By Cory Briggs
Something really good for San Diegans happened last Thursday: The rabid, asinine pursuit of a convention center expansion on the waterfront hit a concrete wall at 100 miles per hour. But that wasn’t the best part about Kevin Faulconer’s last-minute effort to put a “citizens’ initiative” on the November 2018 ballot after an “unprecedented coalition” failed in its “Herculean effort” to gather enough signatures to clear the mark.
For San Diegans, the best thing that could have happened was for The Establishment – the usual special-interest suspects on the right and the left who run City Hall – to break into a thousand tiny pieces. That is indeed what happened. Hallelujah!
I’m sure that my Twitter feed and e-mail inbox will start blowing up as soon as people read that last paragraph, if not before they finish this one. I’m going to be accused of being anti-worker because, as those who had front-row seats to The Establishment’s demise last week know, some of the biggest names in San Diego’s labor movement were part of the “unprecedented coalition” that crashed and burned. Many of them I consider good friends; outside City Hall, if I needed the shirts off their backs, they’d give them to me without hesitation (and vice-versa).
Most people know I am not anti-worker any more than I am anti-environment, anti-transparency, anti-homeless, anti-immigrant, anti-development, anti-profit, or anti any of the other means or ends that people of good will hold dear. But I am anti-stupid – and super-duper stupid is what we’ve been witnessing over the last year with this “unprecedented coalition” and its farcical, cynical “citizens’ initiative.”
…I am anti-stupid – and super-duper stupid is what we’ve been witnessing over the last year with this “unprecedented coalition” and its farcical, cynical “citizens’ initiative.”
Many City Hall insiders on the right and the left – I’m stipulating for purposes of this piece that they’re all people acting sincerely – are guilty of gluttony. They invite lots of other groups to the party because they want to appear inclusive, but then they elbow their way to the front of the food line and fill their plates to excess; their guests get whatever’s left. That approach to San Diego politics is stupid, has a long history, and needs to stop.
Labor hasn’t cornered the market for left-side stupid. When SANDAG tried to put forward Measure A to raise the sales tax back in 2016, labor did hang tough in the anti-tax coalition while some environmentalists and other progressives cut deals and rationalized their own stupidity.
Last year when the City approved the traffic-increasing connector road through Civita, formerly known as Quarry Falls, some transportation-focused progressives professed their neutrality to concerned residents but ended up taking money from developer Tom Sudberry and lobbying on his behalf for the connector.* Again, I assume that the people who cut these deals were acting in good faith in pursuit of what they consider to be a righteous agenda. Still, what they did was stupid.
…the short answer is that what makes these deals stupid is it gives power to the very people who’ve been causing the social injustice that those of us on the left have been fighting for decades.
What’s wrong with stupid? Some might object that I’m merely criticizing people who took positions with which I disagree. Anyone who has the patience to read this piece to the end will understand why that objection would be wrong. For those lacking the attention span, the short answer is that what makes these deals stupid is it gives power to the very people who’ve been causing the social injustice that those of us on the left have been fighting for decades.
When all is said and done, what our friends on the left would have gotten through their dirty pacts is nothing they wouldn’t have eventually gotten anyway if they hadn’t been gluttonous. By making the pacts, however, our friends give the bad guys – yes, even sincere people can be bad guys – more political power and make the fight for justice that much tougher. We need to stop empowering our oppressors.
Before explaining further, I want to put a couple likely objections to rest. The first is that I have sour grapes over the failure of Measure D, or that I am jealous that this year’s “unprecedented coalition” was more likely to succeed than Measure D’s coalition. Actually, I am relieved that the voters rejected Measure D because they saw something I didn’t see before the point of no return: The leaders of this town’s tourism industry, which has way too much political power, are untrustworthy to the core.
Had Measure D passed, I would have had to honor my commitment to give 110% to see its rules followed and objectives achieved even though the tourism industry, which originally signed onto it after extensive negotiations, decided at the last minute to kill it. I would not have been happy having to honor my word to the very people who spent heavily against Measure D after initially embracing it. I will forever owe the voters for sparing me that humiliation.
(Here’s an example of how brazen and guileful leaders in the tourism industry are. One of them called me about two weeks ago: “Hey, Cory, this is [fill in the blank]. I need your help. The City wants to allow a marijuana dispensary next to my hotel.” You can guess how long after that introduction the conversation lasted.)
Another likely objection is that I am over-celebrating the permanent defeat of the convention center’s expansion on the waterfront. It is true that I am very happy about last Thursday’s outcome. For the last 10 years or so, I have worked for many dedicated community activists who have opposed the expansion for legitimate reasons other than economics.** But even before the appellate court shot down the first financing scam in August 2014, it was clear the waterfront expansion was never going to happen (even if it were legal) because Wall Street refuses to touch it under any circumstances.
The real problem with the tourism industry’s infatuation over the waterfront expansion is that it embodies and perpetuates everything that makes our local politics detestable.
The real problem with the tourism industry’s infatuation over the waterfront expansion is that it embodies and perpetuates everything that makes our local politics detestable. That’s why I continue to fight outside the courtroom too; the expansion is a synecdoche for broken local government.
So, when I jumped out of my seat last Thursday as Myrtle Cole announced she supported the convention center but was voting against the mayor’s proposal, I wasn’t celebrating the expansion’s death; it died years ago, when smart people with a lot of money far, far away pulled the plug on it. I was celebrating that The Establishment had literally been crushed. Best of all: Nobody saw it coming.
(Let me quickly defend the mayor a little bit. The day after the “unprecedented [citizens’] coalition” he headed up – think about that oxymoron for a moment – theUnion-Tribune wrote an op-ed that seared him for not foreseeing this train wreck. Yet one day before the vote, the same editorial board urged the city council to put the mayor’s initiative on the ballot even though it had all kinds of problems. I know many folks on the left who celebrated Bill Osborn’s retirement. But what his departure cost the editorial board in terms of principled conservatism has been made up for five-fold in intellectual dishonesty. The rare criticism heaped on the mayor by the board, especially since Osborn’s retirement, is more a reluctant capitulation to palpable and undeniable sentiments outside City Hall than it is an insightful, thought-provoking contribution to policy debates; even the pep squad knows to stop cheering once it becomes clear the home team is being routed beyond recovery.)
In light of The Establishment’s long-overdue demise, we need to ask ourselves two questions: Why did it finally shatter? And what should (and shouldn’t) we do now?
In light of The Establishment’s long-overdue demise, we need to ask ourselves two questions: Why did it finally shatter? And what should (and shouldn’t) we do now? I’m no political scientist, but I am happy to get the conversation going by offering some hypotheses on the first, suggestions on the second.
The Establishment did not meet its end because of David Alvarez or Georgette Gomez. They saw this “citizens’ initiative” as bogus from the beginning. Everyone knew they were going to vote against it because the proposal is bad policy, mostly subsidizes gazillionaires, and is doomed to fail at the ballot box.
Ironically, The Establishment met its end last Thursday thanks to the vote from labor’s top priority for city council in 2018: incumbent Myrtle Cole. Why did she vote against labor? I think it’s in large part because of Monica Montgomery. Had Cole garnered a majority of votes in the District 4 primary, she would feel comfortable sailing into the general election later this year. Not only did she not get a majority of those votes, but she came in second place to newcomer/unknown Montgomery.
Think about it: Despite being ensconced in The Establishment’s loving embrace, incumbent Cole finished second to a relative nobody. And since there is literally nothing in this unprecedented coalition’s proposal to raise the tourist tax that would provide any tangible, perceptible benefit to the residents of District 4, Cole could not hand her opponent the cudgel with which to drive her out of office.
(One alternative theory suggested by VoiceofSanDiego.org’s Politics Report last Saturday is that a rift developed in the labor wing of the mayor’s coalition and someone secretly gave Cole the last-minute green light to vote against his initiative. Assuming the theory’s true, I think there’s nothing redeeming about such a connivance. If they’ll do it to their own, they’ll do it to the rest of us. I hope the theory’s wrong.)
Some have observed that Cole often takes her cue from Barbara Bry, who also voted against the mayor’s initiative. (I’m now going to call it what it is and drop the mocking quotation marks around “citizens’ initiative.”) I don’t know whether that relationship is one of causation or correlation, but it is worth considering why Bry voted as she did.
Though I do not know her all that well, she strikes me as one of the smartest on the city council. She also strikes me as easily played by The Establishment and, despite her business savvy, unable to realize when acting city attorney Gerry Braun (who runs his office through elected city attorney Mara Elliott) is blowing smoke up her ass.
I can think of two examples. The first was last summer, around the time SoccerCity qualified for the ballot, when there was talk in some corners of City Hall about putting out a request for proposals from competing developers on Mission Valley. Bry backed down after the city attorney’s office wrote a memo concluding that pursuing an RFP would be illegal because it would interfere with the SoccerCity initiative.
The second example was when Braun convinced the five Democrats on the city council to sue SoccerCity and Friends of SDSU to get their competing initiatives off the ballot. One could forgive Bry and the other Democrats for going along with that idiotic plan because nobody explained to them the real purpose for the move: clearing the November 2018 ballot of all measures other than the mayor’s TOT hike. That was necessary because together they divide The Establishment’s donor pool in three.
The mayor, the tourism industry, the Chamber of Corruption, and the taxpayer-sponsored lobbying firm euphemistically known as The Downtown “Partnership” were going to need an inordinate amount of money just to get over the simple-majority hurdle; they’d need a printing press to get to two-thirds.
The mayor, the tourism industry, the Chamber of Corruption, and the taxpayer-sponsored lobbying firm euphemistically known as The Downtown “Partnership” were going to need an inordinate amount of money just to get over the simple-majority hurdle; they’d need a printing press to get to two-thirds. Unfortunately, many of their deepest pockets were committed to funding the campaigns over Mission Valley instead. Braun had to do something to reduce competition for scarce campaign resources.
Two lawsuits followed. Unsurprisingly, both imploded in the trial court. Just as unsurprisingly, the Court of Appeal was having none of the city attorney’s plea for “emergency” intervention to – get this – “save taxpayer money.”
(For those who do not know Braun: He worked for the Union-Tribune until 2008, when he was hired by then-mayor Jerry Sanders as “director of special projects.” He eventually became one of the leaders of the crew responsible for tanking the Balboa Park Centennial. He was rewarded for botching the job and losing millions of public dollars with a cushy post in the city attorney’s office under Jan Goldsmith. Braun was Goldsmith’s hand-picked successor, but because he’s not a lawyer they needed Elliott to serve nominally.)
What Bry et al. cannot be forgiven for is filing two lawsuits to disenfranchise the voters – especially after publicly professing that the two Mission Valley initiatives were too important for the city council to enact directly. “The voters must be heard!” That was how they justified putting those measures on the ballot.
What happened – what did Braun’s office say – that caused the five Democrats to lose their minds and secretly authorize litigation to block the public vote? The answer is: It doesn’t matter. Once an elected official votes to put an initiative on the ballot because “the voters must be heard,” there can be no excuse for secretly maneuvering to keep the voters from being heard – period, full stop, end of discussion.
Nobody in the private meeting with the city attorney should have needed reminding that it’s never okay to enfranchise the voters and then disenfranchise the voters. That too is felony stupid.
Nobody in the private meeting with the city attorney should have needed reminding that it’s never okay to enfranchise the voters and then disenfranchise the voters. That too is felony stupid. (It is understandable that the city attorney would not advise against such a political misstep because Braun has never had to face the voters and therefore has no clue how to treat them.)
Bry was definitely not looking stupid last Thursday in council chambers. From the moment she took her seat at the dais, she looked funereal if not sick to her stomach. (Contrast her visage to that of upbeat Lorie Zapf, who was popping peanuts, popcorn, or some other snack most of the time as she sat next to Bry.)
It’s no secret that Bry has her eye on the mayor’s race in 2020, and it’s no secret that her likely Democrat competitors – Toni Atkins, Todd Gloria, and Scott Peters – have never met a tourism-industry giveaway they couldn’t embrace. Casting a strategic vote isn’t a gut-wrenching task; some may take great pleasure in it. If you were in chambers last Thursday afternoon, however, you know that Bry looked downright nauseous even before the meeting was formally called to order. You could feel her pain.
If your eyes are on the mayor’s office, why would you ever want to have your name associated with a campaign that was dead before it started?
Bry, of course, would be the best person to ask about why she voted the way she did and how she felt about it during the meeting. Her concerns about upending the normal legislative process are legitimate, but there is no way ignoring process was causing her so much pain. I think she knew in her heart of hearts that the mayor’s initiative had zero chance of getting anything close to a simple majority of voters to support it.
Again, outside The Establishment, nobody thinks the mayor’s initiative will accomplish anything for anyone except hoteliers and unions – not exactly a sympathetic duo in this town. Bry wanted to side with her friends, but she needed to side with her constituents to maintain any chance of getting elected (to any office) in 2020.
In short, elections matter. It’s my belief that Cole and Bry saw the voters’ writing on the wall and knew doing anything other than killing the mayor’s initiative would look bad on their political curricula vitae. The mayor whined that the Democrats were “playing politics.” He was right; they did. But this time they played the right kind of politics, the kind that does what the public prefers rather than what special interests prefer.
What do we do now that The Establishment is broken? We certainly don’t want to put it back together again. That would be worse than stupid. We need to sweep up the pieces, walk past the recycle bin, and put them in a hazmat container. They need to be sent to a facility where the pieces can be incinerated and properly disposed of so they do not leach into the political environment and hurt the public in the future.
It would also be stupid – no, insane – to revive plans for a waterfront expansion of the convention center. I say this not because I oppose such an expansion; as noted above, Wall Street won’t let it happen.
It would also be stupid – no, insane – to revive plans for a waterfront expansion of the convention center. I say this not because I oppose such an expansion; as noted above, Wall Street won’t let it happen. I say it because the public considers it morally reprehensible to have coupled affordable-housing and homelessness funding with the expansion. Carl Luna professorially said the same thing in last Sunday’s Union-Tribune.
Nobody outside the echo chamber (and perhaps nobody inside) was buying that the mayor’s initiative was a genuine effort to help homeless vets or create more affordable homes. Indeed, the absence of public support from members of the mayor’s coalition when the San Diego Housing Federation and David Alvarez brought forward their own proposals sans convention-center funding spoke volumes. (SDHF’s Stephen Russell is too much of a gentleman to confirm what everyone – including those in the mayor’s coalition – knows to be true.)
Whatever capital the coalition accumulated has been spent, and not just on a botched signature drive. Nobody in that coalition will have any credibility going back to the public for any kind of handout for anything. And anyone in that coalition who wants to help the next time someone comes forward with a campaign to create more affordable housing or to reduce the number of homeless on our streets should keep out of the limelight, at least for the foreseeable future. They’ve become toxic, and no amount of financial resources they might offer will make up for the number of votes they’ll cost on election day.
What about the rest of us? What should we do as City Hall confronts chronic homelessness, a worsening shortage of affordable housing, yet another pension crisis, outsized lobbyist influence, division over short-term vacation rentals, intense industry opposition to the climate action plan, a water department unrivaled when it comes to incompetence and mismanagement (if not, as time will tell, outright corruption), distrust and disrespect of law enforcement, obscene spending on races for public office, and so on?
What happened last Thursday was the political equivalent of a 9.5 earthquake, as much because of its aftermath as its rarity.
First, we need to make fixing government our top priority. What happened last Thursday was the political equivalent of a 9.5 earthquake, as much because of its aftermath as its rarity. If I’m right about the reasons – that Cole and Bry thought they’d lose votes if they did anything other than stopping the mayor’s initiative in its tracks – then we must strive to make last Thursday the rule rather than the exception.
The fact that The Establishment thought it had a lock on the mayor’s initiative tells you all you need to know: The voters’ wishes were a distant consideration at best. Now if I’m wrong about the reasons – if fear of voters played no role – then we have an even bigger problem at City Hall than I thought. Either way, returning control over City Hall to the public – wresting it away from lobbyists and special interests all around – is the imperative.
Second, we must drop the pretense that our team – whichever team we’re on for a particular policy fight on any given day – has a monopoly on good ideas and reasonable concerns. Perhaps the best example of this right now is the YIMBY-NIMBY debate. Those of us who rank science over palm-reading know that increasing density is better for the environment and the economy than increasing sprawl, that we should be building up rather than out. The NIMBYs need to get over the fact that they’re going to have more neighbors; there’s a housing shortage, plain and simple, so make room.
Because the problems are tough, the solutions will likewise be tough. Whichever side you’re on, vilifying the opposition won’t make the solutions any easier or bring them about any faster. We need balance. (This goes for me too.)
At the same time, the YIMBYs need to stop denying that increased residential density without a diversity of services and residents or without adequate infrastructure will make up-zoned neighborhoods a miserable place to live – probably more miserable than what the YIMBYs would themselves tolerate if they had to face it in real life. Because the problems are tough, the solutions will likewise be tough. Whichever side you’re on, vilifying the opposition won’t make the solutions any easier or bring them about any faster. We need balance. (This goes for me too.)
Third, we must be careful about who we get into bed with. The deal labor cut with the mayor was certainly a sin, but it was a forgivable sin if labor’s willing to do what’s necessary to earn forgiveness (e.g., supporting the work of other justice-oriented organizations without threatening to cut financial support or take over governing boards when things aren’t going labor’s way).
Money and connections don’t get people elected or initiatives passed; voters do.
Money and connections don’t get people elected or initiatives passed; voters do. Labor’s money and clout didn’t help the Chargers stay in town and didn’t help either mayor get his long-sought expansion either time labor joined forces. (Recall that labor opposed the Sanders plan until labor got its PLA.) Labor would not have achieved success on minimum wage or Measures K and L without the tremendous assistance of community activists and organizations whose budgets are dwarfed by labor’s.
Labor deserves to be an equal in our fight for justice, and we should want labor with us, but only if labor is willing to act – both publicly and privately – like an equal. Sometimes that means sincerely supporting their allies in getting what they want or need while labor gets nothing in return. Actually, that goes for all of us. If we’re not harmed by what others are trying to do, then we should be supportive of them even if we get nothing in return.
Fourth, we must stop legitimizing and rewarding bad behavior. If you take labor out of the mayor’s coalition, for the most part you are left with the same special interests who fought the living-wage ordinance, who delayed implementation of a higher minimum wage, who killed the Barrio Logan Community Plan Update, who pushed Proposition B, who fought an increase to the affordable-housing linkage fee, and so on.
Ask yourself this: If the Chamber of Corruption, the Downtown Partnership, Civic San Diego, the San Diego Taxpayers Association, the San Diego Tourism Authority, the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Association, the Building Industry Association, Southwest Strategies, California Strategies, MNM Advertising & Public Relations, Rath Miller Public Affairs, and their brethren special interests and lobbyists all dropped off the face of the earth tomorrow, how many people outside The Establishment would be hurt or even notice?
My strong suspicion is that the number, in statistical terms, would be zero. Last Thursday proved these organizations have become irrelevant on the biggest civic issues. Let’s not make them relevant again by partnering with them on anything until they prove beyond all doubt that they’ve changed their ways for good.
Compromising is good. Being compromised isn’t.
I am not arguing that these organizations never raise legitimate issues. I’m not even claiming that these organizations have nothing to contribute toward a meaningful public-policy dialogue. Their issues and perspectives – like everyone’s – should be judged on the merits. But before we have them join our coalitions, before they get a seat at our table, we need to think long and hard about what such an association will do to our own reputations and, in turn, how that will help or hinder our ultimate success on the issues that affect the public the most. Compromising is good. Being compromised isn’t.
Though developer Malin Burnham and I are not members of the mutual-admiration society, I have grown fond of his saying: “community before self.” (I used to prefer “people over profits,” but I use his because it sounds more uplifting, less anti-capitalist.) Whatever we do on the issues that vex our politics, we need to put the broader community’s best interests over our own self-interest. This means being advocates for others in indirect proportion to the strength of their voices: the weaker their voices are, the harder and louder we must advocate on their behalf.
The Establishment’s voice used to fill City Hall. The public’s voice has often been silent, though it was loud and clear last Thursday. Let’s make sure nobody is ever surprised again – on any issue – that the public spoke out and had the final say, whether on election day or on the many important days at City Hall in between.
* I represent Save Civita Because Sudberry Won’t in a lawsuit challenging the City’s approval of the connector.
** I represented San Diegans for Open Government in its successful lawsuit to have the 2012 TOT hike invalidated for lack of a public vote. I represent the San Diego Waterfront Coalition (formerly the San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition) in several lawsuits challenging the Coastal Commission’s approval of the waterfront expansion, which are currently on appeal. I also represent SDWC in the recent lawsuit to invalidate the City’s $30 million-plus settlement with the leaseholder who controls the waterfront where the expansion would go.
Cory Briggs frequently represents San Diegans for Open Government in litigation against public agencies. Mr. Briggs has represented the plaintiff in a lawsuit concerning the convention center tax, the tourism marketing district tax, business improvement district taxes, and other illegal activities by the city’s leaders. Mr. Briggs’ clients have also filed a number of lawsuits in order to ensure transparency in politicians’ electronic communications and to ensure that the city was not deleting electronic communications prematurely. Mr. Briggs notes that his clients rarely if ever sue to recover money for themselves; almost always the lawsuits seek to change government conduct. For more information please visit the Briggs Law Corporation website athttp://www.briggslawcorp.com