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Mayor’s Top Political Advisor Stepping Down


Kris Michell is one of the most powerful people in San Diego city government that you've never heard of. Michell, Mayor Jerry Sanders chief of staff for the last five years, announced that she will step down in January. We discuss the impact Michell has had on city government, and what her departure will mean to the mayor's office.

Kris Michell is one of the most powerful people in San Diego city government that you've never heard of. Michell, Mayor Jerry Sanders chief of staff for the last five years, announced that she will step down in January. We discuss the impact Michell has had on city government, and what her departure will mean to the mayor's office.


Andrew Donohue, editor of

Kent Davy, editor of the North County Times.

JW August, managing editor for 10 News.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

GLORIA PENNER: Let us move on, we're gonna stay with politics enforce a while, but we're gonna move from the county to the city. The name Chris Mitchell, and that's how she pronounce --

ANDREW DONAHUE: Chris Michelle.

GLORIA PENNER: Okay. I wanted to be sure I pronounce it right. Michelle is not a household name, but she is a San Diego power house that has influenced and probably will continue to influence life in San Diego. So although San Diego residents didn't elect her, she has helped to form the policies and the practices of their city. And therefore, her decision to leave mayor Jerry Sanders office as his chief of staff is worth talking about. Andrew, as chief of staff, what was her job?

ANDREW DONAHUE: Her job was basically to be the mayor's political mind. So the mayor had a decent amount of background in sort of dealing with politics. He was the police chief and he ran the red cross and everything. But he had never actually been a politician. And he saw that as sort of his blind spot. And it was Chris Michelle's job to basically take his agenda and enact it. And she's been an extremely powerful yet amazingly unanimous person over the last 15 years. Very rarely shows up in the newspaper, many people don't know how to pronounce her name. She's been --


ANDREW DONAHUE: Exactly. And her name, when it does show up in the newspaper is often misspelled. But she helped bring the super bowl here, the Republican national convention has her fingerprints all over it, Petco Park, sort of many of the city extravaganzas that the city's put up over the last 15 years have her fingerprints all over them, and she was very much behind what the mayor had been doing over the last many years.

GLORIA PENNER: Let's assume that what you say is correct.

ANDREW DONAHUE: I always do.

GLORIA PENNER: Yes, let's assume that. So when you have this kind of -- when you start shaping things in the city, and you have this kind of political power, and I'm dona turn to you on this, Kent, because you have a wealth of knowledge on stuff politics, where does that power come from? Where does it arrive from? Where do you develop this kind of power? Who gives you permission to have this power and how to use it.

KENT DAVY: Well, that's a tough question. I suspect that people like Michelle, and I don't know her -- I know only what Andrews' folks have written about this story, derive ultimately their power from the ability to create and maybe relationships. And that power works in how you can influence people, particularly when you're sitting in a derivative position, you're not the public official, you are the person behind the curtain pulling the strings, making the arrangements, making sure the right people get together, have the right decisions. You Hine up the right votes, the right campaign money behind you, all of those sorts of things. And so I think it's a relationship building thing.

GLORIA PENNER: All right. And I'm sure that few people would argue that it has to be relationships. And Andrew pointed out that she's responsible for the extravaganzas like Petco Park and the super bowls, and the GOP national convention maybe even the new downtown library. So when you take that, JW, always saying that to a certain extent, she's responsible for the focus of the mayor on big projects rather than -- I don't know, neighborhoods and pot holes and stuff for the little people?

JW AUGUST: Well, it's more like downtown, the urban core versus the suburbs' needs. Clearly she has supported those types of projects and the mayor has supported it. I don't think it's a coincidence. Some people have portrayed her as like Rasputin, but I don't see her that way. I've had an opportunity to watch her. I don't know her very well. But I've seen her maybe a half dozen times, she's a slight woman, very attractive, intense, extreme he intense without talking issue sheer has eyes like a cop, she's always looking around of in election central, I was watching her watching the mayor talking on TV and it was very interesting to just watch her face watching everything, her eyes were going back and forth. What that tells me is this woman is on top of it, and she's extremely intense and very intelligent.

GLORIA PENNER: Okay, but the most important question, I think, is what does this mean to us? I mean, residents of San Diego, and even to the greater region, 'cause city politics does affect -- okay, you want two words, JW.

JW AUGUST: Two words. Lame duck.


ANDREW DONAHUE: The mayor has two years left. He has a very ambitious and quite unfulfilled agenda right now. He was elected let's not forget to fix the city's financial problems. That has not been done and there is a long, long way to go. He wants to expand a convention center, perhaps build a new City Hall, try to work out some sort of deal with the Chargers. Many of the things he set out to do many years ago are still unfulfilled. She is the one who takes those things and tries to make them happen. So it's very possible that you're either gonna see either different ways of going about those or different priority it is but it is very clear that she is one of these people that sort of followed the mayor from the Susan Golding years and has very much brought a sort of a Susan Golding imprint on mayor Sanders' tenure.

GLORIA PENNER: Okay. So in the last few seconds, need to know, her replacement is Julie du-Beck. Different mold, different person? What?

ANDREW DONAHUE: From what I've heard, more of a policy person, very successful lawyer, had very positions in the federal government, but more of a policy person than a politics person.

GLORIA PENNER: Okay, well, thank you very much. JW August, and Kent Davy and thanks to you Andrew Donahue, to our listeners and to our callers. This has been the Editors Roundtable, I'm Gloria Penner.

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