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News that Kris Michell, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ shadowy and powerful chief of staff, was leaving the Mayor’s Office to join a downtown advocacy organization created a dramatic shift in the city’s political landscape.
Michell was Sanders’ most trusted and significant political advisor, his gatekeeper and his political mind. She was expected to stay through the end of Sanders’ term two years from now. Now he’ll be without his security blanket with major policy goals — three big building projects and fixing the city’s ongoing budget deficits — left undone.
Michell will become the executive director for the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a nonprofit advocacy group, starting in February. She’ll likely be getting a raise over her $150,010-a-year salary, too. Neither Michell, nor Scott Maloni, the partnership’s chairman, would tell me her salary, but a previous executive director made $187,889 a year, according to tax returns.
One key issue in her new job is that city rules bar her from lobbying the city on behalf of their new employer for a year — that’s a tough one given that a proposed Convention Center expansion and new Chargers stadium would go downtown.
Sanders announced that Michell’s deputy, attorney Julie Dubick, would be taking her place.
I sat down with Michell and Maloni in Maloni’s downtown office immediately after today’s announcement. It was an interview four months in the making. Michell cancelled a scheduled interview when I wrote an in-depth profile this fall.
To my knowledge, she’s never been quoted directly in a story in the last five years.
Why this position and why now?
My career, working for the building industry, working for Petco Park and the Padres, and all the things that I’ve done, when Scott approached me it just seemed to make sense. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s just the timing’s never been right. Today it is. I’m very excited.
Are you able to work on certain City Hall issues from this position now? Is there anything you’re excluded from?
There’s a cooling off period. When I said OK Scott I think this is something that we should explore, I went to (city Ethics Commission director) Stacey Fulhorst and talked to her. I cannot lobby the city on any projects. So I won’t. I’m going to live up to the spirit and the intent of the law.
Will you be able to build support among various groups other than the city for things like the Convention Center, Chargers stadium, anything like that?
I’m working through those issues with Stacey. I’m not sure that I can work on anything and I’m going to be very clear, but as Stacey has said, if I need to call her four times a day to go ahead and do it. I think we’re going to take a more cautious approach to what I can do and can’t do.
Either by design or by accident in the Mayor’s Office, every single big advisor other than you is either marginalized or has left during Sanders’ administration. I’m thinking folks like (former chief operating officer) Ronne Froman, (former spokesman) Fred Sainz. When I was writing about you a lot of folks cited to me your loyalty to the mayor as one of the main reasons for your prominence. I’m wondering, why leave the mayor given all of that background, with two years left in his term?
I’m not leaving the mayor, I’m going to this opportunity. There’s a very big difference. I had no intent on leaving the mayor until the last day, he turns out the lights, we walk out and we call it a day. But when this opportunity and when Scott approached me, I started thinking seriously, this is something I really want to do. So I talked to the mayor. I let him know that I was interested in this. He gave me his blessing.
I asked Scott, can they hold it open two years? Scott said …
(Scott Maloni jumps into the conversation.)
Maloni: We would love to.
Michell: But he has a daytime …
Maloni: I can’t be the interim for two years.
Michell: The other piece of this is we have a good staff in place, a really good staff in place.
At the city?
At the city. Julie Dubick, she’s in place to take over. She’s always been the heir apparent. There’s no question. A lot of talent there. She has the confidence of the mayor as she should. This transition should be seamless.
Pushing on that a little more. You were really seen at least internally as the mayor’s political brain. Coming from the idea that he had no political experience prior to taking office and all of those things, I know that Julie has been there for a while but you really were considered the gatekeeper. How seamless can it be when you leave?
Don’t underestimate Julie. Julie is incredibly bright, has been there every step of the way. Julie and I, every day, have been seamless in what we do. She’s in every meeting that’s important and has been over the last five years. Her skills are superior. And she has the mayor’s confidence and that’s really important.
There’s a theory out there that you represented the connection between the mayor and what’s considered the downtown establishment folks. And also part of that is part of the reason that the administration has focused on building big buildings downtown. Taking this position does nothing but add fuel to that idea, right?
Yes, if you subscribe to the philosophy that the mayor just does whatever I tell him to do, which is not true. When you know Jerry Sanders, Jerry is setting the agenda. Contrary to popular belief, he sets the agenda every single day. It is my job to carry it out.
Jerry, the mayor, has always believed that a strong downtown is good for the entire region. His agenda is his. In my role, I’ve been responsible for implementing it, not creating it.
Let’s go back a little bit to the timing issue. Obviously after elections this sort of stuff happens. This was the first election where, really on a major issue, things didn’t really break the mayor’s way. Did that have anything to do with your decision?
No, not at all. Let’s talk about that. It was a resounding defeat. But the voters spoke and the mayor heard. We heard what they had to say. They said two things. No new taxes and we want pension reform. The mayor wanted to make sure that if we had to make significant cuts, which we will have to do as a city, that the voters were part of the discussion. He just didn’t do it to say, OK I’m going to make the decisions for them because the cuts are going to be deep.
He has said that he plans to solve the structural deficit within two years, by the time he walks out the door. When the voters said no way, don’t want it, we heard them and now we’re going to go to Plan B, which we have. The mayor will announce his Plan B at his State of the City address. Part of that, as you already know, is the concept of a 401(k)-style pension plan for non-safety employees. That is something that is going to bring the eyes of the country onto San Diego, whether we like it or not. Because the mayor believes that if it’s good enough for the private sector, the people that actually pay taxes like we all do, that it should be good enough for our city employees. He’s going to work on that.
We don’t take the defeat personally. We listened and we learned from that.
I’m curious. You’re using the word “we.”
Yeah, because I feel so strongly about the mayor. I don’t want to speak for him.
Right, but you’re using the word “we” in that sense, but you’ve left the city now, though.
I’m there until Jan. 14. That’s why I’m saying “we.” I will be there with him, focused, it’s we, we, we until the day I walk out. We just wanted enough lead time in transition to make sure everything’s smooth. That’s why it’s still “we.”
You mentioned the structural deficit and his pledge to fix it by the time he leaves office, will he do that?
Yes. He said he will.
But do you believe that he’ll be able to do it?
Yes, I do. Jerry, the mayor, he does what he says he’s going to do. If he says he’s going to do it, he’ll do it. He really has unquestioned character.
Is (state Assemblyman) Nathan Fletcher the next mayor of San Diego?
I have no idea.
Do you want him to be?
I think Nathan would be a great mayor. I think there are others that would be great mayors as well. I think (District Attorney) Bonnie Dumanis would be a great mayor. I think (City Councilman) Kevin Faulconer would be a good mayor. I think that there are a lot of people, but who knows who’s going to be mayor? Who knows? It’s a lifetime away. It’s two years away.
One major theme in what I wrote was that you really were sort of a blank slate, given the fact that you’re in public but never talk to the press and stay behind the scenes. People were able to paint you into whatever they wanted you to be. For a lot of folks it’s this loyal, consensus-building person. For another set of folks, it’s this manipulative, deceptive person. I’m sort of wondering if you would be interested in addressing that, particularly the folks who have been critical of you and your style.
Everybody’s always going to be critical in a role that I’m in when we don’t agree, or they don’t agree with the decisions that are made. But I’ve always believed that when you work for an elected, I carry out the mayor’s agenda. And when I worked for a previous mayor, I carried out her agenda. It is not about me. I will certainly weigh in as any good chief of staff will do. But the ultimate decision is made by the mayor and that person. Both mayors have exercised that pretty aggressively. That is why I’m not visible. There is no reason to be.
Anything else you want to add or emphasize?
I can’t tell you how much I respect the mayor. I’m very, very appreciative for the opportunity he gave me to work for him. I think truly that he will be regarded as one of the best mayors 15 years from today.
In San Diego.
Yes. As one of. A lot of the policies, a lot of the things we’re doing, 15 years from today you’ll see the benefits of it. Sometimes, I think we get too shortsighted in that we’re just looking for the immediate impact. A lot of the things the mayor has done are really to help the community long term because he plans to be here.
Interview conducted and edited by Liam Dillon, who you can contact at email@example.com or 619.550.5663 and follow on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.