The Harder They Fall
A recent phone conversation with the 32-year city employee is vintage Abdelnour. When a reporter opens, “I’ve called to ask you another question about the city council,” he retorts, “But I haven’t received my thousand- dollar check for the last interview.”
And the hits keep on coming—until the city’s budget crisis is mentioned, including the thoughts of a city staffer who believes there’s no way for San Diego to avoid bankruptcy. Abdelnour utters an epithet and becomes quiet—a rare moment when the man offers no witty comment to plug the silence. And then, “If that happens, it’s gonna knock pensions down at least 30 percent,” he says seriously. “I’m 68 now. With my health, I just can’t go back to work.”
Abdelnour’s concern—and the concern of thousands of current and future retirees—constitutes one of the more overlooked factors in a contemporary civic debacle that’s mushroomed into what might be San Diego’s most punitive crisis ever. With five pension board members already indicted by a grand jury and two former city councilmen convicted in an unrelated case (one on his way to jail), federal law enforcement has tasted blood. Now the SEC, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney are ominously circling the waters.
Aggravating the situation, pension debacles and scandals are molesting the peace of mind of powerful baby boomer retirees all across the American landscape. Federal authorities will likely use San Diego as an example to send a message. Meanwhile, from deep within the darkness of that strange shadow cast by the encroaching apocalypse, the name players in local government have resorted to eye gouging and dirty judo in the clinches, a freefor- all tempered with that golden political fiat: Cover your ass.
The question put to Abdelnour has to do with closed-session city council meetings around the time of the vote on Manager’s Proposal II in 2002, a vote that continued underfunding of the pension system, a maneuver (one not uncommon among pension boards across the nation) that had been ratified in 1996 under Manager’s Proposal I, a creative money-diversion tactic engineered by then–city manager Jack McGrory. Norma Damashek, vice president for public policy with the League of Women Voters, indicates that sometime around 2002 then- Mayor Dick Murphy called for the removal of the city clerk—and his comprehensive recording duties—at closed-session city council meetings.
Abdelnour confirms that Murphy and District 2 Councilman Scott Peters pushed for the more secretive meetings, a move ostensibly made to lower the risk of press leaks.
“That was kind of a stunner, a shocker,” Abdelnour says. “I never questioned my staff would leak it. We locked [those things] up; the only one who could get in to see them was the city attorney.”
One closed-session meeting, in October 2002—from which a leaked report indicates a vote took place to raise the benefits of pension board members—has become a magnet for controversy. In January 2005, Carl De- Maio, president of the government watchdog group Performance Institute, sent a letter to Councilmembers Jim Madaffer and Peters requesting they suspend Council Resolution No. 297212—a resolution they offered and seconded, respectively, and which DeMaio says “violates public trust by granting lavish benefits packages to union leaders but also violates the federal tax code.” Madaffer and Peters called on the Ethics Commission to review DeMaio’s actions regarding the leaked memo, and accused City Attorney Mike Aguirre of leaking the memo.
DeMaio stands behind the veracity of his information but won’t say how he got it, which for all intents and purposes doesn’t mean a lick in the bigger picture. Getting lost in track ing the source of that leak is like trying to finger the lookout who missed the Titanic’s fatal iceberg—while the ship’s still going down. This particular memo is so polemical because it cuts to the heart of the case against Murphy, the city council and the pension board of the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System (SDCERS). Critics charge that Murphy and the council, knowing they couldn’t properly fund the city’s pension system—or make a fiscally triggered emergency payment—voted instead to bribe pension board members into silence regarding the magnitude of the system’s underfunding.
In their defense, Murphy and several councilmembers claim they were misinformed by advisers and that, through the utter complexity of high finances and technicalities, they didn’t understand the scope of the problem. Benefit increases for pension board members were normal and coincidental, they say.
HEADS IN THE SAND
San Diegans, a breed traditionally noted for sun loving and political complacency, have come out of hibernation. With futures and retirements in jeopardy, the public is demanding answers, and the Fourth Estate has been forced to shyly admit it may have been asleep at the wheel. San Diego Union-Tribune editor Karin Winner and editorial director Bob Kittle have talked of the pension crisis as a surprise to all of San Diego, one that snuck up suddenly and without warning. Both claim personal responsibility for the Union-Tribune’s failure to foresee the impending fiasco (a failure shared by all San Diego media).
While sources for this story have questioned the effectiveness of the Union-Tribune in regard to its watchdog responsibilities since the Los Angeles Times exited the local media arena in 1992, Winner and Kittle may be hasty in their self-castigation. San Diego has no monopoly in the pension-underfunding arena. Numerous states are narrowly skirting the threat of pension disaster. Municipalities across the country, meanwhile, have been caught with their pants down in the wake of Wall Street’s turn-of the-century dive, and a record number of corporate pension failures have threatened to bankrupt the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s sister insurer, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation.
Through the flush years of the late 1990s, with stock-market gains putting many pension systems above 100 percent in holdings, pension boards across the country began making unwise and overzealous decisions in the benefits arena. When the dot-com crash at the end of the ’90s threw the stock market into a dive, reserves began to dwindle; September 11 and its ensuing economic slowdown aggravated the situation. By 2003, the effects of increased benefits and bad accounting decisions were becoming glaringly apparent.
Adding to that stretch of ill-informed, high-rolling decisions, the dreaded baby boomer retirement bust quietly arrived. Business Week says the major public pension plans paid out $78.5 billion in 2000; by 2004 that had grown to $117.8 billion, a 50 percent climb in four years. With payouts at record highs, a dwindling number of people paying into retirement systems and a struggling stock market, state and municipal pension funds across the country—Colorado, Nebraska, Michigan, New York, Minnesota and Florida among them—are now reaching critical levels. San Diego’s own $1.6 billion pension deficit looks benign next to the likes of New Jersey ($25 billion short) and Illinois ($35 billion in the red). San Francisco, meanwhile, where pension decisions go to citywide ballot, has a pension system that’s 104 percent funded.
Even sun-loving populations can be surly and vindictive when jolted out of hibernation. San Diegans want answers, and they want a neck for the district attorney’s noose. Meanwhile, the Fourth Estate does not want to appear to have dropped the ball again, and so a sort of media über-scrutiny has descended on City Hall—one that’s only contributed to the paranoid free-for-all among those whose heads lie anywhere near the chopping block. The hope for direct answers, in a city in the midst of a schizophrenic bout of growing pains, may be naïve.
Fifty years have witnessed a slow metamorphosis in San Diego. The town that was once staunchly conservative, Republican and proudly provincial is now the country’s seventh-largest city, with a Democrat- led city council representing a majority of Democrat-registered voters. Aggravating the confusion of that turnaround, the basic ignobility of human nature has cast its own influence.
“You’d be amazed at how people, especially politicians, shut out things they don’t want to deal with or see and then convince themselves they’re honest,” the League of Women Voters’ Norma Damashek says. “I think when you’re talking to people who were involved with this [pension situation] and who were responsible, they’re going to write their own truth and believe [it], and that’s why it’s impossible to get to the bottom of things—because people believe their own lies or their own reconstruction of what happened.”
THE ART OF POLITICS In days of yore, when council salaries were $5,000 a year, semi-retirees and a bevy of successful businessmen ran the city. With the watershed era of Pete Wilson came a new phenomenon—the career city politician. The council that took office in 2000 was flush with the new breed. Councilmembers Charles Lewis, Jim Madaffer, Toni Atkins, Michael Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza were all chiefs of staff in their council districts before being voted into office.
Cynthia Vicknair’s political roots in the city run far deeper than those of that relatively young and decidedly ambitious group. She started with Larry Stirling in District 7 in the 1970s, before moving into the office of District 7 Councilwoman Judy McCarty—to whom she played chief of staff in the mid-1990s. She later helped Dick Murphy (another former District 7 councilman) take the mayor’s office in 2000.
“When I got into politics in San Diego, the people running for office were at the end of their careers,” Vicknair says. “Then came these young kids who were political animals; they worked like dogs in campaigns and got their [council seats]. First, they worked for an elected official, and they got to know who all the lobbyists in town were. They ingratiated themselves with [those lobbyists] by doing favors.
“The leg up they had was that they knew the political money establishment in San Diego, and the political money establishment knew them, and [it] said, ‘This is somebody we can work with.’ So that’s how they managed to stay ahead of the game. It became very difficult to challenge them.”
An anonymous source from the U.S. Attorney’s office, commenting on the Strippergate scandal that killed the young and promising careers of two of those political animals—Zucchet and Inzunza —says, “We’re not getting our best and our brightest” in regard to the trend toward nepotism and recycling of staff into council seats. Critics argue this process retards the political gene pool and entrenches corruption. Proponents say it makes the system more efficient.
“In hindsight, it might have been problematic,” says Zucchet. “But I think that was more a function of city staff and the city management and city auditors and city finance directors, because, as a council staffer, you rely on the city manager– type staff to feed you information, to feed you budget dollars, and you develop a cozy relationship with them. As it turns out, some members of that highlevel city management staff have proven to be less than competent. [So] I think having that continuity may not have been a good thing.
“On the other hand,” he adds, “if we had stellar city [management] . . . if [they] were the most effective, brilliant leaders in the history of the world, it would have been great to have a bunch of continuity. Experience is good, [but] in this case, a fresh start may have been better. [At the same time], we were able to hit the ground running, providing for our districts right away. We knew how to work the system; I think our districts were well-served in terms of bringing home the bacon.”
(Zucchet lost his job when a jury convicted him on nine charges involving corruption in the Strippergate case. A judge later reversed seven of the charges. An appeal by the U.S. Attorney General’s office is being considered.)
A wide spectrum of savvy and experienced voices holds that the system of district elections—unquestionable impetus for councilmembers to bring home the bacon for their narrow constituencies— is myopic and counterproductive for the city as a whole. A politician who works laudably to get potholes filled in the home district but who can’t understand the intricacies of the city’s huge budget might be a boon for a particular neighborhood, they say—but not for all of San Diego.
Progressive term-limit laws have had similar, unforeseen implications. They’ve led to the phenomenon that a source in the U.S. Attorney’s office calls the “revolving- door politician”—an idea most directly linked to the continual search for office among career elected officials, one that peripherally encompasses that nepotistic anointment-and-succession ritual of chiefs of staff. “The purpose of term limits is not to exchange office for office,” the source says.
THE WHIZ KIDS Cynthia Vicknair talks of the hope and enthusiasm engendered by that young and vibrant group elected in 2000, one she says held the promise of not only leading the city but transforming it into something better. She wonders, now, if the group’s relative youth —and dearth of experience in high finance and CEO-type leadership—didn’t work against it.
“You have these folks on the council who really have no life experience outside of politics,” Vicknair says. “[For them] it’s all about the deal. What they haven’t done is formulated that moral rudder as to what’s right or wrong. [When it comes to] good policy versus good politics, they understand good politics. Good policy plays a secondary role.”
Damashek’s moral rudder has been plying the waters of San Diego government since Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. The one-time city staffer, with a master’s degree in city planning, has helped guide the committee that’s implemented San Diego’s new strong-mayor form of government.
“[This new breed of politician] came in very young, knowing they wanted to be politicians,” she says. “These aren’t people who’ve had any experience in the world [or] who’ve functioned in other ways in the world around them. These are young guys, or occasionally women, who know the system . . . and how to manipulate [it]. But it’s a narrow system of how to get certain things done, without even knowing what needs to get done —because they never were out there. “It’s very valuable to know how to get things done once you get elected to office—it’s imperative. But I think we’ve seen youngish politicians who, from an early age, decided they wanted political power but didn’t seem to have any other motives [and] didn’t know what they wanted to do with that power, or what serving the public was all about. Nobody [these days] talks about having any bigger plans or agenda for the public good.”
In the wake of the spoiled hopes of the Whiz Kids of 2000, insiders have bemoaned the fact that San Diego has not been represented by stellar politicians (though with notable exceptions). The effect of a mélange of factors— small-town thinking, general complacence and the political influence of the powerful development industry (and more recently, labor unions)—has seemingly rendered the city impotent in its ability to attract or elect dynamic representation. And in the absence of the old barons, that largely white, aged and affluent hegemony that shaped and guided the city through the middle of the last century, complacency is proving itself an expensive shortcoming.
“The public gets what it asks for,” says that source at the U.S. Attorney’s office. “The thing with city council is nobody really pays attention. At least nobody did, up until now—and now it’s acutely painful. Now we’re all going to pay, with our taxes, to balance this budget.”
While the public knows it will pay —through bankruptcy court or increased municipal costs—it’s asking for two things: a quick resolution and answers. Is all of this pension mismanagement symptomatic of a green council —replete with a decision-eschewing former mayor—that got in over its head? Or is it the accidental fallout of some venal plot hatched by Murphy (who totes an MBA from Harvard, a law degree from Stanford and an economics degree from the University of Illinois), firefighters union chief Ron Saathoff (widely regarded as the shrewdest, most intelligent man involved in the pension paradigm) and a couple of Whiz Kids? Inquiring minds, and a bevy of federal officials, want to know. Says Zucchet: “If you spent a year or two on the inside, in the underbelly of City Hall, you would learn that you should definitely be careful chalking things up to conspiracy when you could simply chalk them up to oversight, confusion or even incompetence. I think that’s definitely true in the pension case.”
“Thou shalt not lie” is not one of the Ten Commandments. Czech novelist Milan Kundera says that’s no accident. In Immortality, Kundera points out that “the one who says, ‘Don’t lie!’ has first to say, ‘Answer!’ and God did not give anyone the right to demand an answer from others.” He says contemporary journalists enjoy a power never before enjoyed in the world—one not based on the right to ask but on the right to demand an answer. “The whole moral structure of our time rests on [this] Eleventh Commandment,” Kundera says. “It is not a question of God’s truth nor of the truth of science and free thought, [it’s not] connected with religion or philosophy, it is truth of the lowest ontological story, a positivist factual truth: What did C do yesterday?”
Indeed, the truth we demand today is trivial: What exactly happened in the Oval Office? When was the intelligence understood to be compromised? Who authored the closed-door resolution?
Just as the journalist needs the politician as a source for demands, Kundera says, the politician is dependent on the journalist, the conduit to the media, as “imagology has gained a historic victory over ideology. In the end [all ideological] dogmas were unmasked as illusions, and people stopped taking them seriously.”
Carl DeMaio is a man immersed in the world of imagology. Local journalists bluntly call him a “media whore” but can only speculate at his underlying motivations. For his part, DeMaio says it’s simple: He wants more transparent and more responsible government. Despite the national recognition garnered by his watchdog Performance Institute, and what appears to be a solid and savvy grasp on the machinations of the local political circuit, the media-hungry DeMaio makes San Diegans nervous. His relative youth (just into his 30s) and lack of time on the local scene (after years of watchdogging on Capitol Hill, he’s returned to Southern California) make him an uneasy presence to local insiders. Some say the Orange County native is making a play for his own eventual shot at political office.
DeMaio says his unwavering motivation has been government reform. “I don’t believe in the system at City Hall; I think it’s corrupt,” he says. “I want nothing to do with their social circuit and cocktail hours. [Besides], it’s very limiting on the inside. If you’re going to transform the system, sometimes from the outside is the most effective way—[otherwise] you have to deal with all that transactional nonsense.”
Intentions aside, one of DeMaio’s more compelling insights involves that admittedly simplified transformational versus transactional stratagem. Transformational, he says, refers to a new breed of politician who’s trying to fundamentally change the system, one whose goal is to make government more answerable to the people by refusing the modus operandi of the traditional powers.
The transactionals, meanwhile, are guardians of the status quo. They accept the system as it is—run by special interests and powerful lobbies—and work with those heavy influences to solidify the system (making themselves stronger within it) through stereotypical backroom politics, trade-offs and favors for political equity. They are the politicians who oil the gears of the machine through back-scratching and the quid pro quo, making themselves wealthy in the process.
Though their politics are worlds removed —DeMaio is a libertarian, laissezfaire Republican—he says the prototypical transformationalist is Councilmember Donna Frye. “The question is,” he says, “are they co-opted when they come into the system? Do they buy into the mystique of power? Do they go from looking at major change and seeing the system as illegitimate to becoming part of the system and part of the problem; do they cozy up? Does the culture overcome their original views? In Donna’s case, if you take a look at her conduct in office—in terms of asking questions, being the skeptic and shining the light—there’s nothing I’ve seen to indicate she sees the current system as legitimate. She’s kept her transformational role.”
Councilmember Toni Atkins, despite her simple, populist ethos and an entrenched work ethic that makes her popular with her constituents, is a clear transactionalist in DeMaio’s view. A disciple of the status quo, the second-term councilwoman is generally viewed as one of the less astute people mired in the pension morass. Most agree that she was hampered by a dearth of experience in the worlds of high finance and big business. When it came down to the brasstack decisions on pension matters with strange nuances and heavy implications, they say Atkins probably deferred judgment to fellow councilmembers and the mayor.
CASES IN POINT Scott Peters’ statement of economic interest (the document that’s required of every elected city official to safeguard against voting conflicts) is longer than a Stephen King novel. His wife, Lynn Peters, owns Cameron Holdings Corporation, a private equity company in La Jolla that holds stock in companies from the Gap to Tyco. While Peters’ window for conflict of interest is great, several of the voices contributing to this story say that, ironically, his wife’s deep pockets might make him more honest—independent wealth ostensibly makes him the councilmember least compelled by special-interest money.
A Democrat who critics charge is merely a Republican in moderate garb, Peters has an environmental law background and was endorsed by the Greens. Since he took office, however, critics say he’s been an unabashed ally of big business and the development industry. As a lawyer and a man generally considered one of the more intelligent members of the council elected in 2000, Peters is expected to have a hard time (like Murphy) convincing federal authorities he didn’t understand the significance of the underfunding problem in 2002. DeMaio’s harshest criticism of the District 1 representative relates to the charge that he’s been backpedaling for years, more concerned with damage control than in moving the city forward.
The emblem for DeMaio’s transactional category is District 7 representative Jim Madaffer, widely regarded as one of the less scrupulous players in city government. A string of controversies in his six years in office has added to a laundry list of bad business deals and questionable ethical lapses in his pre-office life—part of a sordid catalogue of grievances made public through a smear campaign in his 2000 run for office. Whatever the case, despite lawsuits, wage garnishments, an investigation by the district attorney’s office and an intra-party, intra-district effort to have him impeached, Madaffer has remained one step ahead of the law, befuddling detractors who marvel at his “Teflon coating.”
Two staffers who worked with Madaffer in District 7 offices under Councilmember Judy McCarty say that they questioned his honesty and were uncomfortable with his ethics. Ironically, several of Madaffer’s supporters say it’s precisely his honesty they were drawn to. Former Councilman Zucchet echoes Mike Smiley, a District 7 business owner, in highlighting Madaffer’s integrity—something they both say became evident through one-on-one interactions and long conversations. McCarty, Madaffer’s former boss, stands by his side, saying he’s misunderstood because of his keen intellect and a mind that works 10 steps ahead of everybody else.
Though third-party testimony regarding Madaffer’s business ethics is damning, and his pre-office financial history is as speckled as a rusty nail, the Tierrasanta resident enjoys popular support in his district. He’s described as a politician who labors tirelessly for his constituency, and nobody questions his work ethic. His adroit manipulation of political levers, however, and cozy relationships with powerful special interests (the development industry chief among them) make him the archetypal transactionalist.
In 2001, Madaffer made what appeared to be a quid pro quo trade-off with former City Councilman Mike Gotch, who was then a top aide to former Governor Gray Davis. As later reported by the Voice of San Diego, Madaffer went against the advice of staff and city attorneys to retroactively raise the pension benefits of several former city employees, Gotch’s 48 percent pension hike prominent among them. E-mails indicated that in return, Gotch was supposed to lobby for state help in retaining land for District 7’s Mission Trails Regional Park.
As early as 2002, Madaffer was taking heat for questionable campaign contributions from Pro Kids, an entity he subsequently supported with block grant money. Questions have also been raised about the financing behind 40 expensive automatic external defibrillator machines he bought for the city. And a former District 7 staffer indicates that she was interviewed by the district attorney regarding Madaffer’s relationship with the Data Processing Corporation (DPC), a debacle that office has been mired in for years.
Though outside the San Diego Ethics Commission’s statute of limitations, it appears Madaffer clearly breached city ethics laws in 1998, as Judy McCarty’s chief of staff, when he accepted a $20,000 unsecured home loan from a Stadium Authority board member (whom McCarty voted back onto the stadium board a month later). He’s also been roundly criticized for his unchecked support of developers and the campaign money he’s taken from them. Regarding his support of several contentious redevelopment plans, local political observer Ian Trowbridge calls Madaffer a “weapon of mass construction.”
THE COMMERCE OF TRUTH AND POWER Who is the pioneer of modern journalism? “Not Hemingway, who wrote of his experiences in the trenches,” Kundera says. “Not Orwell, who spent a year of his life with the Parisian poor; not Egon Erwin Kisch, the expert on Prague prostitutes; but Oriana Fallaci, who in the years 1969 to 1972 published in the Italian journal Europeo a series of interviews with the most famous politicians of the time. Those interviews were more than mere conversations; they were duels.
“Before the powerful politicians realized they were fighting under unequal conditions—for she was allowed to ask the questions but they were not—they were already rolling on the floor of the ring, KOed. . . . Journalists realized that posing questions was not merely a practical working method for the reporter [but] a means of exerting power.”
And power is really what this story is all about.
It’s a narcotic to the transactional politician; a fluid commodity with corrosive influences. Young political animals such as the wheeling-dealing Madaffers and Inzunzas of 2000— ambitious men with moderate backgrounds —are drawn like moths to the flame by the obscene amounts of money floating around municipal government decisions and the power that comes with their commerce.
There is such a rush when you’re in office,” Damashek says. “It’s like being a movie star; people want to look at you, talk to you and be in your presence. The people who want something [always] tell you how wonderful you are, and I think that’s where politicians tend to start falling by the wayside . . . when they start believing it.
“I’ve watched and listened to these lobbyists, and they say, ‘You understand this and nobody else does . . . you’re different from them . . . you’re smarter, you’re wonderful, you’re beautiful . . . you’re more special than all the others.’ The ego satisfaction is so enormous, you start to believe you’re better than anybody else.”
Imagology may have trumped ideology, and perception is putting a hard move on reality, but absolute power still corrupts absolutely. To balance the unchecked influence of last century’s ideologues, the imagologists dropped the Eleventh Commandment wild card into the hands of the Fourth Estate. But even that has limitations.
When asked about the San Diego Ethics Commission and his own conflict- of-interest charges, Scott Peters’ office said he was unavailable for comment. When asked to sit for an interview, Madaffer said he would accept written questions only. Presented with three pages of detailed questions regarding a litany of controversial and ethically suspect decisions, Madaffer decided he didn’t want to answer. Instead, he responded with a three-paragraph parry that says, in part, “Others may choose to dwell on the past . . . for me as a leader, there is no choice. I will continue focusing on our city’s bright future.”
For the past two generations, the great imagologists of advertising have moved our tastes and opinions toward younger, fresher political personas— men and women with convincing personalities and a magical ability with the deal. Madaffer is the poster boy for that new breed, a man who plays fast and loose with ethics but who gets things done—a central conduit in the local political organism. The $10,000- a-year benefits increase that he got for Mike Gotch didn’t single-handedly bust the pension system, and the expensive computer components that mysteriously showed up in his office (which he later returned to DPC) aren’t the sole cause for the city’s hard look down the barrel of bankruptcy. But they’re symptomatic of a transactional ethos that can be particularly damaging if adopted on the institutional level.
THE POLITICAL EQUATION
On the other side of the ethical coin, John Dadian, a local lobbyist who was once chief of staff to former Councilmember Larry Stirling, points out that politics is but a study in the fine art of negotiation. If it weren’t for the political commerce of compromise, the gears of government would seize. The quid pro quo, the back-scratching and the trade-offs have been a part of the political equation from day one; they’re as inevitable in politics as venality and expediency are in human nature.
In a sense, the question is not one of absolutes but of degrees. The adult entertainment industry that the U.S. government says bought off Councilmembers Zucchet and Inzunza also contributed—to the tune of $3,000 each—to the campaigns of Madaffer and Atkins. A fine line separates the tainted votes of the former pair and the perfectly legal ones of the latter.
As one source says: When powerful special interests make campaign contributions, they don’t just expect to get their money back—money they view as an investment—they expect an appreciable return on that investment, transactional political maneuvering and favorable voting that will earn them tens, scores, maybe hundreds of times their original outlay. The campaign finance system in the contemporary American landscape is irremediably flawed and in need of reform. But district elections and termlimit solutions have proven that legal remedies to political situations can be fickle and capricious.
In a modern political arena where truth has been leveraged by polls, where image is reality and where the ability to convince is far more important than the functionality of one’s moral rudder, Councilmember Peters doesn’t have to defend the environment to get into office; he has to convince people he will. And Jim Madaffer doesn’t have to be an ethical politician; he has to make people think he is. As Richard Gere’s character, a political consultant hired to win campaigns (the model imagologist), says in the 1986 movie Power, “Do everything I tell you and you’ll get elected; after that, you can do whatever you want in office.”
That, very often, is the hard truth. The truth behind San Diego’s pension debacle is that under the reign of Mayor Susan Golding (with court magician Jack McGrory at her side), behind a cloud of smoke and a series of mirrors, a set of economic weights and counterbalances was piled on an underfunded house of cards. After a number of stock market hits, the equilibrium of that precarious balancing act became impossible to maintain, and a young, slick city council—led by a specialinterest mayor who didn’t want to take a fall —paid city watchdogs handsomely to look the other way.
The eventual decision of a court—its version of the truth in the pension debacle— will ultimately be subordinate to this hardand- fast truth of public perceptions: Insiders indicate the careers of those on the council have already been poisoned by proximity to the fiasco.
Carl DeMaio, meanwhile, pledges to continue railing against City Hall’s society of junior barons and that monolithic, transactional front of the power elite, while Jim Madaffer is reportedly posturing for a shot at the top spot in the city’s redevelopment office. All of which provides an entertaining but monotonous backdrop of white noise for retirees such as Chuck Abdelnour, men and women who don’t give a damn about anybody’s version of the truth—so long as the retirement check clears on the first of the month.