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Twenty-two years ago, millionaire William Lynch opened his newspaper and was glued to the tale of a former rocker with a black beard and a briefcase, trying to sway skeptical congressmen to spend more on drug rehabilitation, hoping to do some good with his sociology degree.
As the story told it, what Scott Himelstein was good at was persuasion. He could translate the idea of salvation into dollars-and-cents for lawmakers, could listen and speak bureaucrat with ease. And he cared, saying simply, “We’re here to do something about the waste of life.”
Lynch himself wasn’t keen on drug rehabilitation. But the more Lynch read, the more he was keen on Himelstein. He put down his paper and phoned the reporter, asking to meet the idealist over dinner.
They did. “He looked like a yeti,” Lynch said recently. “But he was a very impressive young man.”
The one-time rocker who went to Washington would become the go-to-guy for Lynch and his influential literacy foundation. He would become a trusted insider in education politics, sidling up next to superintendents, businessmen, even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Himelstein is a good listener with an infinite Rolodex; he once dreamed up a company to organize meetings and registered its name, “The Meeting Man.” That didn’t pan out, but he still gets people to the table, and gets them to work together.
“But I’m at a point in my career now,” Himelstein said, “where I want to help set the agenda.”
Now the meeting man faces a new challenge: waging a public campaign. Himelstein has become the public champion of a bitterly controversial move to revamp the San Diego Unified school board. He has spent most of his career behind the scenes or alongside the big names; now he is squarely in the spotlight, plugging his ideas at community meetings and press conferences.
“It completely fits his passion of improving education,” said Mel Katz of the local library foundation. “But he’s never had to get 50 percent of the electorate to agree to something.”
On a recent July evening, Himelstein was facing a largely skeptical crowd at a meeting in Ocean Beach. Someone else asked pointedly how many working San Diego teachers were in his group; Himelstein said two.
“This is another typical San Diego power move,” a retired teacher argued.
Himelstein shook his head. “I would respectfully disagree,” he said.
Now a clean shaven 52-year-old, Himelstein is the chief organizer of San Diegans 4 Great Schools, a group of philanthropists, parents and business leaders who want to change how the school district is governed. They call the district a failure. While Himelstein says his group is still weighing ideas, it is widely known to be mulling a bigger, partly appointed school board.
Their idea is that a bigger board, chosen by a group of academics and community leaders, could help stabilize San Diego Unified, which has suffered a revolving door of leaders. The existing board is small — five people — and can tilt easily in a single election, putting an end to programs or superintendents. The last one, Terry Grier, was loved by business leaders, loathed by the union and departed in less than two years.
Their fledgling campaign has drawn suspicion because of its longtime secrecy and powerful backers, from Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs to Mayor Jerry Sanders. While Himelstein insists its concerns have nothing to do with the current board, which leans toward labor — “this is a structural issue,” he says — critics argue it has a hidden, undemocratic agenda to grab power from the existing board.
“These guys are trying to water down the school board because they didn’t like the way the election turned out,” said John de Beck, a longtime board member. “Himelstein is like the hired gun for the rich. He has no qualifications and he has no training in how to run a school.”
Himelstein’s path to education politics was unlikely. After he graduated from the University of San Diego in 1980, he formed a New Wave band called Laws of Motion and spent a few years writing songs and playing guitar and keyboards. He said he was sometimes so low on cash that his car ran out of gas. Marcos Fernandes, his drummer, remembers him as the leader who kept everyone on an even keel.
The band split by the mid-1980s and Himelstein went to work for Professional Community Services, an El Cajon social services agency. There he discovered that he could translate his causes into things politicians would care about. It wasn’t so different from being on stage, Himelstein said — you get up and make your case. For someone to buy your album. For someone to pledge their vote or money. At the same time, he started consulting for other social service agencies, helping them win funding.
“It’s different than selling one of these,” he said in a recent interview, patting a telephone. “But you still have to have a product. The wheels have to go ’round. The product has to be wanted.”
He caught the eye of the local newspaper, and that, in turn, caught the eye of Lynch, a businessman who wanted to start up a foundation of his own. They decided to zero in on reading and a program that focused on first graders who had fallen behind.
They also teamed up with San Diego Unified on a federal program that promotes literacy for adults and their children. And Himelstein handled day-to-day things for Lynch. When school board member Sue Braun sought Lynch’s endorsement, Himelstein picked her up for lunch in a gray stretch limo.
“People were just staring out the windows” from the school district offices, Braun remembered. “But it was like it was the normal thing for them.”
And Himelstein wasn’t stopping in San Diego. If you’re not in front of Congress talking about your cause, Himelstein still says, you won’t grow. He started to organize state and national groups to speak up for his favorite programs, telling Congress why they mattered.
“Scott had this uncanny knack,” said Denise Gasper, who ran early childhood programs in Michigan. “He was visionary. He could see what wasn’t in place and what steps it took to make it happen.”
When an aggressive new superintendent took charge at San Diego Unified, he too sought out Himelstein. While Himelstein was still working for Lynch, Alan Bersin asked him to volunteer to lead a new nonprofit, San Diego Reads, which ran a $4 million-book drive and family literacy programs.
But Himelstein was more than a reading czar. For an unpaid consultant, Himelstein “had an unhindered level of influence on the workings of the school district” under Bersin, said Jerome Torres, a former school board policy analyst. His resume calls him “a special assistant to the superintendent.” Others called him Bersin’s de facto chief of staff. That was a controversial role for a controversial superintendent criticized for pushing reforms too fast and spending too much.
San Diego Reads also drew suspicion because it transferred money to a separate, outside fund for the superintendent, which Bersin then used to pay for meals, donations and gifts. When school auditors probed for potential conflicts, San Diego Reads refused to disclose who’d given the money.
Bersin was eventually pushed out by a new school board. But Himelstein quickly got a new gig, his biggest one yet. Fernandes, his old bandmate, remembers reading about his big break in the paper, long after they’d lost touch.
“It was a shock,” he said. “But then it made sense. He was good at getting people to do things.”
In 2005, Bersin became the state secretary of education, the key appointed adviser to Gov. Schwarzenegger on school issues. It is a job that comes with no spending power, but tremendous influence over which bills the governor signs. Bersin, in turn, picked Himelstein as his deputy. And when Bersin left three years ago, Schwarzenegger tapped Himelstein to temporarily take his place.
“Most of our secretaries are much higher profile. They like to be the public face of things,” said Paul Navarro, Schwarzenegger’s deputy legislative secretary. “Scott was the worker.”
Himelstein was largely viewed as a safe, sedate choice. He didn’t want to stay long; his wife, an elementary school teacher, was about to give birth to their daughter in San Diego.
But in his short time as secretary, Himelstein said he became savvier about getting things done in Sacramento. He handled legal debates over a new, hotly contested high school exit exam. He pushed to increase funding for classes preparing teens for the work force. He grew frustrated with deadlock and lobbyists, but was thrilled when somehow, something useful got done.
“It’s our system. It’s not perfect. It’s not pretty a lot of the time,” Himelstein said of Sacramento. “But the goal is to play the game well.”
And his Rolodex only thickened. Navarro marveled at how he quietly built coalitions to get things done.
“If you wanted to make connections with somebody, you knew Scott could make those connections,” former state Sen. Dede Alpert said. “If he makes a call, he can get a return call.”
That was why Terry Grier also turned to Himelstein. He worked part time writing grants for career education, earning $93.75 an hour from an office next to Grier. Himelstein was also paid to handle talks when San Diego Unified and the city decided to slot a charter school in the downtown library. When the library foundation needed a plan for running that same imagined school, they also turned to Himelstein.
And when Rod Dammeyer, a businessman transplanted from Chicago, wanted to explore what was wrong with local schools, he tapped Himelstein and his researchers to study it. Three years ago, Himelstein started running a new center on education policy at the University of San Diego, started with a grant from Lynch, that doubled as a think tank and a place to teach education students how Sacramento works.
Then Grier took off for Houston, and Himelstein seized the moment. Business and community leaders urged the school board to try to keep him here. Himelstein kept the group going behind closed doors, batting around ideas. He won over Bersin critics who had been wary of him since San Diego Reads.
“They’re not going in with brute force this time,” said David Page, a parent leader who fought Bersin and now sides with San Diegans 4 Great Schools. “They’re actually putting it out to the public.”
And that has put Himelstein back in the public eye, trying to win the whole city over.