City Hall operatives of long tenure (a redundancy?) won’t turn somersaults, but they’ll monitor Bruce Henderson’s every word.
Henderson, a contrarian hall of famer, was a San Diego city councilman from 1987 through ’91, then was defeated for re-election. He then ran for city attorney and lost in ’92.
The way he shook his spear at every project he believed to be ill-advised, wasteful or crony-ist made him a looming shadow on the wall with room-shaking footsteps in city politics — and kept him very busy.
The things Henderson said didn’t simply disagree with the many policies he fought; no, that was manageable. The sin he committed was to cause public restlessness. He tried to disrupt the comfort zone of the cozily entrenched who guard the nest like a wasp in an outhouse.
He was annoying in the way of someone who keeps talking when “right-thinking” people fall silent. He’s the guy at the cocktail party not discoursing on the bouquet of the chardonnay or other blanded-down small talk. He’s the gadfly at the chilled jumbo shrimp.
When I say he’s back, that just refers to this one column, which, of course, will cause a sighing exhalation beneath the buttons of $100 shirts. Otherwise, he’s semiretired at 72, working for the San Diego city attorney part time and minding his own business in Pacific Beach. … Well, he has this quaint idea that the public business is also his own business.
His mind is an old-fashioned percolator. Light a fire under an issue he cares about, and the pot starts to boil and bubble. Right now, his main civic goal is to change San Diego from “America’s Finest City” to “America’s Solar City.”
His idea is to add solar panels to government-owned areas that could accommodate them, which he believes could mean thousands of solar panels to “environmentalize” (if I may birth a verb) municipal power sources.
To sell the idea, his hope is to get together with architects and engineers, and eventually SDG&E and the city.
“You get to be over 65, you start asking yourself what you are going to do with the rest of your life. This is something I think would be good for San Diego, and so I would like to do it. Now I have to put the energy in and make it happen,” Henderson says.
He also thinks another attempt should be made to expand parking for Balboa Park. He believes the recent attempt led and funded by Qualcomm’s Irwin Jacobs failed because of the public perception — correct, he thinks — that Jacobs’ effort was too my-way-or-the-highway and turned off the public.
For those Republicans who wear red power-ties to bed, Henderson is so open-collar as to be disconcerting, which means he wasn’t one of the boys, at least in the perception of the bigger boys. However, he says most of his battles were with Democrats, capped by a titanic one with the Sierra Club over its attempts to end the Pete Wilson-supported federal exemption that allowed treated sewage to be released several miles out in the Pacific in deep water.
Henderson says the Sierra Club wanted to have the sewage treated more extensively, but the Wilson program that he supported fostered the idea that treated sewage, when released far enough away from populated areas, actually funnels nutrients into the ocean.
The fight went to court, and the Henderson-backed exemption prevailed.
In 1990, he says he did battle with mainly developers and real estate agents in fighting for a “down-zoned” Pacific Beach that he claims “saved” PB.
“Most of the lots in Pacific Beach were zoned such that you could put two new units on a 25-foot lot. (As a councilman), I cut that zoning in half. On a 25-foot lot, you can only put one unit now, and on a 50-foot lot, you can only put two units, not four. There were a lot of people that didn’t like that.”
His zoning plan was enacted, he says, and is still in force.
Though Henderson was a lawyer in La Jolla — that lush garden where big fees grow — he says, “I never made appreciable money practicing law. I’ve always made my money on the stock market.”
Are you a wealthy man?
“I am today, quite wealthy.”
Henderson keeps his disputation weapons sharp and prickly by prosecuting misdemeanor cases for the city attorney. He loves the courtroom action, even if the stakes are minor, judicially speaking.
“I am definitely combative by nature,” he happily acknowledges. “I believe the only way we move forward is by debating with people who have their own ideas, and out of that, you try to move the process forward, you try to come to some agreement. I just viscerally decline to be politically correct.”
He has the rectitude of a Victorian evangelist. “I won’t do something just because it’s politically expedient. (A councilwoman) I served with, when a certain issue came up, said, ‘Bruce, you can’t vote that way because if you do, you won’t get re-elected.’ I told her my goal was to do what is right, not get re-elected.”
He is appalled by the push for a new Chargers stadium. He believes that to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of public money on “a billionaire’s corporate-welfare subsidy” is financially reckless and irresponsible.
“There are a lot of people that want the Charges to stay here. I think that’s great. But the real bottom line is that the Chargers aren’t an infant industry anymore. They don’t need our help. They’re perfectly capable of building their own facility.
“The worst thing about corporate welfare is that it diverts scarce public money away from what it should be used for: libraries, roads, education and all those things needed to help people make the best of their lives. And we aren’t funding those things. We aren’t maintaining those things.
“Will the Chargers leave San Diego? It’s clear they’ll go to Los Angeles if they can.”
He thinks there is a circus of gamesmanship in which the Chargers are trying to convince the NFL that they’re doing everything possible to stay in San Diego, but at the same time building a case to go to L.A., where the profit potential dwarfs San Diego’s.
He thinks their main pawns are local politicians who are terror-stricken at the prospect of losing the Chargers on their watch.
“Sadly, voters elect folks to public office whose primary concern is getting re-elected, not doing the right thing,” he says.
His take on recent San Diego mayors?
Bob Filner: “Filner was a nasty piece of work. I feel sorry for Bob. He had some sort of severe pathological dysfunction in dealing with women and should have been helped under the American Disabilities Act.”
Susan Golding: “I always liked Susan. I had great hopes for her. The problem Susan had was that she had her eyes set on higher office. To further that, she catered to the Chargers and big (Republican) funder Alex Spanos.”
Roger Hedgecock: “When Roger beat me for county supervisor, he called and asked for my support. I said, ‘Roger, I like some of your ideas, but I don’t like you.’ (Click.) Roger was unable to see through J. David Dominelli, San Diego’s most notorious scam artist, who, prior to being exposed, was a principal political backer of Roger.”
Dick Murphy: “An enigma. He has one of the most wonderful educational backgrounds in the world and yet just got somehow out of his depth.”
Maureen O’Connor: “Maureen, without any question, had her heart in the right place. She always wanted to do the right thing for the people. It was sometimes hard to deal with Maureen because she tended to make decisions based purely on emotion.”
Jerry Sanders: “Excellent administrator. He came at a time when we needed some stabilization. He attempted to refocus the city on infrastructure, but in the end was unsuccessful.”
Pete Wilson: “The best. Wilson did wonderful things for San Diego, though you could criticize him for this or that. He brought in really fine administrators to help run the city.
“Pete was a guy that didn’t forget. He has this remarkable capability of remembering not just your face, but your name and his interactions with you over the years. I don’t recommend him for an enemy.”
Bruce Henderson sees himself in a way in which both friend and foe could probably agree: “When people said things I didn’t agree with, I would speak up. A lot of people liked me because of that, and a lot of people didn’t like me because of that.”
The contrarian is the lone upraised hand, the one in the 10-1 vote, the person who is asked: “Why do you have to be so difficult?” The contrarian is also the one who didn’t laugh at the Wright Brothers, but might have stubbornly believed Richard Nixon.
Contrarians tend to start sentences with, “Yes, but ...”
There’s an old saw in politics that your friends won’t help you as much as your enemies will hurt you.
That’s true in Henderson’s case. Election nights gave him some somber drives home. They beat him, but they didn’t silence him. Only exile to a Siberian gulag would achieve that — maybe.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org