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Tuesday, July 12, 2005 | The U.S. Department of Justice had to look no further in 1977 than Ed Kolker, then the administrator of Iowa’s employee relations board, to clean up one of San Diego’s better-known scandals.

Kolker, a rising star in the Midwestern state’s political landscape, was one of the two assistant U.S. attorneys sent to Southern California to take down Mr. San Diego himself, C. Arnholt Smith, whose enterprises stretched from baseball to banking, taxi cabs to tuna fleets.

Smith was to blame, authorities said, for the insolvency of United States National Bank – at that point the largest American bank failure since the Depression – after using the institution’s assets as his personal piggy-bank.

Because of Smith’s enormous stature in the community, the U.S. Attorney’s Office brought in legal minds unaffiliated with San Diego civic affairs and politics, said Kolker, who was honored with the Director’s Award for Superior Performance for his work defending the federal government in the case.

“Mr. Smith was connected very well politically,” he said. “The case was surrounded by a lot of controversy here.”

City Hall’s current problems, which stem from what he says are “conflicts of interest,” can only be solved by an outsider distanced from the current establishment, Kolker argues. He wants to be that outsider.

“I see a parallel here in the sense that it’s very hard to find someone who is integrated in to this community to come in and, in effect, criticize the current City Council members, call spades ‘spades,’ and focus exclusively on the best interest of San Diego,” he said.

Kolker’s colleagues in the legal community agree.

“The most important quality for the next mayor is independence,” said retired judge Vic Bianchini, a Judicate West mediator along with Kolker. “Do I think Ed can act independently? Without a doubt.”

Kolker, a resident of Rancho Bernardo, is pushing for an open, inclusive government in his “New Vision for San Diego.” He hopes the cadre of lobbyists, trade and labor groups and other insiders will help solve the problems that forced out outgoing Mayor Dick Murphy, who officially steps down Friday, but that those groups shouldn’t be controlling City Hall.

“There’s nothing wrong with ‘special interest groups,’ in fact they can be very helpful,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a pejorative term, but it becomes that when politicians pander to certain groups because they have a lot of power and money. Everyone should come in on a level playing field.”

Kolker, 64, was a district judge in Waterloo, Iowa – at the time, the state’s youngest-ever judicial appointee at age 30 – before being tapped in 1974 to start the Iowa Public Employee Relations Board. The board operates much like California’s, operating as a forum for government entities – cities, schools and state agencies – and their respective employees to resolve disputes.

It was Kolker’s job as a federal prosecutor that brought him to San Diego 28 years ago. He practiced law as a civil litigator after his stint with the U.S Attorney’s Office and has since worked as a private mediator, helping disputing parties resolve conflicts outside of court.

His experiences as a judge, prosecutor, agency executive and mediator are what should make him a viable candidate, he says, not his ability to raise large sums for his campaign.

“I think if I were interviewing for this job in the private sector, I’d be one of the top candidates, hands down,” said Kolker, who is currently comparing prices to run radio and television ads. “The best person for the job may not have the money and the name recognition, and the question should be about who has the best skills set, the best qualifications, and obviously, the experience to lead this city.”

Kolker, a registered Republican, contends that, had he remained in Iowa, that he would be holding a statewide elected office. He admits that, locally, his name recognition is limited beyond the legal community and Rancho Bernardo, where he has served on the community’s planning board and the board of director’s for the Rancho Bernardo Chamber of Commerce.

Those who do know him, however, believe he’s got what it takes.

“The next mayor needs to have a good insight in how to deal with the minefield of problems and how to get to where we want to go,” said Monty McIntyre, the former president of the San Diego County Bar Association who has known Kolker for almost 20 years.

Kolker’s map of the minefield starts with the obstacle attracting everyone’s attention this mayoral race, the $1.37 billion-plus pension fund deficit. Navigating the hazard, he says, is going to take deliberate action that includes transparency and the willingness of all parties to share ideas – and the pain.

Fees like the recently approved $2 price of admission to the Balboa Park Botanical Building are a “pimple on an elephant,” Kolker contends. So many of the costs in the city are inequitable, he said.

About the $34 cost for a small business license: “That’s not even enough to cover business expenses for one day on the road.”

While he offers the level of business licenses fees as an example, Kolker said the developments at City Hall have been evolving too quickly to stick by a concrete solution.

“How can I say today what I’m going to do six months from now?” he said.

Kolker said he does not rule out bankruptcy, and sees it as “one of the tools in the toolbox” if the need to use it should arise. He also opposes publicly subsidized private development and sees the Mount Soledad Cross as ahistorical monument, not a primarily religious one: Issues that would be at the forefront of any other election but this one.

Either way, he’s certain that his experience, not his money, gives him the best qualifications to run the beleaguered city.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly at

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