Saturday, March 17, 2007 | Stephen Cushman says he sold the Independent, a well-read weekly newspaper cultivated by his father, because he didn’t want to spend his waking hours negotiating the union contracts. As it turns out, it was exactly those talks that drove Cushman’s successor to scrap the publication altogether.

But Cushman has since become known as an accommodator of labor interests. It’s becoming a defining trait for the business leader, dealmaker and public servant. Last week, that alliance paid off for the Republican when union members turned out in droves to a City Council meeting to support his reappointment to the Port Commission for a third term.

With broad support like that, Cushman has mulled runs for elected office — most notably in the past two mayoral races (he also ran for City Council once, and lost). But Cushman said he generally limits his political involvement to working behind the scenes and serving on various boards around town because of advice he received from another public figure — his father, Elliot.

“Every time I ever talked about running for office, father always said it was always better to be the man behind the man or the lady, than to be the man. It’s more fun to be No. 2,” he said.

Cushman spoke with recently about his philosophy on public service, his reasons for extending his stint at the port and where he thinks the Chargers will move after Qualcomm Stadium.

There was some controversy over your appointment to a third term because it was a departure from a city policy that limits the service of its board and commission appointees. Why was it so important that you have a third term?

When you are an appointed representative, when your term comes to an end and you have a number of major projects in front of you … it’s frustrating.

In my case, the major projects in front of me were hopefully getting a Chargers stadium on tidelands property. We are right in the middle of a $350,000 maritime master plan that will hopefully lead us forward for the next 10 years. America’s Cup Harbor has been a huge frustration for me through three city councilman in San Diego. We haven’t been able to get that $17 million unfunded project off the ground. The Lane Field hotel site, which I have been the point person on for a number of years is … moving forward, and the cruise ship terminal … I want to see that happen.

There are a lot of things that I want to see happen that are either in the beginning or middle stages that I will not have time to help move forward.

There has recently been a lot of discussion about the future of the waterfront. What’s your vision for the harbor?

The Port of San Diego, unlike the [plan proposed by former state Sen. Steve Peace and county Supervisor Ron Roberts], is a funded plan. We have a way to fund the Lane Field project. We have a way to fund the cruise ship terminal. We have a way, with [the Centre City Development Corp.] and the city of San Diego, to fund phase one of the North Embarcadero plan.

This is a real plan, it’s moving forward. Obviously, the Peace-Roberts plan wanted to close the 10th Avenue marine terminal, but that’s not something I’m willing to do after spending $26 million in infrastructure for Dole, the $11 million we spent for IMC (Chemicals). We’re not going to shut a $36 million investment down and eliminate it. And their idea that you just overlay it in National City. … We just talked to Pasha Automotive [who operates on port tidelands in National City] … we sat and talked about where we are going to have to store cars in the next five years. Are we going to have to build high-rise parking garages? How are we going to make that part of the port work? So there are a lot of reasons why [their plan] just didn’t make sense for the waterfront.

Now, their part of the plan that relates to the airport, I’m all for. If the Port of San Diego had continued to operate the airport, we would have terminals on Pacific Highway right now. We’d have an intermodal center on Pacific Highway right now. What they’re trying to do there, I totally support it. The [San Diego County Regional Airport Authority] should have done it when they took over.

Is there a philosophy about the waterfront that drives the decisions you make about it?

Under the Peace-Roberts plan as I understand it, their idea was to close the 10th Avenue marine terminal and put the cruise ship terminal there. Their idea was to take Harbor Drive at Laurel (Street) and close it and turn it in to a huge park. That’s great, but that takes a lot of money to do all of the above. Where are they going to come up with the money to do that? If you don’t put in Lane Field, then you aren’t going to have the [hotel tax] and everything else that goes with it. It’s not a difference in concept, it’s a difference in philosophy.

Does that mean the Peace-Roberts plan promotes different uses for the waterfront than the vision the port has?

No, I don’t think so. You still would have the cruise ship terminal, whether it’s at 10th Avenue or at the foot of Broadway. We’re adding 25 acres of park to the 10 acres we already have. So it’s not a point that there isn’t going to be park. There are going to be hundreds of trees. Some people said thousands, I don’t know the number. So it isn’t a point that we are opposed to parks.

And the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan that you’re talking about has hit snags in the past. More specifically, the funding hasn’t been there. What is going to guarantee that it’s going to get done this time?

What’s going to guarantee it is the eight years of work the port, the city of San Diego and CCDC — all working together — identifying the funds to make it happen. That’s why Lane Field needs to happen. The level of income off Lane Field that we will achieve will go into the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan. We’ve identified the source that will make it happen.

You’re a former car dealer. Do you think buying a car for its minimal impacts on the environment in an attempt to stem global warming, which is why many purchase hybrids, will ever become as popular as buying a car because it’s a muscle car?

I think people are buying hybrid cars, and they’re feeling good about it, and I think there’s a big percentage of people who are buying those cars because they are environmentally friendly, but I think the majority of people who are buying them because gas is over $3 a gallon and they’re more fuel efficient. If they’re more fuel efficient and you feel good about it, why wouldn’t you do it?

I think Honda and Toyota have done a fabulous job. To me, a former Honda dealer … I believe Honda has been smarter because the Honda Civic and the Honda Accord are real good cars. They don’t look any different. I think that’s good … If we are truly going to move into the hybrid car arena, I think the cars have to be mainstream cars … I don’t think people want to stand out, I think they want a vehicle that’s going to give them good fuel efficiency. …

Now, because we’re not going to have as much global warming, I don’t think any of us understand all that anyway. I think the governor probably does, and the president probably does and the [Environmental Protection Agency] probably does, but I don’t think you and I could really give you a good definition of what global warming is or means.

When you retired from Cush Auto Group in 2005, you told a local reporter that, “I know nothing about cars, I’m a businessman who ended up in the car business.” How did you end up in the car business, and also, what other kinds of business are you in?

I was never accepted by the industry as a real car guy. I didn’t grow up in the car business, I never sold cars, I never handled the insurance of cars, I never handled the paperwork, I never changed the oil in cars, I never changed a flat tire until a week ago in my whole life. To me, it wasn’t a business that I had grown up in or had an affinity for.

On the other hand, the automotive business is a very large industry. At one time, we were listed as the 13th largest privately held business in San Diego County. It is a business. We had over 300 employees, we had all the … challenges that anyone running a business does, so that was the approach I always took. If you treat your people right, you treat your customers right … you will be successful, whether it’s widgets or automobiles or golf clubs.

In the previous 26 years I was in the travel business. We handled conventions that came to San Diego, we brought visitors to San Diego, we operated the first American buses that went across border into Mexico without having the passengers get off and get onto other vehicles.

Your commissionership at the Port District is one of the many seats you’ve held on local boards. Your late father, Elliot, was once said to have served on more boards and commissions than anyone in the county. Is there a Cushman family philosophy that drove that?

Community service is a legacy that each of us in our family have been given. I’m a fourth generation San Diegan. When I became chairman of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, it followed 124 years after my great uncle was chairman of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce.

It’s a family history. We have always been involved in giving back to our community. … I followed [my father] into Sharp Hospital, he was on the board for more than 30 years. I am the incoming chairman as of June 1 of this year. My brother [Lawrence] … is on several committees in San Diego also. We were taught that at least 50 percent of your time should be given back to your community.

I’ve served on over 60 boards and commission in San Diego in my lifetime. It’s just part of my life. It’s fun, it’s great, it’s an opportunity to make a difference … and that’s the way we were trained.

So of the 60 boards you’ve served on, which was the most difficult?

I was chairman of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce for two years. In the first year, Miramar Naval Air Station — it was a naval air station at that time — was going to move out of San Diego. When the Marines agreed to take over Miramar, that was a great victory, because it was a $500 million potential loss for San Diego if we had lost Miramar. It was a $500 million economic engine that was about to close, and if you are chairman of the chamber, you could imagine that would not be wonderful for us.

We had the original Charger ticket guarantee discussions that year. Ballpark issues were starting to surface. … We had a lot of issues that surfaced that year, and it was more than a full-time job. It just took over my life. It was a fun year, but it was challenging.

One of the other things you are known for during your stint at the chamber is giving labor a seat at the table. Why does a Republican business leader do that? Did you feel a lot of push-back for that decision.?

When you go back and look at my public service, you will find that what I was trained to do by my father was to be a consensus builder. It’s difficult to develop consensus if you don’t have everybody at the table.

So it was not a great leap of faith to bring Jerry Butkiewicz, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO here onto the board and, more importantly the executive committee. The board was huge: 90 people. Many labor leaders had been on the board over the years, and that’s kind of lost in the discussion. But … you bring him into the 21-member executive committee, into that group, there were a lot of raised eyebrows. The interesting thing is that when I asked him to sit on the executive committee, he said, “I don’t know, I’ll have to get back to you.” And as he has told me, there are some of them who don’t think it’s such a whippy idea.

But how in the world could you build consensus in a community if you left out the workers of the community? How could you build phase two of the San Diego Convention Center without them? When you look at Proposition MM, how could you build schools for our citizens without having labor involved in the campaign? They have a lot of votes. …

You need everyone at the table. Yes, I have taken a lot of heat for my relationship with Jerry and labor, but if you build strong jobs in a community, and you give people health insurance in a community, everybody benefits. If workers don’t have health insurance, then you and I have to pay for them, business has to pay for them. At Sharp Hospital, they spend more than $200 million a year in uncompensated health. Who pays for that? The rest of us. …

Similarly, the environmental community and I agree to disagree, but we always talk about it. I think that’s what makes us a better community.

In 2001, a columnist described you this way: “quintessential insider, lives to cut deals, impulsive, blunt, makes strong allies and enemies.”

Guilty. I am opinionated, I am not afraid to tell you what I think. I’ve learned over the years — I think — to be a better listener. I do love to make deals. … So, guilty as charged.

But does the so-called deal-making sometimes conflict with “open government” — that political buzzword that is so popular among the public. Where’s that line?

I am exactly the right port commissioner to answer that. When I came here, closed session was where deals were made. Closed session is where staff and port commissioners decided what was going to happen to our tenants. It was a terrible, awful process in my opinion. I was sworn in as chairman of the Port of San Diego on Jan.2, 2001. … In my address, I pledged that closed sessions would be held at a minimum.

On Jan. 3, David Malcolm resigned (from the Port Commission). It gave us an opportunity to write the toughest, roughest ethics code in the state of California. We brought in Bob Stern, who is known as the guru of ethics, and our employees are ready for it. There is no more open, ethical organization.

Finally, I want a prediction: Where will the Chargers play their home games after Qualcomm Stadium?Let me first say that when I first became embroiled in this controversy six or seven months ago when the port chairman when the National City site was first announced, I was not convinced the Spanos family wanted to stay in San Diego. Just from everything I read, they were on their way to somewhere.

But as I had the opportunity to work with (Chargers special counsel) Mark Fabiani specifically and (team booster) Dan Shea and asked the one-on-one questions, I absolutely became convinced that, within reason, this is where the Spanos family wants their team. So I first have to tell you that there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that Dean Spanos wants that football team here.

If they were just biding time and waiting for the Jan. 1 date so they could go to San Antonio or Las Vegas or Los Angeles or wherever, the answer to the question wouldn’t make any difference. But they really, really want to be here. The proof of the pudding is that they will not entertain an offer form anybody for any amount of money.

If I were just to give you a prediction based on what I know — and remember, I’m not working on this on a day-to-day basis — I would say Chula Vista. I would say it’s Chula Vista because there are multiple sites in Chula Vista. To make this happen, it takes not only a stadium, and not only parking facilities, but ancillary development. I believe Chula Vista has more to offer than anyone else for ancillary development, whether it’s an inland site, or a waterfront site, they have multiple locations.

As the mayor (Cheryl Cox) said in your publication last Saturday, there are four sites. I can see more than four sites. I just think that Chula Vista is a city that is stable financially, it has an excellent mayor and City Council that truly want this to happen, so all of the ingredients are there.

— Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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