Nov. 18 2015 12:58 AM

An NFL pitch in New York, a pothole in Pacific Beach

Mayor Faulconer as multi-tasker: Pothole filler, stadium pitchman
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb

The best time to listen to a politician is when he’s on a stump on a street corner in the rain late at night when he’s exhausted. Then he doesn’t lie.

—Theodore H. White

Some cans are a lot heavier than others,” San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said back in September when he joined a city waste pickup crew for an early-morning photo op.

Last week, the mayor renewed the Regular Guy Tour by donning gloves, work boots and a reflective vest to tackle a pothole in Pacific Beach. “My key objective’s obviously street repair, street repair and street repair,” he told a CBS 8 television reporter. “It’s all about need and putting dollars from the city budget right into neighborhoods, right where it should be going.”

The reporter noted that Faulconer was only four hours removed from his return from New York, where he made what was billed as the city’s final pitch to National Football League owners to keep the San Diego Chargers from bolting north by building the team a new stadium in Mission Valley.

The mayor emerged from that 45-minute meeting his usual buoyant self, but he offered little in the way of news. Asked if he sensed any shift from owners in San Diego’s favor, Faulconer said, “It’s hard to characterize. All I can tell you is that the discussion today was very, uh, very open. There was a lot of good questions on timing. There was, I think, a receptiveness to hearing directly from us about the steps that we’ve taken and the steps we’re continuing to take.”

“It was very clear to me that all of the owners in the room were very engaged in this process,” he added.

When pressed by a reporter on the timing issue, the mayor said owners wondered how a June ballot measure “would work.”

This would be the third proposed date for a stadium ballot measure from this mayor, who previously had suggested next month and then January as target dates to put the question before voters.

Because Faulconer will also be seeking re-election in June, it can be surmised that the mayor— whose backers will frequently remind you of his popularity, according to polls—told team owners that he’d put his considerable political weight behind such a measure.

Owners not familiar with Faulconer’s penchant to oversell and under-produce might have wondered, “Well, what if even your golden-haired backing fails to deliver?” To which the mayor—ever the optimist—likely dispelled such an occurrence, given his self-perceived golden touch.

The mayor might wonder who would be so daft as to fund an opposition campaign against a project that he’s willing to stand behind. A member of the city’s negotiating team noted that the proposed $350 million public contribution—$200 million from the city in lease revenue bonds backed by the general fund, and $150 million from the county— would be a record in California for a sports facility.

But again, who would dare challenge a mayor who hops off a plane and four hours later is filling potholes?

The Chargers, in their continuing campaign to usurp headlines when this mayor is on the field, were making news of their own last week, floating the head of Disney (which also owns NFL fave ESPN) as its latest acquisition. Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of Disney, would oversee construction in Carson should the Chargers and Oakland Raiders win the NFL’s Los Angeles sweepstakes.

“Who could we get to better guarantee fan experience than the man who runs ‘the happiest place on earth?’” Carmen Policy, a former NFL executive now heading up the Carson effort, told the Los Angeles Times last week.

Team Faulconer clearly bristled at such ripped-off happy talk, branding the addition of Iger as a “Hail Mary”—in football parlance, a desperate, go-for-broke long pass that rarely connects. The implication being, of course, that the hire, contingent on Carson’s selection, changed nothing.

As for the city’s pitch, it appears the only change mentioned to NFL owners came from the city’s architectural team, which proposed altering the project’s so-called “kinetic skin” (more LEDs!) and providing the largest video board in the NFL. Take that, Jerry Jones!

City officials told owners they have spent $3 million so far on the stadium proposal—$2 million on a fast-track environmental impact report the Chargers view as legally shaky, and $1 million on additional professional services.

Mayor Faulconer told reporters that owners also had questions about the city’s financing plan, and the owners also wondered whether the city was being honest about its estimated $1.1 billion price tag. The city has proposed that the Chargers bear the cost of all construction overruns on the project, as well as operation and maintenance, but the team seems far from interested in what the mayor’s shoveling.

What the owners are likely looking for are specifics, given the mayor’s decision to drop $750 million in obligations into the laps of the Chargers and NFL—again, without a hint of the team blessing any of it. Owners are moved by dollar signs, not smiles and promises, and a proposal without details on oversight, rent, potential surcharges on tickets and parking, and clarity on future development within the Mission Valley site is likely as dead as the Chargers’ playoff hopes this season.

So how long can we expect this shoveling toward futility to continue? Well, good luck figuring out when NFL owners will actually vote on the Los Angeles issue. Dates have been thrown around this past week like undersized running backs.

Given the confusion, Mayor Faulconer may well get his wish that this process gets dragged into his re-election efforts. The question remains, however, whether a self-described popular mayor who’s offering gobs of public dough to a disinterested team hobbling toward an anemic 2-14 season can seal the deal.

This may be one political pothole too deep for this mayor to fix.


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