The races for San Diego City Council are running hot and heavy. Candidates are shedding massive amounts of blood, sweat and tears—or, at least, time and money—to win their piece of the San Diego political pie. Which leaves this observer with only one question:
For the love of God, why?
Getting elected to San Diego municipal government is, historically, a one-way ticket to political oblivion. It’s a road to career nowhere with possible detours to the perditions of grand-jury indictments and criminal trials, not to mention public shame and humiliation. And, even, prison. Did they tell these candidates about prison? Have Ralph Inzunza give them a jingle.
If candidates are lucky, they follow up their stint on the City Council by fading into the “name sounds familiar but can’t place them” nether world of boards, foundations and nonprofits. Think Juan Vargas and, come this time next year, Toni Atkins and Scott Peters. If they’re unlucky, they go straight to obscurity, yet another faded footnote of San Diego political history. Remember Bill Cleator? Barbara Warden? Henry Mathis? Neither do I. Such will probably be the fate of the Brian Maienschiens and Jim Madaffers of the current council crop. And if former council members are really unlucky, they end up spending weeks doing the walk of shame across local front pages and before grand juries, like Valerie Stallings and the late Charles Lewis. Or they end up on trial like Michael Zucchet. Or even in prison. (Did I mention the prison thing?)
Yes, there have been City Council members who, having survived griping constituents, grasping interest groups and the grind of endless council sessions, mustered the stamina and good fortune to move on to bigger and better things. After all, Pete Wilson went from wunderkind councilman to mayor to senator to governor to, albeit briefly, presidential contender. Bob Filner turned a council gig into a seemingly life-tenure in D.C. And Christine Kehoe parlayed her council stint into a serious Sacramento gig. And then there was, er, there was, I mean….
Meanwhile, between elated election and final fade out, the lucky winner of a City Council seat gets to endure four to eight years of debating the same issues they originally campaigned about. How about that new airport, traffic-congestion relief, new Chargers stadium, pension-fund relief, new sports arena, affordable housing, really livable wages, budget-deficit relief, outsourcing and new Padres stadium that everyone has been debating, campaigning and grandstanding for the last decade. (And yes, I mean new Padres stadium. Come on! Petco is, what, five years old already? How long do you expect John Moores to be content having to make money in that archaic old heap. It’s sooo early 21st century.) The faces on the council may change, but the underlying unresolved issues remain year after year. “I came, I saw, I left no footprint and slipped gently into that good night” becomes the epitaph for most local political careers.
So, what drives the current crop of community councilors in the face of such daunting odds? The selfless drive for public service or ego and ambition? Certainly, many of our past and current wannabe council persons have more than a little noble sentiment in them. Atkins has always been lukewarm to the pride and power of political life, more content to get potholes filled in her district than fill her campaign coffers for a run for higher office.
And then there’s Darling Donna Frye who reluctantly ran for both council and mayor to simply, in the Spike Lee tradition, just try and do the right thing. Frye’s reward for her good intentions? Being consistently fried by city bureaucrats who have tried to ignore her constant requests for even minimal levels of disclosure and transparency on city actions, by mayors who have tried to marginalize her for fear of her populist support and by fellow council members who have tried to minimize her railing against San Diego’s failed business-as-usual approach to governance.
But for every Frye (who herself hasn’t been completely immune to the siren song of higher office) there are two (or three or 10) Roger Hedgecocks and Scott Peterses who came into office with visions of the next Wilson gambit (City Council-mayor-senator-governor-president), Vargas variant (City Council-Assembly-Congress-Senate-governor-president) or Quixotic Roberts route (City Council-Board of Supervisors-mayor-governor- president) dancing in their heads, even as such ambition remains blind to the historical fact that, after serving on the council, the usual career trajectory is to not pass Go, to not collect the keys to the White House, state house or any other political house.
So what of the council class of 2008? Should community activist Sherri Lightner prevail against the odds in District 1, she might turn out to be another Darling Donna, doing her stint of public service before going back to the community trenches. Phil “The Crossman” Thalheimer? He’s probably already bought tickets for Sacramento, if not D.C. Is Carl DeMaio’s end game two turns on the council and then back to the land of think tanks? Methinks not. DeMaio is more a Vargas in elephant’s clothing than a Darling Donna.
Yet even those with obvious higher ambitions, like Peters—a man who probably saw himself as a potential mayor, if not for one teensy-weensy pension problem—wanted to at least get the local street lights lit and sewers de-sloughed. San Diego council members, past and present, whatever their ultimate personal goals, have put in the time to actually govern and try to good things no matter how ineffectual their actions.
And therein lies the real problem. Politicians in San Diego are no more saintly or devilish than their counterparts in other burgs around this land. Yet governance of America’s erstwhile finest city has been dysfunctional at best and disastrous at worst for decades now. Which tells me that the fault, dear San Diegans, lies not in our stars—or ourselves. It lies in our political system itself, which takes one otherwise competent council contender after another and chews up and spits out their political careers. So what is it about system of San Diego politics, from elections to policy-making, that works so exquisitely badly so as to produce so many consistently bad outcomes?
As sung to the Billy Joel tune: “Stripper-Gate, Pension Gate, SEDC, CCDC, Sunroad, Sewers, SEC probe! We didn’t start the fire. But the city’s burning while the wheels keep turning.”
We didn’t start this fire.