April 7, 2006

National City Spotlight:

A Putt Down the Slippery Slope for Juan Vargas

By Ted Godshalk

So Juan Vargas plays golf at Pebble Beach. National City’s golfers pay $10.00 to play the very tight fairways of the National City Golf Course. At Pebble Beach, if you can get a tee time it will cost you $450.00. The view up the quiet canyon from the third green, on a frosty morning in National City, is a small piece of beauty. The view of the Pacific Ocean at Pebble is truly striking. While I have never played there, I have driven the winding 17 Mile Road that cuts through the course. The famous Cypress tree, the deer and the sea lions, and the rocky shore are all amazing players on a scene that is much more than golf.

I know a thing or two about golf. My coach and father-in law, Santos “Doc” Avalos, played golf on the local courses for 60 years until a stroke slowed him down. He supplemented his income by caddying, carrying the bag for several well known, and professional women golfers whenever they came to town. Doc taught me how to play golf and how to speak the language of golfers, and perhaps most important, he taught me the etiquette of gentlemen on and off the course.

I don’t care if Juan Vargas plays golf at the most exclusive, picturesque country club in the nation. I do, however, care a lot about what Vargas is thinking about and doing back in the halls of the State Assembly in Sacramento. And this is where golf and politics intersect.

The recent reports of South Bay’s State Assemblyman Juan Vargas’ close ties to the Insurance industry have once again highlighted the problem with politics today. Money, big corporate money, influences all political campaigns. And with a twisted logic, most politicians claim the money does not influence them. In this day of Duke and DeLay, it takes money to play. The common “hacker” doesn’t stand a chance.

Vargas’ situation is not new. The Union- Tribune did not have an exclusive story when it reported Vargas’ dealings. Other news media have reported similar dealings. In 1997, the Reader reported that Vargas was one of six San Diego City Council members who received money from a business that illegally laundered funds. The offender paid a $420,000 fine. Another similar case resulted in a $93,000 fine. Remember, at that time Vargas was one of six who benefited from the contributions, but he was neither cited nor fined. Golfers call that a “mulligan,” or a penalty-free takeover.

Then in 2000, the State’s Fair Political Practices Commission fined Vargas and his campaign treasurer $6000 for campaign contribution disclosure violations. This time there were no other politicians involved. Vargas stood on the tee all by himself, and somewhere along his nice walk in the park, Vargas encountered a “dogleg” and took a bad turn.

In June of 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Juan Vargas abstained from voting, even though he was in Sacramento at the time, on a bill that would have given more financial privacy to consumers. No vote, therefore no protection for consumers and moreover, no bad feelings from the Insurance industry he is charged with regulating. Takin’ the money was never easier. You just don’t have to do the job the voters elected you to do. In golf parlance, you might say Vargas has the “foot-wedge” technique down, giving the ball a little kick to improve his lie, when no one is looking.

But we are looking, and unfortunately it goes on. The Los Angeles Times reported last month, one week before the U-T, that Vargas received over $300,000 from the Insurance industry for his largely uncontested campaigns. Records at the San Diego County Registrars office detail contributions from Allstate, Ameriquest, Hartford, Blue Cross, Providian, Safecare, Prudential, Met Life, Pacific Life, TransAmerica Occidental, Health Net, Aetna, and Farmer’s Insurance. High powered golf buddies to be sure.

Vargas, in turn, has passed money on to his friends, making the trail of cash a little cloudier for those watching. The Friends of Nick Inzunza committee received $3000 from Vargas’ campaign coffers. Inzunza, in turn, hired his brother and as well as consultant Marco Cortez. Now this a group which never yells “fore.”

Standing over a slippery, downhill putt on the 18th green of Pebble Beach, along the majestic cliffs, overlooking the Pacific Ocean with your Insurance buddies is, as they say, “priceless.” But the problem with this is that there is a real cost to us all. A politician in this setting, like Juan Vargas, simply doesn’t have the low-income families, the middle-class homeowners, and the retired seniors of National City as his first priority. This state of affairs is not cute, people. It’s a disgusting shank off the tee. A shank is defined as a sideways mishit of the ball caused by striking the ball close to the shaft and it is one of the worst indignities of the game. The influence of money in politics is a much more serious injury to our political system and our welfare.

Ted Godshalk can be reached at paradisecreek@mac.com.

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