Political Mercenary

Rise of GOP strategist signals transformation of anti-airport coalition

There's new evidence that the South County's anti-El Toro International Airport coalition, once a grassroots effort, is falling under the sway of powerful real-estate developers with ties to the Republican Party.

According to records obtained by the Weekly, anti-airport forces have agreed to hire Tom Shepard, a pro-development political consultant and Republican Party insider from San Diego.

"Tom Shepard will be the lead campaign strategist and, as such, will prepare the campaign plan and budget," wrote Meg Waters, a publicist for the South County cities opposed to the airport, in a Jan. 4 memo to anti-airport leaders. "This plan and budget will be approved and implemented by the Executive Committee with the ongoing input and counsel from Tom Shepard. In addition, Shepard and the executive committee will hire the professional fund-raiser."

Called "one of California's most respected political consultants," Shepard is San Diego's political equivalent of Sun Tzu, the ancient military strategist whose essay On War has become a cult classic among corporate managers. Currently "affiliated" with the San Diego-based public-relations firm Stoorza, Ziegaus & Metzger-one of two PR firms hired by the South County cities-Shepard has already done "internal" work for the Laguna Hills-based anti-airport group Taxpayers for Responsible Planning. Sources close to TRP say anti-airport forces will pay $7,000 to retain Shepard.

Shepard is tight with some of San Diego's powerful Republican real-estate developers. And in Orange County, Republican developers-men like George Argyros, Donald Bren and William Lyon-desperately want an international airport at El Toro.

"The anti-airport leadership hired Shepard because he has experience fighting slow-growth initiatives," said one anti-airport activist who requested anonymity. "If the [anti-airport leadership] has no problem with him, then how badly do they really want to stop the airport?"

Shepard's defenders in the coalition say his experience in promoting Republicans-and demolishing slow-growth initiatives-is actually an asset. Having advanced big growth projects throughout San Diego, the reasoning goes, he'll know how to stop El Toro.

A former mayor and city councilman from Del Mar in the mid-1970s, Shepard certainly has experience. His tactics, which he has sharpened over the past 20 years, usually involve massive fund-raising followed by a storm of expensive television ads.

"My personal interest since college has been in local government and public policy," Shepard said. "The reason I deal with developers so much is because developers frequently have the money to pay for campaigns."

In 1998 alone, Shepard headed campaigns for U.S. Congressman Brian Bilbray (R-Imperial Beach), an Assembly candidate, three city council candidates, two county officials and a municipal court judge, as well as four ballot initiatives. All the campaigns except for one city council candidate's were successful, but the ballot campaigns best illustrate Shepard's methods and clients.

*No on Proposition AA: Shepard's campaign smashed a slow-growth initiative that would have limited development of the 2,550-acre Fanita Ranch in Santee. The measure's proponents raised just $4,040 to Shepard's $70,000-all of which came from the Fanita Ranch developer.

*Yes on A: Shepard's group raised $880,310 to promote a massive expansion of the San Diego Convention Center, all under the slogan "Yes on Proposition A-It's Good for All of Us."

*No on Proposition B: Shepard's campaign brought in $560,000 from developers and landowners to kill this attempt to dezone 600,000 acres of backcountry outside San Diego to 40- and 80-acre parcels. The pro-side raised $370,000 but lost by 20 percentage points.

*Yes on Proposition C: This $411 million measure to redevelop 26 downtown city blocks into a new Padres ballpark, restaurants and shops again won by 20 points. Shepard's campaign raised $2.5 million against the opposition's $25,000.

At least once during the 1998 campaign season, Shepard's handiwork reportedly landed him in trouble with his own clients. One October television ad for Bilbray's re-election featured an unidentified man standing in front of the San Diego Convention Center (whose expansion Shepard was simultaneously promoting) talking about how Bilbray's opponent-a Democratic city councilwoman-had made a mess of the city. Republican Mayor Susan Golding (another Shepard client) instantly took offense. Bilbray fumbled a reply that the man in the ad was only voicing his opinion, then later admitted the man was one of Shepard's staffers.

Shepard also embodies the airport fight's increasing bureaucratization. High-tech specialist armies of attorneys, lobbyists, public-relations flacks and campaign strategists-trained in the latest multimedia and voter-research methods and financed by local governments spending millions of dollars-have come to dominate what was once a grassroots battle against the county's proposed El Toro International Airport. Since these mercenaries in gray suits are paid by the hour, they may prefer long wars of attrition rather than a quick and decisive blitzkrieg that paralyzes their adversaries.

Airport opponents say that isn't true. They say the Healthy Communities Act-which would require a supermajority of county voters to build the airport-should stop El Toro no later than March 2000. Recent history says that's unlikely. Nearly 25 years ago, the Air Force closed Hamilton Air Force Base in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. County officials attempted to convert the base into an air-cargo facility. Local residents, fearful of the increased noise, traffic and pollution the new airport would drop on their cities, fought the county. In 1996, following six ballot initiatives, county planners finally gave up. Only now are county officials redeveloping the base.

During the fight, elected city and county officials came and went, but legal and consultant contracts stacked up. The fight over the airport became a job creator-a way of life for the men in gray suits who slash at one another in boardrooms with computerized PowerPoint Presentations and consultant reports.

Today pro-airport forces pay a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., local attorneys, two PR firms, strategists like consultant Dave Ellis and Newport Beach bureaucrats, and run their new "Airport Task Force" out of Royce Multimedia Inc.'s Irvine office. (Peggy Ducy, Newport Beach deputy city manager, even has an office there.) Nelson Communications, which once spun the airport for the county, has moved on, but 10 Civic Center Plaza now employs an attorney for round-the-clock spin.

South of the 55 freeway, anti-airport forces also field a strike force composed of local attorneys, two PR firms, and planning and engineer firms-all directed by former Inglewood City Manager Paul Eckles, whose contract was recently extended.

Airport boosters have long said El Toro International Airport would create new jobs. It's apparent that it already has.

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