When CityBeat interviewed Mayor Jerry Sanders back on April 23, we told him that, at times, his policy choices seem somewhat mean-spirited, belying what we perceive to be the mayor's kindly nature. His response was intriguing. He said he doesn't always agree with the “tone” that comes from his office. We asked him where the tone comes from, and he answered by noting that Kris Michell and Fred Sainz were his closest advisers. Then he separated the two. He said Michell, who heads up all politics and policy functions for Sanders, is not mean-spirited and that Sainz, his spokesperson, is more “direct.” Then he added that the city employee unions had perhaps “been better at positioning than we have, and I think sometimes it works out ‘Poor them, poor them.'”
Frankly, when we talked about mean-spiritedness, it's likely that our liberal hearts were bleeding over things like Sanders' lack of caring for the city's homeless population, but his answer seemed to point right in Sainz's direction.
Sainz is responsible for tone and, it would seem, positioning. The mayor's comments led us to speculate that perhaps Sainz wouldn't be invited back for a second term.
Turns out that Sainz had decided a month or so earlier that he wouldn't be back—and it was announced last week that he has accepted a job with the Denver-based Gill Foundation, a gay and lesbian civil-rights organization. Whether or not Sanders wanted him back is something we don't know.
What we do know is that Sainz's departure leaves Michell alone in Sanders' stable of top advisers. With Sanders ineligible to run for a third term, it stands to reason that the services of political consultant Tom Shepard, another close Sanders confidant, are no longer needed. There are other policy people on Sanders' team, but they tend to be lower-key individuals never mentioned when city insiders talk about the power behind “the throne.” Perhaps someone will step in to fill the void left by Sainz. His new spokesperson, Darren Pudgil, is not expected to wield as much influence.
Sainz is a registered Democrat, a former Republican who left the party over its intolerance of gay Americans. So, like Sanders, he's a bit of a social libertarian and a fiscal conservative. Sainz's job was to communicate the mayor's policies to the public and the press, but he enlarged his role by grabbing a seat at the policy table and seizing a position of leadership in the administration—through sheer force of his larger-than-life personality. Sainz is an exceptionally bright man who also became known as an enforcer on City Hall's 11th floor when things didn't go well internally.
In a sense, Michell is the good cop to Sainz's bad—she's the nice one. She likes to steer clear of the spotlight and is almost never, if ever, quoted in the press. (She made herself available to us this week but too late for press time.) She is a political operative by trade, another moderate Republican who's inclined to work well with developers and business interests and help the mayor maneuver politically.
By all means, the mayor should have a person like Michell handy. But the trio of Michell, Sainz and Shepard too often seemed all-politics-and-no-vision. It's not that Sanders never made a policy choice with which we agree; it's that everything appeared geared toward winning reelection and consolidating power.
One City Hall observer this week told us that, just like the whole United States, San Diego is in a transformational period, and on Jan. 1, 2009, Sanders will be in a new position: He'll be a mayor not facing reelection. San Diego remains in dire economic straits, and Sanders has people to help him deal with that. And he has Michell for the politics.
Sanders himself has never been a vision guy; by his own admission, he's a caretaker. What he lacks—what he's always lacked—is someone by his side whose job is to look beyond the politics, the battles with the City Council and the negotiations with the Securities and Exchange Commission, someone who has the capacity to view San Diego in a holistic way, someone who advocates for the broader citizenry while others advocate for narrow interests.
We're not completely naïve; we don't expect politics to be banished forever from the 11th floor. But we'd feel better if we knew Sanders had a different kind of thinker in his office, a different kind of angel on his shoulder. For the sake of the city and its citizens, that's the sort of person who must replace Sainz in the mayor's inner circle.
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