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She sat offstage, impeccably dressed as always, at the July groundbreaking for a new central library, the latest in the list of San Diego’s civic conquests she helped orchestrate.
The mayors, state and city legislators and wealthy philanthropists on the dais all knew who she was. They had hired her again and again to make political conventions, Super Bowls and downtown ballparks happen. In the process, they made her just as powerful as themselves.
But you could forgive the crowd for not noticing when Mayor Jerry Sanders mentioned her name in passing toward the end of his introduction.
“My chief of staff, Kris Michell,” Sanders said, eliding the “thank you” between the ones he gave Jay Goldstone, his most public deputy, and Rana Sampson, his wife.
Kris Michell is the most powerful person in San Diego you know nothing about. She has remained in the background her entire career, rarely in the newspaper, quoted even less. Yet Michell’s been the link, the linchpin, the consistent ingredient in San Diego’s civic extravaganzas over the last 15 years. The Republican National Convention, the Super Bowl and Petco Park all bear her fingerprints.
Since Sanders’ election in 2005, she’s been his top political adviser, outlasting aides more celebrated and bombastic. Her role in the Mayor’s Office has evolved from an afterthought to a dominant presence.
As much as anyone else, she’s responsible for what the Sanders administration, and modern San Diego, is and isn’t.
“When you look at the history of San Diego, Kris Michell’s name is going to be in that top 20 or so of people that made a difference here,” said Andy Berg, a lobbyist.
Michell’s anonymity makes her elusive, despite her power and influence. Everyone has a stake in defining who she is. Some might want to ingratiate themselves with her or the mayor. Some might want to settle old scores. Her lack of a public persona feeds her intangibility. She’s so much a blank slate that those with money, power and status in the city can depict her however they want.
She’s San Diego’s howitzer of a hired gun, able to manage any issue for anybody anytime. She’s the establishment’s secret weapon, the one who quietly gets ballparks and libraries built even when the city doesn’t have the money to pay for them.
She’s a consensus builder who has maintained the mayor’s popularity through years of budget cuts. She’s a cautious operative who has been unwilling to risk the political consequences of taking drastic steps to fix the city’s underlying financial problems.
She’s a savvy strategist and, on the furthest extreme of those who have tangled with her, she’s a deceptive manipulator.
What’s beyond dispute is the mayor’s reliance on Michell. He’s an administrator, a former police chief. She’s the eye that sees through his political blind spot. Their bond remains so tight many people aren’t sure where she ends and the mayor begins.
The way Sanders puts it, he tells Michell what he wants done. It’s her job to go out and make it happen.
“I trust Kris,” the mayor said.
We need $2 million in two months, Michell told boosters of a new central library in the spring. Otherwise, she said, the city didn’t have enough cash to start building.
The news came as a surprise. Library backers knew they needed to raise more private money, but not that much that quickly. Is that doable? Michell asked. The group talked through fundraising prospects and Michell offered the mayor’s full support. The backers left the meeting confident.
“She was completely in charge,” said Mel Katz, one of the library’s primary fundraisers. “There was no panic.”
After the meeting, Katz called Michell’s office because he believed the mayor could help with one potential donor. The mayor’s secretary called him back. Yes, Sanders would attend a 45-minute coffee at a private home. He did. The pledge happened. The backers secured the $2 million. The city broke ground on the library.
Katz’s story shows how Michell serves Sanders. She’s loyal to his agenda and knows how much time and effort he’ll commit to an idea. She identifies roadblocks and figures out ways to overcome them.
She derives her power from process. Figuring out how to get the mayor from A to B. She has a name for how she does it. It’s called a “rollout plan,” and she’s had them whenever the mayor wants to do something big, from increasing water rates to returning San Diego to the bond market.
“Every single process that you have ever, ever, ever heard the mayor announce was Kris Michell’s brainchild,” said former mayoral spokesman Fred Sainz, who has known and worked with Michell since the mid-1990s. “Ever. It doesn’t matter what it is.”
Her plans detail the need for community meetings, background briefings, memos and council dockets. They establish deadlines and assign responsibilities. They determine when to tell interest groups, council members and other city offices what’s happening, or whether to tell them at all.
Central to each plan, and her role, is politics.
It’s a craft the 48-year-old has honed working almost half her life in San Diego government and campaigns. She managed the Republican National Convention for former Mayor Susan Golding. She managed the Super Bowl for former City Manager Jack McGrory. She managed the San Diego Padres’ campaign for a new downtown ballpark. She made friends with Tom Shepard, the political consultant for many of these efforts and an adviser to Sanders. Through each, she gained a reputation as one of the city’s most cunning and hardest working operatives.
The chief of staff position isn’t new to her, either. She was Golding’s for eight months. But Golding had national ambitions and was her own political adviser, said McGrory, the former city manager.
Under Sanders, Michell has redefined the job.
“Jerry is not a political person,” McGrory said. “Her role is more significant now than it was with Golding for sure.”
It wasn’t planned that way.
Michell began Sanders’ tenure with a nondescript title: Deputy Chief for Community and Legislative Services. It fit the marginalized role the mayor believed politics would play during his time in office. Sanders was becoming San Diego’s first “strong mayor,” a governing structure that put him in charge of the city’s 11,000-person bureaucracy. And the city’s massive financial problems required a manager above all else. Sanders hired an administrator like himself, retired Navy Rear Adm. Ronne Froman, to be his right hand.
But soon after his election, Sanders said, he realized he had underestimated the importance of politics. You can’t run City Hall like a business, he said. Tension between the political aides led by Michell and the operational aides led by Froman took root as well. Froman, who was essentially Sanders’ running mate during his campaign, left after only 18 months because of the political complications. The ex-military managers she brought in are gone now, too.
Michell remains with the same $150,010 salary as when she started, but with a new title. Chief of staff. Politics reign supreme.
Michell acts as Sanders’ unofficial gatekeeper. Any meetings with the mayor have her approval, and she’ll attend those that she deems important.
Sanders said he relies equally on Michell and Jay Goldstone, the city’s chief operating officer and Froman’s replacement. But those who deal with the Mayor’s Office say anything significant runs through Michell.
“Jay can commit to anything in any meeting,” said Lani Lutar, head of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. “It means nothing.”
Sanders said he doesn’t follow Michell’s advice all the time. But the mayor only could immediately think of one instance where he rejected it, his famous decision to reverse his position on gay marriage.
At the time, Sanders’ 2008 re-election campaign was just starting. The City Council had passed a resolution supporting gay marriage. Michell united with Sanders’ other political advisers, Shepard and Sainz, in recommending the mayor veto the measure. They feared fallout from the Republican establishment.
The mayor agreed. But the night before Sanders had planned to veto the council decision, he met at his home with prominent members of the gay community, who urged him to do otherwise. Sanders, who has a lesbian daughter, changed his mind. He told Michell and Sainz that he was supporting gay marriage no matter the political consequences.
The mayor explained his reversal the next day during a tearful press conference seen as courageous and genuine. He rejected his aides’ advice, yet he became a national media sensation and had one of the biggest political successes of his tenure.
It fell to Michell to handle the aftermath of Sanders’ decision. She was the mayor’s liaison to the local Republican Party, which already had endorsed his re-election bid. She called Party Chairman Tony Krvaric to break the news before the press conference.
Michell was professional and to the point, Krvaric said.
The mayor is changing his position on gay marriage. I know this is going to cause problems for you. The mayor will call you soon, Krvaric remembered Michell saying. Sanders quickly followed up.
Michell didn’t have to be so diplomatic.
“Whereas I would have told them to go fuck off, Kris was like Hillary Clinton about it,” Sainz said.
Despite an uproar, Sanders ultimately held the party’s endorsement for his second term and won re-election in a landslide.
The public doesn’t know anything about Michell because she wants it that way. Like other behind-the-scenes operatives, she believes the politician or the issue is the story, not her. Her success at keeping her name out of the news is astounding.
A search of The San Diego Union-Tribune’s archives reveals that her name has appeared just 16 times during Sanders’ tenure and it has never been more than a mention. By contrast, Goldstone’s name shows up in more than 200 articles, Sanders in more than 3,000. In three of Michell’s Union-Tribune appearances, her name was misspelled, “Michel.” Not once was she quoted.
Her anonymity becomes all the more perplexing because she doesn’t fit the stereotype of the person behind the curtain. In many ways, she looks and acts like a politician. She’s always well-dressed, never has a hair out of place and enters rooms with a presence that makes her seem taller than she is.
She doesn’t hide behind closed doors, either. She sometimes appears at press conferences or in City Council chambers, almost always with the mayor. In conversations, she’s gregarious and personable, the opposite of intimidating.
Friends tell stories of her loyalty and care. Last month, one of Michell’s oldest friends, Mary Ball, needed to go out of town the same day as her daughter Audrey’s 10th birthday. Michell took a vacation day. She and Audrey got manicures and pedicures together.
“She’s very empathetic and very sensitive to other people’s feelings and what they’re going through,” said Ball, a vice president at Cox Communications.
For this story, Michell agreed to a rare on-the-record interview and provided names and contact information for friends and associates. But later, through a Mayor’s Office spokeswoman, she backed out, saying questions asked of others about her were too personal.
At times, her behavior displays a caution that has become emblematic of Sanders’ tenure, particularly on hot-button issues that could have had political consequences had the mayor lost.
He didn’t take a position on relocating the city’s international airport during a campaign four years ago. He offered tepid support for a countywide tax increase for fire protection two years ago. Most recently, he disappeared from public debate for a month while the City Council negotiated a sales tax increase for November’s ballot. He’s chosen methodical, smaller changes in how the city does business rather than radical shifts or a bully pulpit.
Sanders also has been largely conciliatory toward a City Council that has often pushed back against his financial reform agenda. He’s tried to build consensus rather than ram through ideas.
Michell is at the center of the Sanders administration’s paradox. The mayor’s positions have been politically astute, earning him sweeping mandates whenever he goes before city voters. But these positions have yet to answer the fiscal problems voters elected Sanders to solve.
Michell is renowned for building agreement on complex issues. But doing so forces compromise, even at times when compromise might not be the best tactic.
Last fall, a task force consisting of some of the mayor’s closest business advisers recommended drastic action, including potentially bankruptcy, to fix the city’s financial woes. Michell had helped organize the task force, which is part of a broader effort she’s coordinating for business leaders to advance the mayor’s agenda. The task force had at least the mayor’s tacit endorsement, but once a draft report leaked, Sanders’ office distanced itself. The administration pushed back against anything that mentioned bankruptcy.
“She has done an excellent job in helping the Mayor’s Office get to the point of consensus with the council,” said Vince Mudd, the task force’s leader. “The question will always be whether or not the substance of what got you to the 6-2 vote, the 7-1 vote or the 8-0 vote was actually fixing the structural problems in the city of San Diego.”
Sanders rejected the idea that his office has been overly cautious, or that Michell was a cause. Instead, he said she helped him pass long-ignored financial reforms, like cutting employee compensation and creating a new pension system with reduced benefits.
But the mayor agreed that his approach to making policy is one that tries to reach consensus. If he didn’t feel that way, Sanders said he would have hired someone more ideological than Michell. He said he didn’t even know if Michell was a Democrat or Republican.
“You have to achieve consensus no matter what council you have if you want to get anything done,” Sanders said. “If I’d have had a goal of simply being a demagogue and simply standing up and railing against the past and railing against everybody else and not getting anything done, then Kris would not have been the right person to have.”
The message Pat Shea wanted to deliver when he ran in the mayoral election to replace the resigned Dick Murphy in 2005 wasn’t a popular one. The city, Shea believed, should declare bankruptcy to escape its disastrous financial situation.
He figured he should hire a gun, someone who could help him build the big case for a big idea like bankruptcy. He called a person he believed could help him win, someone he had known and respected for years. Kris Michell.
Michell had disappointing news. She already was working on Sanders’ campaign. Even in that moment, her push for consensus shone through. During their conversation, Shea said, Michell tried to convince him to work for Sanders, too. Shea demurred.
“Obviously my position was so different from everybody else’s that it’s not easy to blend into a more conventional campaign platform,” Shea said.
Michell’s experiences prepared her for conventional campaigns, especially ones supported by the downtown business establishment like Sanders’. She’s a registered Republican and got her start in politics working as a lobbyist for building industry groups before she moved to City Hall. There she took on the Republican convention and the Super Bowl, both establishment darlings.
For the convention, Michell started by helping Golding solicit private donations to fund the event. She ended up handling all the day-to-day communication between the city and the national party.
“She became the go-to person on major projects for this city after she showed through the RNC that she knew how to make it work,” said Steve Cushman, a longtime local power broker.
Michell’s affinity for buildings, big or otherwise, goes deeper than her political career. A native San Diegan, Michell is the daughter of a bookkeeper who emphasized the importance of real estate to her five children from an early age.
Michell held onto that message as she went through Saint Therese Academy, the then-University of San Diego High School and San Diego State University, where she graduated in 1985 with a bachelor’s in political science.
Michell owns two apartment buildings in Ocean Beach with her mother, and valued each at more than $1 million in her most recent economic disclosure forms. She lives in Scripps Ranch and last April purchased a second home in Mission Beach for nearly $800,000. Sainz said she’s improved all her properties. Making something better than she found it motivates her, he added.
Big building proposals — an expanded Convention Center and a new central library, City Hall and Chargers stadium — were priorities of the Golding administration. None appeared prominent on Sanders’ agenda when he first took office. They’re all front and center now.
Both mayors have tapped the city’s limited financial resources to pay for these iconic downtown projects. Golding’s efforts had a disastrous postscript. The city needed money for the Republican National Convention. The same year as the convention, the city struck the first of two infamous pension deals that gave it a short-term cash boost, but ultimately brought great financial and legal trouble to City Hall.
Steve Erie, a University of California, San Diego political science professor, has called Sanders “Susan Golding in drag,” connected through their agendas and Michell.
“Kris brings the baggage of Golding,” Erie said.
That means less concern for development outside downtown, he said, and an aversion to new taxes. Sanders’ current support for a sales tax increase, Erie said, only comes because both he and Michell have nothing left to lose.
Downtown commercial real estate brokers Craig Irving and Jason Hughes, the namesakes behind the Irving Hughes firm, believed the city had bad numbers. They had examined the proposal for a new City Hall and said it wouldn’t save the millions a study had forecasted. They met with Michell.
In the meeting, Michell grew concerned, Hughes said. The city’s downtown redevelopment agency had commissioned the study, spent hundreds of thousands on it and was in the middle of a scandal. She didn’t believe the agency could take another hit. She thanked them for their help and asked them to brief others.
Eventually the city disregarded Hughes’ and Irving’s advice and released the numbers. Hughes went public. Michell, Hughes said, got even. He believed she helped plant an article in San Diego CityBeat saying the pair criticized the numbers in retaliation for losing a lucrative city contract. Anonymous sources that only could be city and redevelopment leaders fill the piece.
“Given her extremely powerful position within our city government, and based on my own experiences with her, I feel that Kris is a very manipulative, deceitful and dangerous person,” Hughes said. “She has almost total anonymity — and given what I’ve witnessed with the whole Civic Center boondoggle, I doubt the mayor has been getting unfiltered and unbiased advice from her. It’s disturbing.”
City and redevelopment officials disregarded nearly every aspect of Hughes’ account, even down to whether the mayor had asked Irving and Hughes to look at the numbers. Hughes, they argued, was lashing out not only because his firm had lost the city contract, but also because the city had rejected the firm’s request to re-analyze the City Hall study for a six-figure sum. A mayoral spokeswoman denied Michell was an anonymous source for CityBeat’s piece.
But the details of Hughes’ account aren’t as instructive as the feelings he expressed toward Michell. Some who have dealt with her, though they mostly declined to talk on the record and were rarely as harsh as Hughes, speak of manipulation as central to Michell’s style.
She expresses support for both sides of an issue sometimes even in the same meeting. She feigns ignorance on topics she knows about when asked why the mayor hadn’t addressed something sooner. She shows up midway through meetings that were thought to be one-on-one with the mayor.
The feeling isn’t universal. Even some of Michell’s consistent political opponents believed she has been frank with them.
“We’ve had healthy disagreements, but they were always honest and straightforward,” said Donald Cohen, a longtime organized labor leader.
It’s another situation where the real Michell is elusive. All the action goes on behind closed doors. A chief of staff’s job is to be the bad cop, and Michell wouldn’t be effective if she didn’t have enemies. But the question remains if her tactics are more exploitive than strategic.
Sanders said he has heard few complaints about Michell. Those who criticize her, Sainz said, might be frustrated they didn’t get what they wanted from the Mayor’s Office.
They also might have trouble differentiating Michell-the-person from Michell-the-chief-of-staff.
“I’ve grown to believe she’s two people,” said Bob Nelson, chairman of the city’s Convention Center Corp. “A warm and friendly person and the mayor’s son of a bitch. And every mayor needs one.”
At the end of July, Sanders broke a weeks-long public silence on the debate swirling around him about the city’s financial future.
Yes, the mayor announced, he was taking a bold stand. He would back a tax increase to deal with the city’s financial problems for the first time.
In the weeks since, the mayor has taken over the tax campaign. His chief operating officer wrote the ballot measure’s financial analysis. His spokeswoman took a leave of absence to handle the proposition’s communications. His political consultant is running the campaign. Sanders owns the tax increase now.
The mayor said he supported the ballot measure because it would finish the job, providing needed incentive for financial reform he’s always championed. The next five weeks before Election Day will be some of the most important politically of his tenure, his most audacious attempt at fixing the city’s finances.
Michell will be there now and Sanders expects her to be there afterward, too.
Whatever the mayor’s legacy ends up being, she’ll be behind it. It’ll be hers, too.