance Commission but doesn’t want to divert public funds to nonelected groups. And he stops short of supporting a new downtown baseball stadium, though it would, he says, attract visitors to the area.
Wear sees Barbara Warden as the frontrunner in the race to replace Mayor Golding. The only one who doesn’t seem sure Warden is running for mayor, it seems, is Warden.
"I think everybody is going to be the next mayor," she says facetiously. "But I am looking at it, along with several other offices. Jan Goldsmith, in the 75th Assembly District, will be termed-out soon," says Warden, who lives in that district.
Like most of the Republicans on the council, Warden originally favored term limits and citywide elections. Now she isn’t so sure. "In my first term, I would have lost citywide," she says, "and now that I’m almost termed-out, I would like to run for another office."
Warden, cofounder and former editor of the Bernardo News, has an easy smile and the manner of a friendly high school vice-principal: soft façade; tough interior. Why did she quit a successful business for the political battlefield?
"I was just sitting around the newspaper office one day," she explains, "and decided I could do as good a job as most people who were on the city council. So I ran." (She has since sold the newspaper.)
Her pet project is the completion of Highway 56 from Black Mountain Road to Del Mar (Warden’s Fifth District includes parts of Linda Vista, Mira Mesa, Scripps Ranch and Rancho Bernardo). She also takes pride in the council’s passage of the Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP), which sets aside 57,000 acres within the city in a plan to preserve natural habitats while making development easier in the remaining area. It is a program that seems to unite the construction industry and environmental organizations.
Although Warden, along with other councilmembers, denies it, their unanimous vote for the MSCP is viewed by many as an attempt to mollify environmentalists as well as developers—so that councilmembers can run for higher office without having to battle either side.
Warden regards Golding as a unifying force on the council. Although San Diego’s city-manager form of government means a weaker role for the mayor, Warden sees the mayor’s office as providing leadership for councilmembers. It is also apparent Warden would like the mayor’s support should she attempt to succeed Golding.
"The best thing Golding has done is to make San Diego more business-friendly," Warden says. "She lowered the costs businesses paid to rehab buildings and lowered other business taxes. This council is not split along Democratic and Republican lines or environmentalists and developers. We all work together."
Warden’s sometime ally, Democrat Valerie Stallings, represents the Sixth District, including Serra Mesa and parts of Mission Valley and Clairemont. She does not give interviews outside the presence of her faithful chief of staff, Jane Potter.
In the early 1970s, Stallings divorced her husband, packed her belongings and moved to California from Kansas, hoping to find work at La Jolla’s Salk Institute. After much persistence, she got a job and worked her way up to research assistant, though at the time she did not have a degree. She coauthored scientific papers with Robert Hyman and eventually earned her degree in anthropology.
"One of the reasons I love this job so much," Stallings says, "is that I like to see what motivates people and see why they do what they do. For example, one reason I think this council works so well together is that we have so many women. And women, I think, are naturally less confrontational and more likely to compromise. After all, traditionally, women have had to work together, especially in hunting-and-gathering societies."
Stallings’ on-the-job training has been a crash course in political science.
"When I first got here, I was for district elections," she says, "but now that I’m on the inside, I’m not so sure. I can see the other side and see where citywide elections will have a greater tendency to produce people who are more interested in the city as a whole."
Fellow Democrat Christine Kehoe, representing District 3—which includes Kensington, Hillcrest and parts of North and South Park—might well have failed in a citywide race. She’s San Diego’s first openly homosexual councilmember. And although she says she believes she would be electable to a citywide office such as mayor, political observers regard it as a long shot in conservative San Diego.
"I’d rather people looked at things I’m doing," she comments. "My record is about my district as a whole. Although I enjoy representing the gay community, I hope people look at me for who I am."
Kehoe’s list of major issues: a downtown ballpark and library; the North Bay project; and implementation of the MSCP. "I am not a sports fan, and baseball is not the most exciting sport," she admits. "But it is economically good for San Diego. Jobs are the issue, and we ought to create as many as possible."
Kehoe maintains close political ties with Golding, Warden and Stallings, which could provide a strong base of support if she seeks higher office.
Juan Vargas, who represents the Eighth District (including Golden Hill, Nestor, Centre City East, San Ysidro and Barrio Logan), is another Democrat with at least one eye on the mayor’s office.
"I’m going to back myself for mayor," says the handsome Latino, flashing a quick smile before backpedaling. "Or am I? The thought of running for mayor has crossed my mind.
"Some accuse me of being more like a Republican than a Democrat. I do believe in personal responsibility ... I believe we should get homeless people to work. And I do think the best social service is a job."
USD graduate Vargas—who worked his way through by cleaning bathrooms at University High School—spent six years studying to be a Jesuit priest before entering Harvard Law School. He grew up in San Diego’s South Bay and Santee in a family of 12.
"In such a large family, we each had to help each other," says Vargas. "We had strong family values, and I think I bring those values to the office.
"And I believe in hard work," he adds flatly, "not in unnecessary social programs."
The former Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps attorney could easily be making three times what he gets as a councilman (slightly more than $54,000) had he stuck with the firm. But, Vargas says, "I thought I could make a difference in the public arena."
That belief is shared by Harry Mathis, whose First District includes La Jolla, University City, Rancho Peñasquitos, Mira Mesa, Carmel Valley and Del Mar Heights. A former Navy captain, submarine commander and lobbyist, Mathis speaks in a quiet, measured voice and is seemingly unflappable. He takes his exercise by walking each day with land-use attorney Matthew Peterson, which may give a clue to his position on growth. His choice of conservative gray suits gives him the proper look of a banker.
"I was a community activist and lobbyist before I ran for political office," says Mathis, "and I decided I could be more effective and help more people from the inside."
Mathis sees the Convention Center expansion as critical to San Diego’s future. That project has been held up by Libertarian opponents who insist bonds for the expansion are subject to voter approval; a state Supreme Court decision to hear the case could delay the work for a year or stop it altogether.
"Do it as an advisory vote," suggests Mathis, sounding just a wee bit flappable for the first time. "But when we expand the Convention Center or the stadium, does it make sense to go out and ask? Every voter, in some way, is not going to understand everything. In the stadium’s case, we had a 100-page contract between the city and the Chargers owner, and somebody goes and looks at the ticket guarantee alone. Both sides in a contract should walk away with something."
George Stevens was also vocal during the stadium-expansion debate. As is his nature, this councilmember—whose Fourth District covers nearly two dozen neighborhoods in southeastern San Diego—is vocal about most things. However, when asked, few of his council colleagues are eager to talk on the record about Stevens. "Well, you know George" is a typical response.
The fiery maverick has served his district with zeal, winning increased police protection and access to the city’s superfund for infrastructure improvement. He also has led an increasingly successful charge (along with colleague Vargas) to help rid the area of crack houses and other neighborhood threats and eyesores.
"My district has the lowest crime rate in the city," Stevens boasts. "And we have redone many of our streets and boulevards to become the most beautiful in the city."
Ironically, the man who most typifies ward politics is the only member of the council who seems eager to discuss one of the more pressing citywide issues: water. "The city wants to reclaim our sewage and sell it as ‘gray water’ for irrigation and other uses, and then use that money to fix our current water system," he says. "But there is not a market for the gray water. Instead of spending money on that [a reclamation project] we should fix the city’s existing water system first."
Stevens has a personal style that operates on one level at all times: intense.
"One time, during a council meeting," Stallings recalls, "George was just going on and on about something. Suddenly he stopped and asked me, ‘Are we going to vote on this?’ When I said no, he said, ‘Why did you let me go on and on?’ Well, that’s just George."
So while George is busy being George, the rest of the council seems content not to make any waves. There are long-range issues the current council seems to be attacking with unity and a minimum of acrimony. Expansion of public facilities like the Convention Center. Protection of the region’s natural resources. The creation of a new bay park. Transportation corridors.
In their nonconfrontational manner, the City Council is confronted with issues that will affect how San Diego faces the challenges of the new millennium. With term limits guaranteeing a radical change over the next three to five years, and as political ambitions boil, today’s most pressing question may be: How long will the peace hold?