June 10 2015 01:23 PM

Amid stadium talks, mayoral political ops suit up

Jason Roe (right) vs. “bad-ass” Mark Fabiani.
Photo illustration by John Lamb

Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it's important. —Eugene McCarthy

Ah, the arrival of June in San Diego! Hummingbirds whiz past in the gleeful hunt for thirst-quenching flowers. Mockingbirds dive-bomb crows to protect their offspring. And political operatives shake off the shelf dust and begin their seasonal warblings.

On Monday, as this city hurtles toward another election cycle in 2016, Mayor Kevin Faulconer laid out a game plan that would have city voters weigh in on a still-to-be-negotiated stadium plan for the San Diego Chargers by Dec. 15 of this year. It's a proposal hailed by supporters as a genius stroke and a bold maneuver that forces the team to get serious about these talks, which began in earnest all of last week.

To meet the mayor's wishful timeline, San Diego's political leaders will be required to do something they rarely do well: Move quickly and smartly. On the plus side, the city now has experts at the table who actually know what they're doing. The downside? The city's track record of foiled financing schemes for big-ticket projects.

"It would be like threading a needle on a rollercoaster," says attorney Cory Briggs. "It's possible if a million things line up."

Briggs, of course, is no spring chicken when it comes to challenging the city's muddy financial deals, as supporters of a convention center expansion can attest.

The obvious question, then, is: Why? The one thing the mayor and the NFL seem to agree on is that this decision cannot wait until 2016, for dubious reasons. For the NFL, naturally, time is money, and Los Angeles is its anticipated pot of gold. For the mayor seeking re-election (unchallenged, perhaps?) next year, a ballot measure of this emotional nature—subsidizing a billionaire's sporting pursuits—might prove an annoying speed bump to coronation.

So, it should not come as a shock that as election season officially kicked off this week, so too emerged the political swordplay.

Faulconer's top campaign adviser, Jason Roe, was featured on a sports-radio podcast Monday. In an interview with The Mighty 1090's Scott Kaplan and former Charger linebacker Billy Ray Smith, Roe was in full Shark Boy mode, sniffing for blood in the water.

The radio duo had just mocked in baby voice the reaction by Chargers front-man Mark Fabiani to a recent Facebook ad sponsored by the Lincoln Club of San Diego County (devout Faulconer backers) that snarkily raised the question, "Do the #Chargers even want a deal, or do they want L.A.?" 

Fabiani pushed back against the ad, saying in a statement, "This new negative advertising campaign against the Chargers— launched just as the team began negotiations with the city—speaks volumes about what the mayor and his political operatives have really been up to on this issue from the start: They have always seemed more concerned with political cover than with actually building a stadium."

Roe, in the podcast, opened wide: "Kind of funny, coming from the Chargers' political operative." When Kaplan asked him to explain, Roe added, "Well, he's their political operative, and apparently he's disturbed about other political operatives."

Roe proceeded to defend his top client, arguing that "more has happened with this mayor to advance the cause of finding a stadium solution for the Chargers than in any time in the 14 years that Mark complains about so consistently. I would think at this point he'd be thanking the mayor for the leadership" 

He called Fabiani "not the most constructive partner in trying to find a way to get the team what they need to be more profitable" and even suggested that team president Dean Spanos "has to evaluate if Mark's strategies here toward finding a solution are in the best interest of the team, because I would certainly think that so far they have not been in the best interest of the fans, or the city or the taxpayers."

Roe seemingly views life in general as a campaign. He referred to San Diego as the "incumbent city" in the battle to retain the Chargers, as if incumbency in a blood-sport business is an advantage.

"San Diego is not an NFL city," Roe added. "It is a Chargers city. And if we lose the Chargers, there will never be an NFL team here again, in my opinion. I think the NFL in looking at this decision has to decide, are they going to vacate the eighth-largest city in the country forever? Because I do think that's what they'll do."

The residents of Barrio Logan will likely recall it was Roe who frequently invoked the hair-on-fire imagery of shipbuilders bolting San Diego if its community plan update had been upheld by voters, which he successfully campaigned against. So dramatic pronouncements are nothing new to Roe.

But when he shrugged off suggestions that losing the Chargers could damage the mayor's political trajectory, even the sports-talk jocks seemed unconvinced. "I think everyone is going to recognize that he's done everything that he can that is reasonable to keep them here, and if they leave I don't think it's a negative for the mayor.

"If they stay, yeah, is it going to be a positive? Sure, but I think at the end of the day it doesn't really matter. It doesn't seem like he's going to have much of a re-election campaign so it really doesn't have anything to do with the election."

Of course, this is what political operatives do. But the mayor has proposed, in essence, a Hail Mary, one that he must hope moves the Chargers off his political plate before real 2016 electioneering begins. How will the mayor sidestep state environmental laws, and how does that get done in time to allow the City Council time to call a special election by mid-September, as the law requires?

Threading a needle on a rollercoaster seems easier.

Write to johnl@sdcitybeat.com.


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