On one side are two multi-millionaires; five national cable and broadcast conglomerates; a well-entrenched, monopoly daily newspaper and its army of compliant reporters; the mayor and city council and their taxpayer-paid staff; an ex-mayor tainted by political scandal; the chamber of commerce; and a phalanx of political consultants expected to spend as much as it takes -- maybe more than $2 million — to make sure voters approve a new $400 million-plus baseball stadium for San Diego.
"It's good for all of us" is their motto, and political consultant Tom Shepard, who once pleaded guilty to a charge of money laundering in the political corruption case of his old mentor Roger Hedgecock, is now leading the charge for taxpayer funding of a downtown pleasure palace, replete with luxury suites and an artificial beach.
On the other side? The opponents are many and varied but have little money and little experience running a political campaign and even less access to the powerful media outlets that mold opinions by virtue of their ability to deny public access to the airwaves. The old "fairness doctrine," under which TV and radio stations were required to provide a modicum of free air time to balance the onslaught of paid advertisements from wealthy Padres owner John Moores, was thrown out during the Reagan Administration. Now, station managers smirk when asked whether their stations would deign to provide equalcoverage. "No, no, no. The answer is no."
Fallen mayor Roger Hedgecock, who copped a plea to avoid a third retrial on the campaign corruption charges against him and went on to become the darling of local right-wing radio, no longer even makes a pretense of fairness. His bosses at Jacor, the national radio-station chain created by vulture investor Sam Zell, proudly tell their stockholders that they are out to create lucrative sports-broadcasting monopolies in each of the cities they dominate, and they will freely use their news and talk personalities to do so. Ted Leitner, the affable, workaholic sportscaster who has become a millionaire, also makes no attempt to provide balance to his coverage, and the stations he works for, which are owned by an Illinois millionaire, provide no alternative voices.
And commercials paid for by Moores aren't the only battering rams of the stadium juggernaut. Cox Cable, which enjoys a mighty cable monopoly franchise awarded by the city council, is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of its own on promoting its Padres coverage, with nary a word from opponents. Cox, too, is expected to reap huge fees from commercials run by Moores, without offering the underfunded citizen opponents any time to rebut.
Thus, without money or establishment clout, the anti-stadium forces are pushing ahead, setting up Web pages and fax trees, girding for battle against the wall of media they know is headed their way. Some belong to a campaign organization called "Stop Proposition C" and are attending meetings and putting out press releases. Others make their plans alone or in small, informal groups, setting up independent Web pages, investigating intriguing financial rumors about the Union-Tribune and some of its more unscrupulous reporters. Some print bumper stickers in their own tiny shops. Others are looking into the role to be played by Monsignor Joe Carroll, a member of the Roman Catholic clergy who frequently endorses political causes supported by donors to the St. Vincent de Paul homeless complex he runs. Others simply rage against the night and hope that someone will hear them. Here is one of their stories:
Joel Mielke, owner of Joel Mielke's Graphic Design and Screenprinting, Kettner Boulevard.
MATT POTTER: Have you lived in San Diego a long time?
JOEL MIELKE: Yeah, all my life. I'm from Chula Vista originally.
MP: So you grew up here. Where did you go to high school?
JM: Hilltop, Chula Vista.
MP: Did you go to college?
JM: Not really. City College. Took Spanish at night.
MP: How old are you now?
JM: Uh, 40.
MP: How long have you been in this line of work?
JM: Oh, boy. All my working career I've been in graphics in one aspect or another. Everything from offset printing to design, cartooning, screen printing, signage. It's always been some related type of business.
MP: So, how long have you been in this particular business?
JM: About three years
MP: What is it, what kind of stuff do you do?
JM: I do design and screen printing. Most of it is signage, banners. Like I do all the Little Italy banners. I do Old Town, Pacific Beach, College.
MP: Are you married?
MP: Do you have a family?
JM: Yeah, I got a wife.
MP: So what got your attention about this issue? How did you get involved?
JM: I was pretty excited about the library, I must say, because I use the library, and I've always been sort of put off by the downtown library. All my adult life I've always lived in town here in San Diego, and once they decided to do a central library, I mean, I have to admit, just for my own personal reasons, I thought that's great, I'm all for it. When they started discussing the design and doing this, like, reading room, atrium on the roof, and all this stuff, I'm thinking, man, for someone who uses the library, that's great. I mean, I just can't imagine a better situation. It's centrally located, it's handy for me...
So anyway, I really got into the idea of a library. I thought, well, that's public money well spent as far as I'm concerned. It's hard to argue with; I think it's hard to argue with. Anyway, then the stadium fiasco happened, and, I don't know, there's some loss of political will or whatever. I'm not that, you know, hip to everything that's transpired. But all of a sudden the library is off the radar. Nobody discusses the damn thing. It's as if it never even happened -- you know, all those public meetings where everybody looked at different plans and voted on which design they thought was the most appropriate and all this stuff. It's as if it never happened. Then I'm thinking, well, that's too bad; it's because of this loss of political will.
Then all of a sudden, you know, the Padres say, even though they signed off on the changes that took place at Qualcomm -- the Padres signed off on that, so apparently that was okay with them at the time that these so-called improvements took place. All of a sudden it's like, gee, the Pads need a new ballpark. I've been going to games since before Jack Murphy Stadium was built, so I've been basically in my baseball-viewing career, Jack Murphy Qualcomm has been the venue where I've seen most of the baseball I've ever seen. Seems like a fine place to me. I have no problem with it. But all of the sudden they announce they need this new ballpark, and there's this amazing capacity in the city council to fund this thing and go for it. All of a sudden they're all gung ho, which I found to be really, you know, after their timorous reaction to the public outrage over the improvements at Qualcomm, you know, all of a sudden they're just these fearless leaders in getting us this ballpark. This thing costs three times -- and it will probably end up costing more -- but it's three times what the library would cost, and they're just, like, leading the charge, they're ready to go. At that point I just said, you know, we have a real problem with our values in this city. I mean, San Diego's always been provincial, sort of a backwater in a way. It's almost like a suburb of Los Angeles. It's always had this sort of, like, lesser-than attitude, and thus natives have always had this fear of being a lesser city; so, gee, if you're going to be a big city in America, you have to have all these big sports teams, you know, so I guess that's what drives this whole thing. I'm convinced it's this sort of provincial fear of being a second-rate city, which we are! San Diego is a second-rate city. The reason we're a second-rate city is precisely things like this. "We have to have a ballpark just like Baltimore has," and loses money on, by the way. So, anyway, the whole thing just rubbed me raw; so, I thought, there's got to be a way to tie the library into this thing and bring the library issue back onto the table, which so far it doesn't seem to be back on the table, but they've made some sort of grudging references to it, but...
MP: So, what did you do? You designed this bumper sticker?
JM: Well, I made a sign and I put it in the window of my shop. I feel like this is the home of the brave and the free, right? So we can express ourselves, supposedly. I put this little sign in the window of my shop that has nothing to do with my business. You know, one of my customers told me, "You know, you're kind of like one of those guys, those Christians that put that little fish sign, that's sort of offensive to a lot of people." But I thought, you know, I don't know how else to express myself. What do I do, paint it on my clothing? I don't know. How does one go about expressing an opinion publicly? I don't own a newspaper; that's my basic problem. Anyway, so I put this sign in the windows, and it says, "Stadium? Thanks, got one. A library I could use." I started getting, I mean, people started coming in and asking, "Where do I sign up?" and all of this kind of stuff. I'm going, you know there's no organized opposition to this thing; that's just my sign. Sorry, I wish I could help you. After dozens of people came in asking where they could sign up or whether I sold bumper stickers or something, I thought, that's it. And then Welton Jones came in, the guy who writes columns for the paper. I don't read the local paper, but I recognized his name. He wrote a little piece, just had a little couple of sentences about me in there, and then it was just an onslaught. People were coming in and saying, "Damn, where's the bumper stickers, pal?" So I printed bumper stickers, like, it's not something I normally do, but I had to, you know? So I printed up the bumper stickers, and they've been selling like hotcakes.
MP: How many did you print?
JM: I printed about 400 the first run and I'm out of them. So I printed up a couple hundred more, and I'm thinking about sending out for more because it's not my particular forte.
MP: How much are you selling them for?
JM: A buck. Now the organization wants to use the idea, you know, the organized group. I said fine, if they want to sell it or whatever, it's great with me. So we've come up with some other ones, too; like I was telling you about one on the phone.
MP: What's that?
JM: It says "Field of Schemes" on the top, then on the bottom it says, "If you build it, you will pay." Sort of a takeoff on Field of Dreams. I checked with a few people to see if it works and they said, yeah, we get it. Sometimes you don't know, you come up with something. I've always done bumper stickers in small quantities of 20 or 30, just as jokes for friends. Like some friends of mine lived in Vista, and the Christians took over their school district, so I made one that said, "Pray for condoms in school," to kind of mix it up on that issue. But I've never sold them before; they've always been like a joke. When Nixon died, I did one that said, "Nixon's not dead. He's the U.S. ambassador to Hades." You know, stuff like that.
MP: You said you were getting some negative reaction, too. What's the ratio of positive to negative?
JM: Oh, vast majority is positive, by far. I've only had a couple of people stop by the shop and say, "No, it's a ballpark, it's not a stadium!" What's the difference? You know, look up "stadium" in the dictionary. But semantically it's not an issue. The vast majority is just people walking in. People are on their way to the bar next door, the Waterfront... They'll stop in. Like one guy will stop in to get some bumper stickers and the other guys are kind of razzing him, like, "Oh, don't you want a ballpark, you asshole?" That kind of thing. It's mostly good-natured. A lot of my friends are for the ballpark, for personal reasons usually, because their company buys luxury seats or whatever. But the vast majority of people I've dealt with, on the road, too, with the bumper sticker, people just say, "Right on, man." I would say right now there' s a majority of people that are -- at least in my anecdotal experience -- there's a majority that are not quite thrilled about the whole idea. I'm encouraged by the reaction I've gotten. I think it's pretty interesting. I just figured it's a done deal. I'll protest just because I'm some pissed-off guy who has a shop down in Little Italy, but the reaction has just been amazing. It kind of warms my heart, just a little bit. It's kind of weird, but it's been overwhelmingly positive.
The only really negative thing that's happened so far for me is that I took the sign down that said, 'Stadium, thanks, got one," I took it down to the big Padres hoopla that they had down there on Saturday, and I stood respectfully outside of the area where they were actually having the event. I held the sign up just to let people know that, hey, not everybody's happy. I wasn't organized. I wasn't associated with anyone. I didn't organize with anybody to go down there. A guy, Christian Michaels, called me and told me the event was happening, so I just showed up, but I didn't meet anybody or anything, so I was kind of down there by myself. It was a little scary. People were incredibly hostile. I thought maybe these were hockey fans; they were pretty pugilistic.
MP: What were they saying?
JM: It was mostly invective; it was awfully offensive. Considering, too, that a lot of these people had their kids with them. It was surprising that the reaction was so overblown and so hostile. It was kind of shocking. I was shaken a little bit. I'd have people come up to me and just yell in my face, "You're a fucking asshole. Fuck you! Go fuck yourself! You're an idiot!" I'd say, "Well, do you know something I don't know? If this is a good deal, well, edify me, please." And it was like, they'd say, "Well, fuck you!" and then leave. It was sort of like a bad trip and being in a Simpsons cartoon or something. Bad vibes, you know? And I really felt like, well, I'm a baseball fan, too. I have a lot in common with the people who are for it, so I just wanted to let them know that everybody doesn't think it's a good idea. I didn't want to have a shouting match with people who were foaming at the mouth. But that's kind of how it worked out. It was, frankly, frightening.
MP: What do you intend to do from now on?
JM: Well, I hope I don't have to go to any pro-stadium events. I would like to go to the stadium. I did get a good reaction when I went to a tailgate party with some friends of mine. I put the sign up on one of the guy's cars that was parked right where we were having the tailgate party. The reaction was pretty positive, you know, which is understandable considering that most of the people who are going to the game down at Qualcomm are expecting to have a good time.
General-admission fans are usually farther away in these bitchin' new baseball parks than they are in the old stadiums, which they replaced, you know? The whole deal, apparently, is driven by luxury seating, skybox seating, because for the owners, the team owners, that's what drives this whole thing. They apparently make beaucoup bucks on these things, so they want you and me to construct these things for them so they can rent them for enormous amounts of money. The big argument in San Diego is, "Oh, you're not paying for it, we're not paying for it. It's tot [transit occupancy taxes]. It's some unknown, anonymous people from out of town who are paying for this thing." I've snooped around a little bit. The tot is General Fund money. By definition it's General Funds. It goes straight into the General Funds. So it's not tot money that pays for this thing; it's the General Fund that pays for it. So the city's paying for it. That's what, in essence, the deal is.
MP: So the tot wouldn't be adequate to cover the...
JM: It may very well be, but then it wouldn't be adequate to cover anything else we need. Which interests me. I saw Tom Fat at the event, who owns Fat City/Denny's over there. He's a great guy, he's really active. He's trying to get the north Embarcadero going, which I think is a great idea. North Embarcadero is something that I would support; I would support putting money into north Embarcadero. I think it's something that needs to be developed and needs to be...you know, redevelopment needs to happen in Center City East, north Embarcadero, northwest Logan Heights, all over the place. There are lots of places where we could use this money. I'm thinking, "Tom, what are you doing supporting this thing? Your money for north Embarcadero isn't going to be there when you need it, buddy!" Unless they can get the Port District to cover all that stuff.
MP: Well, I guess they just say, we'll just borrow as much as we need. It's a borrow-and-spend attitude.
JM: Well, I guess that's acceptable to a lot of people. It's hard to argue if that works in a lot of cases. Sometimes you can just borrow like crazy, and you know, hopefully, if hard economic times set in, the Japanese will be flush and come in and buy up a lot of real estate or something like what happened during the Reagan years. I feel like, you know, if things don't go exactly according to plan -- even if they do -- I'm not sure they've really counted their beans correctly. I don't trust the accounting that much. I think there's a lot of emotional, sort of run-amuck emotionalism that's steered this whole thing toward building the park. I really don't think it's a good idea. Oh, darn! I forgot! Didn't we just approve doubling the size of the Convention Center? Wouldn't you be worried if your wife goes out and buys a new Mercedes and before you've even started making payments on the Mercedes, she says, "You know, those new bmws are so bitchin'. I want me one of those, too, dear." You'd say, "Gee, I think we have a problem here." That's what I say. Maybe it's like manna from heaven; this tot money will just pour in, and we won't even have to raise the tot, which I think will be impossible. San Diego has a low tot from what I understand, compared with some other cities, but I've come away from other cities, and people will ask if I had a good time. I say, yeah, oh, I thought I had some money, but...
MP: What about the argument that if they don't build it, then the team will leave town and there won't be a baseball team in San Diego?
JM: I don't think that's going to happen. Where would they go? I talked to this gal, the one who wrote "Field of Schemes," she's pretty up on this stuff. She said there's about four teams right now using the same city in someplace like North Carolina, someplace like that, they're all using the same city, saying that's where we're going to move. All I can say is I've been going to Pads games since before the stadium was built. If that's the way they're going to treat me just because I don't decide to spend a quarter-billion dollars or a third of a billion on their new facility, well, you know, God, what a way to be treated. I wouldn't think much of them myself. I think we've been fairly supportive. Although I will say I've been to games even when they're having bad years and San Diegans are fair-weather fans, which is funny because that's actually an argument against the damn project, because if they were in fourth place or even if they were in the bottom of the barrel, in the basement as they say, we wouldn't even be discussing this thing. It's like we bought a good team this year, and we're kicking ass, so to speak, but normally we're not. What's going to happen to this deal when we've got 10,000 people showing up for a game? Oh, by the way, you know Qualcomm, of course, will be sitting there empty. Didn't we just pay a bunch of money to improve it? We have this gigantic, monolithic trolley terminal. I don't know if you've seen it, but it's, like, wow! It's a piece of work, it's beautiful. It's pretty neat.
MP: It cost about $10 million.
JM: Is that how much it was? Ah, Jesus Christ. Where is all this money coming from? I don't get it.
MP: What about the people you saw at the Padres rally. Those weren't like Tom Fat, I presume. They were more like working-class people?
JM: Yeah, a lot of them were working class. Some of them were very successful working class, middle-class people. Several people came up and stopped to scream at me and told me how convenient it was for them personally that this thing was being built. One guy told me . . . I said somewhere in the course of the conversation, I asked if he had season tickets. He said indeed he did. I said, well, congratulations. He said his company gives them to him. I said, well, that's great. Most of us don't have that benefit. I don't know, does the Reader buy season tickets for you? I said, "Most of us don't have that luxury. So that's very convenient for you." He said, "Well, I work hard for that. I work hard to get those season tickets." I said, "Oh, well I guess those of us that don't have season tickets don't work hard enough." I mean, what kind of logic is that? I found that in a lot of these people, because a lot of the people I talked to were educated, although they had San Diego State educations, which, don't quote me on this, but San Diego State, let's face it, they produce, like, business students. The level of education of San Diego State students doesn't impress me much. I've always felt kind of suspicious; it's sort of like a National University real large or something. It's not a very impressive school.
MP: We've got to talk about something I can quote you on.
JM: Oh, sorry. You can quote me on any of this stuff. I'll weep about it later, but a lot of people are going to be pissed at me! My wife graduated from State. She doesn't like State either; she thinks that State leaves a lot to be desired.
MP: What about the low turnout in the election? I guess the Convention Center issue got a pretty low turnout; this election may be a little better because it's a general election. Do you have an opinion or any ideas of why that is, why people don't seem to care one way or the other?
JM: I have to admit, I vote. I've never missed an election since I turned 18. It's really hard to argue with people who don't vote. They just feel like, well, you know, I've heard a quote, "If voting could change things, it would be illegal." It's generally like older white people who vote, and that's kind of scary. The interesting thing is, usually these votes are countywide across the country. Where they've had these stadium, or I should say "stadia" initiatives, they've been countywide, because they figure, the team owners figure, it's white suburbanites that live outside of the urban areas. Those are the people that are going to vote for this thing. But in San Diego, for some reason, they decided to go just citywide.
MP: If you feel so strongly about this issue, and it's on the ballot, and it's a clean shot, one way or the other, why aren't you surprised that people wouldn't turn out to vote for this thing, one way or the other? Vote for or against it.
JM: Right, well, I think it was disingenuous for the city council to put it up to a vote, because basically they're sheepish about having blown it so horribly on the Qualcomm improvements, so-called improvements, and they're sheepish about it and this is a way for them not to be blamed. It will happen. People will vote for it because there's millions of dollars that will assure that it will happen, but they can't be blamed because they can say later, "Hey, we put it up to a vote. Everybody had a chance to decide on that." But it's really disingenuous. It's like all these California initiatives, where they put a proposition on the ballot for some arcane subject --like we have to vote on bilingual education. How in the hell am I going to vote on that? I speak Spanish, but I don't know anything about bilingual education, I'm not some pedagogical theorist. I don't know a damned thing about it, and the same thing with the stadium. I think most people are going to feel ill-equipped to make a rational choice on it. How many people know how much tot money's coming in, and if it's going to be sufficient to not only cover the expansion of the Convention Center, but also cover a library and also cover this ballpark?
MP: What if the voters say, "We don't care about a library. We never use the library because we don't read anymore, we just watch the tube and go to Padres games." What if that was their verdict?
JM: That would depress the hell out of me.
MP: How so?
JM: Obviously, people don't read as much as they used to. The tendency is for people to go home and turn on the tube. If you've seen any TV coverage on this stuff, it's not surprising. Television is basically, you know, they have to sell advertising, so they entertain us and they don't really have an obligation to inform us, and I don't think people should expect that. Somehow I think in the back of everyone's mind they think that the news does have to inform us, and it doesn't. That's not their job; their job is to sell advertising. They have no obligation to inform.
MP: What specifically has got your attention about the coverage?
JM: Well, the coverage has been pretty friendly toward -- you know, it's like, "Whoopee! Let's go, man, yahoo!" You know, who gives a shit about a library? Who goes to libraries? Losers. People who read. They're not people who make money. They're probably right. They're people like myself. I'm not a successful guy, I don't make much money. I still rent, you know. I'm not one of life's "winners," but I feel like there's a lot to life besides making a lot of money. Reading is one of those things that people generally set out to do if they have the intellectual capacity for it, which most people do. They don't tend to read because it's so much easier to turn on the television. I think a downtown library would encourage people to read, because you could go have a nice atmosphere; you could be a homeless person or someone who is fairly comfortable, and you would be able to check out a few books, go up into the atrium, sit there and pore through them, decide maybe you'd like to read further in this one, maybe put the rest of them back, whatever. Maybe I'm a romantic. But most people read. Most of the books people read have foil-embossed covers, which generally means, "Do not read this book because it will cause brain damage." People should read. Television has been sold to people because it's convenient. If reading were more convenient, maybe more people would do it.