Leading the Conversation: Voice of the Year 2013 - Voice of San Diego

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Leading the Conversation: Voice of the Year 2013

Considering several noteworthy people in nonprofits, politics, academics and economics, we highlighted those whose voices piped up above the rest – people who helped tell San Diego’s story this year.

Voice of San Diego set out to determine the person whose voice provoked the most important conversations of 2013 in San Diego.

Editorial staff and management fielded suggestions from members and readers, and decided internally who deserved top billing. We chose people from nonprofits, economics, science, politics and more – people who drove the narrative in their own microcosm of our world.

Love them or hate them, these are the names who guided San Diego’s story over the last year.


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Voice of the Year: Bob Filner

When we decided to inaugurate the annual Voice of the Year recognition, we settled on this definition: “The person whose voice provoked the most important conversations of the year in San Diego.”

For good and ill, there’s no question that Bob Filner’s voice provoked the most important conversations of 2013. This is not an award. It’s a reflection.

Filner provoked conversations about neighborhoods, about homeless people, about inequality and forgotten communities. He instigated discussions about public dollars in tourism, the smell of feces in La Jolla and a new future for our beloved Balboa Park.

And then he, in spite of his own unwillingness, led us to an important conversation about the way women are treated in public affairs settings and as employees. His voice, his denials, his admissions and his lies led to conversations about mental health, about our City Charter and our recall process.

We had a conversation about the people he let down, the women he hurt and the supporters he betrayed. If a person in power is treating women like Filner did, they are on notice that the community will not tolerate it.

Finally, we discussed who would replace him.

It continues into 2014. Now, much of the way he framed San Diego’s plight is reflected in that apparently never-ending conversation about who will lead the city going forward.

Bob Filner is the Voice of the Year.

His wasn’t an eloquent voice. He sometimes digressed so badly in his discourse he could not remember where he started.

His speech the day he told the city he was going to resign began as a moving and emotional apology only to become vicious and unhinged.

But he had a unique impatience. It was an intolerance for those who would say he could not do something —an intolerance more leaders should adopt. When he was determined to remove cars from Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama, after a major overhaul had been thrown out by the courts, he would not let himself be constrained by what held others back.

He tested the boundaries of mayoral power. And you can’t test boundaries without crossing them. We now know just what a strong mayor can do if he or she does not like a major development project or a public investment. And we know more about what a mayor cannot do.

The influence of Filner’s voice was never more clear than when his predecessor, Mayor Jerry Sanders, recently cut a TV commercial for his own chosen mayoral candidate. In it, Sanders talked about neighborhoods that had been neglected.

Nobody before Filner managed to get Sanders to say anything about how he had neglected neighborhoods.

That neighborhoods were being neglected while downtown raked in public investment was a framing that many discussed before Filner. The civic chattering class had batted the concept around often. But Filner turned it into a call to action. It’s a call that even those who loathed Filner the most have adopted.

San Diego is different now.

However embarrassing, hurtful and confusing it was at times, Filner’s was definitely the Voice of the Year.

By Scott Lewis; photo by Sam Hodgson


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The Alarm Ringer: Pradeep Khosla

Pradeep Khosla understands the power of the podium. It’s why he keeps bringing up inequality whenever there are people around to listen.

Andrew Keatts asked him earlier this year about the ways in which he uses his role as chancellor of UC San Diego to affect change.

His response hinted at a snowball effect – conversations about big, complex issues can form with only one or two voices, and expand from there.

“I think just talking about it, as part of conversation, and you can tell: I mean, because I’ve been talking about it, you feel the need to ask me a little bit more about it,” he said. There will always be a gap between rich and poor. But we can work to ensure all have access to good schools, affordable housing, a stable efficient safety net.

These all require us to acknowledge problems and be willing to talk about them. Khosla has given San Diego that push.

By Sara Libby; photo by Sam Hodgson


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The Humanizing Voice: Liz Hirsch

There are certain policy issues that get so overrun with infighting over budgets and bureaucracy that it’s easy to forget that they’re about actual human beings. Homelessness can be one of those.

lizemail012213That’s why Liz Hirsch’s ability to articulate her experiences living in shelters and on the streets was such a revelation. Her dispatches – which came in emails she sent to VOSD reporter Kelly Bennett – were at times funny, heartbreaking, frustrating and illuminating. A sampling:

Plenty of people were talking about homelessness in San Diego before Hirsch came along.

But her emails always reframed the conversation in a crucial way: Whether people were expressing sympathy with Hirsch or criticism, they were talking about a human being – not budgets, shelters or “the system.”

By Sara Libby; photo by Sam Hodgson


The Voices from the Barrio: David Alvarez and Georgette Gomez

It was the issue that propelled him into politics.

City Councilman David Alvarez grew up amid Barrio Logan’s mishmash of homes and manufacturers, in a home next door to a chrome plating shop that regularly belched fumes into his front yard. He learned that scenario wasn’t the norm as a young teenager and started attending community meetings.

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Two decades later, Alvarez was the City Councilman pushing a new community plan that would create a buffer between residential areas and manufacturers that collide in Barrio Logan – and he used his personal story to explain why it was necessary.

As he prepared to vote, Alvarez described stopping at the pharmacy to pick up his asthma medication, noting that asthma hospitalization rates are especially high in the neighborhood.

And the usually quiet councilman addressed the environmental injustice head-on. “This city has done this community wrong for a long, long time, and it needs to change, and it changes today,” he said.

In the months since that vote, shipbuilders and other business leaders gathered enough signatures to place a referendum on the June ballot but Alvarez counts the compromise version that won City Council approval among his major accomplishments.

Alvarez often says he’s lived the problems he aims to fix. This is his signature example.

By Lisa Halverstadt; photo by Sam Hodgson

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In many ways, the conversation came to Georgette Gomez, a policy adviser for the Environmental Health Coalition, in 2013.

Her organization and Barrio Logan residents have been working for years on passing new zoning restrictions for the working-class neighborhood, in hopes of untangling its jumble of homes, schools and industrial activities just south of downtown.

The City Council voted for the change this year when it approved a new community plan, but the local shipbuilding industry has poured money into overturning that decision by putting it to a citywide vote in June.

Gomez had been a patient but persistent voice in favor of the new community plan for years. Now, she said, it’s time for a different approach.

If nothing else, Gomez used her voice this year to remind the city that there have been winners and losers in San Diego’s traditional decision-making process. And she knows who in that split she’s speaking for. In her own words, at our recent neighborhood forum:

“I’m not interested in playing nice with everybody,” she said. I work in low-income communities, communities that don’t get represented in decision-making. And you know, I reflect back on the beginning of the conversation on Barrio Logan. We played nicely. And now, we’re having to deal with a referendum.”

“So for me, I’m interested more in empowering members that traditionally haven’t been in City Hall. That’s what I’m interested in, not playing nicely with everybody. I do that if I need to, but I’m interested in helping to lift up the voices of people that normally aren’t at planning decision making processes. I reflect back on Barrio Logan, we literally played with everybody at the table, and look at the situation we’re in.”

By Andrew Keatts; photo by Sam Hodgson


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The Deciding Voice: Judge Timothy Taylor

For politicians, driving a conversation usually means pushing for a policy – or taking a stand against one. For Judge Timothy Taylor, it meant having a slew of high-profile, city-altering court cases assigned to him.

Late in 2012, he struck down the San Diego Association of Governments’ 40-year transportation plan – a state-required outline of road, highway, bus, trolley and bike spending throughout the county – for failing to meet environmental standards.

Then in February he stopped the plan to remake the center of Balboa Park with a bypass bridge, underground parking garage and car-free plaza because the city failed to meet its own decision-making requirement.

In March, he gave former Mayor Bob Filner leverage in his standoff with the hotel industry over funds marked for tourism marketing.

Judicial decisions help shape history. And Taylor, asked to rule on three of the city’s biggest policy conversations in recent years, did exactly that.

But being assigned those cases and doing his job as required weren’t all he did to make his voice part of the conversation. The prose used in his decisions explicitly acknowledges the decisions as historical documents.

On the decision affecting Filner and tourism funding, he began by quoting Marbury v. Madison, the case that solidified the court’s role as protector of the rule of law. In striking down the Balboa Park plan, he seemed openly conflicted, but said the law was clear and called it “a sad day for San Diego.” On the transportation plan, which was sued over a lack of attention paid to mitigating the effects of climate change, he called it “the signal issue of our time.”

By Andrew Keatts; photo by Sam Hodgson


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The Filner Ousters: Donna Frye, Cory Briggs, Marco Gonzalez and Irene McCormack

If Mayor Bob Filner’s abuse of power was a tragedy – as City Attorney Jan Goldsmith recently characterized it – then those who made Filner face the music about his disturbing behavior were, in the end, his Greek chorus.

The unlikely group — Filner’s nemesis and four of his former allies — made the city face uncomfortable truths and ushered in a national conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace.

After Filner’s inauguration in December 2012, he pissed off a lot people in short order, especially his archrival, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith.

That wasn’t too surprising – Filner had always been brash. What was surprising was a bombshell press conference starring Donna Frye, Cory Briggs and Marco Gonzalez in which the progressive trio urged the mayor to step down.

Frye, who worked briefly as Filner’s head of open government, and public-interest attorneys Briggs and Gonzalez, said Filner had sexually harassed several women.

Soon Irene McCormack, Filner’s former spokeswoman, emerged as Filner’s first public accuser, and said he made frequently “crude and disgusting” comments, opening the door for others to come forward.

Goldsmith took credit for engineering Filner’s ouster — he no doubt played an important role — but credible portrayals of a man out of control from Filner’s former allies really made us listen.

The chorus didn’t always sing in unison. But when it did, we could hardly hear anything else.

By Joel Hoffmann; photos by Sam Hodgson


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The Voice of 44th Street: Ricky McCoy Sr.

Ricky McCoy Sr. wasn’t the neighborhood crusader type. He didn’t go to community meetings. He didn’t learn the names of city workers or police officers. What happened inside the gate of the small apartment complex he shares with his wife, kids and grandkids – that was his world.

But when one of his grandchildren, Rickquese McCoy, was shot and killed just outside of that gate in late 2012, he turned to his neighbors. He found an entire community in need, and committed to expanding – and improving – his world.

At the time, he had very few tools to help. But throughout 2013, McCoy and his neighbors have been growing their toolbox. They meet twice a month and talk about bringing resources to their street.

They started with a block party to bring people together. Then they reached deeper. They helped youth find jobs and developed game plans for young neighbors returning home from jail. They talked to the school district about training their teachers on how to deal with trauma.

Now, they’re anticipating the installation of streetlights and speed humps they lobbied for, and are thinking about going after a Community Development Block Grant – federals funds with an application that can befuddle even seasoned grant writers.

“We’ve been rock-steady no matter what,” McCoy said. “Sometimes it was only three of us at the meetings. Sometimes it was only two. But people see this door open and it made the difference, believe it or not – them just knowing that we’re still here trying to help the community.”

McCoy said the clearest change is a reduction in crime on his block. Overall crime is down in San Diego, but the number of violent crimes in McCoy’s Swan Canyon neighborhood is down significantly, from 39 last year to 19.

“There was a time when you would walk out and see people drinking and smoking weed and playing loud music,” McCoy said. “There’s none of that anymore – and that’s us.”

McCoy said there have not yet been any arrests related to Rickquese’s murder.

By Megan Burks; photo by Sam Hodgson


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The E-Voice: Brant Cooper

Some conversations happen behind closed doors, or in closed circles. But even without breaking through to the general population, a voice dispensing hard truths can still affect broad change.

In board rooms where social-media gurus hash out plans, it’s called “Influencing the influencers.”

That’s what Brant Cooper, startup aficionado and author of the New York Times bestseller “The Lean Entrepreneur,” pulled off when he penned his harsh critique of San Diego’s tech startup industry, a widely circulated e-lashing that came to be known as “Brant’s Rant.”

“I can’t help but wonder,” Cooper wrote, “Does San Diego at large even know there is a Startup Ecosystem problem here?” before walking through the series of problems he saw.

One problem, he said, is that startups are spread from Tijuana to Oceanside, and the lack of concentration works against collaboration and openness.

But he had especially harsh words for “the patriarch problem,” wherein established, major organizations meant to foster innovation fundamentally misunderstand what’s needed in today’s startup world.

“Unfortunately, the legacy institutions that serve as the vehicles for their contributions are anachronistic, decidedly old-school, and arguably more harmful to San Diego than beneficial,” he wrote. “Included in this list are the very institutions held up as being proof by some that San Diego startup ecosystem is thriving, including CONNECT, EvoNexus, Tech Coast Angels, SDVG, SDSIC and others.”

What they don’t do, he said: pay it forward, foster openness and inclusiveness, mentor, understand modern business models or adapt to new investment practices.

His blog post generated huge response. Hundreds of comments, formal responses in other publications, and a follow-up response by Cooper himself elevated his sentiments from an internal gripe to a call to action.

And while it would be wrong to draw a direct line from the rant to events that followed it, there has been a response from the local tech community, in the form of new mentorship programs and recently a voluntary pledge that startup founders will reinvest 10 percent of their windfall back into local startups if they’re lucky enough to score a major exit.

By Andrew Keatts; photo courtesy of Brant Cooper


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The Calming Voice: Todd Gloria

Last year, when former Mayor Bob Filner took his seat, I predicted a rivalry would emerge between him and his Democratic counterpart, Todd Gloria, the City Council president.

It certainly delivered. Filner did his best to put Gloria on his heels, literally. He boasted of cornering Gloria and leaned in, demanding Gloria stand up to the Republicans on the City Council and fall in line with Filner’s vision.

Now, a year later, there are few people in San Diego city politics as highly regarded as Gloria. And Filner is languishing in court-mandated home confinement having just been named the worst boss in America.

When we sought feedback on this Voice of the Year effort, nobody got more recommendations than Gloria.

After Filner resigned, Gloria took over only some of the duties of the mayor’s office. But he made the most of it.

He decided not to run for mayor, which ironically contributed to more people wanting him to be mayor. He pushed through a dramatic restructuring of city management that both mayoral candidates support.

Where Filner stopped everything at his desk, Gloria empowered his staff and lauded top managers. Agree or disagree with the policies he supported, he did not delay, implementing a new affordable housing fee with his colleagues, and eloquently defending a new community plan for Barrio Logan.

His public statements, interviews and comportment have been exceedingly professional and intelligent. Again, whether you agree or disagree, it has been nice to have someone representing the city who spoke so well, and inspired so much calm.

He was unanimously re-elected Council president and will go back to a more limited role after a new mayor is chosen.

As one reader put it, Gloria “has been like the glue that has kept our city together, functioning and improving, even though he is only ‘temporary.'”

Gloria may not have run for mayor, but he is apparently playing a longer game. And he’s winning it.

By Scott Lewis; photo by Sam Hodgson


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The Voice of Righteousness: Greg Koch

Using an economic impact report on the craft beer industry as a springboard, the most outspoken voice in beer — arguably in the whole country — forced a conversation that had been happening in tasting rooms from Vista to North Park into the local political world: Why isn’t San Diego aggressively touting its award-winning breweries as a central piece of the city’s identity?

For Stone Brewing Co. CEO Greg Koch, it’s another installment in an ongoing argument he’s having with the world at large, with The Man, wherein he demands greater recognition of quality.

“It is a fight,” Koch said. “There’s no question about it. They threw down the gauntlet first when they told us we should expect less and don’t deserve better. There is a conspiracy of low expectations in this country.”

But the central conversation Koch, chief of the region’s largest brewery, pushed in 2013 is actually exceedingly modest: Why aren’t major institutions making more of an effort to promote a successful local industry?

Publicly funded facilities like the airport, convention center and stadiums should be selling local beer. Major San Diego events that draw people from out of town — the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon, Comic-Con, the Holiday Bowl — should consider selling award-winning, locally produced beer as an opportunity to brand themselves and the city. And like Napa Valley with wine, and Munich with its beer, Koch argues, the lasting benefits between linking a city to an artisanal product go beyond the product itself.

Koch’s appeal is both honest provocation and self-promotion. Koch called a summit at his Liberty Station location, bringing Chamber of Commerce CEO Jerry Sanders, City Councilman Mark Kersey, House candidate Carl DeMaio, elected leaders from around the county and other members of the region’s established decision-making structure to hear his appeal. He took the conversation to those who need to hear it.

By Andrew Keatts; photo by Sam Hodgson


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The Voice of Blue San Diego: Mickey Kasparian

If you are a politician in San Diego’s Democratic coalition, you may want to think twice about making decisions and public announcements before getting the go-ahead from the Labor Council.

A group of elected Democrats got together at the house of U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas as former Mayor Bob Filner’s career was ending. They decided that supporting former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher to replace him was the way to go.

But Mickey Kasparian was not fully on board. Kasparian is far from the only force in the Labor Council. But he’s the president and he’s the leader of the coalition’s largest union, the United Food and Commercial Workers.

He scoured for an alternative to Fletcher. Kasparian helped marshal $1.6 million to support the chosen alternative, David Alvarez.

More than that, he articulated the argument that Democrats could not trust Fletcher.

That helped Alvarez get the Democratic endorsement, more money and eventually the coveted second place slot in the mayor’s race. It was an act of enforcement. As Kasparian said 100 times, Fletcher’s friends should not have gone ahead of the Labor Council.

The Labor Council is ascendant. If San Diego’s future is Democratic, labor is at the helm.

Kasparian has been a major voice in ensuring the growth of the labor movement in San Diego, which also includes the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers and the United Domestic Workers.

They want their movement to thrive and are choosing folks from within it to run for office. They want to be the Democrats’ spine. Without a spine, you crumble.

By Scott Lewis; photo by Sam Hodgson


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The Hopeful Voice: Cindy Marten

For the past 10 years, San Diego Unified School has searched for a voice that could lead the district past political landmines and toward a shared vision.

In February, the school board stunned the city when it claimed to have found that perfect voice in the most unlikely place: within the school district.

By now, the story of how Cindy Marten rose from teacher to principal to superintendent is so well known that it’s become a part of her brand. It’s a message of overwhelming positivity — one that reminds us to “be kind” and “dream big.”

The rhetoric would be easy to poke fun at and dismiss, if it wasn’t so effective.

In fact, Marten’s rhetoric may be one of her greatest strengths. Unlike several superintendents who’ve come and gone in the past decade, she’s been able to form alliances with the powers that be: city leaders, the school board and the teacher’s union.

Two messages that have resonated: Test scores, by themselves, do not tell the whole story. And while student outcomes need to improve, many possible solutions are already at work in various classrooms across the district. The challenge, she’s said, is taking those effective strategies to scale across the district.

The approach has been well-received by teachers who want their work validated.

Just as important as what Marten says is what she doesn’t say.

“I don’t avoid the polarized conversations because I’m afraid of them,” Marten told Voice of San Diego.

“You want to talk about polarizing topics? Let’s talk about them. But right now, I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got a district to run.”

Yet, what earns Marten a spot on our Voices of the Year list isn’t just her ability to craft an inspiring message. True to her teaching roots, her most powerful statements aren’t declarations at all, but in fact, questions.

How do we define success? What do we mean when we talk about quality schools? Sooner or later, she’ll have to identify what she hears, and lead us toward those conclusions. But in 2013, Marten successfully turned the conversation around on us, giving the community its turn to speak.

By Mario Koran; photo by Sam Hodgson


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The Voice of Conservatives: Bill Lynch

Not long ago, the Lincoln Club fought a legal battle with the city of San Diego over its campaign finance laws. The club was limited in how it could spend its money on a city election based on small, per-member cap.

It won and has now become a major force in local politics.

Bill Lynch is chairman of the Lincoln Club. The longtime philanthropist decided several years ago that while his efforts to increase literacy and reform education had gotten him national acclaim, he said, “I ran into the fact that politics controls everything, and so I got involved.”

It was Lynch’s voice that helped keep some of Mayor Bob Filner’s critics from backing a recall, as he advised that they use their resources more wisely. It was Lynch who answered for a blistering campaign to sink Nathan Fletcher, the early favorite to advance to a mayoral runoff once the race to replace Filner was on.

That effort jeopardized some of Lynch’s friendships. And he had to manage the complaints of the furious chief executive at Qualcomm, insulted by the Lincoln Club’s insinuation he and the company were involved in some sort of nefarious deal with Fletcher.

Lynch is a bridge from the old San Diego Republican network to the new one, which the Lincoln Club is poised to lead.

Above all else, he says his priority is to provide a check on the influence of public employee unions. He says he wanted to kill Fletcher’s campaign to create a more classic battle between the Lincoln Club’s choice, Kevin Faulconer, and David Alvarez, who rallied support from the most unions in town.

These two rival coalitions, the unions and the anti-unions, will now battle for San Diego’s political future for many years to come. And that’s exactly what they both wanted.

As for Lynch, he says he will help through this campaign to replace Filner and go back to giving away money.

By Scott Lewis; photo by Sam Hodgson

Graphics by Amy Krone

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