The battle between San Diego's Republican mayor Kevin Faulconer and the Chargers, growing fiercer by the day, has turned the San Diego GOP's historic relationship with the team-owning Spanos family on its political head.
Patriarch Alex Spanos assumed control of the Chargers from Nixon Democrat Gene Klein in 1984, consummating the team's love affair with the city's Republican establishment, led by San Diego U-T publisher Helen Copley and her second-in-command Herb Klein. The ex-Nixon spokesman had mentored star quarterback and Republican Jack Kemp in his climb to Congress.
Spanos provided lots of money to Republican San Diego mayor Pete Wilson in his senate and gubernatorial campaigns, coming up with more than a million dollars during the course of his career.
In 1996, the developer plunked down $250,000 for a lavish bash held for the New York and California delegations to the Republican National Convention, held here that year. He also kicked in $250,000 to the city's GOP convention host committee, run by Republican mayor Susan Golding.
Then, in 2008, it was announced that Spanos had been diagnosed with a form of progressive dementia and would henceforth be stepping back from his hectic political schedule.
The next year, the campaign fund of Democrat Jerry Brown, then California attorney general, reported it received $10,000 from the suddenly reclusive mogul, and word circulated that son Dean Spanos was planning to move the Chargers to Los Angeles and needed the political assistance of Democrats to ease the way.
San Diego's Republican elite, backed by their biggest donor, U-T publisher Douglas Manchester, maintained there was nothing to worry about, counting on Manchester's peculiar kind of journalism to maintain the GOP's status quo.
Then came this spring's double whammy.
At the same time the Chargers were secretly putting together a plan to build a stadium in Carson, Manchester had been quietly negotiating with Tribune Publishing, owner of the L.A. Times, to sell the U-T, long the source of GOP domination in the city.
The twin revelations suddenly threw San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer — who won election through the efforts of San Diego's Republican machine led by developer Manchester and his money — off stride.
The mayor and his hurriedly packaged task force to save the team was swiftly savaged by Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani, a onetime deputy to Los Angeles Democratic mayor Tom Bradley and advisor to president Bill Clinton
Fabiani targeted the behind-the-scenes role of Faulconer's political guru and state GOP kingpin and San Diego lobbyist Jason Roe.
"What legal and ethical issues are raised by Mr. Roe's dual role as an apparent de facto Task Force member and as a registered lobbyist for the Delaware North company, which is bidding to become the new concessionaire at Qualcomm Stadium and, potentially, at any new stadium in San Diego?" Fabiani wrote Faulconer on February 17.
"Putting the legal and ethical issues aside for a moment, what sense does it make to have someone who is your chief advisor on political matters, and who advises a potential stadium vendor on business matters, play any sort of role with the 'independent' Task Force?"
This week Fabiani shut the door on the mayor's plan to hold a costly hurry-up public vote this coming December on the task force's stadium proposal.
That brought an emailed shot from task force spokesman and former U-T reporter and Faulconer city-council aide Tony Manolatos.
"Mark Fabiani has ratcheted up his criticism of San Diego in an effort to win the race to Los Angeles," wrote Manolatos in his June 19 missive.
"The team is not interested in a San Diego solution and hasn't been for a while despite all the efforts by the City and County, which has met all of the team's moving targets."
Meanwhile, the newly renamed San Diego Union Tribune, now under control of L.A. Times publisher and Jerry Brown backer Austin Beutner, has been decidedly low key about its position on the epic San Diego versus L.A. battle.
"The city/county team must do all it can to make its case, up to the end," concluded a 242-word June 17 U-T editorial regarding the matter.
Unlike the days of Manchester, there was no pat on the back for the once-favored Faulconer, which some suggest could prove to be a bad omen for the flagship Republican politico hoping for higher office, not to mention the local GOP generally.
Like Fabiani a Democratic former deputy mayor of L.A. and veteran of the Clinton Administration, Beutner has manifested considerably more enthusiasm for bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles.
"Returning to L.A. makes sense for a league that takes pride in its heritage, as the Los Angeles Coliseum was the site of Super Bowl I," blogged Beutner in the Huffington Post in February 2012.
"Los Angeles is not going to get a Super Bowl simply by whining or by tugging on the NFL's heartstrings," continued the wealthy Angeleno. "It's up to the city's leadership to get the job done — beginning with getting Farmer's Field built, the downtown stadium."
Added Beutner, "It will allow Los Angeles to compete for the likes of Comic-Con, the NCAA's Final Four, and Springsteen."
The plan for the NFL to set up shop in downtown L.A. is said to be dead, with stadium action now centering on the competing venues of Carson and Inglewood. Whether the new U-T publisher's desire to relocate San Diego's venerated Comic-Con to L.A. is still alive remains to be seen.