San Diego's political follies in 2006: Jerry Sanders, Mike Aguirre and supporting cast

Plus famous RIPs of the year

San Diego City Hall

Two thousand six marked the end of San Diego's brief Prague Spring, a short interval of freedom and turmoil between the fall of Mayor Dick Murphy and the rise of Jerry Sanders and Sanders's consolidation of power as the city's first "strong mayor." Elected in November 2000 with the backing of the Union-Tribune and other establishment power brokers, Murphy delivered on his promise to them of a new baseball stadium and lucrative development concessions for Padres owner John Moores before being forced to resign in the spring of 2005 by the same people who got him into office in the first place.

Murphy's sins included being too cozy with organized labor and failing to mind properly the employee pension fund's purse strings, leading to an embarrassing financial scandal and a cutoff by Wall Street of the city's fat credit line, an unforgivable circumstance for his pro-growth backers. With Murphy out of the way and the city coming apart at the seams, a mob of reformers stormed city hall; even the U-T got into the spirit, airing criticisms and exposés the paper had bottled up for years.

In 2005 it looked for a bit as if Democratic city councilwoman Donna Frye's populist candidacy might rupture the Republican Party's perennial hold on the mayor's office, but the moment was evanescent. Sanders, a low-energy ex-chief of police who glided through public appearances as though he were on tranquilizers, slipped into the job with the aid of $1.5 million in contributions from business backers and a series of sharp U-T editorial attacks on Frye. A smaller circle of business types had earlier bankrolled the strong-mayor campaign that vested the newly elected Sanders with unprecedented supremacy. But Sanders and his supporters wanted more.

In 2006, Sanders lent his name to another business- and U-T-backed campaign, this one to allow him to outsource city services such as trash collection to private contractors; the measure passed easily in November, giving the mayor more power, virtually unchecked. But that was still not enough. The people behind the mayor busied themselves raising the ramparts at city hall, plugging the holes so tightly that average taxpayers had little chance to see what was going on inside.

Press aide Fred Sainz ordered staffers not to talk to reporters without his say-so and blackballed publications and journalists who were not to his taste, behavior so egregious it drew a front-page story in the pro-Sanders Union-Tribune. City council members and the city attorney were not exempt: the mayor's "chief executive officer," retired admiral Ronne Froman, told them they had to put their requests for information about city operations in writing and then wait weeks or months for a response.

The city council, supposed to provide a legislative balance to the mayor's expanded power, rarely challenged his initiatives and, when it did, frequently failed to prevail. Scott Peters, the councilman from La Jolla elected by his peers as council president, declined even to speak to the U-T about the mayor's stifling of the information flow to the public, sending word through an aide that he wanted to maintain a "good working relationship" with Sanders.

In October, the relationship's lopsided nature came into public view after the mayor slashed money for homeless and neighborhood swimming programs dear to the councilmembers' hearts without telling them. Sanders policy aide Julie Dubick, a onetime school board candidate who many insiders believe is being groomed to be the GOP's candidate to succeed Peters, showed up at a council meeting and insisted the council had "exceeded its authority" when it voted to reinstate the money. Even Peters protested.

Mike Aguirre, elected city attorney in 2004, found himself at the halfway point of his tenure besieged from all sides. City workers loathed him for his attempts to roll back retirement benefits. His case against the pension benefits, on the basis that they had been improperly granted by a compromised retirement board, was shredded by superior court judge Jeffrey Barton. The city attorney vowed an appeal, but the Union-Tribune, one of Aguirre's fiercest critics, called that avenue "fruitless."

Meanwhile, there was plenty of life beyond the tumult at San Diego's city hall. Two thousand six was the year that the Internet, and specifically blogs, came into their own as a political tool. Two examples: San Diego city attorney Mike Aguirre's face-off with the Union-Tribune and a mysterious blogger who made a difference in the race to replace GOP congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

Mike vs. Chris

Aguirre's biggest critic turned out to be a professional blogger the U-T hired to spice up its flagging SignOnSanDiego website and perhaps settle some political scores in the process. Chris Reed, a former editorial writer from the conservative Orange County Register, opened fire almost as soon as he arrived in town.

Reed's one-man forum, named "America's Finest Blog," a takeoff on "America's Finest City" (ironically, a phrase coined by then-Mayor Pete Wilson after Richard Nixon pulled the GOP convention out of San Diego in 1972, following one of the city's many influence-peddling scandals), went after Aguirre early in the year.

On March 22, Reed proclaimed that there was a "noble" Aguirre, crusading against the city's corrupt power structure, and an "opportunistic" Aguirre, hungry for the spotlight. "From here on out, every time Aguirre appears in the U-T headlines, I'm going to offer my snap take on which Aguirre seems in charge of his tongue this time around."

As it turned out, Reed saw only the bad side of the city attorney, calling him everything from "unethical" to a "city saboteur" and a "lunatic." In an August post, he concluded, "Mike Aguirre is one of the worst public servants imaginable. He is incompetent. He spreads himself too thin. He says one thing one day, another thing another day. He will grandstand on any issue. He uses taxpayer resources on quixotic and pointless crusades."

Aguirre was so piqued he started his own blog, called "The Aguirre Report," and began firing back, accusing the U-T of mounting "a vindictive campaign to discredit my efforts."

In a November entry, he wrote: "The politicians at the Union-Tribune (U-T) are at it again. Sunday's (November 5) newspaper published a news story on the City's ongoing pension trial that seeks to convince a court that unfunded pension benefits granted in 1996 and 2002 by the City Council to City employees was a corrupt deal that should be rescinded.

"The article, 'Pension trial pace expected to pick up,' offers a prime example of what biased reporting looks like, even though I was interviewed at length for the story by the reporter. In the story, the reporter conveys that attorneys for the unions have characterized 'Aguirre's legal interpretations suspect and his grasp of procedural matters weak.'

"On the contrary, after I completed my opening statement union attorney Joel Klevens asked the Judge for an immediate verdict contending that the City Attorney did not make his case. The Judge swiftly ruled against Attorney Klevens and told him that his motion was procedurally defective. Somehow, this exchange did not make it into the U-T's article."

Aguirre's responses delighted Reed, who threw back at him quotes from a series of exposés the U-T had commissioned from its reporters to portray alleged management turmoil under Aguirre's reign and his "rotten track record in pension-related cases" that "cost the city at least $2 million."

"Each of these stories was researched over a long period," blogged Reed about his own paper's coverage. "Each has stood up quite well against the predictable attacks from Aguirre and his allies. Only people with their heads in the sand could read these three articles and conclude Aguirre is the hero he thinks he is."

Then, in October Reed seemed to get to the real point. Mark Fabiani, a veteran of the Clinton White House who now works for Chargers owner and multimillion-dollar GOP donor Alex Spanos, came to meet with Reed and the U-T editorial board. "He took about an hour of questions; four or five dealt with his criticism of City Attorney Mike Aguirre."

As leader of the Spanos-family campaign to build a new football stadium for the Chargers, long lusted after by the U-T, Fabiani had repeatedly targeted Aguirre, claiming he would block any deal worked out with the City for taxpayer financing.

In his blog entry, Reed insisted that he was generally unsympathetic to public funding of football stadiums, then added, "But imagine if you, your family, your company -- whatever sympathetic unit you wish to employ in this thought example -- were attempting to close a complicated deal. The entity you were negotiating with had in its employ a high-ranking official who at any time believed he had the authority to single-handedly sue to block the deal, whatever the wishes of the great majority of other high-ranking officials.

"This is not an entity you would want to bargain with, because you couldn't trust it to ever keep its end of the bargain. There was always the chance the rogue employee -- who has repeatedly said he doesn't like you -- might sue you. This is what the Chargers are up against with Aguirre."

Political Secrets

One of the most effective local campaign blogs of the year was also the most mysterious. Titled by its anonymous author "San Diego Politics Blog," it first posted February 21 with an entry about the movie Why We Fight, a liberal documentary critical of the war in Iraq, playing at the Ken theater. The same day the unknown blogger noted that MoveOn had begun raising money for Democrat Francine Busby's race in the special election for the 50th District Congressional seat vacated by Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

All spring, the blogger covered the race, breaking stories, including explosive news in March that Republican candidate Eric Roach's former business partner, San Francisco investor Thomas Frank White, was a sexual predator. The item featured a photo of White with what appeared to be two pubescent boys on his lap. A link to the San Francisco Chronicle website provided credibility and filled in the sordid details.

Roach was soon on the air with radio talk show host Roger Hedgecock, taking pains to explain that White was only an investor in his online brokerage business and denying any knowledge about the sexual charges against his former associate. But the damage had been done. Without mentioning San Diego Politics by name, the Union-Tribune alluded to the story, noting it "was circulating anonymously in the blogosphere."

The faceless blogger labored through the April 11 special election in which Busby was opposed by a pack of 17 other candidates. Some observers said they could detect a tilt favoring Busby; others surmised the blog was a well-camouflaged effort by the campaign of ex-GOP congressman Brian Bilbray to discredit Roach. Nobody claimed credit.

Busby's best chance of getting elected in the heavily Republican district came in April, but she failed to get the 50 percent plus one vote majority she needed in the open primary to win outright over the large field dividing the GOP vote. Instead, she was forced into a June runoff with Bilbray, who had narrowly beaten Roach for second place.

Then, with days to go before that election, in front of a largely Latino crowd, Busby uttered her now-famous remark, "You don't need papers for voting," seized upon by Republicans as encouragement by her of voting by illegal immigrants.

"Francine Busby appears to have managed to save defeat from the jaws of victory," reported San Diego Politics on June 5, the day before the election, which Bilbray won. "Busby and Bilbray had up until this point been pretty close in the polls. But this should tip the balance to Bilbray, who has run on the issue of 'stopping illegal immigration' since Day 1." Though the political season was only half over, it was the unnamed blogger's last entry.

Wall Street Mike

If Mike Aguirre's stock was down at the U-T, it was flying high at the Wall Street Journal, which featured him prominently in its September 27 lead editorial bashing councilmembers Toni Atkins, Jim Madaffer, Brian Maienschein, and council president Scott Peters for their roles in the city's pension-funding scandal.

"Michael Aguirre, the pugnacious city attorney, has brought suit in federal court to have some of the benefits granted since 1996 rolled back on grounds that they violated federal conflict-of-interest laws. A self-described liberal Democrat, Mr. Aguirre deserves kudos for risking the wrath of the public-sector unions, but his prospects for success are uncertain.

"If he loses, reining in the liabilities will become a matter of negotiation with the unions. Good luck with that. A victory, on the other hand, would send a signal that unfunded promises for public-sector employees are not etched in stone, which would be a valuable signal for other state and local governments grappling with extravagant retirement packages for public employees. As Mr. Aguirre points out, current retirees 'are drawing 100 cents on the dollar from a pension fund that is only 60% funded.' "

San Diego Unified School District

Things have calmed down a lot at the San Diego Unified School District since the departure of Alan Bersin following the election two years ago that resulted in a board majority opposed to him and his controversial policies. After leaving the district, Democrat Bersin became something of a rolling stone, moving first to Sacramento to become education secretary for GOP governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in July 2005, then resigning that $123,000-a-year gig abruptly last November when Mayor Jerry Sanders chose him to become an executive board member of the regional airport authority for $150,000 a year. (Bersin's mother-in-law was a heavy contributor to the mayor's privatization initiative.) The ex-school chief and wife Lisa Foster, a superior court judge, bought a $2.1 million house in Point Loma's tony "wooded area," well south of Lindbergh's noisy flight path.

In contrast to Bersin's rambles, two school board faces remained solidly in place. Katherine Nakamura, a onetime Bersin favorite, endorsed in her 2002 race by the Union-Tribune, was rescued in 2006 by the AFL-CIO's San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, which dispatched a round of so-called robo-calls to Democratic voters attacking her GOP foe in the supposedly nonpartisan contest: "Something scary is coming to San Diego, and it's not Halloween," said the caller in a child's voice. "The vice chair of San Diego's Republican Party is running for San Diego Unified school board. Republican Mike McSweeney has disguised himself as a moderate, but he is really a right-wing extremist who will destroy the balance of the school board." Lorena Gonzalez, the labor council's political director, later said in an e-mail that the actor who voiced the calls was a real ten-year-old -- "an actual child in our San Diego's Public School" -- and a member of AFTRA, a broadcast performers' union.

Nakamura's board colleague John de Beck, an ex-teacher who's been on the board since 1990, won his fourth reelection the easy way: no one opposed him. Four years before, pro-Bersin forces, including L.A. billionaire Eli Broad, financed ex-FBI agent Clyde Fuller against de Beck with dismal results.

Under the Radar

When Brett Maxfield, a young property agent in the city of San Diego's Real Estate Assets Department, blew the whistle in March on what he said was a sweetheart lease deal for the Carlton Oaks Golf Course, he didn't expect to be fired. But after Maxfield's charges were reported here a week later, Maxfield was called into the office of acting department director Mike Boyle and told he would have to leave.

"I believe that the reason for this action is the article that came out in the Reader concerning Carlton Oaks and other issues I have raised concerning the Water Dept.'s handling of property issues," Maxwell wrote in an e-mail to Jim Waring, top development aide to Mayor Jerry Sanders, the day he was let go. "Can we meet and talk about it?"

Responded Waring: "Just so you know, Mike briefed me on your employment status before any article was known or published. Regardless, I will meet with you as a courtesy, but only with Mike present. I do not want you, however, to expect that meeting to change the decision that was made or become a debate of some type. For what it's worth my free advice to you as a young, very educated man, is that your turning the page on this is the best life decision you can make for your future. Let me know if you want to meet."

Maxfield spurned the invitation; on November 17, councilwoman Donna Frye, the mayor's erstwhile electoral opponent, sent Sanders a memo "requesting an investigation of Brett Maxfield's termination from City employment."

Over the Top

City-sponsored municipal WiFi projects have sprung up across the nation, designed to allow the citizenry in such places as Portland, (Oregon), San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Seattle a way to get mobile online service without having to pay a fortune for cell-phone mobile data contracts. But in San Diego, home to Qualcomm -- one of the cell-phone industry's most powerful players and an in-kind donor to the campaign of Mayor Jerry Sanders -- a secretive committee reporting to the mayor was still studying how to proceed.

The saga began in early May, when a reporter asked Drew MacCullough, a member of the WiFi body, called the "Public Broadband Access Working Group," what progress was being made. He sent an e-mail to the group's chairman, Kristopher Lichter, a local executive for IBM. "The person from the Reader is Matt Potter," MacCullough wrote. "Though we did discuss the group, I explained to him that it is, as you said, 'very early stages' and off the map at this point. I also made it clear to him that I did not speak for the group or the City. He was interested in who is involved, but I did not give him names or contact info. I told him I would have to get back to him with contact info of others who might be interested in talking to him." Lichter responded that all questions should be forwarded to Sanders's people. "But again, they are probably not going to comment. At this point, my suggestion is that you just let Matt know (if he contacts you) that he's welcome to reach out to the Mayor's Office directly."

Later the same day, Sanders media honcho Fred Sainz dispatched an e-mail to his underlings, making the mayor's position clear. "To all copied here," Sainz wrote, "Do not speak with any reporters from the Reader. Tell them that you do not speak with reporters from the Reader. No additional information or follow up necessary. Thanks."

A public meeting of the group scheduled for December 13 to discuss "public wireless and best management practices," including "business models of other cities" and "outreach to stakeholders", was cancelled and continued to this month. n

-- Matt Potter


January 10

Sidney Frank, 86

The wealthy importer of Jägermeister liqueur and Grey Goose vodka was a resident of Rancho Santa Fe, where he hosted notoriously lavish parties on his sprawling estate. That was only one of his six mansions. Frank's brushes with controversy included a sexual-harassment suit filed against his company by members of the Jagerettes, a crew of sexy young women in skimpy outfits who cruised bars promoting the booze brand. One alleged she had been groped in a San Diego limo. And in 2005, Frank and an employee each pled guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a total of $30,000 for their roles in a scheme to launder campaign contributions to Sheriff Bill Kolender.

January 26

Hamilton Marston, 95

An heir to the now-defunct Marston's department-store chain, the soft-spoken Marston championed such progressive but ultimately failed local causes as improved urban planning, growth control, and better border relations. His effort to move the Naval Hospital out of Balboa Park was rejected by the local establishment, led by GOP congressman Bob Wilson, Mayor Pete Wilson, and U-T publisher Helen Copley. In 1974 he paid for a study by planners Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard entitled "Temporary Paradise?" that showcased his utopian dreams, some now realized, many not, including a trolley system and development of Lindbergh Field as condos.

February 25

Henry Morris, 87

The father of modern creationism, Morris, a resident of El Cajon, founded the Institute for Creation Research in Santee in 1970. The Genesis Flood, which he wrote in 1961 with theologian John C. Whitcomb, takes Genesis literally, presenting evidence for the biblical account of creation, and argues that Darwin's theory of evolution is bogus. Morris was "the most important creationist of the 20th century, much more so than William Jennings Bryan," Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, a pro-evolution group, told the New York Times.

March 2

Madeleine Cosman, 68

Founder of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the City College of New York in 1968, Cosman was an expert in medieval culture, specializing in food and medicine. After she retired to Escondido, the experienced shooter and gun lover became active in the California Rifle and Pistol Association and joined the board of Wake Up America, a group opposed to illegal immigration.

March 2

Garrett Scott, 37

An independent filmmaker, Scott died of a heart attack while swimming at the public pool in his hometown of Coronado. His documentary Occupation: Dreamland about being embedded with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division was awarded an Independent Spirit Award in Santa Monica two days later. He and codirector Ian Olds produced 2002's Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story, about the Clairemont rampage of a man in a stolen tank.

March 27

Bernard Siegan, 81

The author of Economic Liberties and the Constitution, published in 1980, and a La Jolla resident who lived in a house once occupied by novelist Raymond Chandler, Siegan was a Libertarian hero, named by President Ronald Reagan to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987. The nomination was killed by the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee. He was a professor at USD law school until suffering a stroke in 2005.

April 5

Allan Kaprow, 78

A painter and student of experimental musician John Cage, Kaprow organized the first "happenings," a form of performance art, including Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts (Manhattan, October 1959). The self-described "un-artist," who later in life was an art professor at UCSD, switched from "happenings" to "activities," including one involving his daily tooth brushing.

April 6

Maggie Dixon, 28

The University of San Diego basketball star played for the Los Angeles Sparks of the Women's National Basketball Association before turning to coaching after being cut in 2000. Last year she coached the women's basketball team at West Point to its first NCAA tournament; her sudden death was said to be due to an undetected heart problem.

May 15

Judith Moore, 66

Senior editor of the Reader, her third book, Fat Girl, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award in 2005. "Judith Moore's book just might be the Stonewall for a slew of oversize people who do not fit the template of what every ostensible expert on beauty, health and nutrition tells us we should strive to be. Fat Girl is brilliant and angry and unsettling," wrote Jane Stern in the New York Times. Moore's two previous books were The Left Coast of Paradise: California and the American Heart and Never Eat Your Heart Out. Her best epitaph might be found in E.B. White's Charlotte's Web: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer."

May 24

Fritz Klein, 73

Originally named Fred Klein, the psychiatrist and sex researcher specialized in the study of bisexuals and their relationships, authoring The Bisexual Option in 1978 and Bisexual and Gay Husbands: Their Stories, Their Words in 2001. He developed the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid and founded the American Institute of Bisexuality.

July 18

Tom Carter, 66

The ex-chief financial and loan officer of San Diego Federal Savings and Loan, Carter later developed real estate with his old friend, former county supervisor Jack Walsh. But his biggest notoriety came after he stood up at a February 2006 meeting of the board of the San Diego State University Research Foundation and quit, saying that he could not support SDSU president Stephen Weber's decision to shut down the foundation's Paseo commercial development project and dispose of much of its real estate assets:

"This foundation is the largest contributor annually to the university -- $2.5 million. That's not going to be there anymore. When we start selling real estate, that money won't be there in the future. I see a downward spiral that will be very difficult to turn around. I don't want to be fighting with President Weber. He knows where I stand on these matters."

September 3

Tom Suzuki, 76

Noted art director and graphic designer who revolutionized the stodgy textbook industry with his use of edgy typography and visuals, Suzuki got his start as assistant art director at General Dynamics in 1961. A Japanese American who spent World War II in a government detention camp, Suzuki cofounded with Don Wright the San Diego graphic firm of Suzuki & Wright. A major client was Del Mar's CRM (Communications Research Machines), publisher of Psychology Today and many textbooks known for their groundbreaking layouts.

September 6

Warren Bolster, 59

Famed for his precedent-breaking photography of surfers, accomplished with underwater cameras, wide-angle lenses, and surfboard mounts, he later moved on to cover the emerging culture of skateboarding. The former San Diego resident committed suicide at his home in Mokuleia, Hawaii.

September 8

Fred Spiess, 86

Oceanographer and marine explorer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography; codeveloper of the floating instrument platform (FLIP), a 355-foot-long craft that goes from horizontal to vertical when its ballast tanks are flooded. He and his wife Sally successfully campaigned to save

and restore one of the original buildings at Scripps, the George H. Scripps Memorial Marine Biological Laboratory, designed by famed local architect Irving Gill, after Scripps administrators threatened to tear it down.

October 16

George Stevens, 74

The 1960s civil rights firebrand known as Chaka, famous for throwing a chair across the room at a public event, mellowed considerably after finally getting elected to the San Diego City Council in 1991. The ex-staffer to Democratic congressman Jim Bates was a key backer of John Moores's taxpayer-subsidized downtown baseball stadium. When he lost his bid for a Democratic 78th Assembly District nomination to Vince Hall in March 2002, after the Service Employees International Union sent out a hit piece pointing out that the part-time preacher took contributions from strip-club workers, Stevens went to work for Republican Shirley Horton, who won the seat.

November 7

Richwell Arzadon Doria, 25

A 2000 Morse High School graduate, U.S. Army staff sergeant Doria was killed by small arms fire near Kirkuk, Iraq, during an air assault search and rescue mission just one month shy of his 26th birthday. He received a posthumous Purple Heart and Bronze Star with a V for valor "for his courage as well as his quick and sound decisions under fire, which saved the lives of his squad of soldiers," U.S. Brigadier General S.G. Trombitas said at Doria's funeral, held in Dagupan City, the town in which Doria was born, about 100 miles north of Manila. "This is what he had always wanted to do. When he joined the Army, we tried to discourage him," his aunt Zenaida Anderson was quoted as saying. He is survived by his wife, Jasmine K.M. Doria of Ewa Beach, Hawaii, and his then-four-month-old daughter Jada.

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