Smoke gets in their eyes

— The annual "Excellence in Journalism Awards" will be handed out next Friday at a fancy banquet to be held by the San Diego Press Club at the posh Loews Coronado Bay Resort. But this year's event is being shadowed by strong criticism from the local chapter of the American Lung Association. Philip Morris, U.S.A., the controversial tobacco giant, has paid $5000 to co-sponsor the dinner. "The American Lung Association is astounded at the poor judgment that any organization shows in accepting tobacco sponsorship," association spokesman Ross Porter says. "More than 70 nonprofits in San Diego County, including most recently the Poway Rodeo, have adopted written policies to refuse tobacco sponsorship. We hope that the Press Club would take note of its position as a role model and do the right thing by cutting its ties to Philip Morris as well." Press Club president Ron James, who is content manager of SignOnSanDiego, the Union-Tribune's website, says no dice. "We're sorry they're so upset about it. We are not promoting any product, and it's a legitimate company, the same with the casinos and the alcoholic beverage companies that have sponsored the awards in the past." James says the Philip Morris cash, along with funds from nine other dinner sponsors (including Sempra Energy, the Building Industry Association, and the Viejas casino) will be used for scholarships, as well as to subsidize the dinner itself, in order "to keep the price in line so journalists can afford to go to the function." Ticket prices, he said, are in the $45 to $50 range.

Welcome to South L.A. Who wants a strong mayor? Judging from the campaign committee backing San Diego's Proposition F, the so-called strong-mayor ballot measure on the November ballot, quite a few of the city's high-powered, Los Angeles-backed influence peddlers do. First among them is George Mitrovich, onetime P.R. man for convicted Del Mar swindler J. David Dominelli, whose more recent clients have included L.A.'s giant Metropolitan Water District. Mitrovich and assorted family members collected $869,000 from MWD for trying to sway local opinion against the San Diego County water district's homegrown Imperial Valley water grab. And there's UCSD professor Steve Erie, who also has long backed the L.A. water interests in their epic battle against their San Diego brethren. After the Union-Tribune exposed the Mitroviches' once-secret arrangements with MWD, Erie fired off a letter to the editor to the paper: "That MWD needed to hire local consultants is a sad commentary upon slanted local coverage of water issues, particularly from the Union-Tribune editorial page." That was a close echo of a statement by MWD's top public relations official, Adnan Ortega, who was quoted by the paper as saying the water agency forked over the big money to the Mitrovich clan because "we didn't feel that we could get a fair hearing" in the local rag. Erie, a backer of plans to build a super-airport to replace Lindbergh Field and a self-professed fan of L.A., has long been a proponent of bigger is better. "L.A. worshipped at the throne of growth and got what it asked for. It's government that's organized around producing economic growth," he told a reporter this summer. There are also plenty of local lobbyists backing Prop. F as well, including Porter Novelli's Kevin Faulconer, whose company is employed by the San Diego County Apartment Owners Association, and Jeff Marston, whose clients include Poway contractor Doug Barnhart, the city's biggest political contributor and stadium builder. Then there's Woodenship Advertising's Bob Nelson, who this March boasted to the San Diego Business Journal that he'd just picked up a cool $25,000 to handle the first phase of Mayor Dick Murphy's reelection bid. Murphy backs the strong-mayor initiative. But the heaviest representation on the committee has gone to the San Diego city firefighters union, which boasts director of government affairs and onetime school-board candidate Johnnie Perkins, vice president John Thomson, and president and city pension-board member Ron Saathoff, whose name has recently surfaced in connection with that ongoing federal investigation into the city's troubled pension fund.

Murphy's money Mayor Dick Murphy has been picking up even more campaign cash from San Diego Gas and Electric executives. Other recent Murphy donors include lobbyist Jim Dawe, the president of that small foundation to which Murphy and his colleagues gave $1 million of taxpayer money in an ultimately failed effort to suck in big-money donations for a new downtown library. Other Murphy support comes from wealthy Dr. Seuss widow Audrey Geisel; Pauline Foster, the Rancho Santa Fe denizen and mother-in-law of school chief Alan Bersin; and Mike McKinnon, the KUSI owner who is trying to develop a hotel project in the middle of the city-controlled downtown redevelopment area. Still more Murphy money was donated by real estate mogul Malin Burnham and his wife, plus Bazaar del Mundo honcho Diane Powers. The prize for the most creative occupation description goes to Barbara Finn Pressley, the wife of car and truck dealer Norm Pressley of La Jolla. The Murphy disclosure form calls Pressley -- a colorful old nightclub singer who years ago ran Mickie Finn's speakeasy up on University Avenue in Hillcrest -- a "farmer."

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