It sounds like a classic tale: Amid an introspective moment in an ancient, romantic European city, a young American decides he wants to become a writer. So cliché-yet so believable, so understandable.
That was college-age Scott Lewis, spending time in Venice by himself during Easter break from studying in Madrid. "I sat at the edge of one of the canals and just barely kicked the water with the bottom of my shoe," he recalled. "I had been going through a big political, literary and educational awakening, and I had come to realize I wasn't a bad thinker." He thought to himself: God, I need to write.
Fast-forward about a decade, and Lewis, just now closing in on his 30th birthday, is, quite suddenly, becoming one of the most important opinion leaders in San Diego. Co-executive editor of Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit daily news website, Lewis' columns and blog entries are read by everyone who matters in local politics. His incisive, engaging writings give politics junkies something they haven't gotten from the San Diego Union-Tribune since the U-T and venerable Neil Morgan parted ways, and he serves as a necessary foil to the U-T's daily editorials.
Lewis did excellent work on the county government's pension system while the rest of us were focused on the city's pension system. Along with Voice reporter Rob Davis, he's cast a critical light on the regional Airport Authority's upcoming ballot measure, bringing what he calls "sincerity" to the issue. He's been the leading voice against Mayor Jerry Sanders' plan to pull San Diego out of its financial morass by selling pension-obligation bonds-borrowing money to pay off a huge debt and saddling future taxpayers with the bill. A blog he started, "Café San Diego," draws some of the most powerful people in town across the political spectrum as guest bloggers.
"The reason I wanted to be a columnist is because there wasn't that many voices like that. The U-T abandoned political commentary of the personal type," the low-key Lewis said in recent interview at the Voice office. "What kind of big city doesn't have a daily paper that does an opinion column?"
All in all, he's done well for a guy who performed so miserably in school growing up that he didn't know if he had any brains at all.
"I fell through the cracks," he said. "I think sometimes that if there was a teacher that had just come up to me and said, "Look, if you focus, you could go to Yale; you could do anything you want.' I never had that. People are surprised that I didn't care in high school. I was just lost. I was lost, totally lost."
At 19, Scott Lewis thought the path to the future was though the Navy. His dad, an insurance man, had been a sailor; in fact, his father's side of the family had been populated with sailors. But it was his father who begged him not to join. "You don't want to be an enlisted man," his dad told him.
Young Lewis wanted to learn a foreign language in the worst way, and the Navy was promising to send him somewhere to do it. His dad intervened and offered to send him abroad if he'd forget about all that Navy nonsense. He agreed, enrolled at the University of Utah-Lewis was born in Greeley, Colo., and the family moved to Salt Lake City when he was 12-and headed off to Spain to learn Spanish. He spent a semester in Madrid and "came back an anarchist," Lewis said.
Madrid's highly charged political atmosphere left a mark on the Utah boy's impressionable mind. He was immediately taken with how engaged the youth were there. One story he recalls has him fleeing the police amid a protest over the government's raid of an illegal, makeshift community center for immigrants in an abandoned building, and eventually showing off police-inflicted wounds during an interview on Spanish TV.
Suddenly a political animal armed with a newfound desire to write, Lewis returned to the University of Utah, began writing for the school paper and became a liberal activist. It was at the paper, during a stint as opinion editor, where he met Ashley Pingree, his future wife, who was a political cartoonist-who, incidentally, riled many of the locals with an April Fool's Day drawing of the Mormon prophet with pierced nipples. (How's this for irony?: Ashley Pingree Lewis is now an officer in the Navy.)
Lewis went back for another year in Madrid, and this time it was a more sedate, "more bourgeoisie experience," he said. He realized that he'd been seduced by the kids in Spain who seemed to have solutions to societal problems, but he'd become disillusioned by their intolerance of internal skepticism.
For some people it takes decades for political transformation to occur. Lewis' happened during the span of a few short years.
"I was very political in college," he said. "I was a pretty hard-left activist and have since been on a path where I've been going farther right, I think, each year. I still consider myself a liberal, I guess, but... I don't think of the Democratic Party with loyalty, but I couldn't be a Republican because I don't trust the religious right."
His young officemates at the Voice jokingly call him a "coastal Republican"-that breed from the GOP that likes a little environmental protection and social liberalism with their fiscal conservatism.
"I have a very confused outlook. I've become very skeptical of labor unions, for example. I've become skeptical of public-employee unions. I've become skeptical of the idea that government can solve much." Yet such confusion, Lewis agrees, is good for an opinion writer who seeks not to be a knee-jerk partisan.
Lewis was writing for the alternative Salt Lake City Weekly and had an offer from the Salt Lake Tribune when the Navy moved Ashley to Rhode Island for a couple of months and then to San Diego. It wouldn't be the last time he'd have to turn down a job to move somewhere with his wife. The couple arrived in San Diego in May 2003, right after the FBI had raided the offices of three members of the San Diego City Council who'd later be indicted for trading favorable policy in exchange for campaign contributions from strip-club mogul Michael Galardi.
Lewis made overtures to local newspapers, including CityBeat, for which he wrote two stories as a freelancer. (He also went on an assignment for San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, covering a teacher's retirement party. Lewis later learned the coverage had been bought and paid for on the teacher's behalf-something a news organization with the slightest shred of journalistic ethics would never do. "That didn't quite work out so well," Lewis said.)
Within a month, Lewis landed a full-time job with the Daily Transcript on the real-estate beat. His experience at the Transcript was a good one. He worked alongside talented young reporters like Kevin Christensen, now an investigator for City Attorney Mike Aguirre, and Andy Donohue, now the other co-executive editor at the Voice. "I didn't think I'd like real estate much, but I got into it," he said. "I really enjoyed it."
Come wintertime, an opportunity presented itself. Donohue split for Costa Rica, and Lewis took over coverage of local politics just as city officials were announcing that the city had misled bond investors, a revelation that ushered in a series of investigations into the city's pension system that so far have led to indictments of five pension officials and cost former Mayor Dick Murphy his job.
Lewis immersed himself in the pension story. It got to the point, he said, where his editor was questioning his high volume of pension coverage. "But there was so much to do," Lewis said, "and it was so interesting, and I started becoming conversant in the language, and I really got into it." And there was a void-the U-T wasn't doing much with it beyond the occasional political analysis by Phil LaVelle. As Lewis remembers it, at that time the U-T wasn't doing enough contextual daily reporting of the scandal.
But after a year, it was time to move on. He answered a mysterious ad on Craigslist seeking reporters for a new news publication that would turn out to be the Voice. Founding editor Barbara Bry offered Lewis a job as the online daily's first reporter, but, once again, the opportunity coincided with the Navy moving Ashley, this time to South Carolina. It wasn't an easy thing to do, because Aguirre had just been elected city attorney, Donna Frye and Murphy were embroiled in the mayoral-election bubble-vote brouhaha and things were heating up at City Hall, but Lewis declined the offer and introduced Bry to Donohue, who'd been in Costa Rica for a year. Donohue took the job and pretty much single-handedly made the Voice a local journalistic player.
In South Carolina, Lewis couldn't get San Diego politics out of his head and contributed some freelance pieces to the Voice from afar. A column about District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis' decision to charge six pension officials with conflict of interest prompted the Voice to hire Lewis on as a regular columnist. He later followed up with his series on the county pension system-from South Carolina.
Working from the other side of the continent "was remarkably easy to do," he said. He couldn't meet sources for coffee, but he could watch public meetings via the Internet, and those meetings provided much fodder that was being ignored by the other media, he said.
In October 2005, Lewis decided to cut his South Carolina stint short and join the Voice as a full-time staff writer. Ashley would join him later. About a month later, editor Glenn Rabinowitz, who'd replaced Bry, quit without warning, and after a series of "late-night" phone calls between Lewis and Donohue while Lewis was back in South Carolina visiting his wife, the pair hatched a plan to ask the Voice's board of directors to allow them to take over. The board agreed.
Donohue manages four full-time reporters on the news side while Lewis handles the opinion component, including his Monday column, his own blog-Scott Lewis on Politics (SLOP)-plus Café San Diego, which hosts guest political bloggers, and the Voice's freelance columnists.
Lewis says he's gradually worked up the courage to be more confrontational in his column-to "start burning bridges," as he puts it. He made a conscious decision to take on the U-T's editorial board with vim and vigor.
"I don't necessarily believe a lot of the conspiracy theories about them trying to run the city or something like that," Lewis said, "but I do believe there's a problem with the editorial board and the way that they discuss things and the way that they present their issues and the positions that they take-and the contradictions they have, too. I mean, they endorsed the National City sales tax for one election and six months later they don't and they say it's just a horrible ruse or something, and it's just, like, well, what's changed? And there's no accounting; there's no memory.
"It's something that I never want to become," he added. "I don't want to become this holier-than-thou, sort of arrogant entity. I want to be able to admit that I'm wrong."
Like all news organizations that focus heavily on insider politics, the Voice of San Diego is struggling to communicate what's really going on in the halls of government to John and Jane Q. Public. And that's what Lewis is particularly good at.
"Lewis brings real-time, common-folk perspective to political events," said attorney, former mayoral candidate and Café San Diego guest blogger Pat Shea. "He's the published voice that reminds the rest of us we're not crazy for coming to the same conclusion."
"He has raised the overall quality of the discourse considerably," added April Boling, a certified public accountant who chaired the city's Pension Reform Committee, was campaign treasurer for former Mayor Murphy and once headed the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. "Not only are his ideas generally excellent-except for the ones with which I don't agree-but his writing style is engaging. He does his homework." Boling credits the Voice's format for magnifying Lewis' impact. "It encourages dialog by accepting input from anyone, anytime-then Scott can respond," she said. "His responses are every bit as thoughtful as the original opinion."
"I think he's made himself a force. He makes me think," said City Attorney Mike Aguirre. "But he has a lot to learn just like the rest of us. Overall, I have to say, there's more positive than negative."
"Yeah, I feel like I've had a measure of success, and people have reacted really well to the stuff I've done, and I'm really excited about it," Lewis said. "If you explain some of these things in terms that people can understand, you can make a lot of waves."