On La Mesa: The Politics Of Personality

By Chris Lavin

La Mesa Today Editor

LA MESA -- After more than three decades in public service to La Mesa, Art Madrid is recognized wherever he goes. Old friends, constituents, the sons and daughters of former campaign workers, residents who sought help from or sometimes fought with City Hall.
They come up and engage Madrid, not as if they are meeting a celebrity -- this is a small town -- but more these days as if they are greeting their grandfather.

But heading into what he says will be his last campaign, Madrid is not feeling at all avuncular. He has a direct, almost edgy message for those who believe his last campaign will end badly for him.
"Not if I win, when I win,'' Madrid interjected repeatedly one recent morning while talking politics at the La Mesa Bistro on Glen Street.
One expecting to find a politician in his eighth decade of life resting on past wins and relaxing instead hears a long list of the failings of virtually anyone who might be considered to be his successor.
"I have thought long and hard about who can take this job and do what this city needs,'' Madrid said, then his voice trails off and none of the names -- Ernie Ewin, Mark Arapostathis, Kristine Alessio come up. Instead, Madrid talks of younger people he'd like to coax into public service and groom for at least four years down the line.
"I have earned this position,'' Madrid says of the mayor's office. "If someone wants it. They are going to have to earn it too.''

And clearly, none of the local politicians who have been tussling with Madrid over the last two years -- and that includes virtually the entire City Council -- are on Madrid's list of future La Mesa mayors. 

Madrid believes his long service has built a degree of trust and appreciation among the silent majority of La Mesans and, as this election year unfolds, any opponent will find knocking him off to be much harder than getting a few vocal locals to show up at City Council meetings and trash talk.

"We have a very good city staff," Madrid says, "and we need to be concerned about keeping them, giving them the direction and support to get their jobs done. I worry about that happening with them in charge.''

"Them" in this case seems to mean anyone but Art and certainly includes Arapostathis, the popular school teacher and theater director whose vote totals in past elections have suggested strong support in this, his hometown. "Dr. A." as the tongue-tied call him, hasn't publicly announced his candidacy for mayor, but he acknowledges considering a run and numerous supporters are saying they believe he will.

Madrid and Arapostathis once appeared to be allies, but over time, the relationship has cooled and Madrid has no problem questioning the scope of Arapostathis' experience. "He's never gone anywhere,'' as Madrid puts it.

Ewin, the long-serving council member and frequent Madrid jouster, has also considered a mayoral run, but informed friends and colleagues Sunday morning that he won't be running for mayor. Some of his friends and allies in town have said Ewin is even considering stepping aside altogether, giving up his council seat to enjoy more time with his many grandchildren. He said a final decision on that will be announced Tuesday morning.

So as the November race takes shape this Spring, it is looking like this may be a watershed year for La Mesa politics. If Madrid faces off against Arapostathis, that will guarantee at least one open seat in the council race because Arapostathis' council seat is up this term as well. If Ewin steps aside, that could mean January 2015 could find two new council members -- something that hasn't happened in this incumbent-loving town since Noah's ark came to rest on Mt. Helix.

In many ways, that may be a scenario that Madrid is counting on. Winning another four years as mayor with the current council members, would be a Pyrrhic victory. Of late, Madrid could propose a salute to America and find his fellow council members wanting to table it.

Yet the deep personal animosity that exists between the mayor and the other council members threatens to be part of Madrid's legacy. And this animus comes at a crucial time for a city that is facing life-threatening civic trends.

La Mesa has already begun to consolidate its fire fighting with surrounding towns. As sales tax revenues continue to be sluggish in a changing economy, it will take political leadership to find acceptable ways to increase property tax revenues while preserving the small-town feel that so many La Mesans cherish of this bedroom community.

In recent years, La Mesa's pols and electorate have acted as if they are holding a can't lose winning hand. No on the Property Based Improvement District. No to higher-rise development. There was plenty of opposition to the new apartment developments that are now tucked in behind the Grossmont trolley station and now represent a leading source of revenue to pay for city services.

It is not inconceivable that the city's police force could become unaffordable if retail sales tax declines and property values don't keep pace with the growing costs. Contracting with the San Diego Sheriff's Department for police services -- as Lemon Grove and Santee do -- wouldn't be the end of La Mesa, but it would be another step toward losing full control of the key aspects of a city's character.

If these were the issues that were at the heart of the animus between La Mesa's current political leaders, the election cycle might be a hopeful one. But there is little public discussion of these issues. Questions of strategies for attacking these challenges are, it seems, left to the studies and planning of the quiet bureaucrats working under a very competent, but low-key city manager. Rome may be burning, but no one is crying fire.

Perhaps La Mesa is destined to evolve into a pleasant neighborhood, just beyond other nice places like Del Cerro and San Marcos -- protected by a sheriff's captain, a cadre of regional fire-fighters and eventually having its enviable public transportation fuel the higher-density development SANDAG planners would like to see springing up all along the trolley tracks.

It will be both interesting and important to see if this year's election can rise above the politics of personality that has set the agenda for at least the last two years. There is clearly more at stake than the longevity of a mayor, more than the city's current leadership has been able to explain to the electorate.


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Tags: Art Madrid, City Council, Ernie Ewin, Government, Kristine Alessio, La Mesa Today, La Mesa newspaper, Mark Arapostathis


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Comment by Pat Karlsgodt on March 30, 2014 at 3:54pm
Once again a sad commentary from La Mesa's current Mayor. The words that come to mind would be arrogant, self-righteous, pig-headed, egotistical, unfocused for what's best for La Mesa. Sadly, the words that SHOULD come to mind about our Mayor are honest, respectful, hard working, team-player, passionate for the good of La Mesa. Mr. A and Mr. E, we need you both in La Mesa for us to have a chance to improve!
Comment by Mark Cavanaugh on March 30, 2014 at 2:54pm

It is exactly the personality of the current Mayor that has earned him the dis-favor of so many of the electorate.  Drunk in his own puke on the sidewalk near his home, continually calling citizens who don't agree with him names, trying to push agendas down our throat like the PBID, trying to get rid of both the Chamber and the Merchants Association because he doesn't like the players, but mostly because under his now 24 years as Mayor and 31 years on the Council, the City is now broke struggling to balance the budget even after a .75% sales tax increase.  La Mesa has increased its unfunded pension liabilities (2nd worse in the County) while some others have decreased them and now has to figure out a way to pay off $40 million (not happening).

Yep, grandfather is right but the kind of creepy grandfather you wouldn't leave your kids with.  Maybe that is why our City is in such peril right now.  Madrid lives in a kind of fantasy world where he believes all love him and think he is doing a wonderful job.  Looks like SANDAG moved on without him not missing a beat.  All the years of travel and junkets have been put on hold by the current council but he still found a way to take two junkets this year through the HWD fully paid by Water Pate payers instead of the sales and real estate taxpayers.  Some leopards just can't change their spots.

Madrid out + anyone else in = a positive move forward for the City.  If you really cared about your City Madrid, you would walk away and let new leadership takeover.  The old guard just hasn't worked very well.  The next four years could be very ugly for City finances and your being the Mayor just might cement your place as the Jimmy Carter of La Mesa

Comment by Gene Carpenter on March 30, 2014 at 12:52pm
Well written piece!

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