If you know Scott Barnett only as the front man for the Lincoln Club, San Diego County's archconservative political organization, you have only scratched the surface.
At 40, Barnett has already endured a lifetime of political campaigns-about 100 at last count.
A member of the Del Mar City Council at 21, Barnett is not your typical foaming-at-the-mouth, wrapped-in-the-flag Republican. Even his critics-and there are many-admit he does his homework and rarely backs down from a fight, talents that have put him in hot water over the years.
When he became president and CEO of the Lincoln Club in 2001, he brought with him a massive Rolodex of influential San Diegans and a wealth of political experience rarely seen in the Land of Eternal Sunsets. Culled from 20 years in the political trenches-including seven as head of the San Diego Taxpayers Association-Barnett's focus these days is on San Diego's financial doldrums and helping to raise two daughters from a former marriage. He recently sat down with CityBeat in his modest Ocean Beach bungalow to talk about his world.
CityBeat: Let's talk first about living in O.B.
Scott Barnett: I've been here a little over two years now, and my girls love the ocean. The reason I like O.B. is that nobody is putting on any airs. It's a very eclectic town. I mean, you have kids, you have drunks, you have families, you have singles, you have the whole gamut.
It is, of course, known as a liberal bastion.
That was the old O.B. There's a lot of the old timers who are still down here who are generally not known as ‘liberal‚' and then there are the young yuppie couples who are moving in. I don't know that it's really any more of an activist town than any other beach community, to be honest. Beach communities just tend to bring out the more motivated activist people.
Talk about your childhood. You were born in New York?
Yeah, I was there till I was 11. Both of my parents were born in New York. We were the only non-practicing Jews in a Jewish neighborhood. My dad was Jewish, but my mom was Episcopalian, so we were sort of nothing. And dad was in the toy business, so we had Christmas decorations and Christmas trees. It's funny, because on Dad's side of the family there's a head rabbi in New York City, and on my mother's side there's an Episcopal bishop, which is why I'm schizophrenic. I remember my mom was very active in the League of Women Voters. I was kind of like a League of Women Voters orphan. I was born in '62, and she was involved in '64, '65 and '66 with the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, housing legislation-the whole boat. We were the only house I knew of that had two phones, one being Mom's league phone. She ended up moderating gubernatorial debates in New York.
You got your political chops from her, right?
Yeah. Her mom was in the League of Women Voters, too, actually in Atlanta. Her mom was just naturally very progressive and very, if you will, liberal minded on social issues. Dad was never involved in politics until he moved to Elfin Forest [California] and they were going to put a trash-burning plant in his backyard. Then dad became very active, and he practiced what he called "Demagoguery 101." He could pen the word well and be humorous and sharp at the same time.
Those are traits often attributed to you.
You know, it's funny. I think there's a New York factor there, to be honest. New Yorkers are naturally blunt. They say what they think, and I just have that ingrained in me. You look at the people in San Diego who are from there-you know, [City Schools Superintendent] Alan Bersin, [former DA] Paul Pfingst-people who get in trouble. But basically they're strong, they're direct, they want to get things done and they're not really worried about what people think. Out here, it's more like, "Well, it's not really dignified to engage in inappropriate rhetoric." And you remember the Del Mar City Council. You basically had a lot of very wealthy or retired people or successful people or college professors with a lot of time on their hands, all participating in government. It was a nightmare for an official. So it required you to be on your toes.
OK, back to the childhood. You were pretty sick for a time, weren't you?
When I was in seventh grade, I got rheumatic fever. It basically put me out of school for two years, so I had a lot of time to just kind of sit around and read and, like kids do, fantasize about the world and the future.
What did you read?
Oh, back then it was mostly science fiction and Star Trek, and then I actually started in on history. I got really interested in World War II history, probably because my dad was in the Air Corps. Actually, I knew I was going to be a politician the moment I read Marc Antony's speech in Julius Caesar. "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...." We were in ninth grade, and we were all assigned parts. And, somehow, serendipitously I got assigned Marc Antony's great oration. I read that, and I thought I understood it. This is what I should be doing. I should be trying to move people through language and the written word.
How did the other students react?
Actually, when I read the speech, they applauded. That was my first public applause. I was an extremely shy child, which is hard to believe because my earliest report cards from kindergarten-I still have them-say, "Scottie's such a nice boy, but he never stops talking."
So, after high school, how did you get into politics?
I went to UCSD, and I just started taking upper-division political science and history classes because those are what interested me. And then I worked in [presidential candidate John] Anderson's campaign in 1980. That was my first campaign, if you don't count handing out McGovern flyers with my mother in '72. Dark little secret. We don't talk about that, but at least he won his own state, unlike Al Gore. After that, I worked in a congressional race for a Democrat running against [Republican] Bill Lowery. I did an internship in Lowery's office, but I thought I could learn a lot more working for an underfunded Democrat with no staff. I made a pure Machiavellian decision. I wanted to go where I could learn the most. And then I went to the Democratic state convention that year when [Walter] Mondale was running for president. That would have been '83, and that's what deterred me from being a Democrat, basically.
Well, I didn't understand this in the case of the Republican Party as well. There were all these diverse interests and all these little fights, and they didn't care about or focus on winning. And you've got to win. If you push your ideology to the extreme where you don't get anywhere, what good is it? Then I decided-actually my mother suggested it-that I run for the Del Mar City Council. I became obsessed with this goal. I spent two years, literally every day, thinking about it, working on it, studying issues, going to every council meeting, meeting with all the department heads and staff and reading the budgets. And then I walked door to door. I ended up winning by 25 votes.
You were 21. The youngest city council member in California?
Yeah, at the time. Some punk kid in the Bay Area named Rusty Hammer was elected to a council when he was 19 back in the '70s, so he was the youngest in history. If I'd had a name like that....
How did Del Mar react to you?
Del Mar was split down the middle politically. You had the so-called Greens-the environmentalists-and the Grays, named that way because supposedly we were for pouring concrete. At the time, half the activists hated my guts. I'm sure to this day if I go into town, some of them would say, "There's that son of a bitch Scott Barnett." The others would say, "Oh, there's that nice boy, Scott Barnett."
You only stuck around for one four-year term as councilman. Why?
Well, two reasons. One, I was working for my dad over those years and I kept thinking I needed to get a real job. And, two, I was just so burned out. I was not emotionally mature enough really, to be honest with you, to handle those types of attacks and the constant pressure and the fights and the divisiveness. So after four years, I was just done. I was cured of my desire to be a politician at that point. It was everything short of war, without the blood and guts and killing. It was just too much focused, intense, emotional work, and I didn't have any balance in my life, any fun. So I didn't run again.
After working in real estate for a while, you returned to politics, working with consultant heavyweights Tom Shepard and Larry Remer.
I got married in '91 and then worked on something like nine campaigns at the same time. It was crazy.
Shepard and Remer were on a pretty good roll.
Yeah. On the one hand, you have Larry, who is one of the most loyal people for his candidate. He's also a New York boy. He loves to scream, is very emotional, and he loves to be in trenches, covered with blood and guts and all that. Tom is this more intellectual, brooding person. About 10 days out of every campaign, Tom kind of flips out and goes berserk in a Tom way.
In 1994, you take over the helm at the San Diego Taxpayers Association.
Yeah, I was there seven years. It seems longer. They were fairly moribund. Their revenues were way down, and they needed someone who would go in and work for dirt. It was a half-time position, but I worked full-time to rebuild the organization and bring the power back. It had a great name and history-it had been part of the civic infrastructure of San Diego since 1945. The board was about 21 people when I started, most of them inactive. I think we built it up to 65 or so and made it a player. Early on, I decided we needed to pick out key issues where we could challenge the establishment. I remember one of the first issues was [Supervisor] Ron Roberts had pushed to have the treasurer-tax collector position be appointed. We saw this as anti-democratic and not the right thing to do. So we ended up opposing it and siding with [county labor leader] Mary Grillo on that issue. It was a great way for us to get noticed in the county. I remember the first time I met Ron, actually. I went to a meeting where he said, "I oughta punch you in the nose!" [Laughs.]
You squabbled often with the Taxpayers Association board, particularly on the downtown ballpark.
Well, my job was to recommend positions to the board, and then the board did what they thought was best. I'm convinced [the ballpark] is going to be absolutely beautiful and a very successful project. From a pure fiscal perspective, however, the numbers didn't make sense. Within Taxpayers, I expressed serious concerns about the fiscal side, whether there would be enough revenue to pay off the debt service. I've learned in politics that you can wear different hats. My personal views may be different than my board at Taxpayers or even now at Lincoln Club. Professionally, you know we all have masters in this world, unless you can afford not to. So I did that for seven years. I had a lot of proximity with a lot of politicians. What's that old phrase? Familiarity breeds contempt.
So in 2001, you jump over to the conservative Lincoln Club. Why?
You're involved in so many issues, and I got totally burned out. I also decided I wanted to be involved more in affecting who's going to be on the council, where at Taxpayers all you do is react or you throw stuff up and for the most part they nod their heads and say, "Have a nice day." I wanted to have an impact here, because I see the problems that we have in the city.
But why the Lincoln Club?
First, it's a partisan organization, but again we don't get involved in social issues, which have always been so divisive. We don't get involved in abortion or gun control or prayer in school-issues like that. The Lincoln Club focuses on business and education issues. We are actually becoming less overtly partisan than we have historically. Education and school board campaigns have always been an area historically where the Lincoln Club has been active to a large degree because a lot of our key board members and founders, from Malin Burnham to Bill Lynch, have always been interested in education issues.
What bugs you most on the education front?
The one great disappointment I have-and it's not just the school district's fault-is the lack of joint use. This is an issue affecting the city, the county and the schools. They're going to build 13 or so new libraries and new schools. [The school district is] spending $85 million for upgrading existing libraries. A quarter of a billion dollars for infrastructure upgrades. In the same basic political area, the city wants to spend $150 million for new and expanded libraries. There's absolutely no reason why those shouldn't be joint use in most cases. The problem with education in this community is not so much the quality of education as it is the fact that communities, especially south of I-8, need to build whole neighborhoods. You can't just build these Fort Apaches that are surrounded. It's a patent criminal waste of money not to have joint use. But it's about turf. It's an unwillingness of these government agencies to work together. I mean, when the city sets up these community service centers, where people can go and pay their water bill and parking ticket separate from a library or a park-and-rec center, that's absurd.
So the problem is primarily turf and ego?
It's largely a turf issue among staffs. The elected officials at the city, especially the newer ones, are not as sophisticated-they're just learning how the city works. They don't really understand schools. They think they don't need to worry about the homeless, thinking it's a county issue. Health, they think that's a county issue. It shouldn't be. The city of San Diego is the 900-pound gorilla, and it needs to be a player in all of these issues. There are more than 300 taxing entities in San Diego County alone! And they have their own little staffs, their own boards, and they need to coordinate better. But it takes leadership to do it.
Speaking of leadership, let's talk about Mayor Murphy.
We are firmly behind the mayor's re-election. We endorsed him, and actually I'll be hosting a fundraiser for him.
But when he announced that he wouldn't be running-prior to getting back into the race-you sent out a memo that seemed almost gleeful about choosing another candidate that might take San Diego's fiscal problems more seriously.
I think the glee in the memo was over the fun of a wide-open election. Especially when it was such a surprise and you hadn't had people lining up their ducks for years to run, which will be the case six years from now. Everyone and their uncle [were] going to run, and we at the Lincoln Club play an important role in that. So it was the fun of the hunt. Clearly though, the fiscal situation of the city is a major issue. This mayor and council inherited it, and it has, overall, gotten worse, primarily, in my view, because they continue to hire more bodies at City Hall. Every body you hire and every pay raise you give is a dollar that doesn't go to fill a pothole or to operate a park-and-rec center. On three different occasions in the last five years, my daughters had to go to the bathroom at a public park, and the park-and-rec center bathrooms had been closed. And this wasn't at midnight. They're open for, like, three hours, and my kids had to go to the bathroom in the bushes! Who are we serving? The purpose of government is to supply services to the public, not to supply jobs to bureaucrats. It used to be people went into government because there was some degree of job security and for the public service. You look through the budget now, and you see clerk-typists making $50,000 a year! That's darn good money, and you basically can't be fired. Since the year 2000, the city has hired 1,200 new employees, and most of them are not people who are directly impacting the public. Instead, every new dollar in the last budget, and every new dollar in the proposed budget, is going to go to salary and benefit increases, not for increased services to the public, and that's wrong.
OK, where would you start cutting?
I'm convinced that there's $100 million in cuts in this city, largely middle management. A lot of middle management is duplicative, very highly paid and they don't really do a heck of a lot. I think you need more competition, like at the county. The city doesn't have real competition; it's not allowed under the charter.
And this comes from the private sector?
If you let the private sector compete, I think you'll see staff become more efficient-they'd have to. A friend worked in the planning department, and he said when he wrote a report he had three different managers who had to review it. That's too middle-management heavy. Keep the focus on police, fire, park and rec, lifeguards and libraries, and you could easily find $30 million to $40 million to reduce the budget shortfall. But I don't know if the council is able or willing to do that.
First, most of the council doesn't have a real clear understanding of the budget and how it works. Partially that's because it's created to be confusing. The city budget is 12 inches thick for one year, and it's very confusing. The county budget is an inch thick and covers two years, and it's understandable. About three years ago, I ran into Ralph Inzunza on the street. He was still chief of staff for [former Councilman] Juan Vargas, and we were talking about the budget. He said, "You know, Scott, the first year I got to Juan's office, I read the budget from cover to cover. Didn't understand a word and haven't picked it up since." Now that's comforting.
So, you think the charter needs changing to a strong mayor, rather than strong city manager, format?
Well, partly that. A strong-mayor council would mean the mayor would propose the budget to the council, and the council would approve it. Right now, a council member can legally only talk to the city manager or city attorney. They can't call the head of park and rec and say, "Why the hell are you closing bathrooms on a holiday?" Personally, I think we need to expand the council, maybe add three at-large [citywide-elected] seats, keep the district elections, and have a strong mayor and council appoint all key department heads in the city. Organized labor doesn't want to change that because, as they say, "We can count to five now."
What's your problem with organized labor?
In looking at the budget, I've just seen the inordinate influence of adding bodies to the city, adding salaries and benefits at the expense of the average taxpayer and services. This has been, I think, the largest shift in public wealth in the history of the city, where you're taking property tax, sales tax and all the other taxes we pay and shifting it so significantly into salaries, benefits and retirement that the money's tied up. When labor worked against child labor and basic working conditions and all that, I think those were basic reforms that were needed. Now, it's basically about enriching one class of society at the expense of the citizens in general. People will sometimes say, "Well, they're paid better in Los Angeles and San Francisco," but I don't see anybody leaving San Diego to go work there.
Are you enamored with any of the so-called "revenue enhancers" under discussion in the city's proposed budget, such as a hike in the transit occupancy tax?
I think the city could legitimately look at a TOT increase, but I don't think they should just give the city another $20 million to $30 million a year, because they have no incentive to do things more efficiently. If the funds are earmarked-maybe use those funds for coastal infrastructure, Mission Bay cleanup, beach cleanup, lifeguard program-I think that makes sense. The city keeps whining about the state stealing [property-tax] money. Yeah, well, it's happening to everybody. If the city hadn't balanced its budget the last four or five years using one-time revenues and selling land, they wouldn't be in this hole. We have some major problems, which, in my view, if we don't deal with in the next five years, we're never going to catch up. We're going to become more like Orange County.
With the city's budget problems and its underfunded pension plan, is bankruptcy a possibility?
I think I got the smell of real danger when the City Council a few months ago cashed in some reserves to make payroll. When they started robbing those in order to help their cash flow, that's when I got the sense that this city is in big trouble. The city would just cut services to the bone before they go bankrupt, probably. The one good thing about going bankrupt-I hate to say this-is that it puts aside all contracts. Then if organized labor wants to save all these jobs, they can roll back some of those salary increases until we get through this recession. The revenues of the city still are growing, OK. The problem is they're spending a lot more than that.
How likely is it that labor would go there?
[Local labor leader] Jerry Butkiewicz probably gets a pay raise every time he adds a new union member in San Diego.
He doesn't dress like he's wealthy.
Well, he lives in Temecula. I mean, here's this guy, he doesn't even live in San Diego. He doesn't have any stake in this town. He doesn't have kids in school in this town. And he's come to town and is futzing around with our economy.
They'll know what the word means. He's a hired, out-of-town union gun coming in here to basically disrupt things without any accountability. My feeling is government should supply the best services at the lowest cost. Government employees are doing extremely well. And they don't have the same level of accountability or the authority to be removed if they don't work hard. Government does subsidize a lot of things-subsidized museums, the Boy Scouts, parks, even ballparks. It's just a matter of priorities. In my view, I'd like more subsidy of basic services and less of salaries.