Yesterday, after I got the news that the mayor’s spokesman, Fred Sainz, was moving on, I remarked that he was one of the most influential press guys I’d ever run across.
Sainz was a powerful figure at City Hall. He not only shaped the message the public received, he arguably helped shape a lot of the policy that was supposed to be messaged. But it was more than that. It was Sainz’s time at the San Diego Convention Center that influenced his thoughts on things like the Gaylord project in Chula Vista. The mayor’s hostility to that project and to port Commissioner Steve Cushman, when Cushman was up for a third term at the port, undoubtedly came from Sainz. It was one of the many examples of what Sainz brought to City Hall.
Sainz’s influence was also unique for one simple reason: He had license to speak for the mayor. This was a big deal. This was a departure. Former Mayor Dick Murphy, for example, did not allow anyone to speak for him. He may or may not call a reporter back or have a press conference. But if he didn’t do that, you didn’t have any public statement from the mayor. Period.
That was one of the biggest changes in 2005/2006 when Mayor Jerry Sanders took office. We went from this sober, distant, occasional briefing from the grandfatherly Murphy to this hyper eloquent intense pontificating from Sainz.
He saw how messages could get out much better than they ever had been put out at City Hall and he tried to spit out every observation he had in rapid responses. He made sure the mayor had a statement on everything. He set up scores of press conferences for the mayor for the express purpose of controlling the news cycle and trying to make sure the mayor was setting the debate whenever possible.
But his availability with a response was perhaps the reason he became such a well-known figure in San Diego. When you have someone who will speak for the mayor, you can get the mayor to “speak” in essence, a lot more.
Sainz was perfect for this. Few people can think on their feet and speak as quickly and clearly as Sainz can. But to speak with so much spontaneity and authority, he must have had an unlimited mandate from the mayor. And that means he had to know that whatever twist he made while explaining something, he could probably cover with his influence on policy. In other words, he didn’t just have to communicate policy, he got to communicate and then ensure that what he said was reflected in policy.
It was this power, though, that Sainz stumbled over sometimes.
He never met a question he didn’t know the answer to. Most famously, when our own Andrew Donohue asked him a couple of months ago if the mayor had uttered an obscenity to his electoral rival, Steve Francis, Sainz characteristically not only knew the answer but was jarring with his certainty and insistence that Sanders had not, in fact, swore at Francis.
Problem was, Sanders did swear at his competitor.
Sainz did that often, speaking with such authority and intensity on a particular issue that it was almost as though he was trying to shame you for thinking the truth could be different. This is fine, as long as you are always speaking the truth. But if someone who speaks with so much intensity turns out to not be telling the truth, it’s a bigger deal than it has to be.
And so it was with Sainz. When he was wrong, he was dreadfully wrong.
Sainz, in many ways, defined the public’s perception of the mayor good and bad. In fact, Sainz badly mishandled the ugliest stain on the mayor’s record, his encounter with the Sunroad building in Kearny Mesa. It was the same recipe as the mayor’s obscenity: He authoritatively denied denied denied only to find himself explaining why he was wrong — never an easy thing to do.
Had the mayor done what he did with the swearing — just admitted that he was off and needed to work to repair anything that had gone wrong, it never would have become what it did.
Sainz’s replacement, Darren Pudgil, is much more low key. Will he still speak for the mayor? Will he advocate like his predecessor did? Will he passively field the daily crises or will he work to craft the mayor’s perception in the community proactively? Will he ever say those magic words Sainz struggled with: “I don’t know.”
It’ll be interesting to see.