Despite the spacious office in San Diego City Hall and the dapper suit, City Councilmember Tony Young still wields the sit-down-and-shut-up voice of the middle-school teacher he once was. Waving his closed fist over his desk, nearly, but not quite, banging out his ire, he articulated the kind of municipal government he wants to see
'I want to make decisions starting with, ‘What is the right thing to do?'' he said.
Young wants the City Council to face down Jerry Sanders, San Diego's recently empowered executive mayor. He wants City Council members to quit kowtowing to labor unions, developers or whatever moneyed interest contributes to their campaigns. He wants an end to what he termed 'horse trading' of votes on different bills.
And, after two years in office, he's tired of being a backbencher (if an eight-member government body can even have a back bench), and he's ready to step forward into some serious responsibilities. He wants the kind of leadership position that representatives from District 4 haven't seen since former Councilmember George Stevens chaired the council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.
'If you look back at the records, if you look at this office, going back to George, we might have one chairmanship in the last 15 years,' Young said. 'That's inappropriate. That's just not going to happen to me; I will not be put aside like that.'
When CityBeat interviewed him last Friday, Young was still fuming about his defeat at the hands of Councilmember Scott Peters in his campaign to be named the 2008 City Council president, a job somewhat analogous to speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Young couldn't quite figure out how his colleagues had decided to choose Peters well before the Nov. 13 meeting at which Peters was reelected.
On the council floor that day, Young brandished that teacher's voice and made a speech that he described as 'maybe Custer's last stand.'
'We haven't even talked about what either one of us will do as president,' Young said at the meeting, referring to Peters. 'Neither of us has said, ‘This is what I'm going to do. This is what I'm going to advocate for.' All of that wasn't done-well, it wasn't done here [in public]. I don't think anybody in this audience heard about it. I think that's the problem. We should never do that.'
It's all part of how Young thinks San Diego government ought to function. Among other things, he wants the City Council to reassert itself as the primary governing body of San Diego, and not merely a legislative branch that's subservient to the mayor.
'I get it. I'm not sure everybody gets it,' he said. 'The council should be on par in regards to influence and how decisions are made and what decisions are made when it comes to policy with the mayor. It should be the council who says, ‘This is where the direction is. Mayor, we'd like for you to carry some of this stuff out.' That's really what it should be.'
His attitude carries over to his feelings about an ongoing effort to make substantive changes to the City Charter, which is essentially the city's constitution. Never a supporter of the executive-mayor form of government San Diego switched to in 2006, he doesn't believe the city has collected enough data to allow voters to decide next year if the new system should be made permanent-which is one of the recommendations made by a committee the mayor empanelled earlier this year. And don't even get Young started on the committee's proposal to add three new seats to the City Council.
'I know there's a group of folks out there that are going to try to dilute the power of this council as much as possible,' he said, his fist nearly banging the desk again. 'Those folks don't live in my neighborhood. They may not even live in San Diego. These folks are strong business interests, and I can't fault them for that, but if you look at the big picture, it would very much help them if this office were very much diminished in its role, I believe.'
Young's district--which includes Southeastern San Diego communities such as Chollas View, Encanto, Emerald Hills, Skyline Hills and Paradise Hills--is notorious for low voter turnout in elections. In the special election that sent Young to City Hall in 2005, only 19 percent of the district's registered voters went to the polls, compared with the 37 percent turnout in special elections just a year later in Districts 2 and 8 (downtown, the beach communities and Southern San Diego).
Young was born in Madrid, Spain, the son of an Air Force engineer. Six years later, he landed in San Diego. While Young attended school, his father worked for San Diego County Supervisor Leon Williams, a man who later gave the younger Young one of his first jobs. He grew up a practicing member of one of the district's influential churches, and if there's one interest group said to have influence over Tony Young, it would be the ministers of his district.
When CityBeat asked him about the role of the ministers in his decisions, he said flat out, 'They have none.' But in a later phone conversation, he softened that stance.
'I was brought up in the church. It had a lot of influence on me--still does,' he said. 'Of course, the church plays a traditional role in African-American life and politics, and in some ways, I might be a traditionalist. I've used that as a foundation for me in how I address some of the issues.'
After his stint with Williams, Young taught high school and middle school until in 2002, when Charles Lewis, his lifelong best friend, asked him to work on his campaign for the District 4 City Council seat and then later, after Lewis was elected, to be on his staff.
Lewis died suddenly from internal bleeding in August 2004. Young defeated Stevens, Lewis' old boss, in a special election to take over the job.
For the next few years, Young carried on the District 4 tradition of paying close attention to his constituents. 'I can talk to him whenever I want; he's very accessible, very community-oriented,' said William Penick, chair of the Skyline-Paradise Hills Community Planning Group.
Penick has many examples of the work Young and his staff have done to resolve community problems, from closing illegal smoke shops to persuading housing developer KB Home to build in District 4. He also cited Young's work in forming the city's Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention and on the county's Reinvestment Task Force. These activities pretty much consumed Young's time, and when CityBeat interviewed him last spring, he was content to learn his job and promote new investment in his district.
That attitude was quickly apparent to observers.
'I think there is that protectiveness of the district that comes with that position,' said Glen Sparrow, a San Diego State University professor emeritus and also a member of the city's Charter Review Committee. 'When I was over there for the charter committee presentation, [Young] said two or three times, ‘My people feel this way' or that sort of thing. It had that bunker mentality to it.'
For Young, it was the May 2007 vote against giving city firefighters a raise that gave him the confidence to step beyond the comfortable boundaries of District 4. The City Council was trying to decide if it wanted to grant the raise. Firefighters filled City Hall with blue-shirted supporters and made speech after speech about the need for a pay increase. Young cast the critical fourth vote slamming the door in their faces.
'When I figured out that the world is not going to end if you don't vote the way the loudest group wants you to vote, it emancipated me,' he said.
Now, having lost his shot at the council presidency for this year, Young has begun to look past 2008 to the council of 2009 when term limits will usher four new members into office.
'When I talk about changing culture, I'm talking about changing the subtleties and the nuances of the [council] floor, and how we relate to each other and how we work with each other,' he said. 'There's going to be a new group of folks coming on, and that type of relationship we're going to try to change
'Let's start from here: What is the right thing to do?' he said. 'Not, I'm going to do this because you did that for me-which I know that's part of politics, anyway.'
But refusing to play the game and insisting on 'the right thing to do' sounds a lot like another City Council member: Donna Frye. Frye, with her principled stands, is the darling of San Diego's progressive community, but she often finds herself on the losing end of votes and has been criticized by colleagues for refusing to build consensus.'I'm not going to be about this for the fight: ‘Hey, you know what, I got my ass kicked, but I fought this one today,'' he said. 'That's not me.'
Young says he'll 'seek new partners' on the new council, and he seems to believe that he'll be able to persuade his colleagues with the strength of his arguments.
Since the Nov. 13 City Council meeting, Young has learned that his speech will not lead to a pyrrhic end like Custer. He's had several conversations with Peters during which they discussed the city's problems 'like two adult grown men.' Apparently the conversations were convincing. Pending council approval, Young will be the new chair of the Public Safety & Neighborhood Services Committee (the same position Stevens once held).
Young plans to run for a second term in 2010, but he says he's not going to cast votes to help him raise money in the future or collect political allies.
'I was chief of staff to a City Council member; my best friend died in office--that's the only reason I ran,' Young said. 'I don't think anyone would have plucked me out of a middle-school classroom and said, ‘OK, you're the next city councilman.' It's happenstance. I believe in God, and God put me here for a reason. But man, I could do all kinds of stuff. I will be OK if I don't do this.'