Monday, April 28, 2008

ERIC BIDWELL: Zenger’s Endorses a “Revolutionary” Mayor for the Rest of Us


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

Eric Bidwell is about as different from the front-runners in the June 3 primary for Mayor of San Diego, incumbent Jerry Sanders and businessman Steve Francis, as you can get. They’re middle-aged and used to affluence; Bidwell is 25, was raised by a welfare mom and has been homeless most of his adult life. Sanders and Francis are Republicans; Bidwell is registered “decline to state” (election-speak for nonpartisan) and calls himself a “revolutionary.” Sanders and Francis have money for campaign headquarters, TV ads and polling operations — indeed, Sanders is trying to make Francis’s use of an out-of-town polling firm an issue against him — while Bidwell seems to be running his campaign from the wireless Internet connection at the Cream coffeehouse in University Heights (where he downloaded the form to apply to be a candidate, and where we did this interview).

Another aspect of Bidwell’s campaign also pays tribute to the power of the Internet. So put off by normal schooling that he dropped out of high school (though he later obtained his diploma by passing the California High School Proficiency exam) and didn’t last long at City College either, he’s used the Web as his all-purpose tutor. Indeed, at the mayoral candidates’ forum in Balboa Park on Earth Day April 20, he briefly discomfited moderator Carolyn Chase by replying to her question about the most important environmental books he’d read by saying he couldn’t remember the last time he actually read a book start-to-finish. “Maybe it’s a generational thing,” he said, explaining that everything he feels he needs to know he can find on the Internet. (Unfazed, Chase then asked him to name his favorite environmentalist Web site.)

Bidwell deliberately cultivates a scruffy appearance. He’s slightly built, wears his hair in dreadlocks and comes to candidates’ forums in a white T-shirt of his own design, bearing the slogan “San Diego: The Best Government Money Can Buy,” and much-patched black pants — itself a challenge to the idea that all male office-seekers ought to wear a suit and tie. (It’s also good advertising since selling the T-shirts is his main source of income.) But behind it all is a keen mind and a view of the issues that crosses traditional party lines and offers a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stultifying campaign. You can find out more about Eric Bidwell, the Zenger’s-endorsed candidate for Mayor of San Diego, at his Web site,

Zenger’s: You’re at the opposite end of the class scale from both Jerry Sanders and Steve Francis, who are both pushing themselves as, “We’ve been CEO’s. We’ve built businesses. We’ve made tons of money for ourselves and our stockholders, and that’s why we should be entrusted to run the half-billion dollar municipal corporation known as the city of San Diego.”

Eric Bidwell: Not only is it implied with everything they’re doing and all the things they say about it, but Steve Francis by name calls it “the corporation of San Diego” and says he wants to be the CEO. There’s something a little eerie about that. He seems to have a more limited, view of business than a lot of people have, and I don’t think he really realizes that people who aren’t part of the business class probably aren’t going to be that impressed by him saying that he wants to turn our city into a business and become the CEO. With the recent and ongoing history of corporations, CEO’s and the business class taking advantage of government, it seems a little awkward to take it to the full extreme of actually treating our government as business.

I agree I’m quite opposite, and I think that’s probably one of the things that not only makes me a little bit more palatable to the average person, but quite possibly a little more fit for making decisions that reflect and really consider the average person. It seems like [Sanders and Francis] are very experienced in running businesses and government, but they might not be so experienced at running everyday struggles. I don’t know either of their histories too intimately, but it seems like they are currently doing quite well for themselves, and I’m guessing that they don’t surround themselves with too many people who are struggling on a day-to-day level to afford rent and food.

Zenger’s: So why are you running for Mayor, and why should people vote for you?

Bidwell: I guess the first and foremost reason is to get the public involved in local politics in a categorically different way than they currently are, both through example and directly asking them San Diego fits into the general paradigm of American or worldwide politics. There’s a kind of intellectual business/government class, and then everybody else lets them do whatever they want as long as they have enough bread and circuses.

I think we’re finally getting to a point where access to information is much easier, people’s education levels are rising, and people are a lot more able and ready to take more active roles in government. I just don’t think they have been catalyzed to do so. I’m hoping to kind of catalyze the public into getting really involved in local government, getting their perspectives heard, and making sure that things aren’t just railroaded through our political system by special interests or upper-middle-class people that have the time to take days off to go and talk about their interests.

I want to get the desires and voices of people from the broader range of the public to be heard and on the table for our elected officials to choose from. I also want them to realize that at the extreme level, they can actually participate in politics by becoming an elected official. I guess what I am doing is showing how easy it really is. If anybody — if I can get onto a Mayoral race and get myself out there, pretty much anybody could. Just because things do go the way they go, there is this status quo, this paradigm of everybody being in politics wearing a suit and tie, it doesn’t really have to be that way. We really can do it in a categorically different way than we do; and, if enough people get involved, that we might really be able to change things in some really drastic ways, for the betterment of the community overall.

Zenger’s: I would say the most important issue facing San Diego right now is the meltdown in the city finances, the whole thing with the pension funds and the extent to which the city underfunded their employees’ pensions, had to borrow, went into debt for things like the Convention Center expansion and the ballpark. Especially as a young man, and therefore a member of the generation that’s going to be paying all these debts, what do you feel the city needs to do about it?

Bidwell: The city needs to do what it should have been doing all along, which is being really careful and forward-thinking about every financial decision that they make. I think we have a whole lot of room for improvement in cutting little bits of money off of a lot of places. I think it’s really obscene that in the midst of all of this, the City Council tried to give themselves a 25 percent pay raise. They’re probably already making enough to put them in the top 25 percent of people in town, and it seems like if anything they should be cutting their pay instead of raising it. Maybe if they lived a little more in the price range of the average citizen here does, they might have a little more incentive to take on some of the worries of the average citizen.

I think things like buying $25,000 to $30,000 Dodge Chargers for upper-level police officials is a bit unnecessary as well, both from the immediate cost of a really expensive vehicle, to the kind of material excess of them not really needing all the things that vehicle is capable of, to the long-term problem of the horrible gas mileage that those vehicles get. I’m not that intimately aware of everything that’s going on in the city‘s finances, but from the little I do know about there’s loads of places where we could cut corners.

I guess there are some legal limits on what we can do to correct errors of the past. There’s only so much debt we can get out of, that we shouldn’t have got into in the first place. We should probably try to get out of as much as we possibly can in places where we made mistakes. But from now on, the thing that we really need to do is make sure that we don’t accrue any more unnecessary debt, or make any more unnecessary spending expenses. There’s not one big elephant in the middle of the room that we need to deal with, but lots of little things and a general policy of excess that we need to nip in the bud and try to rein in each and every bit of money that is allotted for anything.

Zenger’s: What would you say are some of the other more specific city issues that you want to address as Mayor?

Bidwell: Another large issue is infrastructure of roads and waterways. With water lines breaking all over the city, it seems like an ounce of prevention might save us having to spend a lot of money once things go wrong. A lot of these issues are given such overtly poor “solutions” that they’re really making things worse rather than better. For example, there are a lot of people pushing for more of this purple pipe system, which is pretty ridiculous to spend money on when we have a whole bunch of pipes that are already there that just need to be repaired. It’s really to avoid the politically unpopular so-called “toilet-to-tap” water, which if done well is probably more safe than the current tap water, which is pulled from the Colorado River and reservoirs that have already had the water be sewage water 10 times over.

Potholes are really problematic. The roads in general in San Diego are really, really bad. I do see some of them get filled in here and there, but overall it seems like it’s kind of reached epidemic levels. Most people in San Diego probably drive on a daily basis, and roads are something we all use. Yet it seems like they’re one of the lowest priorities of politics lately.

I’m sure there are a lot more infrastructure issues that could be dealt with, such as power. There’ve been some times where we’ve almost had blackouts, like during the last fires and the rolling blackouts previously, and there’s probably a lot of room within that infrastructure for improvement as well.

Zenger’s: I’d like to ask you a question about another issue that plagues San Diego politics, and that is growth. On the one hand, you have environmentalists saying that we don’t urban sprawl, we don’t want to expand into the open-space areas on the outskirts of San Diego, it’s a good idea to build up in the already urbanized parts of the city. Yet when you propose a project that actually builds up in an established urban area, you get a lot of opposition from neighbors. I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to have this contradiction; they seem to think that building up instead of out is generally a good idea, but —

Bidwell: But not in my backyard! The NIMBY problem is an age-old problem of scope of community being an issue. It’s really similar to the states’-rights issues. People want things to be different in their area when it suits them, and they want it to be the same across the board when it suits them. It seems like most of the motivation is pure self-interest, and there’s a total lack of understanding of the big picture and making decisions for the community at large.

There are many, many issues where there’s something that benefits the city community at large; but the neighborhood community that would have to make a sacrifice for it says that it’s totally unjustifiable. We have to deal with each scenario on its own. There are certain sacrifices of community that probably are really better for the whole, larger community, and don’t really cost too much of the smaller community. At other times there are probably rights of the smaller community that should be protected. This is a dilemma that a lot of people want to be able to slap an easy answer, a simple dichotomy of “we should always honor the local” or “always honor the larger community,” but it really requires being looked at in each scenario.

At the same time, what’s said to be “better for the community at large” can really be what’s better for a particular special interest or developer that is trying to make it seem like it’s better for the community at large. You end up with this awkward tainting of what would otherwise be something that most people would see as a noble thing: to sacrifice smaller communities in certain situations for the sake of the community at large, with — it’s really only done for developers. It’s not always that way, but because it sometimes is, people often characterize any large development as intrinsically bad.

I really don’t think that that’s the case. As far as the general question of how to deal with a larger population, it’s not something that can really be dealt with from the top down by government officials alone, and that it really would be much more efficient and achieve its ends a lot faster if people really moved towards changing their lifestyles themselves. As unorthodox as it seems, nuclear families and people living in single-family dwellings are really not the best uses of space or the best ways to organize a community. People often isolate themselves and only worry about themselves and their immediate families, instead of their neighbors and the community they live in. And I think that we could quite probably have higher-density living and building up in cases where it’s appropriate and feasible.

A lot of problems that could be dealt with through political means are zoning issues that keep people from being able to have roommates and have more than a certain amount of people in a house. There are issues that come along with that, such as parking. When you put more than a certain amount of people in a neighborhood, parking ends up becoming a really big pain and causing a lot of people who live in the neighborhood a huge cost, psychologically and probably financially, having to pay for extra gas to roll around the block three times before you can find a spot to park. So maybe we should come up with better mass transit and car-pooling infrastructure.

Zenger’s: Recently a City Council candidate was arrested for using his truck as a bathroom.

Bidwell: Or whatever might have transpired on that lovely afternoon!

Zenger’s: My immediate thought was that what’s really at the bottom of all this is the city has very deliberately not put in a lot of public restrooms as part of what I describe as an ongoing jihad against its homeless population. They figure, “If you build the restrooms, they will come.” If you give them places to be, they will come. If you leave the lawns alone at night and don’t turn the sprinklers on, they will sleep there.

Bidwell: It’s true to a certain degree. But these people don’t have anywhere else that they can go. These people need some kinds of services; and the problem is why aren’t these services available to them. A lot of homeless people are not homeless by choice out of all possibilities. They’re homeless by choice out of the existing possibilities, and we’re not really that helpful as a community with helping people to get back on their feet, or even to function within alternate paradigms of survival.

I think some people just don’t really work well with a 9-to-5 job, and it’s really hard to get steady, decent-paying work that isn’t 9-to-5. Personally, I would rather be able to make my own schedule and work on my own time than have to work for somebody else, really steady and really constantly. I would love it if there were more businesses where you could swing by and work whenever you wanted, and for as long as you wanted, and then leave, and they’d pay you at the end of the shift.

I think living space is a really rough issue, Here in San Diego, housing is really expensive. Rent is really expensive. Lessening the prices might help out in a large degree, but I think there’s a fundamental flaw with the way that we deal with land ownership as a society, and that some people are born as landlords and some people are born as renters. If you’re a renter, you’ve got to spend your whole life working to come up with money to be able to pay the landlord. And if you’re a landlord, you just spend your whole life collecting rent and figuring out more ways to make more rent. It really is unfair and opportunistic to a pretty huge degree.

By ignoring these fundamental issues, we’re really doing ourselves a disservice and spending a lot of effort treating symptoms of something that we’re never really going to fix unless we get to the root of the problem. Things such as communally owned property and buildings could really go far to make things more accessible. Communally owned businesses, and businesses that really take their employees on as equal to the owners, could really go far with making things a lot easier for a lot more people.

A lot of people just get stuck in the specialization dilemma. You get a career, and you’re going for your career, and you start a family, and even have a wife and kids; and then all of a sudden you lose your career, whether the industry changes or you just lose that job. If you don’t get back on your feet within a couple of months, you can just have everything else start crumbling around you. A lot of people just have their lives ruined, essentially, and they’re put down to a level so low that the effort to be able to get back to the top, and the access to help to get back to the top, is really limited. The access to help is really limited.

I think that you’re absolutely right that there is this kind of war against the homeless, and there are a lot of kind of temporary fixes we can do to deal with the homeless population as it exists currently. But we also need to address the issues that cause homelessness in the first place. We’re really giving preference to development, business and tourism in ways I don’t see as that fundamentally important, at the expense of things that really are important, which are making sure that the people who live here who are down on their luck get at least some level of comfort and support.

Zenger’s: Sometimes I get the feeling that the city government and the business interests in San Diego would just like all the poor people to go away. When Susan Golding was Mayor I described her vision for the city as “Newport Beach South.”

Bidwell: I think that’s probably common with a lot of upper-class people in general: they really wish we were only there to provide cheap labor, but didn’t actually make demands for equal rights or access to the same things. It’s a shame that there’s been a large tendency for thousands of years for people to be pretty willing to give up any amount of rights for enough bread and circuses. People are really not participating and not demanding equal treatment.

That allows this perception of justified privilege to grow among the upper class. They not only feel that there is a difference between them and the lower class, but that it’s a justified and real difference. Through some sort of extremist Social Darwinism and misunderstanding of lassiez-faire markets, they really think that everybody has equal opportunity and the poor people just don’t take that opportunity. But economists have known forever that one of the linchpins of lassiez-faire economics is you have to have equal access to information and rational thought on the end of the consumer.

We don’t have that, we haven’t had that, and we’re not going to have that until we have equal access to education, and equal access to information. Information is getting a lot looser with the Internet, but we’re still lagging on equal access to education. Our education system is not so good at turning out people who are able to analyze things and use critical thinking as well as would really benefit an active role in civic responsibility. I think that the poor are poor not because they “choose” to be poor, or they have a lack of motivation, but they’ve been raised poor and they’ve been taught the habits of poor people. They’ve been raised poorly with education systems that are poorly run. You end up with people who are not just poor financially, but poor in their ability really to participate.

Zenger’s; Is this analysis we’ve just been discussing the reason why you decided to call yourself the “revolutionary candidate”?

Bidwell: I think that would be pretty fair to say. Everybody in politics is calling for change of some degree, some by name. It’s become so oft-quoted that it’s lost any real meaning. Everybody wants “change,” either in some kind of historically set-up dichotomies — “We want change towards Republican this,” or “towards Democrat that” — but it seems like all the “change” is fairly minor, a fairly partisan, and fairly isolated from bigger pictures. The next step up from that is “reform.” People want to “reform” the system, and change the form of the way things are going. I think people use that when they’re going for only a little more than typical “change.”

The change that I want, that we were just addressing, is so categorically different, and at such a larger scale, than the change that is commonly being talked about in politics that I think that it demands a better, or a different and more extreme word, to describe the type of change. I think that “revolutionary” really hits the nail on the head. The word has been used throughout history, most often probably with regime changes and entire governments being replaced by entire other governments. Because of that, it’s often been done through force, and the word has been tainted and has an implication of violence.

I don’t like that part of it, but I think that the categorical change, the paradigm shift that it really represents in history, is what I mean by “revolutionary.” Maybe we don’t need to dismantle the system, or violently overthrow it and replace it with a new one, but I think that we need to change our system so dramatically that it really goes beyond the implications of “change” or “reform,” and that the word “revolutionary” really encompasses the scope to a much better degree than either of those other words, or any others that I might have chosen.