Word Games

What do you get when you combine the millionaire Republicanism of Mitt Romney and the hot-tempered progressive populism of Mike Aguirre? That would be local self-made millionaire running his own multi-million dollar “I’m already a millionaire and now want to be a mayor, too” Steve Francis.

Francis has hit the media board running with an unprecedentedly early and expensive mayoral primary media blitz. His platform is to the social progressive left of Sanders and the fiscal conservative right – no mean feat. But if Dick Nixon and Pete Wilson could do it in the 1970s, maybe Francis has a shot at it in 2008.

Francis makes great political hay out of the fact that he’s self-funding his own campaign. There’s a political equivalent to the old saying that “a lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client.” It’s “a man who finances his own campaign has proven he has only one supporter – himself. At least, that is the conventional wisdom on such matters. Self-funded candidates have, on the whole, done worse in elections than those who do the dirty work of digging in the muck for political moola.

And Francis’ claim that self-funding his campaign will keep him independent of influence from all those nefarious special interests out there. Should he be elected he’ll owe something to the groups that banded together to vote in into office—at least if he wants to be reelected down the pike. Of course Francis also says he doesn’t care if he wins reelection—and that may be true.

Four years in the morass of city government may be enough for anyone. Francis could have the advantage of a one-term shaker-and-a-changer. But, then again, becoming a self-admitted lame-duck from the moment he is sworn in can work against him. Long-term municipal interests (the kind who plan to be around more than four years—or four decades) will figure they can just hunker down and wait Chango Stevo out.

But even then Francis will have to deal with those downtown interests—municipal employees, cops and firefighters, developers and financiers and the rest of the cast of characters who have been a part of city politics for decades. And he will have to do favors here, end up with IOUs there, if he is going to get his agenda for streamlining and making transparent city government.

In short, if Francis is going to win the election and, more importantly, successfully deliver on his campaign promises, he’s going to have to become something of the very specious he deigns himself above: a politician.

But Francis’ rebranding of himself from the arch-conservative choice in 2005 to the people’s rational choice in 2008 makes sense. The Democrats still have yet to pony up a candidate to challenge Gentleman Jerry from the social progressive left, leaving Francis free to adopt rhetoric more usually the turf of Mike Aguirres and Donna Fryes. And Francis’ self-funding may matter less in San Diego, where contributions to mayoral races still tend to come from a few thousand people—usually members of organized interests—and not from grass-roots Barack Obama/Ron Paul/Dennis Kucinich style e-campaigns. So the amount of money Jerry raises for June will be less representative of deep popular support.

And, as Francis keeps hammering on the simple and true message that Sanders has delivered on almost none of his significant campaign promises from 2005 against a backdrop of what promises to be a grisly budget season with tough cuts called for, Sanders veneer of Teflon may well start to wear thin.

After all, what do you get when you mix the jovial ineptness of Jerry Ford with the ineffective administration of Jimmy Carter?

That would, of course, be Jerry Sanders.

And so far Steve Francis is the only—and, therefore, best—alternative to four more years of the same: the City treading water as it slowly drifts towards fiscal shoals again.

Go for it, Stevo. Show ‘em the money.

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Charter Reform This

Egad how complicated can you make charter reform. What to put on the ballot? When to put it on? Come on, guys, it’s not that complicated. Here is the four-step plan to simple San Diego charter changes:

1. Mayoral Veto: The UT had to have published one of the most inane editorials it ever has (and believe me, the competition for the title in the annals of UT lore is intense) last Sunday when it lambasted the City Council for refusing to accede to the Mayor’s ultimate dream scenario of requiring a super-majority to veto Mayoral actions.

“The flimsy pretext for this unwarranted delay was that a six-vote requirement to override the mayor’s veto would constitute more than two-thirds of the eight-member council.”

So sayeth the oracles of the UT.

Exsqueeze me? Not wanting to adopt a 75% override super-majority is a “flimsy” excuse? So what now? The UT’s Bowtie Bob Kittle disinters Jimmy Madison from his crypt over in Montpelier and slaps the corpse around for having the temerity for putting a two-thirds veto Congressional majority into the Constitution as opposed to the three-quarters required for ultimate weighty issues like, say, amending the Constitution? How dare Mr. Madison, et. al, constrain the power of the energetic and noble executive.

A Super-Mayor (as opposed to just a run-of-the-mill Strong Mayor) would provide one-stop convenience shopping for the powerful economic interests that dominate the downtown scene. So, of course, the UT would love to see a Mayor with a super-majority veto shackling the City council. At least, that is, a Mayor who conforms to the UT’s editorial board positions which, often as not, align all so nicely with those of the downtown money crowd (which, given the paper’s dwindling readership, seems to be their principle subscribers anyway).

I wonder what the UT’s position on the veto would be if a social progressive like a Donna Frye was Mayor. Hmmmm, let me think…

UT, get over it. Ain’t nobody this homie knows of that requires a super majority for a legislative veto. The Council’s veto should be set at two-thirds. Which, of course, means the council has to be expanded to at least nine districts, with six necessary for the veto. And which leads me to suggestion….

2. Council Expansion.: The proposed nine council districts is better than the ridiculous even numbered eight council districts the Strong Mayor reform package left the city with. Going to nine districts will reduce the number of people each councilmember is trying to represent from 163k to 146k. But this pales in comparison to the level of personal representation afforded citizens of, say San Francisco, whose 11 supervisors represent around 70k citizens each or Chicago, whose 50 (yes, 5-0) Alderman represent around 50k each. In other words, San Diegans are vastly underrepresented.

Okay, significantly increasing the size of the council adds to costs (staff and salaries, etc.) and to complexity (more people trying to reach agreement). So, what? How about we abolish the council entirely and just have a mayor—maybe a wealthy one like Steve Francis who will foreswear his salary—running the show? Boy, that would save the moola. And, of course, flush the whole concept of democracy down the porcelain fixture.

I’d like to see a council of 11, 12, 15 or 18 (which makes the 2/3 veto majority math easy). That would increase representation (and, potentially, diversity) on the council. So what if that would also render the current council chambers obsolete. They keep saying City Hall is outdated and needs to be replaced. So do so and build a new one, big enough to accommodate the needs of San Diego in 2008 as opposed to 1974 when the current City Hall was built. Which brings me to suggestion….

3. Build a new City Hall and don’t build it downtown. Why is “downtown”– a place most San Diegans seldom go to–the nexus of City municipal life? Could it be because the rents and land there is are cheap it would be foolish to move City Government somewhere else? Could it be because downtown is centrally located and convenient in terms of traffic and parking for most San Diegans to reach? Could it be because it places City Hall within easy walking distance of all the developers, bankers and lawyers representing these said and other special interests who can afford to maintain tony downtown offices precisely to lobby City Government?

Gee, I wonder which one it could be?

How about we sell all the City’s downtown property and disperse the mechanisms of City government around the City itself? Downtown San Diego has always been more of a wish than a reality anyway. Why is Normal Heights or Clairemont any less advantageous a locale for the seat of governance of a sprawling Uber-burb like San Diego? There are these thing called phones, fax and the internet which, I hear, makes communication over vast distances (like, say, Linda Vista to Mira Mesa) very doable these days.

Put the main City Hall, and its council chambers someplace truly central, like Kearny Mesa or Tieresanta. Have each councilmember’s office and staff located in their own district so their constituents can find them as opposed to the downtown suits. And put the Mayor in a really big RV and have him or her tool around town, doing each day’s business in a different district.

Okay, the last one is a little pie in the cracked sky. But why keep all the representatives of the City in the same building every day? They should be in the communities they represent. And access is power, something, interestingly enough, mayoral candidate St. Francis of the City acknowledges when he’s suggested the Mayor’s office be moved to City Heights or some such . Why do you think the very first battle in every new administration, be it mayoral or presidential, is who gets the office closest to the chief? You keep city government downtown and,–Surprise! Downtown money interests get disproportionate influence.

Finally….

4. Fix the City Attorney conflict. An elected City Attorney cannot faithfully serve both the people who elects him or her and the members of City Government as the interest of the People and the Government often conflict. This puts the CA in an untenable position: either be a lapdog of the Mayor and Council (as past CAs were and which the Council and Mayor would like the current and future ones to be) or be a public advocate at odds with the very City Government he or she is called upon to represent. So, as I’ve advocated before, split the job. Create a new position of City Counsel to represent the City in legal affairs and turn the CA into something more akin to the County DA—a watchdog representing the legal interests of all members of the community. Do that or simply abolish the elected status of the CA and return the position to that of Council/Mayor appointment. You can’t have a good watchdog and lapdog at the same time. (Well, actually you can as my ninety pound shepherd-collie-Afghan mix attests to, but you get point.)

There are other tweaks that can be done (like having truly independent City Auditors appointed by a “blind” panel of public citizens and a truly independent City Ethics Commission. But these are my Big Four for Charter Reform.

Then again, why fix anything? I mean, things have been running so well in San Diego government for so long, if it ain’t broke……

And the Winner Is?

Well, not my homies in the California Community Colleges. We saw our ballot Prop 92 go down to a 3:2 defeat tonight proving that in politics, like in comedy, it’s all in the timing. Had the prop cutting tuition fees and raising funding for the Cal Comms been on the ballot in November 2006 my bet is it would have passed by 55% or more. Such is life. The pity is, of course, it is in the economic hard times that funding for higher ed — especially Community Colleges–is even more of a public need. You can send people to colleges or prisons when the economy heads south. Colleges cost less and yield a heck of a lot more.

Californians proved they’d rather lose their money to Indian Casinos than the tax man approving all four casino compacts. And Californias also proved they don’t like their legislators but they also know the current system of term limits doesn’t work that well–notice the narrow 4% points the prop lost by is much narrower than the 16% (58% to 42%) Governor Gray’s term limit proposal was defeated by in 2002. Most striking, both the liberal Bay Area and conservative San Diego and Imperial Counties voted for the measure while liberal LA and the conservative Central Valley voted against it. Go figure.

Oh, and there was something about presidential primaries going on tonight too, as I reccall. Romney is a dead man walking. I expect him to pull a John Edwards sometime in the next fortnight and drop out of the race even as he insisted tonight he was in it to the convention. And Huckabee has VP, not P, written all over his primary showings.

Meanwhile the Hillary and Barack dance continues though her heir-apparentness’ large victory in California has got to give the party pause. Given the size of her victory and the distribution across the state, I figure she wins 260+ of the 441 state delegates which will put her clearly in the delegate lead. Clinton won New York, New Jersey, Florida and California — exactly the big states Dem’s have to win to triumph come November. Barack (like Romney) did best in the smaller state caucuses where turnout is skewed to the party left (or right, in Mitt’s case.) I’m still betting that post-Super T day the double big Mo’s — momentum and money-swing back to Clinton. Then Obama will have to decided how long he wants to draw out the Democratic contest to the Republican’s benefit.

OK, time to pack it in. Just spent 4 1/2 hours in the studios of KGTV with Hal Clement (yes, he’s as nice in person as he seems on TV) doing election pontificating. Tomorrow it’s These Days with Tom Fudge and Gloria Penner (9a-10a on KPBS 89.5) and then a keynote speech tomorrow night to the San Diego and Imperial Counties Community College Association’s annual Trustees dinner at USD. Topic: today’s election, of course.

And if you have a chance, check out my article in this week’s print edition of City Beat.

On to the Conventions.

Orange You Glad I didn’t say Derivatives

You’ve got to love San Diego City Council meetings. They drag on and on (like the nine and a half hour marathon session last December 4) about items of municipal minutia so mundane that even the most wonkish of policy wonks find their thoughts drifting to their next session of “World of Warcraft.” But buried in all this mundanity are often items of extreme importance. Which, of course, the press and public, overwhelmed by the sheer boredom of it all, don’t pick up on.

Like last Monday’s session. And Docket ITEM-200: Variable Rate Debt and Derivatives Workshop for the City Council.

Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? Like going over your insurance portfolio with your sixty-two year old, loves to talk about fly-fishing and vaguely smells of Lysol agent.

So last Monday the council sat through a long, monotonous presentation on how the city, should it EVER get back into the bonds markets, could pursue various options in reducing short term borrowing costs. All presented in the clearest of businesseeze readily comprehensible by any Ph.D. in economics with a five year post-doc in esoteria.

At the end of the presentation a motion was put forward to bring this topic before the City Budget committee next month to continue consideration of the high-falutin’ investment strategies—using variable rate bonds and derivatives to offset up front financing costs—with an eye towards recommending their adoption by the full council.

And then Donna Frye pointed out the five ton orange elephant in the room.

Orange, that is, as in Orange County which, more than a decade ago, went belly up when the similarly sophisticated investment strategies they had pursued came tumbling down.

Frye asked the workshop presenters to go over the risks of variable rate borrowing. You remember the concept: low initial rates that can skyrocket if conditions change? The kind of borrowing millions of Americans engaged in to afford their overpriced homes? What do they call that market, now? Oh yes, that’s right.

Subprime.

So there is the San Diego City Council all hellbent on signing the City up to engage in volatile interest rate borrowing without even the slightest peep of protest.

Except for Darling Donna.

After going over the risks associated with the scheme the council was being recommended to buy in to Frye then asked which of those risks would be present if the City continued to borrow under traditional, fixed-rate terms. The answer, of course, was none. So Frye asked the obvious question: why should a City bludgeoned out of the bonds markets because of its incompetent financial management even consider reentering those markets using riskier strategies than it ever used before?

The response of her fellow council members was deafening. Or, better said, deaf. The council over road Frye’s motion to reject the proposal out of hand as the snakiest of snake oil and referred the matter to the Budget Committee for further review. From whence it will emerge, months from now, to be considered and adopted by the full council during yet another marathon, bore the world into submission session, no doubt.

So why would the Council even consider getting the City into borrowing strategies which have the possibility of putting the City essentially into the same position as millions of homeowners (homeowners, that is, until the repo orders come down) who were caught in the subprime swamp? Why, for the same reasons that drove millions of Americans into that swamp in the first place.

San Diego, for all the smiley faces Jerry Sanders and many council members try and put on it, is still in a world of financial hurt. The City faces a three hundred million dollar, five year budget shortfall which will get worse as the economy continues to stagnate, is still a billion dollars in the pension hole and has hundreds of millions of dollars in backlogged building and repair projects thanks to its being locked out of the bonds markets for almost five years. Things are getting so tight that there is even talk of privatizing the crown Municipal Jewel, Balboa Park, which needs two hundred million dollars that the City doesn’t have for basic repairs and deferred maintenance.

If and when San Diego returns to the bonds markets it will need to hit those markets hard and heavy, borrowing as much as possible at the cheapest rates as possible. At least, that seems to be how the Council is trying to position the City. Borrow billions now at cheap entry rates, fix things, make everyone happy and then run on that goodwill for a higher office when term limits are reached. That also seems to be the underlying strategy of the Council. And when, in three or five years, the new financial house of derivative and variable rate cards collapses the perpetrators will be off to Sacramento or the Port District or some other home for former San Diego politicians.

Lovely.

But at least these decisions are made right out there in the open, right between “Requests for Continuance” and “City Council Budget Priorities for Fiscal Year 2009.”

With no-one paying attention.