A flagging Chicago-owned newspaper desperate for sports business, a wealthy NFL owner with an option to relocate the family football team to Los Angeles, a consultant steeped in the dark arts of the campaign hatchet job, an ex–Major League Baseball owner caught plying a city councilwoman with a trove of gifts.
That dubious lineup is just the beginning of the roster of colorful players in the putative last stand of the San Diego Chargers, note longtime observers — both Republicans and Democrats — familiar with San Diego's tradition of political corruption.
The revelation that Chargers owner Dean Spanos will make a run at a downtown stadium — spurning the entreaties of mayor Kevin Faulconer and his GOP establishment backers, to build in Mission Valley — has opened a veritable Pandora's Box of city scandals, from the tortured tale of the downtown baseball stadium, still costing city taxpayers almost $12 million a year in debt subsidy payments, to the political hit woman employed by Chargers honcho Fred Maas in 2012 to sully the reputation of mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio.
One point agreed on by all: Spanos likely will have to ante up many millions of dollars for a rough-and-tumble campaign if he is to have a chance at tapping the city treasury for the huge public subsidy said to be needed to build a downtown sports palace to his liking.
So far, the path to the bank for the Chargers owner and his Stockton-based family is strewn with unknowns, awaiting details of how the super-rich mogul plans to channel taxpayer dollars into his own pockets via the ballot box.
In the meantime, the city's contingent of campaign hired guns, influence-peddlers, and media types is already circling the field, seeing reward depending on which way the battle goes.
DeMaio, the Republican former city councilman who ran for mayor and then Congress, failing both times, is already out of the gate with an email to a list of prospective donors.
"Some really bad news," begins DeMaio's missive.
"It looks like San Diego voters will face at least three tax hikes on the ballot this year including a county-wide sales tax hike for climate change projects and a city tax hike for a new NFL stadium! You helped us defeat the last sales tax hike. This time we need to start EARLY and raise enough funds to get our message out."
Reform California, a political committee formerly known as Reform San Diego, is collecting the money. Last year the group was part of a coalition, co-led by DeMaio, for a statewide pension-reform ballot effort that has since been put off until 2018.
According to California campaign contribution filings, last year Reform California took in $67,724 and spent $39,153, leaving a year-end cash balance of $31,479. Polling in April and November of last year cost the fund a total of $19,963, according to the disclosures.
Reached by phone, DeMaio said that his group is awaiting more details on the Chargers’ downtown stadium proposal and has yet to take a position on the issue, though it opposes the so-called Briggs Initiative, a hotel tax-raising initiative drafted by attorney Cory Briggs and backed by Democratic ex–city councilwoman Donna Frye and former Padres owner John Moores and his JMI Reality partners.
According to a statement posted by the Chargers on their website February 23, the team "will begin collaborating immediately with the existing diverse citizens’ coalition led by Donna Frye and JMI Realty that has already been formed in favor of a downtown convention center expansion and educational and recreational uses in Mission Valley."
Thus far, four lobbying groups are registered to legally influence San Diego's city hall regarding the stadium issue. Longtime Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani has been making about $50,000 each quarter, according to his disclosure reports on file with the city clerk's office.
Next comes JMI Realty, the development firm of Rancho Santa Fe's Moores, who back in the late 1990s and early 2000s spent millions to obtain a big public subsidy in the form of stadium cash and surrounding land-development rights for what became Petco Park.
The former Houstonian, who once coveted a new NFL team for that Texas city, was at the heart of the Valerie Stallings scandal, in which the councilwoman was forced to resign in the wake of a federal investigation into a series of financial considerations and gifts slipped to Stallings by Moores.
According to its most recent lobbying disclosure statement, filed January 15, JMI has registered to hold "discussions on convention center and stadium studies" with city officials.
The phalanx of registered lobbyists for JMI include Moores himself, JMI CEO John Kratzer, former state Democratic senator Steve Peace, lawyer Patrick Shea, JMI managing director James Chatfield, and JMI chief operating officer Bryant Burke.
Others with major financial interests seeking to apply influence regarding the costly endeavor include the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, which according to a January 29 filing, seeks to "ensure a labor friendly project.”
A December 9, 2015, disclosure filed by Associated General Contractors says the builders’ organization will "monitor" the "Chargers stadium and convention center."
Meanwhile, the Chicago-run U-T, which may have a lot of sports readership to lose if the team ultimately leaves town, has gotten in some early spin of its own in the form of a top-of-page-one opinion piece bylined by columnist Dan McSwain.
"Of course, such campaigns have a long history around the nation: Raise hotel taxes for tourism projects, and grow the local economy. Borrow money in special districts, repaid by the resulting growth."
Concludes the analysis: "Thus we return to the central challenge confronting the Chargers, with or without city officials — convincing ordinary San Diegans to help build a downtown sports entertainment district that many people surely will enjoy, with a generous helping for the NFL and the hotel industry."