Stay up to Date
Our weekly insiders guide to political and policy news (Saturdays)
As Bob Filner’s sexual harassment scandal has drawn national eyes to San Diego, political science professor Carl Luna’s profile has skyrocketed. Some aren’t so sure that’s a good thing.
Carl Luna is sitting between takes with 10 News reporter Dan Haggerty after making an appearance on the 6 p.m. news.
It’s July 22, 11 days since three supporters of Mayor Bob Filner first accused him of sexual harassment and urged him to resign. Luna has made three television appearances today, and he’s not done yet. A Russian radio station is calling him later to get his thoughts on the scandal.
Haggerty is jesting with Luna because earlier that day, Channel 8 News referred to Luna as “our expert Carl Luna.” Luna is also a regular on 10 News.
“Our Carl Luna?” says Haggerty, feigning offense.
Haggerty jokingly asks Luna when he’s going to run for mayor. Luna says he doesn’t have the ego for it.
Luna, a professor at Mesa College and a self-proclaimed pundit, has appeared frequently on local TV and in other media for years. He is known for his pithy remarks and endless one-liners, which make him popular among reporters.
As Filner’s sexual harassment scandal has drawn national eyes to San Diego, Luna’s profile has skyrocketed. National outlets that have flocked to cover the scandal have increasingly turned to Luna to help explain what’s going on.
But his constant stream of appearances has drawn criticism from some locals who question his credentials and wonder whether Luna’s face should be the one people think of when analyzing San Diego politics.
Luna has a B.A. in political science, history and philosophy from the University of San Diego and a Ph.D. in political science from American University in Washington D.C.
“I’ve never been one to really say, ‘Wow look what I’ve done over everybody else. I feel very lucky for anything I’ve managed to get and anything I get, I always feel like everybody else should have at least what I’ve got.”
Luna is usually flexible and willing to drive to news stations around the county to make appearances, but when he can’t, the media can meet him at his home in Coronado. Luna has a large, multicolored table in front of his house that he reserves for media appearances when he can’t make it to a studio.
Luna estimates that he’s done about 40 media appearances — including TV, radio and print — over the last three weeks since the Filner scandal broke. He has made close to 1,000 total media appearances, he estimated.
His first television appearance, in 1999, was bittersweet. His mother got to see it but his father passed away from leukemia hours before the segment aired.
Luna is not paid for his media appearances, though he brags that he got a breakfast burrito from Channel 8 once. Other times he’s received gift cards. He said he once stole a mug from KPBS.
“You don’t get rich as a pundit.” Luna said.
If you did, Luna would be loaded. Here’s a look at how media-saturated his typical day is, based on his schedule for July 22, which Luna shared with me:
Luna has taught at Mesa for 24 years, and has been a visiting professor at University of San Diego for 14. But when he finished his Ph.D. in 1988, he said, “The last thing I wanted to do was teach.”
Before getting into teaching, Luna was working on using an artificial programming language to simulate decision-makers in revolutions and try to replicate them.
A government agency got interested and gave him a contract to develop software for the idea. But the project eventually became a victim of budget cuts in the late ’80s and was canceled.
Luna was hired at Mesa College after making a connection at an annual dinner at USD thrown by John Chambers, a politics professor who has since passed away.
Luna was born in Pittsburgh. His father, an atomic engineer, came to San Diego for a conference in January 1973 and, not wanting to return home to the snow, decided to move the family to San Diego permanently.
According to Luna, no one else in his family is involved in politics. His wife — his USD sweetheart — is a first grade teacher; two of his four daughters are librarians.
Luna said he used to meet with candidates and city politicians regularly between 2003 and 2010, when he did separate stints blogging for what’s now U-T San Diego and San Diego CityBeat.
Now, he sticks mostly to online research.
“[News stations] will call me up and say, ‘Can you do an interview on such in such in an hour or two?’ and I can because I can have the basic framework of what’s going on. But I do very quick research. I go online, find out what’s being said on the blogs and the various different news feeds, put all that together to get my knowledge of what’s going on. I’m very much like Will Rogers. All I know is what I read in the papers. It’s not like Bob Filner’s calling me up and giving me a private feed or something like that. … I’m an outsider looking in, trying to make sense of it for everybody else out there who’s an outsider looking in.”
Sometimes Luna’s predictions are wrong.
Last year, he speculated that former Mayor Jerry Sanders would not endorse former Councilman Carl Demaio for mayor. Sanders endorsed DeMaio two days later.
Luna has also recently predicted that if Filner is successfully recalled, Demaio will not leave the congressional race — he’s challenging Democratic Rep. Scott Peters — to run for mayor again.
Luna mostly shrugs off his record of prognosticating.
“You make predictions as best you can with stuff, and if you’re lucky you beat the monkey throwing the dart at the dartboard.”
Luna helped found Restoring Respect, a civility project that strives to make local discussions about politics more respectful and less divided.
His political inclinations have manifested themselves in other ways, too.
The Luna family spent a year in Russia in 1999 when Luna was selected to teach abroad as a Fulbright Scholar. He’s since written and self-published a Russian political intrigue novel called “Motherland,” which he said has sold about 23 copies.
Luna said that he would like to retire in 10 years and get a small vacation home in France, where he could finish at least one of five books he hasn’t had time to write.
One is called “Bleached Bones,” which he describes as “‘Death Wish’ meets ‘Wall Street’ with a little ‘Rambo’ thrown in.” It’s about a vigilante who goes after bankers to try to hold them accountable.
He’s also working on a book called “Richard Nixon: The Musical.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) his near-constant presence on TV, radio and in print, Luna has published few academic works.
“That’s a thing I’ll confess to,” said Luna. “I’m not the most published of academics.”
This is an issue for Luna’s detractors, who believe that he’s not necessarily qualified to be giving political commentary.
“Quality and quantity of our published research. That’s how [political scientists] measure each other,” said Steve Erie, a political science professor at UCSD who appears frequently in print articles, but never on TV.
Erie said he doesn’t have time to do TV appearances because of his workload. “You have to be flexible. Carl’s willing to do it and I give him credit.”
“While I haven’t written a lot academically on [political science], I’ve done dozens of op-ed pieces, hundreds of blogs, pushing close to 1,000 interviews now, so I must know something that somebody feels is of value, because the day the phone calls stop coming, then I’ll know that I don’t know what I’m talking about,” said Luna.
Luna doesn’t seem phased by the criticism.
Nor do those who book Luna for their shows.
Gene Cubbison, a reporter for NBC 7 who often invites Luna to appear on his show “Politically Speaking,” said that he’s never stumped Luna with a question.
Megan Burke, a producer at KPBS, said that when breaking news hits, “There’s usually a race to see who can get him first. There aren’t that many who have studied [local politics] as in-depth as he has.”
“He’s a veteran expert who has followed City Hall closely but still managed to stay above the fray. He also knows how to turn a phrase,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UCSD.
“There’s nobody in San Diego who can present themselves as the voice of San Diego politics. I’m a voice,” said Luna.
Luna said his 24 years of teaching has helped him hone a style that results in lots of colorful quotes. They include greatest hits like these ones:
• On the pension crisis, in 2004: “San Diego is kinda like the Titanic, 15 minutes after hitting the iceberg.”
• On political players lining up for the 2012 mayoral race: “It’s kind of like that movie, ‘Hunger Games,’ where you get the city center and the districts.”
• On Filner’s refusal to resign: “He’s not only hunkered down in the bunker, he’s taken the hinges off the door and welded it shut.”
“That’s my lecture style,” said Luna. “Keep it short, keep it pithy, keep them interested.”