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How the Little People Crushed a Corporate Bully

Preserving Carlsbad’s Future the Right Way

By Richard Riehl

Citizen activism triumphed over corporate greed last week when Carlsbad voters defeated Measure A. If approved it would have transformed the quiet beauty of one of the city’s three pristine lagoons into the home of a Los Angeles-style shopping center/tourist magnet.

The 53 percent voter turnout surpassed SD County’s 45 percent in the 2014 gubernatorial election. The Citizens for North County activist group opposing the measure raised $115,000 in donations to produce 20,362 NO votes. That’s less than $6 per voter.

The corporate bully, Caruso Affiliated, invested $11 million on its lagoon mall project. The 18,806 YES votes cost Rick Caruso nearly $600 per voter. The billionaire developer failed to generate enough votes to equal the 20,000 signatures he gathered on last summer’s deceptive initiative campaign. It seems my wife and I were just two of many others who were duped into signing the initiative by Caruso’s promise of a vote of the people.

The victory over a corporate bully in Carlsbad is not only a lesson in democracy, it reveals how low cost grassroots campaigns using social media can level the playing field. While Caruso had the big money, the little people had the home field advantage.

A few weeks before the February 23 vote, Caruso boasted of the support of, “all the people who really matter.” At the top of his list were Mayor Matt Hall and council members Mark Packard and Michael Schumacher. They became high profile spokespersons for the project, none having to face voters this year. The other two Council members, Keith Blackburn and Lorraine Wood, who will be up for re-election, have maintained low profiles after having voted to approve the project on August 25.

Jimmy Ukegawa, owner of the Strawberry Fields farm, and Lisa Rodman, CEO and only paid staff member of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation, were featured in Caruso-produced TV ads running daily, almost hourly it seemed, in the final weeks before the special election. Union leaders for the fire and police departments joined those poster children on TV. What these individuals had in common was their political and financial interests in the developer’s success.

The three Carlsbad residents who signed the Agua Hedionda 85/15 Specific Plan Initiative “TO BE SUBMITTED DIRECTLY TO THE VOTERS;” a volunteer member of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation, a former Chamber of Commerce CEO, and a former city planner, seemed to be missing in action on Measure A.

By contrast, high profile supporters of the “No on A” campaign were activist volunteers, environmentalists, surfers, and former city staff members with specialized knowledge of the project’s impact. None were paid for their work on the campaign.

Caruso’s shopping mall competitor, Westfield, was not at all involved in the referendum campaign, but stepped up to contribute $75,000 to the Citizens for North County, a pittance compared to the flow from Caruso’s deep pockets.

While unpaid “No on A” volunteers politely canvassed the city, Caruso’s paid operatives went door to door promoting the project. Retirement homes and assisted care centers complained of unwelcome electioneering of their residents.

After focus groups paying up to $200 to participants told them Caruso’s glossy mailers were more irritating than informative, the developer turned to a flood of television ads in the weeks leading up to the election.

The developer opened an information tent at the Strawberry Fields with paid staff to answer questions. Watercolor paintings were posted to whet the appetites for the developer’s promises. The 397-page description of his 85/15 plan was not available.

Meanwhile, Citizens for North County set up portable pop-up tents for volunteers to answer questions.

In the final days leading up to the election mysterious things began to happen to yard signs. The large, printed corporate style signs for “Yes on A” began to exhibit identical slashes of red paint across them. But it wasn’t actually paint. Just another printed sign with the defacement. Some were partially torn. None masked the message. The “Yes on A” remained readable. Smaller, untouched “No on A” signs stood next to them.

The corporate-style signs began to be accompanied by printed hand-drawn ones, mimicking those of “No on A,” carrying a new slogan: “Save our Lagoon, Yes on A.” The developer’s dirty tricks? I report, you decide.

Citizens for North County used Facebook, twitter and YouTube to get their message out since there was very little mainstream media coverage of the special election. UT San Diego, the county’s only print daily newspaper, endorsed the project.

The only regular media attention opposing Caruso came from the publication of my twelve blog postings, which were driven by my anger and guilt over being duped: TheRiehlWorld2.blogspot.com at OsideNews.com, the San Diego Free Press, and the weekly San Diego Reader.

While the little people triumphed this time, it appears Carlsbad has not seen the last of Rick Caruso. Here’s what he said in his concession letter to supporters.

“I urge the residents of Carlsbad who supported me on Measure A to join me in finding ways to come together. I promise that we will be in touch very soon.”

Will he return to the lagoon with a revised plan? Or does he have an oceanfront resort, replacing our seaside smokestack in mind? Or both? Stay tuned.


Richard J. Riehl is a Carlsbad, California resident, retired university administrator, and award-winning columnist for the former daily newspaper, the North County Times.
Richard writes a blog titled The Riehl World
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