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Saturday, Aug. 16, 2008 | Gone are the days in San Diego when the mayor communicated with the public through only faxed statements and tight-lipped news conferences. Since Jerry Sanders’ election in 2005, Fred Sainz has run herd over the media with a combative loquaciousness that ran counter to the stereotypical cautious, vanilla spokesperson of officialdom.
He’s been dubbed “Mayor Sainz” by his many nemeses across City Hall’s political spectrum for the way he asserted himself in so many issues beyond just public relations.
But Sainz always returned your calls, and nearly always had an answer no matter the question. And by and large, his quick-to-the-punch, opinionated style served the Sanders administration well. But it also got him and his boss into trouble at times.
We caught up with Sainz this week, his last on the City Hall payroll, as he prepares to leave for a job in Denver with the Gill Foundation, a nonprofit primarily dedicated to equality for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
So, who is going to be the mayor of San Diego now that you are leaving?
Jerry Sanders will be.
Jerry Sanders has been and will continue to be the mayor of San Diego. Anybody who has known Jerry for his 35-year career at the Police Department, United Way and Red Cross knows that he makes his own decisions. I’ve simply had the enormous privilege and honor to be there when he’s made those decisions and have a seat at the table, and add my voice — a very small voice — to the decisions that have been made. I’ve just been a voice at the table, not the voice — that’s the mayor’s.
Where do you think the perception that you are “the voice” comes from?
The chatter of people who don’t have anything else to do. I mean, really its silly, silly stuff. Maybe it was that the former mayor (Dick Murphy) spoke entirely through statements, he never allowed his spokesperson to be quoted.
This mayor is very different; in two years we had 300 news conferences. And he is also a “strong mayor,” which means he is accountable for all operations of city government, so it figures that his spokesperson was going to become very high profile person within government circles.
So I think a natural, but false, conclusion for people to reach is the spokesperson speaking on his own behalf. And, you know, for good or for bad — and I will let people decide which one they like better — I speak in a very forceful way on behalf of my boss, and people often equate that with my opinions. And it is not, I reflect the mayor’s point of view, not my own, and I’ve always known the difference.
You first came to San Diego in the mid 1990s. Did you think you would stay this long?
I came here 14 years ago to help run the Republican national convention. And after it was over, I decided to stay. And in those 14 years I’ve gone from 26-years-old to 40-years-old — which is a world of difference.
I’ve gone from being a Republican to being a Democrat; and I’ve gone from being closeted to getting married this past Sunday. So it’s been about a lot of change these past 14 years, and in these 14 years I’ve also been incredibly privileged to have some of the best professional opportunities that any person can ask for in an entire career — let alone just 14 years.
So, tell us about your new job.
It is director of marketing and communications for the Gill Foundation … a foundation (in Denver) dedicated to social justice and human rights, primarily — but not entirely — within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. But an awful lot of the money we give is within the straight community. We are dedicated to social justice and equality on all planes. So I will be promoting the foundation’s agenda, and making people, I hope, a bit uncomfortable in terms of talking about these issues.
Given what you’ve said about your evolution of the last 14 years, is this — working for a social justice organization — something you’ve wanted to do for a long time?
Let me give you some history. I grew up in a suburb of Miami, Florida, and I knew from an early age that I was different … and eventually I came to find that that was my sexual orientation.
But I felt very alienated, and I remember looking out my bedroom window wondering if there was life for me beyond that window. I completely understand how kids who question their sexual orientation commit suicide, or have great emotional difficulties including depression and other physical ailments … because life for them is already difficult just being a teenager.
Now add the complexity of not quite knowing what your sexual orientation means, and not having a supportive family or supportive school environment, in fact sometimes quite the opposite when they are all conspiring against you.
I will never forget that 14-year-old kid who stared out that window. And I feel a responsibility to make life easier for those kids, and to use whatever skill set I may have to make life easier for them. This is an opportunity for me to give back to a movement that has helped me without limits, without walls, without constraints, have a good professional career and marry the man that I love.
While we’re still on the topic, do you feel you’ve had an impact on gay and lesbian issues as the mayor’s spokesman in San Diego?
I really do. (But) the mayor made his own decision on marriage equality by himself. In fact, I counseled him that he should have kept his position in favor of civil unions.
So that was a principled decision that he made, and I’m obviously delighted by it. But I would never want to give the false impression — because it would be completely false — that I had anything to do with him having reached that decision.
Of the thousands of quotes you’ve given to the media, do you have a favorite?
There are many. My favorite was after Mike (Aguirre) came out with some plan, and I said: “If you love higher taxes and endless lawsuits, then you’ll love Mike’s plan.” I thought that was a pretty good one.
One thing we in the media often comment on is your ability — no matter what question we throw at you — to come up with an on-the-spot answer. But that being said, there have been occasions, and some notable occasions, when those answers proved ultimately to be wrong—
No. Let’s talk about those, because they are not. I know these issues inside and out, and I really am going to take exception with them, so go for it.
Right. Let me start out by saying that the press secretary is only as good as the information that he or she receives. And the classic mistake that I made was not directly asking Jerry whether or not he had said that.
I took another person’s word that Jerry didn’t say it. I called Jerry and said ”I’m embarrassed to even have to ask this question, but [voiceofsandiego.org] just called me … and I of course denied it.’ He said ‘Fred, you can’t deny it…’ And my heart sank. And I immediately got on the phone and corrected my misstatement. But I want you to know that I didn’t just reach out immediately and deny it.
I checked with my office to make sure it was true and it turns out I was given bad information. I take full responsibility for that, and it was a huge learning experience for me. But I want you to know that I didn’t summarily deny it without checking internally first.
What about the Sunroad affair?
Let’s talk about that. Again, a press secretary is only as good as the information they receive. I consulted with Ronnie Froman who was the mayor’s chief operating officer, and asked her why Ted Sexton was at the city.
(Note: Last summer, in the midst of the Sunroad scandal, both Sanders and Sainz denied that the administration brought in San Diego County Regional Airport Authority Vice President Ted Sexton to work on the Sunroad issue. Yet, letters written by Sanders contradicted that claim.)
Never did [Froman] tell me he was there to work on the Sunroad situation. And in fact, she produced documents for me that said he had come to the city in order to help us explore whether we wanted to get rid of the airports that the city ran.
Do you really think that I would have proffered that as an answer if I knew that lurking somewhere in the bowels of some government agency were two letters that would have outed me as a liar?
No! I offered up information that was given to me, and no other information was given to me … so I feel very comfortable in terms of my position on that issue was completely consistent with the knowledge I had at the time I made those statements.
Now, it turned out that just a few weeks later Evan (former voiceofsandiego.org staff writer Evan McLaughlin) broke that these two letters were there. And of course my heart sank because I realized what it did to my credibility. But all that I can tell you as I am walking out the door of City Hall is that I did not know about the existence of those two letters, nor did I know that Sexton was being brought to City Hall to work on these issues when I made the statements that I did. And you can either believe me or you don’t.
Does that speak to the downside to being both a policy maker and a spokesperson? The correct answers were in City Hall, and they should have been at your disposal.
That could happen within any organization. If you really want to know the answer to that question, is that to allow yourself some wiggle room, your answers become more equivocal. Your answers become “to my knowledge …” or “outward signs are that …” And believe me, I started to give more equivocal answers. And I became much more distrustful of the information people were giving me.
In the midst of the Sunroad scandal, you threatened physical violence —
Oh my goodness.
I used a very butch word, didn’t I?
— and you haven’t.
Are you going to before you leave?
I need to work out a little more. No, actually Will has become one of my favorite people. It’s kind of hard not to have him endear himself to you, you know, he’s such an odd little Englishman — it’s hard not to appreciate his witty repartee, you know. And he is very passionate, and that is probably what I will remember about him the most. He pursues things fairly, but with passion. And I think he has made me a better press secretary.