Who Runs San Diego? The Lincoln Club’s Role in Our Shadow Government

By Jim Miller

In the last several installments of this series, we have focused on the interlocking network of moneyed interests who dominate San Diego’s media landscape in order to “manufacture consent” as well as the ways in which moneyed interests are able to feed at the public trough and/or manipulate local government to serve their interests.

Another key player in the effort to preserve the hegemony of San Diego’s shadow government that deserves attention is the Lincoln Club, a stealthy nexus of economic and political power. In essence, the Lincoln Club is a political entity bent on maintaining San Diego’s de facto private government led by the local power elite in perpetuity by any means necessary.

While most folks are familiar with the goals and retrograde agenda of the Republican Party U.S.A., the Lincoln Club (which does much of the local Right’s bidding come election time) is still relatively unknown outside of political circles. As Kelly Davis noted in a recent SD CityBeat piece on the local branch of the club:

If money equals power, the Lincoln Club wields it like no other local political organization. Its 400 members, whose annual dues provide a guaranteed source of money for the group’s political action committee, are a who’s-who of lobbyists, developers, Republican-backed elected officials (and their staff members) and high-profile business owners—the people behind Mossy Nissan, Jerome’s Furniture and Coles Carpets sit on the club chairman’s special advisory committee. Though the Lincoln Club describes itself as nonpartisan and focused on “pro-prosperity” candidates and issues, what and whom it chooses to support is almost always partisan.

abraham-lincoln-faceBut, of course, the reach of this exclusive “club” goes far beyond San Diego. As investigative journalist Matthew Fleischer tells us, the Lincoln Club has a long and influential history in right wing California politics. In addition to serving as the hit-man of the Republican Party, the club has also functioned as a king maker and was instrumental in bringing us the notorious Citizens United case:

Since the days of Richard Nixon, the Lincoln Club has been the Matrix-like ideological birthing chamber of California Republicanism, whose grandees and arbiters once guided Ronald Reagan, Pete Wilson, George Deukmejian and Arnold Schwarzenegger when their political careers were in their larval stages.

That same Lincoln Club gave us the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court victory—which paved the way for Super PACs and unlimited, anonymous corporate donations—and, over the past year, had been instrumental in pushing Proposition 32 onto the California ballot.

And the ultimate goal of the Lincoln Club is far from moderate or even vaguely democratic. Simply put, it is not so much a tool of the GOP as it is a weapon of plutocratic interests bent on buying our democracy lock stock and barrel from D.C. to San Diego. John MacMurry in the LA Progressive hits the nail on head:

The Lincoln Club . . . by opening up campaign contributions to individuals and groups who can give unlimited amounts of anonymous dollars, gets the undying gratitude of billionaires and large corporations, and the ability to buy control of any government in California—or all of them.

And for those of us who are neither billionaires nor large corporations?

It’s a lot like the old Jerry Reed song about who gets the gold mine and who just gets the shaft. And for most of us, the Lincoln Club has worked hard to make sure that not too much of the gold mine is headed our way.

Here in San Diego, the local right’s most recent strategy was to elect Kevin Faulconer as their tool in the mayor’s office so they could continue to use the initiative process as a way around our representative government by funding ballot measures aimed against the Barrio Logan Community Plan, the affordable housing fee, and the earned sick day/minimum wage ordinance recently passed by the City Council. Thus far, they have won every time and succeeded in neutering the power of representative government when it strays from serving elite interests.

Of course, this is an ironic perversion of the initiative process, which was originally devised as a way for “the people” to go around unresponsive government, as it is now being used by moneyed interests in order to actually subvert the democratic process. This strategy has been executed in a politically effective albeit ruthlessly Machiavellian fashion to check any perceived “excesses” of our elected representative democracy that might threaten the interests of our local “shadow government” in any way.

Lincoln-Club-Campaign-mailer-with-David-Alvarez-jpg_1389669588665_2012406_ver1.0_640_480None of this would have been possible had it not been for the Lincoln Club’s crucial role during the most recent mayoral election as the right’s hit man doling out the racist messaging and nasty personal attacks on David Alvarez (a rare San Diego Democrat who actually had the courage to run on a populist message) so Faulconer (the faux moderate) could claim plausible deniability while effectively expropriating the message of the other side with almost no critical interrogation from the mainstream media. It was, as they say, a miracle of propaganda.

The ultimate aim here is the same old story: for the interests that support and benefit from the activities of the Lincoln Club, anything that impinges on corporate power or profits for the public good is a “jobs killer” while siphoning taxpayer money from the public trough for private gain is unquestionably sound policy.

Thus the kind of San Diego the Lincoln Club envisions is a city where the downtown interests have the gold and the rest of us get the shaft. The individual players may come and go (the club’s T.J. Zane, for instance, has left his leadership position and is now running for the school board in Poway with the inexplicable support of the Poway Federation of Teachers who have, in a fit of political insanity, broken with the rest of labor in an effort to elect one of the local movement’s worst enemies) but the economic and ideological agenda remains the same year after year.

Moving away from a narrow focus on the Lincoln Club, it is clear that they represent an important but hardly isolated part of the larger system. Indeed the movement of figures such as Zane from the corporate Lincoln Club or Carl DeMaio from the world of rightwing corporate think tanks to the political field itself is crucial in keeping the revolving door between government and the elite private sector functioning properly. It’s the farm system that supplies the halls of power with like-minded friends of plutocratic interests.

And increasingly, if we look at the big picture, this phenomenon does not necessarily have to follow party lines. As we are seeing at the statewide and national level, partisan labels become less important when moneyed interests can find Democrats keenly interested in feeding at the corporate campaign trough or getting paid to do their bidding elsewhere.

corporate-statesOne need only witness the herd of top Obama advisers racing toward lucrative jobs busting unions in the private sector to confirm this not particularly shocking reality. The Manchurian candidacy of “Democrat” Marshall Tuck (the pure product of Wall Street, the Waltons and venture capital money) for California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction is yet another example of this phenomenon.

Thus, many of our partisan political battles, fierce as they are, can be described as skirmishes between what Noam Chomsky calls the “two wings of the business party.” It should therefore come as no surprise that a recent study determined that regular folks have almost no say in our democracy.

As John Light reported: “In America today, the views of the voting public are nearly meaningless; wealthy individuals and business-backed special interest groups are almost entirely responsible for the stances that politicians take on the issues. That’s the takeaway from a new study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University.”

In this way, one might think of our system not as “broken” but rather as functioning precisely as designed.

Jim Miller, a professor at San Diego City College, is the co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See and Better to Reign in Hell, and author of the novel Drift. His most recent novel on the San Diego free speech fights and the IWW, Flash, is on AK Press.


This article first appeared in the San Diego Free Press October 17, 2014.

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