Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sex and the City

Let’s ease into this subject with a mindful autumn walk.  Notice the days getting shorter... morning air chillier... leaves turning gold on liquidamber trees.

Now notice a fact as unwavering as the seasons -- the fact that sex plays a dominant role in San Diego public affairs.  Hook it up with other San Diego mainstays (uninspired leadership, stunted civic aspirations, free-floating corruption, overinflated egos, corporate welfare, legal-establishment collusion, Republican Party strategy, dubious fidelity among leading Democrats, to name a few) and it wallops a punch potent enough to knock a new mayor out of the ring and force the city into a costly, rushed election to bring in a replacement. 

Of course this is not how the Chamber of Commerce markets our city.  It’s motto: Good for Business - Good for San Diego says it all.  Same for our Tourism Authority, which promotes the city as a clean-cut, open-air paradise: 70 miles of beautiful beaches, countless parks and gardens, and endless opportunities for pampering at one of the areas many spas and resorts… an excellent destination for some quality R+R.

I've noticed that San Diego sells itself as a trophy town of moderation, rectitude, and civility.  But scratch the surface and you’ll discover the other San Diego -- a town constantly preoccupied with commercialized sexual indulgences (move over, Las Vegas). 
  • Aren’t we the fun-loving host of the over-the-line tournament, the frisky, sandy weekend of boosted beer, bouncy breasts, and bared behinds? 
  • Isn’t the weekend street scene in our redeveloped Gaslamp Quarter every bit as raunchy as the notorious pre-CCDC days of sailor bars, hookers, and peepshows?
  • And you wouldn't call our very own glistening rompers and exhibitionists at the summertime Pride Parade chopped liver, would you? 
  • How about San Diego’s collection of privately-catered swinging establishments, open to you, me, and the lamppost? 
  • And what would you say to hugh-hefner-wannabe accommodations upstairs at the U-T?
  • Have you taken the oral history tour of City Hall, a behind the scenes tale of who-did-what-with-whom (or who-was-doing-what-with-himself)?  It starts at the 12th-floor Council Chambers and works its way down.
  • And what about our ferociously fought-over 25-foot bayside statue immortalizing a sailor’s frontal assault on an unconsenting female – you know, the one with the woman in a headlock submitting to a forced, full-mouth kiss?  Once named “Unconditional Surrender” nowadays it’s known as felony false imprisonment.
Not bad for an upstanding city like ours that goes ape over tales of a mayor’s clumsy kiss, posterior pat, and too-tight arm around the shoulder.  (For a rare honest response from the U-T take a quick look at what Logan Jenkins has to say.)  Will we entertain similar hysteria over the next round of scandals that are bound to make headlines?

By now most of us who entertained high hopes for what an experienced, old-time liberal mayor like Bob Filner could bring to the city of San Diego have resigned ourselves to the new reality – which looks oddly like the old reality called business as usual.  Surely you've noticed what a busy beaver our interim mayor Todd Gloria has been in setting the clock back to pre-Filner time.  In fact, a time warp engineered by downtown Republicans along with select Democrats has pretty much erased all traces of what almost was but might have been.

Which brings us to the current candidates running to replace Bob Filner. 

Of the four front-running mayoral candidates, only one is being honest with the public about a core issue: the untenable financial state of the city.  The other three have chosen to avoid the subject.  They're choosing to promote the homespun San Diego fable about having our cake and eating it too. 

Mike Aguirre has taken every opportunity over the past couple of months of campaigning to make a simple but crucial point – that a big (and growing) chunk of the city’s general fund budget is set aside annually for payment into the employee pension fund.  This results in a significant reduction in the cash available to pay for routine city services.  This year's required annual pension payment is $275 million -- the bulk of which ($200 million) is eaten up as interest on the $2.3 billion pension deficit that drags the city down.  

Notice this contrast: a mere $55 million is allocated for our roads.  The decision to take from Peter (fire, police, roads, and neighborhoods) to pay off Paul (the City Employees Retirement System) was a choice made by former Mayor Jerry Sanders, abetted by the City Council, so he could fake a balanced budget and claim he had resolved the city’s fiscal crisis before leaving office.

You can hear plenty of campaign chatter about paved roads, upgraded libraries, recreation centers, parks, decent streets (smooth streets, in the words of Nathan Fletcher; sexy streets, per temporary-mayor Todd Gloria), homeless facilities, and other neighborhood needs.  You'll get a deafening silence from the others when Aguirre starts talking about the city's crippling pension problem. 

Aguirre is tackling the difficult financial issues head-on (despite sniping from candidate Fletcher).  The other candidates won’t touch it.  So far, neither has the U-T nor our other news and opinion providers.  Neither have the economic analysts and political gurus who comment regularly on city business.  (I noticed with dismay that then-mayor Filner also steered away from the same time bomb that's already detonating in other U.S. cities.  Detroit, anyone?)

David Alvarez has been denigrated as too young by Democrats who’ve been smitten by Nathan Fletcher.  But notice that there’s a mere three-year age difference between them -- Alvarez is 33, Fletcher is 36.  Notice that interim-mayor Todd Gloria is only 35.   Also notice that Alvarez has an upper hand in understanding how the city works and what makes it tick – an important qualification for anyone wanting to be mayor.  (Yes, I also noticed that the lack of municipal government expertise was a fatal shortcoming in the Filner administration.) 

Others question Alvarez’s independence from the Labor Council, his primary financial backers.  It’s a fair question that should be asked of all candidates running for office: Will you be free and strong enough to balance the demands of your friends and major financial backers with the good of the city at large?  While it seems to me that committed Democrats ought not to distance themselves from the union movement -- the most important ally American working people have ever had -- there's a lot of work to do by Democrats as well as labor unions before they reemerge as comprehensive, progressive, visionary leaders of the future.

Kevin Faulconer blithely sails by without anyone questioning who his keepers are.  He’s best described as San Diego’s retrograde candidate of the 20th century – a cordial, sunburned, amorphous kind of guy sporting the Chamber of Commerce logo on his sleeve.  He may well have an underside (and who among us does not?) but so far his passive, follow-the-leader style has protected him from getting bitten where it hurts. 

Here’s one good thing about Faulconer: you know exactly what you’ll get… exactly who’ll be whispering in his ear… exactly what his agenda will be… and exactly what you’ll be fighting against.  He’s someone you can depend on to deliver what he and his financial backers know how to do best: the downtown fraternity two-step (one for you, one for me, more for you, more for me).

Nathan Fletcher is a cipher.  He’s been described as a changeling, a switch hitter, a chameleon adept at overnight transformation.  Other than a photogenic face and military boasts (what kind of person capitalizes on the business of interrogating prisoners of war?) you have no idea what you’re getting… who’s whispering in his ear… what his agenda will be.   Trendy clich├ęs spill effortlessly from his lips: innovation... creativity... we put a man on the moon.  But he's like quicksand: there’s no there there. 

Keep in mind that Fletcher was adopted (metaphorically speaking) into the Qualcomm family and reaps the benefits of a well-paid corporate job and faux UCSD professorship. His wealthy and influential backers pave the way for him to scoop up high-profile Democratic endorsements like handfuls of Halloween candy.  We've all noticed that money wields inordinate influence over the political fortunes of seated elected officials as well as most of those who'd like to be.  He's belongs to somebody, but it's not the public.

Fletcher's political message boils down to this: I’m your man, San Diego!  Forget my past voting record!  Look into my eyes and trust me!

Sex and the city... the mayor's race... what's the connection?  There's no mystery to this one.  Sex has great commercial and utilitarian value in our town.  We either pretend not to notice it, or we use it as a political battering ram.  Notice that sex was the weapon of choice for deposing former-mayor Bob Filner.  It's precisely what brings us here today as we contemplate the mayor's race.  

San Diego voters will be making a choice about who will be our next mayor (notice that not choosing is a choice that permits someone else to choose for you).  My advice is to wait a while before turning in your vote.  Keep listening -- but not to the pollsters, not to political pundits, not to anyone's subjective calculus predicting the odds and trying to manipulate the outcome.
What are we listening for? less talk about smooth and sexy streets and a whole new conversation about the unsexy time bomb ticking in our back yards -- our multi-billion dollar municipal pension deficit.  

Any mayoral candidate who pretends he can fulfill his campaign promises of neighborhood improvements and safety protection by shutting his eyes to the way the city cooks the books guarantees bad consequences for all of us.  

I’ve never been good at playing the numbers (neither was my father -- though I named this blog in his honor, anyway).  I know what I've already heard and I intend to keep listening before I confirm my choice for our next mayor. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

The mystery of why Qualcomm adopted Nathan Fletcher

Did you ever suspect you were being taken for a ride but decide to go along with it anyway?  Did you ever ignore that little voice inside your head warning you to watch out! because the guy conning you was so smooth, so really cute, how could you say no?

You’ve just been introduced to Nathan Fletcher in his rematch race for mayor of San Diego.

Nathan Fletcher is funny, engaging, self-deprecating, and a topnotch storyteller.  He is low-keyed even when boasting, "I interrogated al-Qaeda… I can negotiate a labor deal."  (You might remember that Fletcher was in the Marine Corps Reserves while working in the office of Duke Cunningham, a San Diego congressman who also used his military experience as a political prop to win an election.  Cunningham was recently released from prison after serving a sentence for enriching himself illegally through bribery and fraud while in office.)

Nathan Fletcher is a performer with a special gift for reading the minds of his audience and bouncing back precisely what you want to hear.  He strings his words together in a tightly-drilled speech pattern that convinces you he’s answered your question -- even when he hasn’t. 

Though once excoriated by labor unions for his conservative voting record, now his chief cheerleader is former labor-leader Lorena Gonzalez.  He’s regarded as a good catch on both sides of the fence, or so it would seem from the number of wealthy San Diegans who’ve endorsed him for mayor. 
Nathan Fletcher is the Great Gatsby of our time -- a fabricated man filled with longing and wild ambition but not quite who you think he is… was… wants to be...

Which brings us to the mystery of the week: why was Nathan Fletcher plucked from a pool of contenders by Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, judged best in show, and adopted by the Qualcomm family? 

Fletcher is 
not an engineer, not a businessman, not the holder of specialized academic degrees.  Yet he's got a job at Qualcomm that pays him $400,000/year.  What makes him worth it?

Meanwhile, he’s running an all-out political campaign for mayor of San Diego on company time and the big boss is doing his darndest to catapult him into office.  How come?

When the downtown establishment throws its full faith and credit behind Kevin Faulconer, we know that they know what they expect to get from him.   Same goes for the Labor Council endorsement of David Alvarez.  But what in the world does Irwin Jacobs want and expect to get from San Diego’s next mayor, should it be Nathan Fletcher?  It's a mystery.

I have a hunch part of the answer lies in an arcane section of the San Diego City Charter, specifically Article VI - Board of Education.

Look back to 1931 – that’s when a manager-council form of government was codified in the San Diego City Charter.  Concurrently, the city’s school system (which then included kindergarten, elementary, secondary, evening, technical, and parental schools) was codified as Article VI.  It states: “The government of the San Diego School District shall be vested in a Board of Education, composed of five members who shall be elected at large by the electors of the School District at the same time as the members of the City Council.”

Between then and now there’ve been a number of minor amendments to Article VI -- one that narrowed the scope of the school district to kindergarten through secondary schools and others that adjusted salaries, terms of office, and timetables for electing new Board members.

Today, you'll still find election procedures for the 5-member Board of Education in Article VI of the City Charter and, as always, any changes to the Charter must be approved by San Diego voters.

Now think back three years when an (unsuccessful) attempt was made to amend Article VI.  The purpose was not to adjust salaries, terms of office, or election timetables but to make a significant change -- to increase the size of the School Board from 5 to 9 members by appointing 4 additional people to preside as Board members.  

These 4 would not be publicly elected.  Instead they would be chosen by a committee of Chamber of Commerce/ Economic Development business organizations, some university leaders, and a select group of parents.  We were told this change would "depoliticize" the School Board.

The two big funders of this proposed amendment were charter school proponent and 
wealthy businessman Rod Dammeyer and Qualcomm's Irwin Jacobs.  Notable boosters included organized advocates of the charter school movement.

What has this got to do with Nathan Fletcher's relationship to Qualcomm?  Might it be that Irwin Jacobs et al. have not given up on their plans to redesign the city school system in their own image? 
Is this why Fletcher has been parading his credentials as an educator?  Is Fletcher their political proxy?

Notice Fletcher’s frequent campaign remarks about school district education.  He lifts stock phrases from his Qualcomm-sponsored speeches: best practices… innovation... vocational training... the digital divide… technical curriculum for middle school and high school.  He calls for forming an independent educational foundation to guide public education.

Now notice Fletcher’s trumped-up credentials as an educator.  On January 1, 2013 Nathan Fletcher was appointed “Professor of Practice” in the political science department at UCSD.  Don't laugh.  He is the first-ever appointed practitioner of a newly-invented, no-academic-degree-required,
privately-funded position to teach part-time at the university, subject matter to be determined.  

And notice that while others in the academic jungle sweat and toil for years to attain the level of Professor, Fletcher was quietly ushered through a rear door to the top of the ivory tower -- his feet barely alighting on the red carpet linking Qualcomm headquarters to UCSD.  It's handy to have wealthy patrons in high places, even when they use you for their own purposes.

Nobody disputes the desirability of improving public education.
  The question to ask ourselves is: Is this a role for the mayor of a city 
facing unprecedented deficits and debt with no good remedies in sight? In a city that hasn't yet straightened out the kinks from our switch to a 'strong mayor' form of governance why would we want our mayor to take on the complex and challenging world of public education, as well?  Especially one who's so ill-equipped?

Might not San Diego's mayor contribute to the success of our school system through constructive collaboration with school board members, principals, parents, health officials, education experts, business interests, and others in this city who support public education.  Isn't it preferable to discourage private and political incursions into the city schools?  

What do we know about the mysterious Fletcher-Qualcomm connection?  We know that Fletcher’s status as beneficiary of Irwin Jacobs' largesse is a clue to the presumptive power behind the wished-for mayoral throne.  It reminds us that influential private individuals -- no matter how well-intentioned -- tend to feel free (even entitled) to use the democratic process to gain control of the public domain.  That might be okay with Fletcher – it's not with me.

We know that Fletcher’s concocted job in a classroom at UCSD doesn’t give him credibility for spearheading changes in our school system.  He may want you to think it does – it doesn’t. 

We know that Nathan Fletcher’s touted experience as a Marine has nothing to do with his capability or desirability to be San Diego’s new mayor.  He seems to think it does – I don’t.   

We know that we don’t know who Fletcher really is.  Within the span of 500 days he went from calling himself a Republican to an Independent to a Democrat.  He disavows his past voting record.  He says he's seen the light and now he answers to a different drummer.  He wants us to believe that an indeterminate chameleon with identity confusion would be a good choice for our next mayor -- I don't buy it.  

We know that using democratic means to achieve undemocratic ends is never a good idea.  People engaged in political subterfuge are not acting in the best interests of our collective future and should be sent packing -- I think you will agree.