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Monday, Nov. 20, 2006 | Known as one of San Diego’s most fluid power brokers, Stephen Cushman has the ears of the business, environmental and labor communities.
He’s made so many friends, in fact, that leaders from the ranging interests at the Unified Port of San Diego want him to stay around beyond January, when he would be forced out by the city’s term limits.
Environmentalists, labor groups and businesses are pushing to reappoint Cushman, an auto dealer by profession, as one of the city of San Diego’s three commissioners on the seven-member board. His endorsements for a third term illustrate the broad support he has attracted by serving as an emissary between the competing sectors.
“He doesn’t automatically say no, because he might be able to make everybody happy at the end of the day,” said Jerry Butkiewicz, the secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.
The move, however, garners mixed feelings from city officials and has exposed the competing visions San Diego leaders have for its port. It also comes at a time when major port projects such as a football stadium proposal and a new convention center sit on the horizon.
Some say they would rather respect the city’s policy than allow a popular commissioner to resume his service. “It’s important to change perspectives,” Council President Scott Peters said.
Mayor Jerry Sanders, who does not have a vote on the issue, also said he wanted a change.
“I think Steve’s done a good job, but we’d like to adhere to term limits,” the mayor said.
The post at the port is considered the most plum of all political assignments, and the city caps its commissioner’s terms at two. The City Attorney’s Office said that it did not immediately know the rigidity of the term limits issue, but said that to the best of its knowledge the council could indeed waive that restriction with a majority vote.
While Peters said he is undecided about another nominee, Sanders is supporting Peter Q. Davis, a retired banker who served on the Port Commission for 18 months.
Davis, who chaired the Centre City Development Corp. and currently serves as a citizen-appointee to the city’s retirement board, made headlines during his brief tenure on the Port Commission when he proposed shifting the agency’s focus.
While filling out the remainder of another former commissioner’s term in 2004, Davis asked that the port reexamine its use of the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal for cargo ships. He floated an idea that the port could generate more revenue from the site by designating a new use for it, such as a waterfront stadium for the Chargers football stadium.
Orchestrating the opposition to Davis’ proposal was none other than Cushman.
Davis’ idea was shot down at a hearing that Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and throngs of representatives from labor, environmental and neighborhood groups attended. Davis was the only commissioner to not support a resolution that affirmed the port’s commitment to handling cargo at the 96-acre Tenth Avenue site.
The incident illustrates the contrasting views both men have for the port.
Davis envisions the tidelands playing host to a number of hotels, public spaces, and a larger cruise-ship industry, making San Diego Bay a civic icon for its residents and a tourist attraction that could invigorate business downtown.
“I just wanted to have open discussion and they didn’t want to,” said Davis, who was not reappointed by former Mayor Dick Murphy when his term expired last year. Davis, a former Murphy ally, had run against the former mayor in the 2004 mayoral election.
Cushman takes a more meat-and-potatoes approach to the port land. He champions maritime use for the port’s state tidelands, which has allowed the business magnate to make inroads with the unions who rely on the area’s shipbuilders and cargo terminals to sustain jobs that include high wages and health for blue-collar workers.
Labor officials took note, and are now rallying to his aid.
“It’s a bad idea to let him go because it was the proven leadership of Cushman that has generated millions, if not billions, of dollars,” said Butkiewicz.
For labor, the push comes at a time when two South Bay cities that have seats on the Port Commission – Chula Vista and National City – lost union-backed mayors. Port appointments for those cities are due up in the next terms for the new mayors.
The end of Cushman’s term also falls into the middle of two significant dealings for the port.
Cushman is the port’s point man with National City and the Chargers as the three parties discuss the possibility of turning a 52-acre piece property on the South Bay waterfront into a state-of-the-art stadium. National City officials proposed the concept after the city of San Diego allowed the team to negotiate a stadium deal with other San Diego county cities.
He has so far treaded above the surface of an impending fight from maritime businesses that see a stadium as a potential threat to their livelihood, much as they did with the Davis’ Tenth Avenue idea. Cushman has not yet committed to approving or rejecting the deal, instead reporting in vague terms that a stadium could fit on the parcel.
In addition, Cushman has been credited for prodding development on the Chula Vista bayfront, which will include the construction of a convention center, hotels and shops. The project is currently being reviewed for its environmental impacts.
Both ventures have captured the public’s attention for the port. However, both are also outside the city of San Diego – the city that Cushman represents.
In an interview last week, Sanders said he is endorsing Davis because he believes the city needs stronger representation on the board, which also includes delegates from National City, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach and Coronado. The agency administers state tidelands along the bay that stretch through the five cities.
“I think he sees the big picture about economic development and what’s best for our city,” Sanders said of Davis. “It’s a huge thing in terms of bringing in money for our city.”
Phone calls were placed to all of the City Council offices Thursday and Friday, but only Peters and Councilwoman Donna Frye returned with comments. Peters said he does not have a nominee in mind; Frye said she supports Cushman.
Both men said they would accept the post if the council chose them.
“It’s a wonderful community service,” Cushman said.
Said Davis, “I want to do whatever I can to help the city. I’d be pleased if that’s the spot.”