Twenty-five white caps were lined authoritatively straight and even on the table in a large banquet room at Tom Ham’s Lighthouse on Harbor Island. Each one bore the gold band signifying its owner was a Navy officer, and each cap’s bill was filigreed with the gold leaf — “scrambled eggs” in military argot — that identifies the wearer as a man of extremely high rank, in this case either admiral, rear admiral, captain, or commander. (The Marine generals, brigadier generals, and colonels put their hats on a separate table nearby.) Like a stiff line of sentries, the caps faced a room filled with San Diego’s most powerful military and civilian leaders, who had gotten together at the end of January for the Annual Flag, General, and Senior Commanding Officers Cocktail Reception, hosted by the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce. An anarchist’s dream: seal off Harbor Island this night, capture this room, and deep chaos ensues for San Diego.
But the bartender wasn’t serving Molotovs; the free drinks in almost every hand were mostly macho Scotch or bourbon, straight up. And peals of laughter echoed out onto the bay-view terrace, to die away toward the winking downtown skyline. The heavies chuckled mostly among their own kind — groups of navy-blue uniforms hung apart from clusters of navy-blue pinstriped suits. “You guys aren’t supposed to stand together, you’re supposed to mingle,” chamber of commerce chairman Richard Burt announced to a group of admirals. “You might need a job later.” Laughter broke like ack-ack above the party.
And yes, the civilian guest list did read like the starting roster of the local business and political establishment: Herb Klein, editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers; Richard Burt, senior partner with the law firm of Gray, Cary, Ames, and Frye; H. Cushman Dow, general counsel to General Dynamics/Convair; Dan Larsen, contractor and Centre City Development Corporation board member; Mike Madigan, vice president of Pardee Construction and member of the Metropolitan Water District board; John Murphy, president of National Steel and Shipbuilding; Jack Morse, vice president of San Diego Gas & Electric; city council members Uvaldo Martinez and William Jones; eleven executives from National University; retired Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp of Teledyne Ryan; Skip Starkey of First Federal Savings and Loan, and dozens more. And of course, Lee — Grissom, that is.
Lee Grissom, president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, moved smoothly around the room, pumping hands, gripping elbows, making and receiving introductions. Tall and thick, with meaty hands and a strong, square face, the forty-year-old Grissom made cordial small talk. He was really the principal host of this party, though he blended into the hubbub and let others have the spotlight. Around him in the cigar smoke lumbered the men (wives were uninvited) of the local military-industrial complex, and under his tutelage advanced the subtle dance of commerce and government. “Pentagon regulations are so strict,” Grissom said over the din, “that military men and contractors can’t even go out to dinner together. But if a third party, like the chamber, hosts something like this, then it’s okay.” So in the same room were Captain Martin Hill, the Navy’s local supervisor of shipbuilding, conversion, and repair, along with executives from NASSCO, Marine Boiler Repair, Solar Turbines (which manufactures a gas turbine ship-propulsion system), and Kettenburg Marine. Similar match-ups were rife. Grissom stood beside the small dais and surveyed the good cheer as Richard Burt prepared his toast.
Burt regaled the assemblage with a line about how expensive it is for the chamber to host this party. “It’s like Brute Krulak dancing with Raquel Welch.” (Retired Lt. General Krulak is about five feet, eight inches tall.) “Tremendous overhead.” The civilian and military men were bridged by laughter, the warmth and camaraderie were solidified. Grissom and the businessmen toasted the military brass; the admirals, generals, and captains toasted the businessmen. A Marine officer and a civilian in a multi-piece suit stepped over to the table lined with caps. The civilian spoke quietly while the officer jotted notes on a small piece of paper.
“This is my life,” said Grissom, gesturing around his office and out his windows to a spectacular view of downtown, facing south. “This, and my family.” Of course, this was a view of San Diego encompassing nearly every facet of the city’s life. From the sixteenth floor of the Chamber Building on C Street, appropriately snuggled beside city hall, Grissom can watch the Navy ships steam out of the harbor on Mondays, and steam back in on Fridays. He can behold the idle tuna fleet tied up at the embarcadero. He can see the reflective skin of the new Wells Fargo Building dead ahead. Below that he can watch the piles of dirt that will one day be the Horton Plaza shopping center. On clear days he can see all the way to Mexico. Grissom looks down at it the way a carpenter proudly looks up at a house he’s building.
Not a bad perch to have attained for a Navy officer’s son who was raised in San Diego and graduated from San Diego State with a degree in city planning. Going into his eighth year as head of the 2600-member chamber, Grissom has worked his way into a position of quiet but sure influence. His friends — Pete, Clair, Ray, Bill, Bill, Jerry, Neil, and Ed (Wilson, Burgener, Blair, Kolender, Cleator, Warren, Morgan, and Gray), to name just a very few — hold the highest regard for Lee. In fact, Wilson’s last major appointment as mayor made Grissom chairman of the city’s housing commission, a post of some importance to the economy and people of San Diego. His connection to the rhythms of this city runs deep. At a recent housing commission meeting, when a proposal to build affordable housing on Tait Street in Linda Vista was under consideration, Grissom commented, “I happen to have lived on this site in ’47, ’48, so I know it very well.”
Sitting in his oversized executive’s chair, with his back to the city-wide view, and surrounded by autographed pictures of himself with George (Bush) and Jerry (Ford), Grissom refuses to trade what status he may have for more money. He makes somewhere around $60,000 a year, and he’s turned down recent job offers for substantially more from the Kansas City chamber of commerce and from a prominent local developer. In the power vacuums created by Pete Wilson’s departure for Washington, Grissom has a new agenda keeping him here: the chamber will be moving into a more visible role in local affairs. “We have an excellent radar in this office, probably the best in the city,” he explained, referring to what may be the chamber’s greatest strength: access to inside, sensitive information. “I used to think it [the information vortex] was Bob White’s desk. Now I frankly think it’s my own.” (White is Pete Wilson’s powerful chief of staff.)
Indeed. Two weeks before the public knew of Councilwoman Susan Golding’s recent job offer to become state deputy assistant secretary of housing, Grissom had fielded a call from his old friend Kirk (West), a member of Governor Deukmejian’s cabinet. Kirk wanted to know Lee’s opinion of Susan as state executive material. Grissom gave her high marks, and she got the job offer (and took the job). The chamber president already knows the inside word, and not just the rumor, on who, if anyone, the Union and Tribune will endorse for mayor. And when the Navy and the city recently reached a tentative agreement on the land swap to compensate for the Navy’s annexation of Florida Canyon, each city council member got a copy of the proposed agreement straight away — and so did Lee Grissom. He unabashedly points out that he’s been head of the chamber (since 1975) longer than any sitting city council member or county supervisor. And it's arguable that, for better or worse, and excepting Pete Wilson, Lee Grissom has had more influence on San Diego’s recent history than any local politician. “Lee is a self-determining, creative, active guy, who conveys an impression of power and impresses people as being more powerful than he really is,” comments Fred Garry, an old friend of Grissom’s who used to be chairman of the board of Rohr and is now a vice president of General Electric in Connecticut. “A lot of cities are in a contained mode, but San Diego is in a building mode. Lee senses the political, social, and economic thrust of the area, and he’s a reflection of the general aspirations of the community.”
San Diego is an oddball city in many ways, not the least of which is the respect accorded its chamber of commerce. The stereotypical chamber, with its plaid-jacketed civic boosters and business apologists, doesn’t exactly apply here. The local chamber is a unique lobbying arm of the city’s business and political oligarchy, a kind of militant gentlemen’s club. (Women — there are all of five on the sixty-member board of directors — have just recently made it into positions of influence within the chamber.) Its leadership is the city’s leadership; or more accurately, the leadership of a certain segment of the city. If there are 47,000 active business licenses in San Diego, and the chamber has only 2600 members, a representation of about five and a half percent, then it’s safe to say the chamber’s leadership is really a small clique in the larger business fraternity. But it’s also safe to say that clique holds a disproportionate amount of sway in local affairs, as a glance at the makeup of the chamber’s executive committee illustrates:
— Mike Madigan, vice president of development coordination for Pardee Construction Company. Pardee built much of Mira Mesa, is building Park Row in the Marina housing project downtown, and will be a prime builder in North City West east of Del Mar. Madigan was also a key aide to former mayor Wilson in the mid-1970s.
— Frank Hope, Jr., chairman of the board of Hope Consulting Group, the most prominent architectural firm in the city. San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, Columbia Centre, the Federal Building downtown, the Union-Tribune Building in Mission Valley, the Hotel Intercontinental on the waterfront — each was created on Hope’s thriving corporate drawing board.
— Edwin Gray, recently appointed chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, a position for which he had to resign as first vice president of Great American Federal Savings and Loan (San Diego Federal), because he’ll now be regulating that industry. Gray was previously director of policy development in the Reagan White House.
— Gail Stoorza Gill, proprietress of the Stoorza Company, one of the business and political establishment’s most trusted public relations firms. The company has done so much flacking for the ruling forces (peripheral canal, the downtown convention center, anti-rent control, Hope Consulting, M.H. Golden construction, San Diego Transit, the city’s housing commission) that, in an effort to stay among the in crowd, it is keeping neutral in the current mayor’s race.
The executive committee is where the chamber’s policy decisions are made, and where its strategy for particular efforts is forged. It has a total of fourteen members and two members at large: Herb Klein and Evan Jones, the owner of Ace Parking Lots. Lee Grissom is an influential member of this body, working up its agenda in concert with chairman Richard Burt. “Lee functions primarily as a resource person,” says Burt. “He has the deep background on everything, but he rarely gets involved in the debates, unless I ask him to. He’s reticent about forcing his views.” Burt says that this arrangement works out well, and that “in practice our theory is fulfilled,” the theory being that the chamber, and in particular the executive committee, is the voice of San Diego business. And while the chamber’s endeavors may primarily benefit the business interests that control it, in their book that translates to being good for San Diego as a whole.
So where do the chamber’s interests lie? Well, each year Lee Grissom, after querying his division heads in military affairs, state and national government, local government, small business, international affairs, and the Economic Research Bureau, works up a list of issues on which the chamber will concentrate its efforts. He takes these twelve or fifteen “priority issues” to the executive committee of the board of directors, where they are discussed, modified (usually just slightly, if at all), and adopted. Perennially, one priority deals with increasing the supply of energy to San Diego.
Coincidentally sitting on the chamber’s board, as well as on separate action committees within the chamber’s divisions, are representatives of San Diego Gas & Electric. The utility’s chairman, Robert Morris, was on the chamber board from 1976 through 1978, and his current tenure began in 1981 and will run through 1984. Jack Morse, another of the power company’s executives, is also an influential member of the executive committee. And if SDG&E is not the top contributor of dues to the chamber, it is certainly among the top. (Most of the member companies pay the minimum $250 a year in dues; a goodly number pay $1000, and a small handful pay at least $5000 a year, among them SDG&E, PacTel, Home Federal, and San Diego Federal. Exact dues figures are a closely guarded secret within the chamber’s $1.3 million operating budget.) Viewed from a certain cynical angle, the chamber looks like a hireling of SDG&E.
To wit: the chamber fought hard in the mid-1970s for the utility’s proposed Sundesert nuclear generating plant near Blythe. Grissom personally spoke before the state energy commission urging approval of the huge project. And now that it’s dead, the PUC is wondering whether SDG&E should divest itself of the desert land it bought. Most of the utility’s customers pay about thirty cents a month for this land. The chamber will be asking the PUC to let SDG&E keep these mortgage payments in its rate base.
The chamber has been an ardent supporter of San Onofre nuclear power, which has recently proved to meet its opposite intentions: instead of reducing the cost of energy, San Onofre has precipitated a need for a rate increase. Says Grissom, “We’re more concerned about the supply of energy to San Diego than the cost.” So the chamber has consistently helped the utility beat the drum for San Onofre, Sundesert, and the eastern interconnect line that will bring in energy from Arizona. But at the rate increase hearings before the PUC in 1981, the chamber took no position at all.
This was not the case with other advocacy groups for small businesses, particularly the United Federation of Small Business, which saw the rate hike request as an uppercut to its members. The federation’s testimony before the PUC against the rate hike apparently had some effect; SDG&E’s request of a twenty-five percent increase in cost to small commercial users was reduced to seven percent.
“We didn’t see that as a small-business issue,’’ counters Grissom when asked about the rate hike and his apparent intimacy with SDG&E. The answer seems strange, considering the fact that the chamber’s makeup is eighty percent small business. “The small-business groups were grand-standing, making out SDG&E to be the bad guy, and they added to the sand-kicking contest . . . SDG&E isn’t the bad guy, but the state energy commission is, the NRC is, and Governor Brown was.”
It looks like the chamber also bedded down with the utility last spring during the campaign for Proposition 9, the peripheral canal. The chamber led the local pro-canal battle, along with the Stoorza Company PR firm. Anti-canal commercials, which claimed that SDG&E’s customers would suffer if the project succeeded, ran on Channel 10 and Channel 39. Grissom quickly — and vigorously — protested to the station managers, who are chamber members. The advertisements’ contention that construction of the peripheral canal would increase SDG&E’s electricity rates was patently false, according to Grissom, so when the stations declined to pull the ads, the chamber sued them in superior court. Grissom sees this as commendable evidence that the chamber is of such independent mind that it will even take its friends to court for what it believes in. He does not see it as further toadying for the power company. (The court case was eventually thrown out, but the chamber had already reaped its actual intent: major publicity for the canal cause.) He’s quick to add that, due to chamber bylaws, his board chairman, Richard Burt, had to abstain from voting on the issue in executive session, and even had to avoid talking at all with Grissom on the subject because Burt’s law firm represented both stations in court. Small world.
Grissom says Burt also exempted himself from internal discussions and decisions relating to the county’s Telink imbroglio. Pacific Telephone, another client of Gray, Cary, had initiated chamber interest in the county’s communications contract when PacTel general manager and chamber board member Lincoln Ward brought it up with Grissom. PacTel had ended up not bidding on the multimillion-dollar contract, and it was miffed that the county hadn’t given the phone company more time to prepare a bid. Too, the phone company had closely followed the terrifyingly complicated procedures in selecting Telink’s bid, and there seemed to be some irregularities. As events have proven, PacTel, admittedly motivated by self-interest, did in fact smell a bona fide rat.
It’s easy to imagine that the Telink controversy currently bashing around the county’s executive suites would never have begun without the chamber’s interest in the contract award. But why did the chamber get involved at all? Aside from the direct interest of one of its members (PacTel), and the general interest of other member companies that do business with the county, the chamber had been urged by then-county supervisor Jim Bates in his last state-of-the-county speech to act as an objective watchdog to county operations. Also, as the chamber’s expert on the Telink matter, Dot Migdal, says, “We think it’s critical to have a government that’s honest; chamber members are all taxpayers too.”
Migdal, a former political science professor and McGovern Democrat, is head of the chamber’s local-government division. Once Grissom pointed her toward the county’s communications contract, Migdal proceeded to wade deeper and deeper into the questionable muck of the whole affair. When the board of supervisors last June awarded the contract to Telink over the objections of Grissom, who testified against it, Migdal turned to the chamber’s trusty weapon: the press.
Migdal and chamber board member Rod Riggs, managing editor of the San Diego Daily Transcript, see each other socially, and Migdal one day mentioned to him the curious details she knew about the Telink matter. Riggs in turn passed the information on to reporter Larry Keller, who got together with Migdal and began scooping almost every paper in town on almost every new development in the swelling scandal. Among a certain circle of reporters familiar with the case, Keller was for a time considered a lackey for the chamber/PacTel. A theory of sour-grapes conspiracy between the chamber and the phone company took root, cultivated by those with positions to protect, and it served to stay the fervor of some in the press. But as it turned out, conspiracy or no, Migdal, PacTel, and Keller were right.
Grissom had talked to his friend Jerry (Warren), editor of the San Diego Union, about the case, and the paper had even dispatched its big investigative gun, Jon Standefer, to Migdal’s office. But Standefer was too busy with other projects, so the scooping remained with the Transcript, and the Union and Tribune were content to run long background and catch-up pieces. Still, the chamber is satisfied that its goal of orchestrating public attention was fulfilled.
In this task, Grissom could hardly be better positioned. His links with the Copley press stretch long and deep. Herb Klein, vice president and editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers, is a member-at-large of the chamber’s executive committee. Jerry Warren and Tribune editor Neil Morgan are considered by Grissom to be his good friends. Grissom was particularly close to Dick Capen, former senior vice president of Copley Newspapers and a chamber executive. (Capen has moved on to the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain.) Al DeBakcsy, general manager of the Union-Tribune Publishing Company, is now a member of the chamber’s executive committee, and Dick Tuller, the U-T’s director of advertising and a chamber board member, has been active in the chamber for years. Bob Witty, Tribune deputy editor, was a member of the board until this year. But Grissom doesn’t see his links to the Copley press as a matter of any particular significance. “Herb Klein [former director of communications for President Nixon] has tremendous communication channels with Washington and Sacramento,” says Grissom, “which helps us play a much stronger role for the city. . . . We don’t try to manipulate the press, but if part of our mission is to call attention to critical issues in this city, one way has to be the media.” Grissom may not try to manipulate the press, but he can and does call editorial executives at will, either to discuss stories that have appeared, or pitch story ideas. The closeness also means he has access to certain inside information about, say, who and what the local papers will and won't endorse in local campaigns. Very handy information for a man in Grissom's shoes. (By the way, it almost goes without saying that Grissom supports Cleator for mayor.)
The chamber’s top two priority issues for 1983 are: “Support a major recognition program with the city and county of San Diego to stimulate a higher degree of visible support for the Navy and Marine Corps in San Diego”; and, “Increase military expenditures in the San Diego area by providing continued political support for more facilities, ships (both repair and construction), adequate pay and allowances, procuring additional military housing and substantial increases in defense contracting.” The population of Navy personnel in the area has dropped from about 130,000 to about 113,000 in the last five years, and the chamber is redoubling its efforts to keep this Navy town a Navy town. This commitment to the Navy was vividly demonstrated during the years-long tussle to get a new Navy hospital under construction.
In the early 1970s, when the Navy wanted to place the new hospital in Murphy Canyon, at Interstate 15 and Friars Road, the chamber was all for the idea, and spoke eloquently in favor of guarding the park from further encroachments. But then, as the political earth gave way under the plan, and the Navy was eventually forced to build in Balboa Park's Florida Canyon, the chamber obediently came around to a position of implacable support for the park site. Grissom and other chamber officials argue that building Florida Canyon was the only possible way of keeping the hospital in San Diego (a contention widely disputed), and that it was also the only possible solution to the enormous practical and political difficulties underlying the $300 million project. But a political weather vane like the chamber really had no alternative but to support the Florida Canyon location. So when Proposition D asked the voters in 1979 whether the city should enter into a land swap deal to lease part of the canyon to the Navy in return for the land beneath the existing hospital, the chamber ran the rigorous Yes campaign out of its own offices. “I love a crusade,” says Grissom, “and we really believed in Prop D. It was a cornerstone moment in San Diego history.” Grissom and Richard Burt raised $100,000, mostly from chamber members, and the chamber organized an armada of volunteers. And even though the measure failed to achieve a two-thirds majority (required by the city charter when parkland is at stake), Grissom considered the sixty-one percent Yes vote a victory, and interpreted it as a signal that San Diego wanted the hospital in the park.
Here’s how strongly Grissom felt about the issue: He was driving home to Scripps Ranch one night after working his usual long hours, and he was listening to KSDO. That particular night the peripatetic George Mitrovich was sitting in for Laurence Gross as talk show host. Grissom says that after a pro-Prop D ad played during a commercial break, Mitrovich made disparaging comments about the hospital going into the park. Mitrovich was thoroughly and publicly on the anti-Prop D side, and his recollection is that someone called in and wanted to talk about the hospital, but that he refused to discuss it because he was a biased participant in the campaign. But regardless of how the issue came up, Grissom and Mitrovich do agree on what happened next. Grissom, who admits that he was extremely angry, wrote a letter to KSDO, decrying the use of free air time by such an unobjective host as Mitrovich. And Grissom sent a copy of this letter to Barry Mc-Comic, who ran Avco Community Developers and who sat on the board of the Economic Development Corporation, which interlocks with the chamber. Mitrovich was doing some consulting work for McComic, and he obtained a copy of the letter from the developer. He took Grissom’s message to mean that McComic may want to reassess his relationship with Mitrovich, since the chamber was officially supporting Prop D. Grissom says that wasn’t the intent at all. “I wouldn’t have tried to change their relationship,” he cryptically explains, “but sometimes you use a second party to talk to a third party.”
That’s the way he works — a phone call here, a letter there, a moment of quiet conversation at a cocktail party, and he’s able to get immediate results. For example, Grissom has become fairly close to Dick and Dottie (Morefield), and his lightning effectiveness has helped them plenty. Grissom saw Dottie on television one night just after the aborted hostage rescue attempt in 1979. He was impressed that she didn’t talk about her hostage husband when a reporter asked her thoughts. “She said her thoughts were with the mothers and wives of the men who died in the desert,” Grissom relates. “I said, ‘I’ve got to meet that woman.’ ” Plus, Grissom wanted to show that the business community was doing its bit to help. He met Dottie and asked her if there was anything she needed. She said another phone line into her media-besieged home in Tierrasanta would be nice, but that usually takes weeks to get installed. So Grissom calls his friend Hughes Bell, a vice president of Pacific Telephone, and Dottie gets her phone line in one day. She said she’d also like a home security system. So Grissom contacts his old school chum Rodney Eales, president of San Diego Alarm, and Rodney installs Dottie a security rig at his own expense. Dottie also let it slip that it would be wonderful if now and again she could go out to eat in peace in a restaurant. Grissom calls around “from Love’s to Lubach’s” and extracts hearty invitations for free meals for Dottie and her family. Lubach’s told her that any time she wanted to eat, they’d supply a quiet table. The relationship between the Morefields and Grissom continues. Dick Morefield, now a free man, called Grissom last spring wondering if the chamber president might be able to help find one of the Morefield boys a summer job in San Diego. Bingo. One call and Grissom secures a job at a venerable San Diego tourist attraction, which he prefers would remain nameless here.
This kind of broad influence will surely come into action regarding the Balboa Park land swap, now that the Navy is building in Florida Canyon. Grissom says he’d like to see some museums on the recovered land at Inspiration Point. (The chamber’s interest in Balboa Park goes back to 1909, when then-chamber president G. Aubrey Davidson suggested the idea of a 1915 exposition to honor construction of the Panama Canal. The subsequent exposition essentially gave the park its current look.) But it’s hard to conceive of the new-found land at Inspiration Point being ignored by commercial interests, and either way Grissom will have an important role in the area’s eventual development. Regardless of Grissom’s genuine interest in “expanding San Diego’s cultural base by bettering the park,” the chamber’s 1983 priority to “increase participation in review of the Balboa Park Master Plan” has an ominous ring to it.
So where does such a seasoned operator go, once the trenches in San Diego hold no more excitement? On the one hand, Grissom is known to have stated when he took over the chamber that he wouldn’t hold onto the job for more than five years. On the other hand, that was eight years ago, and he shows no loss of interest or enthusiasm for his home town. Many skirmishes are over: the successful effort to keep Lindbergh Field where it is (for the time being, at least), the successful campaign to halt separation of the television series Simon & Simon from San Diego, the successful assistance in getting the long-deferred okay for construction of the second border crossing (included in that effort was an audience with Jose Lopez Portillo, then the president of Mexico), successful first steps in opening business and cultural ties with Tijuana, successful efforts in helping to lure more light industry and jobs to San Diego, failed endeavors to elicit public support for a downtown convention center, failed attempts to head off disaster in the tuna industry. But ahead lie potentially more challenging trials: the need to solve the problem of affordable housing, the dire necessity of dealing with a potentially monumental water shortage, the impending problems of mass transportation, the current unemployment problem, and the projected shortage of labor come the turn of the century. “With Pete’s departure, we’re expecting tremendous political change,” says Grissom, a pulse of excitement in his voice. “The chamber has been gearing toward moving into certain power vacuums for ten years; it’s just something we’ve evolved into. We think it’s very important that the business community form a stronger role in political affairs. . . . It’s one of the reasons I was hired for his job.” He’s deliberately evasive about his plans, but does admit that past longings for local office are dormant. The only seat of interest to him now is in Congress. He acknowledges he’s been approached about an appointive position in the Reagan Administration, but says he thinks he’ll still be here in a year. Which means he’s probably waiting to see if Reagan runs for re-election before deciding whether to join his friends in Washington.