Rhetoric to Nowhere

I’ve been following the trials and tribulations of Alaska’s Senator Ted “Bridge to Nowhere” Stevens with a general feeling of “And anyone’s surprised about this?” Stevens – and the Alaska he has represented in the Senate since its achieving statehood, is the civic personification of the civic schizopreneia known as Red State America. Red State politicians get elected preaching a gospel of antigovernment, personal responsibility, self-reliance and the joys of the free-market self—made man. Then–without so much a twitch of cognitive contradiction or the slightest blush of self-recognized hypocrisy—these same Red State politicians fight their way to the front of the public trough, year after year, too grab as much public pork to bring back to the self reliant folks back home as their pens can earmark.

Take Ted Steven’s Alaska. With it’s nickname “The Last Frontier”, Alaska proudly presents itself as the emblematic epitome of Red State, rugged individualist values America. A nice image that is totally contradicted by reality. Alaska is one of the biggest state suckers on the national teat, ranking every year in the top three or five states for per capital Federal spending. (California typically falls in the bottom twenty states) So much for self reliance. Alaska has also consistently come in first (for almost two decades) as the piggiest state in terms of the Federal pork it receives. No wonder Alaskans keep sending Stevens back to Washington – he is the Porcine Prince.

My only question is where did all that pork Ted Steven’s brought back to Alaska go? Just who up there in the far north got fat? Because it doesn’t seem to be the average Alaskan. I happened to be in Alaska in June (inland passage cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage) which was my first experience on the “Last Frontier.” What struck both my wife and I was how, in each port city we stopped at, including the capital Juneau, as soon as you walked a few blocks from the tourist areas, just how poor everything looked. Houses, cars, buildings – everything had the aura of poor rural West Virginia (a poor, rural west Virginia with whales and grizzly bears, to be sure…) And that was in the bustling urban metropolises (of course in Alaska anything over a thousand people is bustling…)

Our big question was where was all the fabled wealth of Alaska – its vast natural resources of oil, gas and other precious gifts of the Earth—actually going. You didn’t see it in the properties and persons of the average Alaskans. You certainly didn’t see it in public buildings and spaces. Just where has all that last frontier gold gone? Lost on a bridge to nowhere?

Speaking of which, I actually floated past the place where Ted Stevens wanted to build his $300 million bridge. It’s in Ketchican, Alaska (population 8000) and would link the airport with the main town. To put it in San Diego perspective, the airport sits on an island about as far from the town as Coronado is from downtown San Diego. Currently a ferry services the few dozen people a day who make the commute to and from the airport by vehicle. Steven’s wanted to build a bridge even bigger than the Coronado Bridge (large cruise ships would have to be able to pass under it) to handle a handful of trips per day. (The Coronado Bridge, in comparison, has a traffic volume of over 70,000 vehicles per day, roughly ten times the total population of Ketchikan.)

So why did Stevens want that bridge? Just to make the locals happy? Sure. Big projects can mean big votes. But just who was going to get that $315 million in contracts? Local Ketchikan businesses? Surely not. Alaskan contractors? Some. But big corporate contractors would probably get the lion’s share of the money. The sorts of big corporations that make big, fat campaign contributions to Senators like Stevens. Just like the mega-big oil corporations that have been given access to the oil lying below public lands in Alaska at a cost of pennies on the sales dollar of that oil once they take it to market thanks to people like Ted Stevens. They suck the oil profits out of Alaska leaving a pittance in remittance for Alaskans.

So is it any surprise that one of the oil industry companies that have profited so handsomely for so long under the Stevens’ stewardship should be found to have (illegally) doubled the size of the Senators’ Alaskan abode. Think of it as a friendly little gratuity. To bad Stevens didn’t get his bridge. Some happy contractor might have given him an additional story.

Meanwhile Red State Alaskans continue to send their Red State politicians to Washington to preach the rhetoric that government is evil while stuffing as much pork as possible into their state accounts. And they do it with a straight face. That’s the amazing thing.

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Sunroad, Sunset

“The voters want[ed] someone to show strong leadership. They want a mayor that’s going to go in immediately and restructure City Hall.”

—Jerry Sanders, Sept. 24, 2005

“This report makes it painfully obvious that various processes failed us. This is not a happy day for me or my administration.”

—Jerry Sanders, July 19, 2007

During the mayoral campaign of 2005, non-politician Jerry Sanders promised to make America’s formerly “finest” city “finest” once more. Two years later, amidst the flap over a development project gone terribly wrong, now-Mayor Sanders has had to admit that his goals of massive city reform have fallen well short of the mark.

With Sunroad Enterprises agreeing to reduce the size of its Kearny Mesa building to comply with federal aviation standards and the release of a report exonerating the mayor and other city officials from willful wrongdoing, the whole sleazy Sunroad saga may be starting its slow fade. But, just a week shy of the second anniversary of the special election that led to his ascendance to the mayoral throne, the political future of Jerry Sanders may be fading as well.

What a difference a couple of years can make in the political life of a city. Not the real, day-to-day life of a city, mind you. San Diego still has not gotten its financial house back in sufficient order to reenter the bond markets. City services continue their slow degradation, brought on by years of under- and deferred funding caused by said financial maelstrom. The employee-pension program and the retiree-health-benefits programs are still woefully underfunded. National media continues to label San Diego a den of mismanaged inequity. And the same city government that brought San Diego to the brink of financial ruin and national humiliation (the former of which we still teeter on, the latter of which we have long since plummeted over)—both elected and appointed, politician and career civil servant—is largely still running the place.

It was supposed to be a the dawning of a new day in town when Sheriff Jerry took over, wearing the whitest of non-political, untainted white hats over his new mayoral duds. Unsullied by the pollution of previous political participation, there being no campaign contributions and grasping special interests in his background, Sanders could rise above the foul fray of politics and, with his trusted sidekick, likewise nonpolitical and universally applauded former Navy Admiral Ronne Froman at his side, provide exactly the kind of stern, strong, successful leadership that his predecessors had failed to do. The sun was rising on San Diego again.

Back in the good ol’ days of ’05, Sanders was going to demand the resignation of 300 city officials to bring the bureaucracy to heel, use the threat of massive layoffs to bring the municipal unions to heel, wave his bully-pulpit and appointment power to force the resignation of a half-dozen pension board members to bring that group to heel and use Mad Dog Mike Aguirre as the mayor’s own personal pit bull to bring the council and everyone else to heel. He was going to speak with gentlemanly softness while swinging a big, city-cleaning stick. Now these promises lie like bleached bones on the political trail Sanders has trodden to this, the near halfway point of his administration. And maybe it’s all finally catching up with him and—at last—the public.

Now, you can blame a lot, if not most, of Jerry’s jinxes on the usual host of San Diego suspects always on hand when ideas of political reform and change need assassinating. The municipal unions, doing what they are supposed to—which is look out for the security of their members first and foremost—have not been compliantly willing to simply roll over on Sanders’ command and give back the benefits and pay they won in collective bargaining.

The pension board members essentially did to the mayor’s request for en masse resignations what they’ve done to everyone else for the last decade: gave them a big political raspberry. The city bureaucracy simply locked its bureaucratic shields and avoided any substantive change (creating enough frustration to drive Ronne Froman right out of city government). And the City Council and the city attorney have proven themselves far more dedicated to each others’ mutual annihilation than to working out meaningful compromises and solutions under Sanders’ smiling auspices.

Throw in Sanders’ hanging on to his no-new-taxes pledge, but only at the cost of substantially boosting water and sewer fees, and the straight-shooting mayor has seemed to miss his targets more often than not.

But, at least, through all this, Jerry had one unassailable thing going for him. He was seen by the public, the press and even most political players to be a straight-shooting genuinely nice guy. As CityBeat itself pointed out in March 2006, during Jerry’s honeymoon, even as Sanders was admitting he was having trouble gaining traction in his first 90 days in office, “Sanders, a likeable figure with a slow, deliberate speaking style and grandfatherly charm, has proved a calming influence at City Hall.”

But along came Sunroad. And Jerry is just not the same anymore.

Yes, the report compiled by Sanders’ ethics chief, Jo Anne SawyerKnoll, commissioned by the mayor in the face of rising public scrutiny over the Sunroad project, says that, while mistakes (read: incredible incompetence) occurred in the city’s handling of the issue, no criminal or otherwise corrupt wrongdoing was found to have occurred. Of course, when the mayor’s office issues a report largely exonerating itself from charges of wrongdoing, one should keep a big shaker of Morton’s on hand to accompany the swallowing thereof. But Aguirre’s previous protestations now falling silent and there being no rumbling of interest at the county, state or federal levels, it is highly likely that this report will be the final official word on the matter.

But the Sunroad story leaves a whole host of questions and queries that, while they may lie unaddressed over the coming dog days of summer, are sure to rise up again during Gentleman Jerry’s bid for reelection.

Of course, none of this is exactly new news. Back during the 2005 campaign, there were allegations by his opponent and echoed in the press that Sanders wasn’t really all that different from the same old City Hall establishment he was lambasting. Calling for open and ethical government, he then acted positively Murphian in keeping the press from interviewing Froman, his anointed chief of operations. Then it came out he’d received campaign contributions from the previous president of the ill-fated pension board, a central figure in that scandal. Under pressure, Sanders returned the money, but the incident lent credibility to then-candidate Donna Frye’s claim that he was just part of the same old downtown political guard committed to business as usual.

Which included business with people like the mysterious president of Sunroad, Aaron Feldman, a man who likes to operate out of the public eye and apparently on the edge of ethical business practices just as much as making friends in high places to help him keep things that way. Feldman helped raise thousands more dollars for the Sanders campaign. When the oversized Sunroad project in the Montgomery Field flight path was initially derailed by Aguirre last fall, Feldman had two private meetings with Sanders. After each meeting, the city took steps to help Sunroad—and Feldman. Not until May, more than a half year after Aguirre first raised the roof on Sunroad, did Sanders finally stand tall and tell Sunroad to back down.

Coincidence? Collusion? Corruption? Who really knows. But what San Diegans now know is that Sanders is a politician like the rest of them, taking money in large chunks from powerful interests for whom favorable things just seem to happen. Maybe that’s why his poll numbers are starting to slide.

Sanders may, of course, weather this latest sun-storm. The SawyerKnoll report went out of its way to throw dirt at Aguirre for contributing to the problem. Given how the Union-Tribune likes to see everything through “It’s all Mikey’s fault” glasses anyway, it’s only a matter of time until this is spun as Aguirre’s failure. For his part, Mauling Mike seemed more than happy to play nice-nice with the mayor at last Thursday’s news conference unveiling the report. Aguirre is already off on his next crusade—questionable land deals involving San Diego City College—and the press will move on as well, and the Sunroad saga will quietly set.

Come 2008, Sanders also has one major advantage that might well outshine the nasty glare any resurrection of the Sunroad story might produce: He has no real opposition. City Council President Scott Peters wisely says he doesn’t want the job. Wealthy businessman Steve Francis doesn’t have the political base. Frye says she’s not running. There just ain’t no other white-hat-wearing strangers coming into town to take a shot at being the new political sheriff.

Thus, tarnished badge and all, halfway through a far-from-stellar first term, Sanders—Sunroad or no—still has a political future. But as the public increasingly realizes that Gentleman Jerry is no gentleman at all, but just another politician, that future is anything but certain. One more Sunroad just may do Sanders in.

Bare Minimum

Hurray! The federal minimum wage has had its first increase in ten years. Let’s break out the bubbly and celebrate – unless you are one of the almost two million Americans making at or below the national minimum. In that case, join the toast with a cup of tap water – preferably from someone else’s tap to save a little money. ‘Cause even with this incease, if you’re making minimum wage, life’s still not a bed of roses. (Try prickly, spikey thorns…)

One thing is for sure—since the 1980 we as a nation have truly been putting the “minimum” – as in what’s the minimum wage that we can pay before people riot in the streets—in minimum wage. Fifty years ago the minimum wage was a round dollar. Adjusted for inflation, that 1957 buck has a current buying power of $7.17. That means that, even with the increase of the minimum wage (or should it better be called “mini-wage?) the new floor brings workers to only 82% what workers were making at minimum two generations ago. Of course, that is better than 72% they were earning before the jump from $5.15. (Check out Think Progress“Minimum Wage By The Numbers”.)

But it’s still not jumping onto the gravy train. Or even the watery gruel train.

Yesterday I heard a report on NPR about how mortgage defaults for middle class home owners have almost tripled in parts of the country but sales of mega-mansions priced at $10 million and above have soared. Today’s news on the minimized minimum wage is yet another thread in the gilded-age tapestry of inequity we have been weaving as a nation since 1980.

I’m just wondering when the whole thing is going to start unraveling.

Sunroad Sixpack

Here are six quickie observations on Sunroad. Look for a detailed piece on what Sunroad tells San Diego about Sir Jerry Sanders and his political future (???) coming out in this Wednesday’s edition of CiityBeat. (Just as soon as I finish writing the darn thing….)

1. Any investigation of someone accused of incompetence/corruption that is conducted by the very someone who has been accused is not worth the laserjet ink it’s printed with.

2. This report is just a big, bureaucratic broom being used to help sweep the whole tadry mess under the San Diego political rug. This week Sanders mea culpas. Next week it’s on to something else. Six months from now someone asks “Hey, whatever happened to Sunroad?” And the answer will be: “Sunroad? Heck, that’s old news.” (Like Stadium-deal corruption, City council corruption, pension fund corruption, etc.)

3. No-one is ever going to be fired at Development Services over this. Jim Waring will probably take an “early retirement” (like City Manager Lackless Lamont did) and, a respectable number of weeks or months later take a lucrative private sector job, City pension intact. But no-one will be “fired”. They can’t be. Otherwise one of the lackeys—cum-fall guy will start to talk about this and that which could raise too many questions about who helped whom. The big difference between San Diego corruption and East Coast corruption is that back east they’re willing to whack someone to save a little payoff dough. In gentile San Diego the power that be have found it much easier to simply silence peoples’ mouths by stuffing them with manna.

4. Within a matter of days/hours the UT (and it’s “Finest Blog”) will begin the editorial process of ignoring everything in the SawyerKnoll report except the part castigating the City Attorney and spinning Sunroad to all be, like everything else in San Diego, Aguirre’s fault.

5. There’s not going to be a Sunroad lawsuit that ever reaches court. Neither the mysterious Mr. Feldman nor those directly involved with this at the City really want all this dirty laundry aired in public, Even if there is no outright provable corruption, City officials right up to the Mayor don’t want to have all their incompetences dragged back into the headlines a few months from now. And Feldman doesn’t want his cross-the-line—but-not-by-enough-to—make-people-(Especially the FBI)-take-serious-notice approach to business too closely scrutinized. My prediction: out of court settlement announced some late Friday afternoon (like the Friday before the Labor Day weekend) that compensates Sunroad for all costs of demolition, redesign and rebuild. And maybe an additional little stipend to offset lost revenues from the reduced property.

6. The real payoff to Sunroad will be a few years from now when they get a few friendly tweaks from the City on their next major project.

America’s Funniest Stupidly Run City

Congrats to Mayor Sanders and the Sunroad crew for helping keep San Diego on the national map as America’s municipal laughing stock. Check out the Christian Science Monitor’s scathing piece published Wednesday on our little berg. It begins:

“One might think it would be impossible for a developer to erect a building so tall that it blocks a flight path to an airport.

Not in the topsy-turvy political world of San Diego, where the construction of a new office tower is spawning allegations of corruption and municipal incompetence. It’s the latest brouhaha in the saga of a near-bankrupt city reeling from years of scandals and mismanagement.”

And that’s one of the nicer passages of the piece.

What CSM reports is outrageous. Incredible. Imossible. So absolutely twisted.

So completely San Diego.

And this was printed even before the City began its latest adventure in wonderland (i.e. the Mayor’s wistful attempt at whitewashing, i.e. the report of his office’s own internal investigation of itself, released yesterday).

Dear Mister Mayor

You ran for office in 2005 pledging to restore San Diego’s reputation. Looks like you’ve reinforced it, instead.

Oops.

Sunset

OK, my summer vacation is over. Now back to school and writing. I spent part of my off time on an Alaskan cruise – Vancouver to Anchorage. Besides all the usual unusually beautiful scenery and wildlife (ended up six feet from a 2-3 year old brown bear on a trail right by Mendenhall Glacier) I came back from “The Last Frontier” with the odd political observation or two. Like why are the people of one of the resource richest red states so poor? More on that later.

But first, looks like Sunroad has ridden into the sunset since I’ve been gone.

Bravo Mayor Sanders for finally standing tall and firm and forcing Sunroad to back down on its tower of terror by Montgomery Field. Of course, you stood tall and firm after shrinking and vacillating for most of the eight months since Mauling Mike Aguirre first stormed said tower last October. And Sunroad fully intends to have the City pay the costs of reducing the size of the building through the proceeds of its $40 million lawsuit against the City. So the citizens of San Diego are on the hook for another hunk of millions because of the incompetence of City employees and their elected overseers. And Tom Story and his cronies at City development escape scrutiny for any shenanigans on their part that contributed to said mess.

Yes sir, Mister Mayor sir. That’s one heck of a win in your column. And that additional boost to water rates: way to hang in there on the no new taxes pledge!

(Note to San Diego County Taxpayers Association: Next time you want to get a pledge of fiscal responsibility ask candidates if they intend to raise taxes OR fees OR whatever other fancy revenue-enhancement out of the pockets of the people plan they might have.)