Who Runs San Diego?

Who Runs San Diego? Co-opting an Icon in Hillcrest

By Linda Perine

As you may have noticed, October has not been a happy month for the San Diego LGBT community.

Earlier this month the Harvey Milk American Diner in Hillcrest closed abruptly, bouncing checks to workers and simply failing to pay others, including the Harvey Milk Foundation.

At an October 8 press conference an LA Times reporter began asking questions about allegations of sexual harassment against Republican Carl de Maio.  He is an openly gay candidate for the 52nd congressional district.

Both stories have grown into full-fledged embarrassments for the LGBT community.  Both stories reflect badly on the judgment and motivations of some of our community’s better known members.  Both stories are, and may become more, damaging to our community.  But most importantly, and possibly least apparently, both stories are part of a much larger and more corrosive identity crisis in the LGBT community.

But why should you care?  As I said at the top-It’s a Gay Thing.   Well, because, as the slogan says…

We Are Everywhere

pride flagThe 21st century has progressed enough that most San Diegans seem pretty comfortable with the fact that there are a lot of LGBT people.  Your family, your friends, your school, your church, your football team are, if not chocked full of gay folk, at least lightly sprinkled.

But you may be unaware of how politically influential the San Diego gay community is.  The District Attorney, the US Attorney, the chair of the Port Commission, the chair of the Regional Airport Authority, the chair of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the chair of the Civil Service Commission are all members of the LGBT community.  The San Diego Unified School Board president, The President of the City Council, a County Commissioner, the Speaker of the State Assembly, the former chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party; yep, they’re gay.

One would be hard pressed to name an important civic event of the last few years that was not substantially impacted by a member of the LGBT community.  From the 2010 redistricting, the election of Bob Filner, the destruction of Bob Filner, the election of the new mayor, through minimum wage and Barrio Logan to the current battle in CD52 – the movers and shakers of the LGBT community are moving and shaking in the larger community.

recent article in The Advocate even suggested that San Diego might have supplanted San Francisco as a center of LGBT activism.

This, of course, is a good thing and I am proud of what my community has accomplished and contributed to San Diego.  Our success is founded upon the fundamental liberal messages of acceptance and equality of opportunity.  The LGBT community is deeply, historically and overwhelmingly populist and progressive.  Each of us knows, personally, intimately, the damage done by bigotry and intolerance.

So when Republicans use campaign strategies of “guns, gays and God” to demonize us; when the Republican Party platform calls for constitutional amendments denying us the full rights of citizenship and control of our bodies; when Republican candidate and supporters call us a pestilence,  want us  executedor deported or castrated or simply eliminated, we remember.

Thus it is deeply troubling when it appears that the San Diego LGBT community has somehow been hijacked by right-wing opportunists, who are intent on contorting the legacy of Harvey Milk to make it appear that the LGBT community supports their right wing agenda.

“Ya gotta give ‘em hope.”

harvey milk stampMany of you probably saw the award winning film “Milk” about the life and times of Harvey Milk.  What may be difficult to understand is what an important figure Harvey Milk is to the LGBT community.  The Harvey Milk Foundation, headed by Harvey’s nephew, Stuart Milk, does wonderful work for LGBT rights around the world. They work hard to counter the extreme homophobia of Uganda’s “Kill the Gays legislation or Russia’s anti-gay laws.

It is well documented that the Christian right of the Republican party  support and have even written some of this extreme anti-gay legislation.  That is why it has been of serious concern that the controversial activist named Nicole Murray Ramirez, who actively supports Tea Party Republicans, sits on the advisory board of the Foundation.

Thus, it was with no little trepidation that the community learned that a group of folks associated with Nicole Murray Ramirez was going to open a restaurant in Hillcrest and name it Harvey Milk’s American Diner.  It seems likely that it wasRamirez’s close association with the Milk Foundation that led it to make the decision to license Harvey’s name to this group.

That is a decision they would come to regret.

Going around. Coming around.


The restaurant opened in late summer of 2013. Things did not go well from the beginning.  The building where the diner was located had a colorful frieze of fruits and vegetables that was historic and beloved in the neighborhood.  One of the first things the new owners of HMD was paint over the frieze with gray paint.  Ramirez and his group made no attempt to work with the community to preserve the flavor and whimsy of the building.

This attitude disappointed and disaffected local preservationists and longtime Hillcrest residents.

Immediately on the heels of this misstep, one of the owner had his annual birthday bash/fundraiser.  This was a big community event in the middle of the heated Mayoral election.  Ramirez asked Kevin Faulconer to be an honorary chair, but failed to ask David Alvarez who was supported by the majority of the community.

This was a slap in the face to both David and to the community.  A time honored tradition and the facility bearing the name of an LGBT hero was being used to advance the campaign of a right wing Republican.

Many leaders of the community, myself included, asked the Ramirez and HMD owners to reconsider and invite David to be an honorary chair as well. The response was pretty nasty, and many in the community  determined that they would not support the use of Harvey Milk’s name to advance photo ops for right wing politicians.

After...via Facebook

From the get go, Ramirez and the Harvey Milk Diner owners had alienated a substantial portion of their prospective customer base.  I cannot say whether the diner would have prospered even with the full patronage of the community, but without it the enterprise was doomed.

As if the arrogant dismissal of neighborhood concerns and co-opting the Milk name to support ideas and values that Milk gave his life opposing were not bad enough, on October 9th they closed abruptly; stiffing their employees, vendors and other providers, including the Harvey Milk Foundation.  Headlines and TV lead-ins seemed to take special interest in the Harvey Milk name.  It seems unlikely that the sudden closure of Joe Blow’s Beanery would be covered by Fox10News and the UT.

Nicole Murray Ramirez – Stop Using Harvey Milk’s Name

via Facebook

A clearly angry Miriam Richter, TM counsel for the Foundation, said, “”We are just very disturbed that Harvey’s name and the Milk Foundation are being damaged by the actions of this restaurant.”

Some people in the community think that Ramirez and his group wanted to use the Harvey Milk name to create the illusion that the LGBT community supports right-wing candidates like Kevin Faulconer, Chris Cate and Carl de Maio.

To be clear, there was little chance that the photo ops and staged events would persuade the LGBT community to vote Republican.  In fact, it appears that the gayborhood voted even more strongly for Alvarez in 2014 than it had for Filner in 2012.  No, the purpose of this charade was to give right wing, even Tea Party, politicians the appearance of moderation by showing them to be “gay friendly”.

The community caught on really quickly to this and voted with their feet, by not supporting the Harvey Milk Diner.  The enterprise failed.

But to add insult to injury, the proprietors of Harvey Milk Diner ran it into the ground, waiting until the last minute to abruptly close its doors, bouncing checks and leaving creditors unpaid.  The resulting media coverage was an embarrassment to the community and damaging to the Harvey Milk name and reputation.

The Foundation spokeswoman summed it up,   “We are disappointed and disturbed by the actions of the diner that bears his name. We are very concerned about the potential damage to Harvey Milk’s name.”

Linda Perine is the President of the Democratic Woman’s Club. She was chair of the LGBT Redistricting task Force in 2011 and served as Mayor Filner’s Director of Community Outreach.

This article first appeared in the San Diego Free Press October 24, 2014.

Who Runs San Diego?

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.

Who Runs San Diego?

Who Runs San Diego? Some Taxpayers Are More Equal Than Others at the County Taxpayers Association

By Linda Perine

This week’s article is a little more complex than some of our previous looks at Who Runs San Diego?.  When David (Cory Briggs) slays Goliath (Hoteliers Financing District) – that’s a good story!  When some (Sea World and certain electeds) tell us it’s OK to imprison and mistreat our sweet Shamu,  LOTS of folk get mad.  When our CD2/lifeguard good guy (Ed Harris) takes on tenants (Belmont Park) that seem a little moochy,  you can pump your fist.

My job this week, yes, I am the aforementioned “Nerd”, is to go behind the curtain of these and other deals involving our beaches, bays, parks, taxing authority and other civic assets to take a look at an organization that pretends to work for all taxpayers, but in reality represents its well- connected, conservative  donors.

By now it should be crystal clear that the regular folk of San Diego need someone tough and savvy to look out for us:  To stand up to the bigwigs, to call their bluff;  to fight for the greater good and get us the better part of the bargain.  We need a champion to make sure the taxpayer, not Papa Doug or the downtown elite, the affluent and the connected, get to skim the cream off the top.  After all – those bays and parks and waterfronts and beaches and taxing authority belong to us.

The Negotiator 

Negotiator3333We need a hero, an advocate, a defender, a goomba, an enforcer.  Get me Lucca Brasi. 

We need a Negotiator!!!

But wait, you say, don’t we already have someone who looks out for the San Diego taxpayers??

Isn’t that what the San Diego County Taxpayer’s Association (SDCTA) is supposed to do?

That’s what they claim on their webpage: “Founded in 1945, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association (SDCTA) is a watchdog organization that looks out for your tax dollars.”

Not so much.

When it comes to looking out for the everyday citizen, SDCTA is more of a pretender than a watchdog.

The Pretender

Time and time again, over the last few years, SDCTA has lined up on the side of the conservative moneyed interests that populate their Board of Directors and donor base.  It is those interests, and not the interests of the worker, the parent, the real San Diego taxpayers, that inform the SDCTA policy papers and breakfast meetings and press releases.

Here are just a few examples:

Convention Center Expansion –  Bill Evans and Mike McDowell and the downtown hoteliers convinced the city that it was a great deal for the city to borrow $575 million dollars to expand the convention center.  The deal was full of pitfalls and landmines, but even its best case scenario had the city taking all the liability, yet making less than 1/10 the return the hoteliers made.  SDCTA said “the Expansion Project would result in a significant return on investment” for the city.  In what world is taking on that kind of liability for that pittance of a return a good idea?  Hint: it is good to be a hotelier.

Tourism Marketing District – has already been found invalid by one court.  SDCTA fought hard against  attempts to assure that you and I wouldn’t get stuck with the bill if the TMD were declared illegal on appeal:  an outcome that seems more and more likely in light of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal decision finding the Convention Center Financing District violates the CA Constitution and the City Charter.  SDCTA has been a major supporter of this illegal appropriation of the city’s tax authority for years.

Increase in the Minimum Wage – SDCTA issued a policy paper stating that raising the minimum wage would hurt business despite strong support from employers,  the Department of Labor, a widespread movement in cities and states, and multiple studies showing it positive economic impacts.  If you are one of the 200,000 taxpayers in San Diego who would have benefited from an increase in the minimum wage, you apparently are not the kind of taxpayer SDCTA is looking out for.

Shielding Corporations from property assessments on sale of property – now this is pretty wonky, but when you sell your house if the value has gone up the person who buys it has to pay higher taxes on the higher assessed value.  Not so if you are a corporation and transfer the ownership of the corporation holding the property.  This gives an unfair benefit to corporations, that means you and I pay higher taxes.  Guess which side SDCTA took?  Not yours.

Forcing the Entire City to Vote on Your Community Plan – one of the great things about San Diego is that each community gets to exercise control over what happens in their community.  What people in Hillcrest love, people in Mira Mesa might not like so much. So our City of Villages approach is based on letting folks decide what happens in their neighborhoods.  SDCTA thinks the entire city should vote on what is allowed in your neighborhood.

Phony Pension Reform – most folks in San Diego voted for Proposition B.  Unfortunately, the benefits claimed made by supporters were widely exaggerated. The projected savings have not materialized.  But the real problem is that the way the proposition was introduced and promoted violated the law.  The case is on appeal, but the likely outcome is that a year or so from now Prop B will be declared invalid and all the work and effort and money we have spent will be wasted because its  <a href=””>supporters did not tell the truth. SDCTA helped write Prop B and knew, or should have known, that it is illegal and invalid.   A lot of our tax dollars are being wasted to help the Carl DeMaio and Chris Cate campaigns.

Banning Project Labor Agreements – according to Donna Frye, will cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.  Back in 2012, at the urging of SDCTA, folks voted for Prop A.  Now we are faced with losing state funding for construction projects and low interest loans for sewer and water projects.  Who benefits from PLA’s – workers and regular taxpayers.  Who wants to ban them – construction companies who don’t want to pay a living wage.  It should not be a surprise which side SDCTA supported.

Weakening Asian/Pacific Islander Representation in D6 – in 2011 many citizens worked very hard to create a strong community of interest for API citizens in District 6.  SDCTA presented a map that diluted the API representation in order to help the Republican party win more seats on the city council.  Fortunately, the Redistricting Commission gave little credence to the SDCTA map submission.

This is just a partial list of policies and positions that show for SDCTA some taxpayers are more equal than other taxpayers.  SDCTA has never been a fierce negotiator for the everyday taxpayer.

Despite a record of promoting clearly illegal projects like the TMD and Prop B, of representing the interests of its construction/big business donor base, instead of the average taxpayer,  SDCTA still asserts “Public opinion polls consistently rate the SDCTA as the most “influential” and “trusted” public policy institution in San Diego…Despite the challenges, the SDCTA continues to effectively protect our region’s individual and business taxpayers.”

That is simply not true.

The Board of Directors </ais populated by representatives of the conservative hierarchy of the city.  SDCTA is always going to be support policies that help the big businesses, influence peddlers, builders and developers who form the financial backbone of the organization.  As Carl Luna points out  “the SDCTA’s claim to be non-partisan strikes me as something of a cop out.  If the organization truly has faith in its convictions shouldn’t it acknowledge whom it aligns with and supports?  Claiming to be non-partisan is an attempt by the SDCTA to give itself an imprimatur of superiority”.

Well, “it’s a brilliant marketing ploy, to be sure”, but if you still believe that the SDCTA represents the average taxpayer, Cher has this gentle admonition for you.

The Protégé

One of the major facilitators of these flawed SDCTA policies and positions is Chris Cate, the former vice-president of SDCTA. (He is still listed as contact for policy matters on the website.)  Just a few months ago he moved from his long residence in Carlsbad to Council District 6 to run for city council.  He has resigned his position at SDCTA to campaign full time.

Not surprisingly, Chris has the  support of the Lincoln Club and Chamber, the large builders and developers whose interests he has been advancing at the SDCTA for years. Undoubtedly he will continue to promote those interests if elected. For November election, however, references to the Lincoln Club and the SDCTA have been scrubbed off his campaign materials.

Chris Cate SDCTAA Rare and Fortuitous State of Affairs

Most of the time the people who run San Diego operate in the shadows: on boards and commissions, through lobbyists, on media editorial boards, in corporate board rooms and private meetings with the mayor.  They work through SDCTA, the Chamber, the Lincoln Club and their ilk to promote the interests of the well-heeled and well connected to the detriment and expense of the regular taxpayer like you and me.

It is rare that we get a really clear cut look at exactly how a political candidate will vote and exactly who he/she will look out for before we elect them.  In the case of Chris Cate in the District 6 election it could not be any clearer.

In the several years he worked at SDCTA he promoted illegal policies and projects like the TMD and Proposition B.  He worked against Proposition Z which funded school renovations and technology upgrades.  He opposed self-determination for neighborhoods and worked to weaken API representation in the district he now seeks to represent.  His position on Proposition A could cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid and low interest loans.

Chris helped big business lobby against paying a living wage and wants corporations to shirk their fair payment of property taxes.

The real taxpayers of the City of San Diego and District Six need a champion, a negotiator someone to fight for us.  Not someone who, for the majority of his professional life, has pretended to help the little guy/gal while working full time to make the already rich, richer at our expense.

Linda Perine is the President of the Democratic Woman’s Club. She was chair of the LGBT Redistricting task Force in 2011 and served as Mayor Filner’s Director of Community Outreach.

This article first appeared in the San Diego Free Press October 10, 2014.

Who Runs San Diego?

Who Runs San Diego? The City’s Dubious Partnership with Sea World

By Linda Perine

San Diego taxpayers find ourselves as mainly unwitting, possibly unwilling and almost certainly undercompensated partners with a corporation in a Sea World of hurt.  From Wall Street to Austin City Limits, Washington to Sacramento, Hollywood to Lindbergh Field Sea World is under attack for its treatment of Orcas (that’s Shamu to you and me)

In July, 2013 the documentary Blackfish about the 2010 death of a Sea World trainer finally caught the public’s attention after decades of challenges to Cetacean captivity.  The 2009 Academy Award winning documentary The Cove also raised questions about the possibility that Sea World obtained dolphins from the horrific Taiji dolphin drive.

Sea World vehemently denied the assertions of both documentaries.  However, Sea World stock prices have been cut in half since the Blackfish premier.  Sea World is now the target of shareholder class action lawsuits involving at least 6 law firms specializing in securities fraud for initially denying that Blackfish negatively affected attendance and for misrepresentation about its treatment of Orcas in its prospectus when it went public in 2013.

SEaWorld AdBlackstone Group, the private equity firm that took Sea World public in 2013 is dramatically reducing its holdings as are othersignificant institutional investors.  Southwest Airlines has terminated its 26 year-long mutual promotion relationship with Sea World, as has Taco Bell.  Entertainers from Bare Naked Ladies to Willie Nelson have cancelled performances at Sea World venues in protest of their treatment of orcas

OSHA has told Sea World it must stop putting trainers in tanks during Shamu performances.  In 2015, the California Assembly will address AB2140,  a bill to ban holding orcas in captivity for performance or entertainment purposes in California and to end captive breeding programs.  The bill has the support of 1.2 million folk with more signing up every day.

In addition to the structural problem of a business model that is deeply unpopular and may soon become illegal, Sea World is in debt up to its flippers.

And I should care because……?

For better or worse, San Diego is closely tied to Sea World.

In 1964 the city leased land and water in Mission Bay Park giving “Sea World advantages that few if any theme parks in the region had. It specified a certain rate of return on profits to the city, guaranteed long-term access to valuable city real estate [on Mission Bay], and left open a door to future expansion of the theme park. Sea World has used this door often, expanding its original allocation to more than 150 acres.”

We, the citizens of San Diego, are Sea World’s landlord.  More accurately, we are business partners.

We, the citizens of San Diego, are Sea World’s landlord.  More accurately, we are business partners.

The lease provides that the city is paid varying percentages of the income Sea World receives from things like admission charges, parking and the sale of those cute stuffed Shamu dolls.  Last year Sea World paid the city  $14 million dollars,a figure that critics say should be much higher given the valuable city assets Sea World has obtained from the city.  Sea World also paid about $5 million in taxes last year on property valued at $425 million.

In addition to real estate and transportation concessions, we allocate millions of our public tax dollars each year to promote this private enterprise .

Shamu and Sea World have been a huge part of tourism promotion and city identity for 50 years.  This is why more and more citizens are concerned that changes in the way the world views the captivity and commercial exploitation of highly intelligent, social mammals will injure our city’s image as well as our city coffers.

From Enron by the Sea to the recent Balboa Park Centennial fiasco to the take down of Bob Filner we have suffered a number of body blows to our city’s public image.  Civic leaders need to address the image crisis and the looming fiscal crisis Sea World’s flawed corporate strategy represents.

The Silly, Silly Whale in the Room

Blackfish has been a publicity nightmare for Sea World and Sea World clearly has a growing image problem.

At the AB2140 hearings in Sacramento Scott Welsh, the lobbyist for Sea World, called AB2140 a “silly, silly bill.”  He went on to threaten that Sea World would simply move the orcas out of San Diego to another state if the bill advanced. SeaWorld San Diego President John Reilly bluntly claimed the bill was simply “animal rights rhetoric and bias.”

When SeaWorld ENTERTAINMENT Inc. went public almost a year ago, it bragged: “We won’t be a taxpayer for several years to come,” SeaWorld President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison told prospective investors shortly before the company went public. “That’s a great advantage for us.”

Keep in mind the multiple lawsuits arising from Sea World’s misleading assertion that Blackfish did not impact attendance.

Peta SEaworld AdGiven the smarter business plan of “phasing out shows, placing its female killer whales on oral contraception, & leading the way on coastal sanctuaries” SeaWorld pompously announces more captivity, more pools, more breeding, and international expansion.

Immediately after the precipitous plummet of its stock price Sea World announced with great fanfare the “Blue World Project”: SeaWorld would spend millions to build a 50×350 foot pool.  Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Councilmember Todd Gloria were on hand to assure us this would address the captivity issues of a 30 foot long 8 ton mammal designed by nature to swim 100 miles a day and dive 1000 feet into its deep wild ocean habitat.

Gloria was “grateful to SeaWorld for the investment in these new facilities.” CEO Jim Atchinson told The Today Show August 15 “We make no apologies for what we do and how we do it.”

The arrogance is simply staggering.

It’s Not Just Love that Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Being very well connected and making a lot of contributions to politicians allows a business a fair amount of leeway, especially in San Diego.

As Voice of San Diego pointed out in one of its somewhat boosterish articles Sea World By the Numbers  Sea World employs up to 4,500 people, albeit many are temporary positions and minimum wage.

As was mentioned before, Sea World pays a percentage of its income as rent on a lease to the City that some view as extraordinarily favorable to Sea World.  While putting $14 million into the public coffers may be an attention getter, it is nowhere near what it ought to be.

…it is the mutual back scratching benefit of interlocking boards and contributions to politicians that allows our Mayor and City Council to be so unquestioning in their support of this morally and fiscally compromised corporation.

Sea World is deeply imbedded in the San Diego conservative hierarchy.  It is a heavy contributor to the PACs of the Lincoln Club,the California Restaurant Association’s local chapter and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.   Sea World has a presence on the board of many local organizations like San Diego County Taxpayers Association, Equinox, San Diego Tourism Authority, the Chamber and many others.

Yes, that is the same Lincoln Club, Taxpayers Association, Chamber and Mayor who oppose increasing the minimum wage so that the workers at Sea World can afford to feed their kids.  So, no, they are not going to get all misty eyed over some “black fish”.

In the interconnected world of Who Runs San Diego it is the mutual back scratching benefit of interlocking boards and contributions to politicians that allows our Mayor and City Council to be so unquestioning in their support of this morally and fiscally compromised corporation.

Sea World is imbedded. It’s a player.  As its Prez said – they make no apologies.  And we are to be grateful?

What’s a Shamu Loving, Regular Taxpayer Who is Tired of Giving Away the Farm to People Behaving Badly To Do?

Surprising as it may seem, we are not without resources.

  1. Let your councilmember know this sucking up to bad corporate behavior displeases you and you vote.
  2. Encourage the city council to enforce the lease.   As I read the lease it requires that the City Council approve Activities other than operating an Aquarium “as may from time to time be deemed desirable to serve the patrons of” the then Marine Life Exhibit.  Good luck with that, but it does seem to suggest that the City is entitled by the lease to take a more active role in the Sea World decision making process.  It is our bay, our water, our 170 acres.  Maybe we could encourage them to take a look at ways of making money that are not so Shamu-centric.
  3. Enforce the City Charter.  Some folks think that Sea World sits on Pueblo Land and the City Charterdisallows leases of longer than 15 years for those lands.  It is certainly worth discussing.
  4. The SEC may be taking a long look at Sea World for a variety of reasons: some less than forthcoming disclosures about the “problem with Tilikum”; misleading the public about Blackfish’s negative effects on admissions; a possible takeover bid by a theme park not wedded to the captivity of cetaceans.  The City might play a role in those conversations.
  5. If the “Blue World Project” was more than smoke and mirrors, Sea World will need to dredge Mission Bay, do an EIR, get Coastal Commission approval and amend the lease.  This is a wonderful opportunity for some negotiating on lease payments and the treatment of Shamu.

Orca in a bowlThe first article I wrote about Sea World got over 2,200 likes.  It was tweeted nearly 500 times.  I am not widely known, nor is SDFP the NYT.  That means there are a LOT of people committed to the idea that the cessation of cetacean captivity is an idea whose time has come.  Hopefully, some of those people are also committed to the idea that San Diego needs to stop giving away our beaches and bays and other precious resources to the well connected and the big contributors.

Here are the e-mail addresses for the city council and the mayor.  Maybe we should talk to them.

District 1
Council President Pro Tem Sherri Lightner

District 2
Councilmember Ed Harris

District 3 
Council President Todd Gloria

District 4
Councilmember Myrtle Cole

District 5 
Councilmember Mark Kersey

District 6
Councilmember Lorie Zapf

District 7
Councilmember Scott Sherman

District 8 
Councilmember David Alvarez

District 9
Councilmember Marti Emerald

Mayor Kevin Faulconer

Linda Perine is the President of the Democratic Woman’s Club. She was chair of the LGBT Redistricting task Force in 2011 and served as Mayor Filner’s Director of Community Outreach.

This article first appeared in the San Diego Free Press October 3, 2014.

Who Runs San Diego?

Who Runs San Diego? Deals Like the One Proposed for Belmont Park Amount to a War on Taxpayers

Guest column by Councilmember Ed Harris

Recently, the City Council was asked to grant an extension to the lease at Belmont Park in Mission Beach. Pacifica, a local developer and current leaseholder of the park’s commercial buildings, wanted the Council to approve a deal that would extend its current lease to 55 years.  Pacifica has held the lease for two years.

After reviewing the proposed lease, I asked the Independent Budget Analyst (IBA) to determine whether it was consistent with best practices of other cities, and whether a longer-term lease would be in the City’s long-term economic interests.

The IBA concluded that the 50 year term of the proposed extension is longer than the average municipal ground lease, and that its rental rates seemed lower than the percentage-rent average of comparable municipal leases in other California cities.

I was also told by the City’s Real Estate Assets Department (READ) that the City has collected a total in net rent of $1,639,166 from the Belmont Park lease since 1988.

This actually looked like a bad deal, and you never double down on a bad deal.

It is important to note the following.  First, if a lease extension is not granted to Pacifica, 23 years will still remain on that lease.  Second, the estimated cost to repair the Plunge is $6 million dollars, and will be paid entirely by the taxpayers in the form of rent credits.

For 26 years, the City gave millions of dollars in rent credits to the former leasee to maintain the facility, including the Plunge.  That maintenance did not occur.

With this knowledge, extending the lease didn’t seem like a good deal for the taxpayers.  This actually looked like a bad deal, and you never double down on a bad deal.

belmont-parkWhile Pacifica was negotiating this lease extension with READ for over a year, my office was never a part of any of those negotiations.  I became aware of this issue in late July.

When the matter finally came to Council on September 22, I had real concerns: The projected revenues; the insistence on a 55-year lease; and the lack of accountability to the City to maintain the property over time.  Furthermore, the lease numbers I had been provided kept changing: The total amount of square footage; the total revenue Pacifica had already invested into the property; and the amount of revenue the City would realize.

The proposed new lease also called for valet parking at Belmont Park.  Since when do we encourage paid parking at the beach? That’s a slippery slope that will undermine the character of our beach communities, and the ability for residents of all income levels to enjoy access to the public seashore.

At the Council hearing when I asked how this was a good deal for the City, I never received a good explanation.  It’s my job on the Council to hold our private sector partners and myself accountable for the good of San Diego’s taxpayers.

Why would we not want to ask questions and work harder to get a better deal for the City and for the taxpayers?

While it’s important to have a lean budget, we must always be looking at the other side of the ledger to see how we can best leverage the City’s assets for revenue to pay for basic City services.  Let me be clear.  I’m not opposed to partnering with the private sector to lease City property.

In fact, earlier this month I asked Mayor Faulconer to prioritize lease extensions on City-owned property in the Sports Arena area.  These leases have varying expiration dates and certain tenants whose leases expire in 2015 have been trying to obtain extensions from the City for almost two years.  Furthermore, the Black Angus building has been vacant for years and has fallen into disrepair, and the City has lost valuable revenue because of this.

Crucially, by ensuring that we are able to lease these properties, we will be better positioned to help fund neighborhood services such as libraries, code enforcement, and police officers.

If this Belmont Park matter is any indication of business as usual, it looks to me like there’s actually a war on taxpayers and small business owners in San Diego.

Apart from the particulars of the Belmont park lease proposal, I’m struck by a larger point.  Why would we notwant to ask questions and work harder to get a better deal for the City and for the taxpayers?  Which of my constituents does not want that?

I’ve heard a mantra lately on how there’s a “war on business” in San Diego.

If this Belmont Park matter is any indication of business as usual, it looks to me like there’s actually a war on taxpayers and small business owners in San Diego. Deals like the Belmont Park lease further shrink our middle class in an era when it’s under siege.

By not making the most of our City’s assets, we come up with cost shortfalls that we pass along to taxpayers.  That results in small businesses having to hire private security because we don’t have enough police officers, and for Business Improvement Districts having to self-fund the upkeep and beautification of their neighborhoods.

At the end of the Council meeting, the Belmont Park lease matter was continued for 60 days.  I am optimistic all stakeholders can return to the table during that time to address the concerns raised, and come up with a deal that’s mutually beneficial to Pacifica and to the City.

Actively addressing quality of life issues has been my priority since I took office five months ago.  As a Marine veteran, a City lifeguard for 25 years, and now as the councilmember for District Two, I am more mindful than ever that democracy should always require vigilance, transparency, and accountability.

Ed Harris is the City Councilman representing District 2, which includes the Belmont Park property.

This article first appeared in the San Diego Free Press September 26, 2014.

Who Runs San Diego?

Who Runs San Diego? How Do You Solve a Problem like Sea World?

By Linda Perine

For most of us it has been a slow, painful process to understand that our love affair with cute, cuddly, smiley Shamu has made us participants in a cold-blooded business that imprisons and mistreats sentient, social creatures in ways that turn the stomach and shock the conscience.

Concerned environmentalist and civic leaders have been telling us for years that the capture of orcas was nasty and brutal involving bombs and machine guns, the violent separation of babies from their mothers and resulting in injury and death to many orcas in the wild. Books and PBS presentations criticizing the Sea World business model and its exploitation of captive whales and dolphins just did not register.

We didn’t know, or didn’t care, that the magnificent mammal jumping and breaching and smiling and being petted for some tossed fish and our applause has a brain capable of complex language, dialects and generational transfers of knowledge. 

We didn’t concern ourselves that caging a 30 foot long 8 ton mammal, built to range 100 miles a day in deep wild ocean, in enclosures less than one ten-thousandth of one percent the size of the species’ natural home range, was akin to putting a human in solitary confinement in a closet for life. 

Killer whales live in a complex matriarchal society, in which sons and daughters live with their mother throughout their lives, even after they have offspring of their own, creating “matrilines that combine into pods with which they share unique dialects and then interact with other pods to form clans.  We failed to acknowledge that, as Jean-Michel Cousteau said, “we have outgrown the need to keep such wild, enormous, complex, intelligent and free-ranging animals in captivity”.

If we felt uneasy or that something wasn’t quite right, the excited squeals of the children splashed by the final orca breach, or the cute stuffed animal or t-shirt, or the myriad corporate images of a happy Shamu made us put such thoughts aside.

But in 2010 a beautiful young trainer at Sea World Orlando was killed by an orca named Tilikum. This was the third human death associated with Tilikum who has sired 21 calves.  Gabriela Cowperthwaite began to examine in earnest the business of using Cetaceans for entertainment and corporate profit.  In 2013, the resulting documentary Blackfish made it impossible for people like you and me to ignore the ugly truth about what we are doing to Shamu.

PETA-ORCA-INJURED-SEAWORLD-570San Diego, We Have a Problem

For those of us in San Diego, this sudden and disquieting awareness has far reaching implications.

The City of San Diego is Sea World’s landlord.  Since the money the city receives is tied to how much money Sea World makes, we are more than just consumers who can stop going to Sea World as a manifestation of our disapproval of their business.

If you think what Sea World is doing to Shamu is a crime, we are accessories before and after the fact.

We are business partners with Sea World.  If you think what Sea World is doing to Shamu is a crime, we are accessories before and after the fact.  If it is morally wrong, we are passive enablers.  If we are in the business of making money off the imprisonment and mistreatment of sentient beings, then we are profiteers.

But even if you are not personally moved by the overwhelming evidence Cetaceans should not be held in captivity for entertainment and profit, a lot of people are.  Willie Nelson, the Beach Boys, HeartSouthwest AirlinesTaco BellVirgin Airlines and, of course, the stock market have all voiced their displeasure with the Sea World business model.  So whether your motivation is compassionate or materialistic: San Diego, we have a problem.

Southwest-ShamuSea World’s Corporate Situation

Sea World (SEAS on the NYSE) is a company with some serious problems.  Blackstone Group LP (BX), the world’s largest private-equity firm, owns 22 percent of SeaWorld shares. The New York-based firm bought SeaWorld from Anheuser-Bush Cos. in 2009. On April 19, 2013 Blackstone took Sea World public on the NYSE.  Perhaps ironically, stock values seem to have hit their highest point of nearly $39 in mid July 2013, just around the July 19, 2013 official New York release of the documentary Blackfish.

…for most of us, Sea World is Shamu.  This is a deep structural issue for the company.

Independent of the Blackfish public relations nightmare, Sea World was brought public in a leveraged buyout and is massively indebted.  Some analysts see SEAS as overvaluedfor a company of its maturity and compared to peers with less forward-looking risks.

But for most of us, Sea World is Shamu.  This is a deep structural issue for the company.  60+% of revenues come from admissions.  Admissions are driven by– Shamu the Killer Whale and the dolphins.  This makes the Sea World business model extremely vulnerable to the issues surrounding cetacean captivity.

Sea World initially denied that concerns about its treatment of the orcas was impacting its business. But on August 13 shares of SeaWorld Entertainment plunged 33% after the company’s earnings missed Wall Street expectations.  Share prices have dropped from roughly $39, when Blackfish was released, to $20.

Large hedge funds may be losing faith in Sea World’s business model.  Southwest Airlines has ended a 26 year relationship with Sea World.  Blackstone appears to be sharply reducing its stake in the company it took public and is increasing its stake in competitor Merlin.

Sea World  has dropped an appeal of OSHA citations it received after the 2010 drowning that inspired Blackfish, ending any chance of trainers ever again swimming with orcas during shows.

While the “Blackfish Bill” introduced in April, 2014 to make it illegal to “hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performance of entertainment purposes” died in committee, it will almost certainly be brought up again in the CA legislature.  The fact that  1.2 million people signed a petition in favor of the bill does not bode well for the future of orca performances.

On Sept 9, 2014 shareholders filed suit in San Diego against Sea World.  The suit alleges that SeaWorld failed to disclose it had improperly cared for its orca population and continued to feature and breed a whale that had killed and injured numerous trainers.

SeaWorld has refused to recognize the growing movement for more humane and ethical treatment of animals by corporations worldwide. From cruelty-free cosmetics, toiletries and household products (animal testing for these products is now banned in the European Union)  to 2008 Proposition 2 providing more humane captivity conditions for farm animals,concern for animal welfare is reshaping the bottom line for many industries.

South Carolina banned dolphin and porpoise shows in 1992 and extended this ban in 2011 to whales (all cetaceans). There hasn’t been a captive cetacean show in the UK since 1993.

In 2013, India became the first country to acknowledge that cetaceans’ high level of intelligence grants them the status of “non-human persons”.  It also joined three other countries Chile, Costa Rica and Hungary in banning cetacean shows.

As you can see, Sea World is being battered from many angles.  It is simply on the wrong side of the powerful and growing realization that humans have a moral obligation to treat fairly and  kindly with other living beings and this ethical failure has created a financial firestorm.

We will continue this conversation about Sea World and its place in the discussion of Who Runs San Diego?  We will look at its influence in our community and how it ranks as a neighbor to its Mission Bay cohabitants.  We will also look at the very favorable terms of its lease with the City of San Diego and what alternative business practices might help it and San Diego out of an unpleasant financial and public relations problem.

Linda Perine is the President of the Democratic Woman’s Club. She was chair of the LGBT Redistricting task Force in 2011 and served as Mayor Filner’s Director of Community Outreach.

This article first appeared in the San Diego Free Press September 19, 2014.