Photo by John R. Lamb
Bruce Lightner (shirt translation: DAD) hopes to replace his wife on the San Diego City Council
An ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness. —Elbert Hubbard
It’s an overcast Saturday morning at La Jolla Shores as Spin Cycle begins a three-hour trek down memory lane with the affable, story-filled, playful boy of a man who has stirred a hornet’s nest in the District 1 San Diego City Council race.
Bruce Lightner, the 67-year-old husband of 43 years to the termed-out San Diego City Council President Sherri Lightner, pulls out a tiny, folded-up sticky note and takes a quick glance at it. No talking about the current council members, the note decrees. His “child bride,” as he affectionately calls her, has spoken.
Lightner’s late entry into the June primary race, which appeared headed toward a snoozy, two-person War of the Wealthy, adds the unpredictable ingredients of family loyalty and personal disdain, almost guaranteeing a place in San Diego political lore.
An inventor, tinkerer and computer nerd by trade, Lightner makes no bones about his dislike for fellow Republican Ray Ellis, for which terms such as “charlatan” and “spammer back before they had email” roll easily off the tongue. About the Democrat in the race, entrepreneur Barbara Bry, Lightner’s criticism is significantly less harsh.
Lightner invited Spin Cycle to join him on his morning constitutional typically reserved for his canine pal, Hodgy. “I’m falling into the normal route that my dog likes to go,” Lightner said as he meandered the walking trails— some blocked by signs he marches past—of his old graduate-school haunts at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography just up the road from the Lightner home.
Asked why he despises Ellis so much, Lightner’s face tightened as he recalled elections past. While his wife abhorred negative campaigning, Lightner said, her opponent in 2012 stepped over the line when his campaign included a picture of their house in a mailer and claimed she’d used her influence to have her street repaved.
The street paving had been scheduled eight years prior as part of a water-main replacement project, he said. The house picture still “really frosts her,” Lightner added. “There were some very good reasons why I called him an unprincipled charlatan.”
Ellis, a resident of the high-priced enclave of Torrey Hills who made his millions in the direct-mail trade, might be interested to know that Lightner says he has a “picture of the giant crystal chandelier hanging over his bathtub”—an allusion to the notion that while he may be considered a “1-percenter,” Ellis belongs to the “.1-percenters.”
“Now, can .1-percenters represent the other 99.9 percent of the population?” Lightner asked. “I think the short answer is no. They don’t care.”
He shares a story he claims is true from the 2012 election battle, as people were heading to a candidates forum at La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium. Lightner’s daughter, en route, called to report that Ellis was behind her—driving a Maserati. She followed him, Lightner recounted, until he parked a short distance from the forum venue.
“He gets out and gets into his wife’s SUV, and then they drive to the thing,” Lightner said with a hearty laugh. “I’m not making this up!” Ellis campaign spokesman Tony Manolatos did not respond to a question about Ellis driving a Maserati.
“My fancy sports car is a vintage Volkswagen dune buggy,” Lightner said mockingly. “Believe me, you can have plenty of fun with that!” In many ways, Bruce is the antithesis of Sherri—outspoken to the point of acknowledging his “Twitter leash” to her near-total avoidance of media inquiry and harsh words. Republican to her Democrat, both share love-hate relationships with party politics.
“I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of respect for…” Lightner paused before Spin suggested the word “groups,” to which he replied, “Well, I probably shouldn’t talk about the Republican Party or Democratic Party. I just wonder who is drawn to that kind of stuff sometimes.”
But they share not only a loving bond, but a passionate scorn for overdevelopment. While his life partner would avoid such hyperbole, he considers the One Paseo project and its ilk of master-planned communities so “completely out of scale”–even now as it gets downsized–“it ain’t nice, and I would venture to say it’s criminal.
“I mean the fact they went back to the drawing board is good, but what I’m seeing coming out of that, well let’s just say it worries me that Bry is drinking the Kool- Aid on this thing,” he continues, “It’s still going to be way out of scale. Somehow we’re supposed to bail out this L.A. developer who made a bone-headed move.”
In between tales of his teen years on the island of Guam (where among other things he caddied on a golf course that doubled as an airstrip), his love of books, his lengthy UC San Diego college career that included meeting his future wife as they washed dishes in the school cafeteria, or one of his many goals in life to “figure out how to make coffee as quickly as possible,” Lightner exudes curiosity.
Asked why he wants to enter the political fishbowl, Lightner proclaims, “I want to be a technological evangelist and a technological watchdog. My wife has been doing it. I think I can be more effective.”
Might the woman who has collected every petal from all the roses he has given her each anniversary for each year (“It’s getting expensive!” he joked) prefer not to read this boast? “In terms of evangelism, I think I can speak to it,” he said. “She consults me about this kind of stuff.”
He’s not a fan of expanding the Convention Center (he’s “attended” three online conventions, which he considers the future), deemed “questionable” Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s veto of a city minimum-wage hike now on the June ballot, compares investing in a new Chargers stadium to buying a motor home (“a 30-year mortgage” on something “completely useless after 10 years”) and laments infrastructure thinking that dates back to Roman days (“Do we really need to dig up the streets?”).
But frankly, his sights seem aimed squarely at denying Ellis victory. While his wife “doesn’t need to be defended, I have a right to be pissed off,” he said. “I’m told this is the way the game is played and shouldn’t take it personally. To which I say, ‘Bullshit!’”