Jan. 29 2008 01:58 AM

A mini-pandemic of Addictive Political Behavior washes over San Diego


    If a tree falls in a forest and lands on a politician, even if you can't hear the tree or the screams, I'll bet you'd at least hear the applause.—Paul TindalePity the termed-out politician. Bathed in the spotlight glare of self-importance for years, members of this species (Politicus Terminus) suddenly find themselves in the discomforting position of an uncertain future.

    Frequently, politicians in such death throes will lament how they'll miss “serving the public” or “fighting the good fight.” Rarely will one admit the truth—that they'll miss the perks of public office: hyperkinetic staffs catering to their every whim; phone calls answered lightning quick; and legions of media types hanging on their every utterance.

    Some handle the transition from public life to private with grace and inspiration (Jimmy Carter comes to mind), while others just head for permanent hibernation (Dick Murphy who?).

    But sadly for some, the inevitability of a return to private life and its requisite anonymity seems to be as tough a challenge as kicking heroin. (Think Bill Clinton.) Yeah, I don't get it, either. But nevertheless, this power trip courses through their veins, and they sooo don't want to go through the withdrawals of Election Envy.

    Just who here in San Diego, you ask, appears to be suffering from such malady? Well, I'm no doctor, but I'd have to say that we're presently witnessing a mini-pandemic of APB (Addictive Political Behavior).

    Of most recent note, City Councilmembers Brian Maienschein and Toni Atkins seem to be suffering from the most aggressive form of APB, although it could be argued that all Elected Ones carry the APB gene and should seek treatment immediately. You know who you are, county Board of Supervisors!

    For Maienschein, the symptoms seem quite acute. During his years on the City Council, Maienschein has expressed an interest in running for just about every conceivable public office, save president and tax collector. Now, in a moment of classic political-addiction denial, he has apparently convinced himself that he's the one to topple City Attorney Mike Aguirre. (Although by press time, he had not officially announced his plan to run.)

    Few were likely privy to the moment when this latest epiphany came to Maienschein, who, it should be noted, seems like a perfectly nice guy with a whole lot of experience in being charming, picking attractive staffers and making political hay out of devastating wildfires.

    But John Kaheny, a longtime Mike Aguirre hater and former deputy city attorney who runs an e-mail gossip group known as the “Wolverine Pack,” recently disseminated an e-mail suggesting that one witness to Maienschein's white-light moment might have been Jan Goldsmith, an on-leave Superior Court judge who seems to be the Republican solution to Aguirre.

    “… Brian,” the e-mail reads, “had a conversation with Jan and asked him—more like demanded—a job in return for his support. The judge—rightly—told him that such an arrangement was illegal and that he wasn't prepared to make any staffing decisions now anyway… Brian told Jan[,] “Fine, then, I'll run against you.”

    Goldsmith told Spin Cycle that Maienschein never turned Machiavellian on him, although he did confirm that the two had lunch last spring when Goldsmith first considered running against Aguirre.

    “Brian did express an interest in working in the City Attorney's office,” Goldsmith recalled, but he flatly denied that Maienschein was seeking future employment in exchange for an endorsement or that Maienschien had vowed to oppose him once spurned. “I cut off that conversation very quickly,” Goldsmith insisted.

    If Maienschein is having a Maalox moment, it's easy to forgive him these days. In October, he filed for divorce from his wife of 12 years, citing “irreconcilable differences.” A father of two toddlers, Maienschein has filed papers seeking joint custody of his children.

    Court papers also indicate that the Maienscheins have been separated since last March, which may go a long way toward explaining his frequent absence from council meetings and City Hall in general.

    Lance Witmondt, Maienschein's chief of staff, said the councilman “never asked Jan for a job.” As for Maienschein's personal challenges at home, Witmondt said, “Brian's divorce is very amicable, and they're working together to raise their two children. This will in no way affect his ability to perform his job.”

    Another APB sufferer, Councilmember Atkins, seems to face a dilemma of her own. Several City Hall sources say Atkins covets taking over the helm of the San Diego Housing Commission in order to give herself a public platform from which to spring into the 2010 race to replace termed-out state Assembly Member Lori Saldaña (pending Prop. 93).

    Atkins, who considers affordable housing a top priority, was mysteriously absent during council deliberations Jan. 15 on the process of choosing a replacement for longtime Housing Commission doyenne Elizabeth “Betsy” Morris, who recently retired amid much fanfare. I say “mysteriously” because earlier that day, Atkins was practically attached to Morris' hip as she and Mayor Jerry Sanders alternately read from a proclamation declaring it “Elizabeth C. Morris Day” in San Diego.

    Hours later, the council minus Atkins, acting as the Housing Authority, decided to create a “review team”—two housing commissioners, a mayoral appointee and Councilmembers Ben Hueso and Jim Madaffer—that would recommend to the full council a candidate to fill the post by mid-year.

    Perhaps Atkins feared creating her own Dick Cheney moment. (For those confused, Cheney headed a group charged with picking a vice president for the current president. You know the rest.) Whatever the reason, she was back in her seat for the next agenda item. Atkins also was not available for comment.

    While Atkins has talked plenty about wanting more affordable housing in San Diego, some City Hall aficionados wonder if she has either the temperament or skills to run such an important organization with all its intricate bureaucracy (just think Section 8) if her true motivation is running for state Assembly. Atkins has also told people that following the end of her council term in December, she plans to depart for Mexico for a three-month Spanish-language immersion class prior to exploring a run for Saldaña's 76th Assembly District seat.

    “Assuming it takes a year to 18 months to start campaigning, that means she may only have three to six months for the Housing Commission job,” noted one observer. “Then what, the process starts all over again?”

    Although no rehab centers currently treat APB, maybe Nancy Reagan was right: “Just say no.” 

     Editor's update: City Councilmember Atkins called late Wednesday to respond to this column. She said she's not, as the column suggests, interested in the top post at the San Diego Housing Commission.

    “It's never crossed my mind to do it,” she said. “This one sort of hit me from left field.”

    Atkins says she's been asked if she'd be interested in the job, most recently held by Betsy Morris, but “I ruled it out early on because the timing is not right.” (So, obviously, it crossed her mind at some point.) She said she believes other city officials want that job filled before the end of 2008. “I am in office through the calendar year,” she said.

    She remains interested in running for Lori Saldaña's state Assembly seat, which would allow her to continue to work on housing policy, but only if Prop. 93 doesn't pass on Feb. 5. Saldaña is scheduled to be termed out after 2010. Prop. 93 would let her continue to serve in the Assembly through 2016.

    If Prop. 93 passes, Atkins doesn't know what she'll do in 2009. “I know what my passions are, but I'm not sure where that might lead me,” she said.

    Send tips to johnl@sdcitybeat.com


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