Wednesday, March 7, 2007 | Stephen Cushman was reappointed to a third term on the Port Commission on Tuesday, but not until the San Diego City Council found a way to break two bizarre 4-4 deadlocks.

The City Council first failed to garner a majority needed to waive its two-term limit for its board and commission representatives, which could’ve paved the way for Cushman’s immediate reappointment. Moments later, the council again tied itself up with another 4-4 vote on the appointment of challenger Laurie Black, a political consultant.

Councilwoman Toni Atkins then withdrew her support for Black to cast the decisive vote, allowing Cushman to secure a third four-year term.

Known as one of the region’s most successful power brokers, Cushman, a retired auto dealer, received heaps of praise for being an invaluable asset to the port at a crucial time in the development of the waterfront. His reinstatement shouldn’t be stymied by a discretionary term-limit rule, supporters said.

“Now is not the time to change Mr. Cushman out to follow a rule. Stick with success,” said Michael Bixler, Imperial Beach’s representative on the five-city Port Commission.

Tuesday’s selection of a city of San Diego delegate to the five-city board caps a months-long push by city officials, the nominees and their backers to fill what is considered a plum political appointment. The debate became contentious over the past several months as Cushman — with the help of organized labor, environmentalists and waterfront businesses — rallied support while many, including Mayor Jerry Sanders, publicly decried extending the privilege beyond the typical two-term limit.

In front of a council chambers jam-packed with more than 100 audience members, most of whom were Cushman-supporting union officials, it appeared that the controversy over the term-limits policy would effectively end Cushman’s stint on the Port Commission after the council initially voted against waiving it. Several speakers and council members urged against the waiver, saying that the rule, which the city adopted in 1984 and has overridden several times since, was established to encourage turnover and foster variety on city boards and commissions.

“Times have changed and now how grand it is to see how our City Council and our boards and commissions reflect the city’s diversity,” Nicole Murray Ramirez, chairman of the city’s Human Relations Commission, told the council.

Atkins, Council President Scott Peters and Councilmen Kevin Faulconer and Jim Madaffer initially voted to enforce the term limits and to appoint Black. Councilmembers Tony Young, Brian Maienschein, Donna Frye and Ben Hueso stood with Cushman.

But after several votes, it became clear that the council was locked in a 4-4 stalemate. Atkins then changed her vote to give Cushman the five votes he needed. She was unavailable for comment after her vote Tuesday, but noted earlier it was one of the hardest votes she’s ever made.

Following his reappointment, Cushman said he was humbled and grateful for the opportunity to keep working on projects such as the search for a waterfront Chargers stadium, the development of a plan to spruce up the North Embarcadero, and the potential expansion of the San Diego Convention Center.

“Public service is my life. I’m retired, and this is what I do with my life,” he said.

His reappointment comes at what could become a defining moment for San Diego Bay’s waterfront. Some see a future where waterfront visitors can dine with a harbor view before laying their heads to rest in five-star hotel room. Others see a working waterfront, equipped with heavy industry and busy cargo terminals that offer good-paying, blue-collar jobs that bolster the region’s middle class. The debate has also engaged civic activists who desire an iconic urban landmark along the water’s edge, a plea that most recently gained steam with the controversy over the Navy Broadway Complex.

Upcoming decisions spanning from the proposed convention center and resort in Chula Vista to the drawing up of a new blueprint for Lindbergh Field will all influence the waterfront’s future. Cushman himself has gained allies and detractors alike for his loyalty for maintaining cargo operations at the port’s two maritime terminals as well as his attention to projects outside the city of San Diego, such as the Gaylord Entertainment convention complex that is planned on Chula Vista’s shores and the possible relocation of the Chargers to National City or Chula Vista.

Sanders, who tried to recruit former Port Commissioner Peter Q. Davis to replace Cushman in November, had said that he wanted to enforce term limits. But the mayor also noted that he wanted to make sure the city was getting the most out of its participation in the port.

Cushman’s stances have also allowed him to win over a group of unlikely allies for a Republican. Labor unions and environmentalists clung to him in the months leading up to Tuesday, noting his support for the city’s living-wage law, the establishment of a union hotel that will open up at the Campbell Shipyard in 2008, and clean-up initiatives such as fighting copper-laden paints for boats that could pollute the bay.

“It’s an honor for me to stand up here and support a Republican who gets it, who understands you can’t have healthy business without good jobs,” said Allen Shure, the business manager for a local electricians’ union.

Black’s supporters touted her Democratic credentials as well. A chief of staff to former Congresswoman Lynn Schenk, a Democrat, Black said she fought for the environment while a member of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board and helped battle homelessness in the urban core while president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership. “My record is important because experience matters,” she said.

Her supporters stressed the importance of allowing Black an opportunity to bring a new outlook to the Unified Port of San Diego, which is what the term limits were designed to do. “The port has never lived up to its potential of creating jobs and protecting the environment,” Schenk told the council Tuesday. She continued, “It’s only from such diversity that we can get new perspectives for old challenges.”

Cushman said he sympathized with the proponents of term limits, but said he was glad that his reappointment highlighted the issue that he said was scantly adhered to. Despite the rule, appointees to the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., the Qualcomm Stadium Advisory Board and other boards have served longer than eight years. “Because this is a high-profile appointment, it brought the issue to the forefront,” Cushman said.

Asked if he would ask for a fourth term in 2011, the 66-year-old Cushman declined: “This is my last term.”

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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