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It amuses me that, in this day of e-mail, websites, Facebook, Twitter and mobile smartphones, iPads and Kindles — never mind TV, radio … carrier pigeon — the bulk of local campaign spending seems to still end up financing direct junk mail.
I mean, after a recent flight to Boston, I’m pretty sure I walked from the plane to the taxi and arrived at the hotel without ever once looking up from my iPhone. I’m not saying this was healthy or impressive, it’s just me.
And yet, to reach voters (of which I am one), campaigns are focused on sending hideous, glossy junk mail to my house. One of us is out of touch with the majority. (Before you send that e-mail jumping at the chance to remind me how out of touch I am, let me clarify: I do not assume it’s the campaigners.)
If you lived and registered to vote in Chula Vista over the last couple of months, though, you also got to know direct mail even better. Even for a primary election with no president on the ballot, it appears South Bay’s capital city was ground zero for vicious campaign junk mailing.
And that brings me to Earl Jentz. The South Bay landholding mogul was certainly not the only one to finance mailings in Chula Vista. And he is certainly not the only one who recognizes that Chula Vista will, in coming years, make some of the most important long-term decisions in the region and that the time is now to try to put in place the system and leaders that best reflect your priorities over this period.
But Jentz is particularly interesting. He has managed to confuse and irritate both labor and business — the main actors in this public policy war.
Jentz started spending when, he said in a written statement to me, a man tried to “coerce” his neighbor into selling property or face eminent domain proceedings from the city. He financed Proposition C the next year that made it illegal for the city to condemn property and hand it over to another private developer.
He then tried to get a measure passed that would force a public vote for any projects above 84 feet in height. That one failed.
But then he got ambitious. He financed and succeeded in passing a measure that changed Chula Vista law, giving the city an elected city attorney instead of one the City Council appointed and controlled. Having achieved this, Jentz spent thousands in the last several months to support the city attorney campaign of Robert Faigin, an attorney living in Lakeside. The San Diego metropolitan area is an enormous area. But there are few cities in it farther from Chula Vista than Lakeside.
Faigin appears to have lost his bid for city attorney — but not by much.
The Union Tribune tallied Jentz’ total political spending since 2006 at about $1 million. He appears to have not had much success with the candidates he supports. Along with Faigin, mayoral candidate Steve Castaneda and City Council hopeful Patricia Aguilar also came up short in their bids despite Jentz’ strong support.
Perhaps bitter that Jentz tried to unseat her, Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox, fresh from her re-election, had some choice words about South Bay’s new political whale.
Pointing out that Jentz has sued the city several times, Cox told me that she found his support of the elected city attorney and then his financing of a campaign for an out-of-town candidate for the job particularly upsetting.
“That, to me, is unconscionable,” she said. “How can you defend the city if you’re the chosen candidate of a guy who sues the city?”
She need not worry about that — Jentz’ chosen candidate lost. The influence she complains about him having isn’t present at all. And now, a new city attorney — Glen Googins — has a job he wouldn’t have gotten had it not been for the man who tried to keep him from getting it.
I asked Evan McLaughlin, the political director of the AFL-CIO’s Labor Council, what he thought of Jentz’s influence in Chula Vista. McLaughlin, of course, was once a writer here and his Q&A with Jentz from 2007 is still instructive for those interested in trying to understand Jentz.
McLaughlin pointed out it wasn’t just Jentz anymore. His political action committee now has more than one patron and it represents a true force in Chula Vista’s politics.
“Earl has done a good job organizing older Chula Vistans who want to see Chula Vista the way it was decades ago,” McLaughlin said. “To the extent he gets people engaged, that’s a good thing. But it’s unclear what his motives are.”
Jentz seems pretty clear about his motive.
“My family and I have been fortunate to live in such a beautiful area, and we want to maintain the quality of life here. It takes people who are willing to stand up and take on the special interests to make that possible,” he wrote me.
Chula Vista City Hall still teeters on insolvency. City leaders still hope to attract a university and develop its bay front into something you might actually want to visit from out of town and spend money. They hope to tear down a power plant on prime waterfront property and build a new one farther from sight.
The city is, arguably, the county’s — if not the country’s — most dramatic municipal symbol of the last decade’s borrowing and growth excesses. But it’s also a beautiful place.
It makes sense someone like Jentz would be passionate about what it will look like for decades to come. It makes sense that, if he has money to spend, he spends it on what he cares about. But he should remember, that it also makes sense for people to wonder whether what makes his influence better than the special interests he says he’s standing up against.