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Kris Michell, Mayor Jerry Sanders’ chief of staff and his top political advisor, is leaving the city to become head of downtown advocacy group the Downtown San Diego Partnership.

This move is stunning and significant to how the city does business over Sanders’ final two years in office. Why? I gave you 3,600 words about Michell for an in-depth profile we ran in September. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

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.

We’ll have more on this today, but here’s my first take. The news is as unexpected as it is important. Michell was Sanders’ unquestioned top political advisor, a position all the more significant because Sanders had no political experience before he was elected mayor. He trusted her to see through that blind spot.

By accident or her own design, she has become Sanders’ gatekeeper and the one who has shaped his tenure more than anyone else. Everyone who could have filled that role is either marginalized within the administration or has left.

Michell was expected to stay on through Sanders’ entire term and the mayor said he wanted her to. In August, I asked Sanders about Michell potentially leaving. Here’s our exchange:

LD: Does she plan to stay with you through the end of your term?

JS: I have no idea. I hope so.

LD: I haven’t heard anything to the contrary.

JS: I haven’t either. It’s probably unusual to have a chief of staff who stays for the full two terms. But I think she’s done a great job. I’m very pleased with her and I’d be happy to have her for the full time.

Without an obvious replacement, Michell’s loss leaves a gaping hole in the Sanders’ administration as he begins his final two years in office. (Update: The Mayor’s Office immediately named Deputy Chief of Staff Julie Dubick as Michell’s replacement.)

Also, that Michell is leaving to become president of the Downtown Partnership does nothing but fuel the theory that Michell is a big reason Sanders has focused on building big downtown projects while the city’s financial problems go unsolved and other neighborhood services dwindle.

Michell’s background was working for business groups and developers and had put her mark on downtown civic conquests, such as the Republican National Convention, Petco Park and the Super Bowl. She also served as chief of staff for Mayor Susan Golding, who was criticized for focusing on downtown and big ticket items while ignoring the rest of the city and its finances.

Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, made the connection most explicitly when I interviewed him for my profile.

She represents the aspirations, the ambitions, the vision of the establishment in this town. A lot of that is tied up with big-ticket items like Petco. Their focus is really pretty much on downtown events. … Kris is a liaison to the key stakeholders, for the downtown crowd. … Jerry and particularly through Kris, they listen very carefully to what the Taxpayers Association, the Chamber of Commerce, you know, what they call the echo chamber downtown have to say and is thinking.

The Downtown Partnership’s supposed financial support of a ballot measure on the new City Hall project was essential. After the partnership said it couldn’t help fund a campaign, Sanders killed the ballot measure and put the project on ice. Similarly, the partnership has been one of strongest supporters of the last-minute, late-night state legislation to pump more tax dollars downtown. Michell is thought to have had an instrumental role in the legislation happening.

As for now, I’m heading to my first on-the-record interview with her. You might recall that she bailed on a planned interview for my profile.

And for those who prefer video to words, we also have a done a segment of San Diego Explained with our NBC 7/39 media partners on Michell.

View more news videos at: https://www.nbcsandiego.com/video.

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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