Lee Hubbard – free enterprise friend on San Diego's city council

Thorn in the mayor's side

Lee Hubbard: “Dad always talked about property rights."
  • Lee Hubbard: “Dad always talked about property rights."
  • Image by Ian Dryden

IT IS 7:30 a.m. and you can hear an industrial vacuum cleaner. The office of Deputy Mayor Lee Hubbard is at the end of a long, cavernous hall in the city administration building. This hall —between the individual councilmen’s offices—is done up in that kind of pale green used in schools, prisons, and insurance companies, and the scattered furniture in the hall looks like 1965 Dennys provincial. There is lots of open, green space in between. The plants are big and you have to walk right up to them to tell if they’re real or not (most of them aren't). Those molded from plastic are covered with a thin coat of dust. Secretaries start coming in, and they duck into the council offices.

Pete Wilson. “Pete thinks Lee is a complete ass. a divisive influence.”

Pete Wilson. “Pete thinks Lee is a complete ass. a divisive influence.”

Up and down the long hall, the doors of the council offices are evenly spaced, like the starting gates at Del Mar.

This open space, perhaps 30 feet by 200 feet, is a source of profound irritation to Lee Hubbard. It's one of those things that gets him started, inside, sometimes. He lost a fight to move the office walls six feet out into the open space, and when he thinks about it his chin starts to jut. His chin starts to jut whenever he thinks of the “revolution in property rights,” rent control, down-zoning, or how hard it is for construction contractors to keep these effete, slow-growth advocates and environmentalists from burying honest businessmen in graves of paper. Black’s Beach makes his chin jut, too. But Pete Wilson does it to him more than anything. Hubbard’s backers think of Wilson, who beat Hubbard in the 1974 mayoral race, as the Little Lord Fauntleroy of politics.

Hubbard. “He has become a very polished politician for a guy so new to politics."

Hubbard. “He has become a very polished politician for a guy so new to politics."

Hubbard hates the fact that Wilson is enthroned upstairs, and he is down here in this cavern, this dungeon, badly outnumbered by Wilsonites. And he hates that useless open space between the offices. Sometimes he gets out there with his golf clubs and putts around on the carpet. He says that makes the other council members unhappy. He calls it the Green Belt, the council’s Open Space Policy.

Most of the other councilmen are expanding their office staffs geometrically, and they want more space for more council employees; space in other buildings, too. Space and power. The council office budget has mushroomed from $82,000 in 1972 to a planned 1978 budget of nearly one million dollars (Hubbard will spend the least of all the councilmen in 1978—$69,000—,and Leon Williams will spend the most —$105,000. And now, despite Hubbard’s objection, they’re hiring a legislative analyst for $31,000 a year, to do, he says, what the city manager is paid to do.

“Lee’s for carefully planned expansion, like North City West."

“Lee’s for carefully planned expansion, like North City West."

When Hubbard thinks about that his chin starts doing it again, and his face gets blotchy and red, and his fingers creep out and start to drum. And that is the most emotion he ever shows in public. He deals with all of his inner commotion by working harder than anybody. Characteristically, he is the only councilman at his desk this early. One political reporter for the Union says Hubbard’s pace is “downright embarrassing. None of us can keep up.”

Mission Valley, 1916. Hubbard: "See all those thousands of cars passing on the freeway down there? Every one of those people has a right to be free and happy and ought to have the right to work."

Mission Valley, 1916. Hubbard: "See all those thousands of cars passing on the freeway down there? Every one of those people has a right to be free and happy and ought to have the right to work."

The door to Hubbard’s office opens and Dan Sobarnia, a contract auditor for NASSCO and member of the Mira Mesa town council, comes out pumping Hubbard's hand. Hubbard is shaped like a high-rise. He has penthouse-eyes and curly, steel hair. One can imagine whole council meetings taking place on his shoulders.

He is standing there pounding on the shoulder of Sobarnia, who is about half Hubbard’s size. Sobarnia says, “San Diego is becoming a white-collar town. They’re, forcing out anybody who makes less than $10,000 a year. I’m a concerned citizen and I want another mayor. Pete Wilson is so politically ambitious that he’s not as concerned about the city as some people, and by I some people I mean Lee Hubbard.” Hubbard seems vaguely interested in what Sobarnia is saying. He sighs, then signals in the next visitor. He is an elderly and distinguished ex-director of a youth choir.

Hubbard on the Korean War: “Somehow I found consolation in my aches and pains for they were minor to those of the enlisted men."

Hubbard on the Korean War: “Somehow I found consolation in my aches and pains for they were minor to those of the enlisted men."

He tells Hubbard, “A year ago, I presented to a council committee the concept of an official San Diego song. Leon Williams said he didn’t see the need for it. When he said that, I was stunned. For five years I’ve presented a song I wrote about San Diego at concerts and people would come up to me and say, ‘Why don’t they make your composition the official city song?’ Well, I came to you today because I think the people should be able to decide and I think they'd say yes, yes, yes!”

Hubbard borrowed $1,000 on an insurance policy and started, in 1956, a cement contracting business out of the garage of his little home in Allied Gardens.

Hubbard borrowed $1,000 on an insurance policy and started, in 1956, a cement contracting business out of the garage of his little home in Allied Gardens.

Hubbard sits still for a moment and then says quietly, “There’s a real problem for city officials politically in supporting a song; it’s such a subjective thing. The thing to do would be to create a musical jury of San Diego State music teachers to alleviate this no-win situation for the council....”

But the choir director keeps going. “I know, sir, that it may be egotistical of me, but I just have a feeling my own song would win. I’ve based it on rhythmic balance going back for centuries in patriotic songs...”

And he starts to recite his song, almost singing, waving an imaginary baton in o the air. Hubbard doesn't move. “San Diego, San Diego, golden city by the sea....”

Hubbard’s eyes are gone. On the walls m around him are paintings by Eileen Whitaker, Charles Sultan, Guillermo Acevedo; all Western art — pioneers, cowboys, Indians. Some of the paintings are unframed, leaning against the wall. The office has a temporary look. For his first two years Hubbard refused to use a desk. He sat on one of four stiff-backed chairs and worked out of what his administrative assistant, Frank Exarhos, calls “the famous brown briefcase.” Exarhos, who wears pinstripe suits, says the no-desk policy drove him crazy. Finally Hubbard moved a small desk in from his concrete contracting business. He still uses a stiff, little chair, and made Exarhos take his important-looking councilman's executive chair.

“San Diego, San Diego, you’re the only city for me....”

There are four photographs of Hubbard’s Labrador retriever with a bird in his mouth. There is a tennis racket leaning against the wall with Pete Wilson’s face glued across the webbing; the balloon from smiling Pete’s mouth has him saying, “What, I’ve got my job?"

"San Diego, San Diego, from New York to the sea....”

Hubbard’s fingers are reaching out. He is still patient, still kind, but this song is going on and on. His fingers begin to tap. As one glances around the office again, there is a suggestion of something that causes a start. There, under a lamp table, peering out of a little jungle behind a certificate of appreciation from the United Business Commission, are two greedy eyes, naked tusks—a wild boar!

“San Diego, San Diego, you're the only city for me...."

From the Korean War, Army Lieutenant Lee Hubbard wrote his wife, Betty, who like him, had been born and raised in San Diego, “Somehow I found consolation in my aches and pains for they were minor to those of the enlisted men. In droves and herds the common soldiers were moved from one place to another... all lugging every item, from raincoat to rifle, the Army had issued them.... Some were nearly exhausted, others barely able to drag along....

“This ship was made to take about 1,500 men and approximately 350 crew members; we have 700 Navy men aboard and 3,490 Army men clamoring on top of each other.... They all eat standing up.... Our food is real good, we eat at a very nice table with a table cloth and the whole works. The waiters are colored civilians and are swell about all the seconds you can eat.... I can easily see how enlisted men feel about officers.... If I were in their place and could see us living in comfortable four-bed staterooms with showers and private baths. I’d be bitter, too."

And, “You can believe it or not, but the Americans are machine-gunning civilians right and left because they generally turn out to be commies. One captain spoke of the horror he felt when a woman refugee he passed pulled a gun out of her kimono-style tunic. He shot her with his .45, but he said you get used to it...and just shoot them first to stay alive. Our own soldiers are committing suicide very frequently....”

And he wrote home about walking up into the hills covered with snow. When the people saw he was alone and not menacing, they smiled and mumbled greetings. “It was such a picture of peace. I understood these people for the first time. Then as I reached the top, there was a resting place that overlooked a very beautiful valley with a small village. It was really the zenith of serenity and quiet. I sat there for a long time and just thought. I saw in this the whole thing the reason I’m here."

He interpreted the resilience of the Catholic church overlooking the bombed city of Andong. “It’s a good feeling to know that God is over here."

Though he had experienced much that was similar to the Vietnam war, his faith in the American way remained unshattered. It was time to turn all that Army Corps of Engineers training into something productive; so he came home to his wife, and leveled a hill out at 63rd and Imperial to make way for the Summit Mobile Lodge Trailer Park.

After receiving a business administration degree at San Diego State, he borrowed $1,000 on an insurance policy and started, in 1956, a cement contracting business out of the garage of his little home in Allied Gardens. By latching onto the Southern California boom of the 50s and 60s—when cement was the protoplasm of a new America—he turned his business into a success. Though his company’s business has leveled off in the last few years (he assigned the business to a trusted employee when he became a councilman, and the company will not bid on city jobs), it still turns over four to six million dollars a year.

Hubbard holds himself up as a prime example of how a poor boy can make good in America; how the free enterprise system provides us all with upward mobility.

Both Hubbard and his wife Betty were born in Mercy Hospital in San Diego. Her father was gassed in the trenches of France during World War I, and his father, after serving in the war, went to law school at the University of Southern California, got a degree, but never practiced. It was the depression, and where money had dried up, it could still be found on choice parcels of land. He became a real estate broker.

“Dad always talked about property rights," says Hubbard. “The concept that a man’s right to do with his land what he wanted was important to him. I remember he used to talk about the Constitution, how it was a wall of rights, built brick by brick, until the wall turned into a fortress.”

Betty Hubbard received a B.A. in art from San Diego State and went into the advertising business. Since there was only one advertising agency in San Diego then, she went to work for the Grand stores as a layout artist and copywriter, and when the Grand chain went out of business. she moved - to radio station KSDO as continuity editor. There she met Lee. a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers home on leave from the Korean war.

“When he went back to the war,” she remembers, “I saw the news come over the wire that he was caught with thousands of American soldiers on a plateau south of the Chosin Reservoir. They were rescued later, but for a while I was very scared, watching the stories come across the wire.”

Hubbard got into politics, he says, because Pete Wilson called him into his office one day and asked him to run for city council. He has since been called by Wilson the “resident lobbyist for a narrow, extremist segment of the land development and construction industry."

Growth and unemployment have been the core of Hubbard's opposition to Wilson. While Wilson has received national honors for maintaining the city's solvency in a difficult economic period, Hubbard points to the high unemployment rate, and what he calls utter stagnation in the construction of new housing and the attraction of new industry.

Wilson favors drawing clean industry, warning that the fastest way to destroy tourism is to destroy the environment. Hubbard contends urban sprawl is being created by the Wilson policies, not in the city, but out in the county, where developers head when they can’t get through the door of city hall.

When Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation decided not to set up shop in San Diego. Hubbard capitalized on the situation through his contact with Fairchild officials. He was the first to publicize their decision to pass up San Diego because of high water-hookup fees. “Now the city's no-growth policy has come home to roost.” announced Hubbard, angering Wilson, who considered the statements a misrepresentation of the city’s growth policies. Hubbard had, after all, voted with the majority of the council for the water-hookup fee which discouraged Fairchild.

“Pete thinks Lee is a complete ass. a divisive influence.” says a source close to Wilson. “Hubbard's so isolated on the council he can't get anything done, and he'll admit it. If Wilson says ‘boo.’ Hubbard will say *baa'.”

Hubbard has been able to step out of the Reagan mold far enough to capture the support of the leaders of organized labor: he favors collective bargaining for city employees, to whom Wilson has become anathema. Hubbard suggests that city employees relinquish tenure and protection of their status by civil service, in return for collective bargaining. He strongly advocates the right of public employees to strike.“Why should there be any difference between the wav men and women run their lives in the public and private sectors?' Hubbard's political enemies are skeptical of his courting of the working man. and Wilson was supported in the election by general public opinion opposing strikes by government employees.

And Hubbard has been the leader of the forces opposing clothing-optional bathing at Black’s Beach. What enraged him most, ironically, in a town whose second largest industry is tourism, was that the beach was becoming, as a New York Times reporter put it. the “nude centerfold of Southern California's tourist attractions, drawing organized ‘skinny-dip tours’ from as far away as New York.” A parks department survey disclosed that 88 percent of the people climbing down the treacherous cliff to Black's Beach were from out of town. Hubbard again represented the minority view.

When Hubbard and Wilson squared off in the 1974 mayoral campaign. Hubbard's big donors were land developers. construction engineers, realtors, building material suppliers, and builders: Wilson's contributors were primarily business and professional people, particularly lawyers, doctors, and retired people. Even though Hubbard outspent Wilson substantially, Wilson won the election easily, with 62 percent to Hubbard’s 32 percent.

While Hubbard complains that the Union-Tribune fails to connect Wilson to any of the current municipal problems, his relations with the press have always been good. Union reporter Otto Kreisher says Hubbard was in fact singled out by the press as a foil to Wilson, and consequently received extensive coverage. “We noted early in his tenure on the council that he had positioned himself as a natural foil to Pete, and at that time there was no effective opponent to Wilson. The mayoral race was a year away, so the reporters started subconsciously promoting Hubbard. We didn't want to have to cover another dull election.”

Hubbard impressed Kreisher during the campaign as a relatively good speaker, a good debator who improved quickly. “He has become a very polished politician for a guy so new to politics." He is, according to Kreisher, more open than most politicians, and easier to get in to see than Wilson. “He’s never had a palace guard around him. You can always track him down.”

One reporter says Hubbard’s easy availability has become almost poignant since his mayoral defeat. “He’ll keep you in his office for hours, talking. He seems almost lonely.”

Another reporter says, “It’s easy for him to go around saying the other councilpersons’ staffs are too big and their salaries too high, but they can’t pay out of their own pockets for newsletters and furniture like he does. He’s got money to throw away. I hear snide remarks from the social elite that the Hubbards are nouveau riche,; there is a certain resentment toward him in high society. He got his own hands dirty.” The consensus among reporters covering the council is that Hubbard is at once an anachronism and a political survivor; he has adjusted his conservative views enough to embrace the working man, minorities, and youth partially, whom he says are increasingly oppressed by a slow-growth policy that pushes housing costs out of their range and limits the job market. “The irony,” says Kreisher, “is that he may survive long enough to outlast Wilson, who probably won't run for a third term.” When Hubbard was elected in 1973, he promised not to run again. Today he still says he is opposed to politicians perpetuating themselves in office. Despite this, he is now trying to decide whether or not to seek re-election to the city council, and perhaps another shot at mayor. Political observers give him good odds for the city’s top post, and Hubbard says that within a month he’ll know what he’s going to do.

Though Wilson contends eloquently that growth can be controlled and the environment protected while still expanding the economy, there are more critics these days. KFMB radio has recently joined the Union-Tribune in questioning whether slow-growth maybe worth the cost in joblessness and housing shortages. There may be festering a new era of construction, expansion, Los Angelization for the sake of jobs. But there is still the question: can growth be slowed in an economy that depends on endless expansion? For now, though, the wild boar is still under the table.

There are other impressions of who Hubbard is: the donut-shaped building he constructed to house his company, a building that has no windows and faces a minuscule courtyard at the center of the donut. You can’t see the torn and cluttered industrial lot on the other side of the road. You can’t see anything but the courtyard. Joe Byron, the man whom Hubbard has entrusted the management of his business (the man who has managed the construction of more tennis courts than just about anybody around), can't think of a single good Hubbard anecdote to tell you. But he can tell you, “Lee’s for carefully planned expansion, like North City West. You’ve heard that theory that if you built more roads and houses, they create people? Well, we don’t believe in that. You just have to meet the need when people move into town on their own free will.” He says that, lets you out, then drives off in his Mercedes 450.

Lee Hubbard is walking out the back door of his long, low Kensington home.

He strolls across the patio, passes the swimming pool, and stands for a moment looking straight down into Mission Valley, hundreds of feet below. Mohave Valley Lobo, son of Jetstone Mussels of Claymar, races up behind him and jumps up and down. Hubbard starts bouncing from the knees and says, “Lobo. Lobo, where’s the bird, Lobo?” Lobo goes bounding off down into the brush of the cliffside canyon. (Hubbard loves to hunt. He has a scrapbook he likes to show. “There," he will say, “now my critics are always saying I’m against open space! Look at that!” There are snapshots of his son and his friends under the big open sky, holding up the heads of deer. A string of wild boar hung, as if on a clothesline, from a branch.) Now he is pointing down toward Mission Valley. “There was nothing down there when Betty and I lived in Allied Gardens—a few farms, a man who struggled along with his barbecue. I never miss the way it used to look. There's still water down there, the lake is still there. But look at all those jobs! Look, there’s Kaiser Hospital, the 7-Up Bottling Company, Datsun, the salvage yard. See all those thousands of cars passing on the freeway down there? Every one of those people has a right to be free and happy and ought to have the right to work. So what if there is no smog, and all those hills are left barren, if none of us have jobs? Most of those people down there want open space. That’s why the city is buying up canyons, like this rift here running down toward the valley.”

He stops and thinks for a moment. “You know, I don’t see all this as a crisis. A lot of people are going to live on aspirins worrying, but we can count on our leadership, on the universities, on technology. We have the chance to effectively be positive about planning the future. But if we stand back and wring our hands, and keep slowing down, the poor and the minorities will be hurt the most. The rich will get through, but men and women down in Southeast San Diego won’t ever get a chance to own a house or a decent car.

“See, I believe, I really believe in the free enterprise system and economic expansion. Take LeRoi Thomas. He was the first man who came to work for me in 1956. He was black and he couldn’t read or write. He worked for me until I went on the council. He had fights and was thrown in jail over and over again; we had long talks. He finally decided to make a go of it. to be part of his community.

“Because he had a steady paycheck, he got a little house, and he’s happily married to a nice little gal. He’s now retired at S950 a month. He achieved upward mobility. He's got a car he polishes, a big smile. But he started out picking cotton in the Deep South. When he’d go back there to visit relatives. I’d write him a letter so he could get into restaurants. Because LeRoi Thomas had a job, he had a chance. Every one of those people down there deserves the same chance."

He turns around to go back to the house, and then stops. “1 don’t understand why businessmen are villainized so. Because I’ve made a lot of money in my life. I'm supposed to be some kind of crook. But when Maureen O'Connor takes all that time off to go to Europe and China and the Democratic Convention, nobody gives a shit. Is it because she’s a poor little girl done good? Because she’s not a landowner? I’m not sure I’m going to run again. Probably won’t. One guy came up to me and said, ‘Lee, you can’t get in there and muddy the water and then get out’.”

He pauses for a moment. His jaw is getting stiff, his face red, his voice bitter. “Boy, was that a laugh."

He turns and walks back inside. Down on the cliffside in the bushes, Mohave Valley Lobo is still galumping around looking for a bird.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader