By George Economides - Publisher
August 13, 2013 - Up until the weekend of July 13-14, Mayor Bob Foster was ready to roll out his campaign as a write-in candidate for the April 2014 primary.
Most political observers who are savvy about Long Beach elections and know how to crunch the numbers, knew Foster had the office another four years – if he wanted it. The only question was whether he would win a third term without a runoff.
People with an open mind and no axe to grind recognize that overall he has been a good mayor for Long Beach, especially when it comes to overseeing the city's financial matters on behalf of it's taxpayers. Yes, on occasion he's irritated the business community, but he hasn't played favorites because city unions also have had a bone or two to pick with Foster – some more than others.
His decision not to run paves the way for a spirited campaign among at least six individuals, with a seventh, Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, ready to announce this month.
There is plenty of time to review the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. This story is about Foster and what led to his decision not to run.
The mayor officially announced his decision at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, July 16. An hour earlier he informed his staff, then city management. Two days later, Foster sat down with Business Journal staff to answer questions. As you will read, it was a frank discussion.
LBBJ: What do you have to say about your decision?
Foster: It's actually pretty straightforward.
LBBJ: People are shocked.
Foster: Oh, I was definitely ready to run.
LBBJ: And in the past couple of weeks you and your family got together and . . .
Foster: It's actually a little more than that. The truth is, first of all, I was moving down the road for months to run. I was actually already anticipating and trying to plan fundraisers. We talked to our campaign consultant a couple of times about how the campaign would run, what we would have to do. He had done the write-in for Beverly [O'Neill in 2002]; same guy. We had done the poll. The poll came out very favorable. Even at that point I was moving to run. Having said that, it was not exactly without some nagging doubts. I felt a little bit, personally, like I was being dragged into it. Not by anybody but by my own spirit of competition, obligation to the city, obligation to my staff, obligation to a lot of things. I always felt a little uneasy about it. I wasn't zealous about it.
The turning point, what really happened, was that we had gotten the poll results back, we were talking about it, we were going to hopefully get it out there for the announcement to run, and that was all in the works, and then the seminal event was that probably my closest personal friend, certainly one of my closest personal friends, got a diagnosis of a terminal disease. In fact, he's coming here this weekend.
LBBJ: And . . .
Foster: And that just really made me think.
LBBJ: It hit you hard . . .
Foster: You've got to be conscious of your mortality. I'm 66. I'm in reasonably good health. I have a lot of things I want to do. You have more years behind you than you have ahead of you. This isn't morbid; it's just a fact. You don't know how many active years you're going to have left. That's really important. Do you want to spend them as another four years as mayor? You have to ask yourself that question and give yourself an honest answer.
I came down, even then, on the side of running, but not without some reservation. When this happened with my friend, I sat down and talked to Nancy [his wife] who was not keen on running but would have had no problem with being fully supportive, and I just asked myself: If I were diagnosed with a terminal illness, would I run? The answer was no. When you start thinking that through, if the answer is no and if everyone knew what their day of reckoning was, we probably would live our lives a little differently.
I just decided there are things I want to do while I have energy, while I have some years left. Some of them are in the private sector. Some of them are very personal. There's travel, study. My son and my grandkids are down here now. I really enjoy spending time with them. This job does not allow the kinds of things like being able to get up and go at a moment's notice and do things.
To give you an example, my 13-year-old granddaughter is a big Beatles fan. I don't know why, but she is. She would love to go see Paul McCartney. What a great thing to do while your granddaughter is still at the age where she doesn't mind being with grandpa. There were several concerts around the country. It would be great to say we're going for three or four days to Boston or Washington or Winnepeg. You just can't do that stuff in this job.
LBBJ: Even if you could, the phone is going to be ringing.
Foster: That was really the key thing. I just said I have to be honest about this. Almost everybody, and they all did this out of their best interest, said in your last term you could do things like that. Maybe. But the truth is, I know this job well enough to do it right you need to be focused and you need to concentrate your energies on this; not be distracted by wanting to do personal things or business things or looking at another office. You need to just do this.
LBBJ: It was obviously a difficult call to make.
Foster: I made the call. As much as I feel like I'm letting a lot of people down, it bothers me that I have an obligation, I'm making this an honest call. I made it finally on the weekend. I've worn it now for five days and it feels right.
LBBJ: Is it fair to say that up until that point, maybe the weekend, your decision was based on what others wanted more than what you wanted?
Foster: You know what, that is an interesting question. I tend to do that. I think I have to do something for this or for that. . . . People who have been my supporters for a long time and are somewhat invested in me, and not just my family . . . When I talked it through with them, the comment that most often came back was you need to do this for you. It should not be a decision for someone else's benefit. I don't care if it's everybody else's benefit. One of them in particular said if I went forward, it would be the worst decision of my life.
LBBJ: It looks like, at least from the poll, that, though it wasn't a slam dunk. but it was pretty likely that you were going to win . . .
Foster: There were some very gratifying things in that poll. First of all, we have polled episodically all through the seven years that I have been mayor. In no point in that polling have my favorability numbers been below 67 percent. They have been between 67 percent and 72 percent. The pollster said that is remarkable for someone who has been in office for seven years.
Secondly, and more encouraging, is that 72 percent of the people think we are on the right track. They are happy with the city. They think reforms have been made. They are comfortable with what's been done. They are very pleased, and that's gratifying.
Put the election aside. Who knows. It's seven, eight months away. Who the heck knows what's going to happen. But the truth is, that poll, to me is an affirmation of the work we've done. It's an affirmation that residents recognize that we have worked hard on their behalf. I am pleased with that. I love the job I do. That was one of the hardest things. I love what I do. I feel honored that people put their trust in me, and that's not corny. Everybody has detractors; detractors don't bother me. I only care to have criticism or support from people who know. It's just that simple. Some of the detractors we've talked about haven't got a clue. I'm very comfortable that we've done a good job in a very difficult environment.
LBBJ: So, based on all that, you're really going out on top.
Foster: I'm going out at the right time. I'm going out on my time. And it's not without regret. It's not like I'm going out with, "thank God that's over with." That's not it at all. Quite frankly, I met with all the department heads yesterday, and that was an emotional meeting. There were people choking up, including me. These are people who have gone through hell. They've gone through an extraordinarily tough time; $200 million taken out of the general fund. All kinds of pressures, raise taxes, do this, do that. And we've come through this in remarkable fashion. We're structurally balanced, we got one-time revenue that we now have to fix a lot of things in the city. And the truth is, if we had not been fiscally disciplined, had not followed the policies that I'm talking about, we would have a huge hole right now. The repeated attempts by some members on the council to use one-time revenue and oil revenue for ongoing expenses would have sunk us.
When you're in the worst financial situation the city has been in the last 100 years, that's got to be your priority. You can't wish it and make it better. The tendency of every person in public policy is to meet immediate needs [and] sacrifice the long-term. You've seen all my speeches, I talk about long-term, I talk about my primary constituent being a 10-year-old child. My questions would be, am I advancing the opportunity for that child? Am I encumbering debt for that child? Am I making sure the services we enjoy now are not going to be paid by that child? Those are questions you have to ask. And everybody gets consumed with 'I got to do stuff now.' All that stuff before, with councilmembers trying to get money for this and get money for that, it's not borne out of ill will. It's probably borne out of legitimate need, but you need to be disciplined.
LBBJ: Part of your understanding is due to your background as a small businessperson.
Foster: You mean my classical education?
LBBJ: Your background has helped you understand the financial impacts of bad times, good times and so forth. A concern of many people is, do we have a mayoral candidate who has even close to knowledge you have about financial matters?
Foster: I'll leave it to you to opine on that. First of all, I've had an unusual career. I've worked in government, I had a small business, I ran a large business. And certainly in the large business area, I tend to be a crisis guy. We had a crisis in Mexico with an investment, we had electric deregulation, we had an energy crisis, and I was the point person on every one of those. So I know my own character. I tend to thrive on really tough issues with a lot of controversy and a lot of combat. That, I think, prepared me for this [job] very well. As well as having a reasonable financial background.
As far as the next mayor goes, I would hope the electorate looks for qualities. I hope the electorate looks for somebody, who first of all, has integrity, has honesty, has some understanding of economics and some understanding of finance, has the tenacity to stand up when it's needed. Those are qualities I would look for. I have a lot of confidence that people can fair it out between those who don't have those qualities, those who pretend to have those qualities, and those that really have those qualities. I feel very confident the electorate is going to get it.
I am not an objective judge of who follows me. Nobody in my position can be objective about that, so put that aside, I can't even render a judgment about it. Having said that, it also can't be a major concern I have. I can't dictate what the public is going to do. The only thing I can do is try to inform the public of things they should look for.
LBBJ: Will you get involved?
Foster: I may get involved in this race; it certainly won't be for a while. I got a lot of other things I'm focused on this year. There are things I want to do in this budget. I want to make sure that one-time revenue is spent properly. We completely transformed our permit process. I want to make sure that stays and really gets done well. I want to make sure the port continues to improve. There are a lot of things that need to be done, and I'm going to focus on that. I'm going to be mayor until the last day. You're not going to see me change, I'm not going to retire in place, that won't happen. And in fact, if I see the council drifting, or departing from things that have made us successful, I'm going to be very vociferous about it. That I promise you.
LBBJ: Do you want to discuss any family issues with our readers?
Foster: Do you mean personal issues?
LBBJ: Yeah, personal stuff.
Foster: It's not a great secret I have a young son who has issues. He has the same problem that Nancy has which is bipolar disorder. We've been trying to deal with that. We've been trying to get him stabilized in some success and in some failure. That's a little bit of the decision [in not running]. If we get him in a situation where we can work on his issue effectively, it's going to take some energy and some time. But we've been very open about that. There are people, quite frankly, in a disgusting fashion, who would want to use that against you. I won't name names, but that has been suggested. I don't hide that fact. You tell me what family doesn't have problems. I don't ever hide that fact. We're doing the best we can with someone who is trying to medicate himself for a disease he has.