One vote rings trolley bell

trolleyNOTE: When I first fancied myself a reporter, I became obsessed with picking at scars and probing the underbelly for dirty secrets often ignored or glossed over by local media. This fixation is reflected today in my historical fiction, which focuses on revealing factual incidents that politicians and flack artists often disdain. I thought it would be fun to share, in a series of posts, a few of my research discoveries—some of which become amplified in my novels.

Pete’s near folly
The San Diego Trolley, a highly successful transit and tourist attraction, exists because a single Councilmember—one considered a buffoon by his colleagues—changed his vote.

Then Mayor Pete Wilson welded seemingly limitless power in the late 1970s, when he put his weight behind the creation of a new trolley system for the City. Despite political muscle unsurpassed in the City’s history, the City Council defeated Pete’s trial measure on a 4-5 vote. The Mayor scheduled a second vote about six months later.

At that time, I had just become the chief aide to a populist Councilmember, who neither earned nor gained respect from his colleagues. He had opposed approval of the Trolley at the first hearing.

We learned several days before the scheduled second vote that my Councilmember’s greatest detractor and fiercest rival intended to conduct a grandstand change of heart at the hearing. Under this scenario, the rival would gain all the accolades for being the person who made the Trolley feasible.

At this point in my career, I was a nascent urban planner and strong transit advocate. It had taken the full six-month hiatus to convince my Councilmember of the Trolley’s merits and persuade him to change his vote. Next I had to cajole him to conduct a press conference on the Friday before the scheduled Monday hearing, so that he would be assured of gaining extensive press coverage and the prestige that was bound to come from green-lighting the Trolley system.

In one of the few cases during his tenure, my Councilmember became a hero, and San Diegans got their ubiquitous Trolley.


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