Originally published in the Competitive Edge Newsletter, March 2018.
I’ve known Jeff Marston since we both walked precincts for Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign – yep, it was Morning in America in 1984. Those Del Cerro doors we knocked on had a lot of eager Reaganites behind them, so my one (and still only) precinct walk was a good one with my buddy. Fast forward 30 years and now former State Assemblyman Marston recruited me to join his Marston Mets hardball club. Unfortunately for him and the team, I was a willing recruit and proceeded to keep the Mets out of the post-season for the two springs I played for Jeff. But, losing aside, the experience of playing for an honest and even keel manager who demonstrated class on the diamond was positive. Enjoy Jeff’s thoughts and stories in this great interview. – John Nienstedt
Tell us about your artistic talent(s).
I draw great stick figures! I took lessons on the guitar and clarinet as a kid and succeeded more so on the latter, as I played clarinet in my high school band in New Jersey. Had I kept up with it, I’m sure I could’ve been another Kenny G! As for my voice, I inherited my Dad’s singing ability. May he rest in peace, he couldn’t carry a tune. My mom, on the other hand, had a fabulous voice and sang the National Anthem at Madison Square Garden on numerous occasions before prize fights. Once, before a Rocky Marciano heavyweight title fight, she was bumped for Frank Sinatra at his friend Marciano’s request.
What was your favorite musical genre as a teenager and what are you listening to now?
Growing up in the 60s and 70s in New Jersey, I was a big fan of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but far and away my favorite genre was Motown. What do I listen to nowadays? My most recent concert was Brian Wilson at the Civic Theatre and I always seek out the 60s/70s oldies stations, so I guess you could say not much has changed.
Who is your favorite artist — any medium – and why?
Clint Eastwood: As a beloved and effective politician, he never compromised his integrity for short-term gain, much like the characters he portrayed on film. I think his most triumphant work was as actor, director and producer of Gran Torino.
What was the last good movie you saw? Give me a one sentence review.
The Man Who Invented Christmas. Starring one of my favorite actors – Christopher Plummer – as Ebenezer Scrooge, this film vividly tells the story of how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which has long been a favorite literary work of mine (as well as favorite film in its various iterations), especially due to its tale of redemption. As you can see from the attached picture, it was a very popular film…we had the whole theater to ourselves!
If you could go back in time, which former President would you like to chat with and what’s the topic?
President Gerald R. Ford. I’m quite biased here because I had the chance to meet and chat with him on several occasions, usually courtesy of my friendship with his son, Jack. He assumed the presidency during one of the most tumultuous times in our history, and I would really like to learn more about his thoughts relative to the pardon of President Nixon, an action that many historians today believe may have saved the country from a divisive trial and fallout – but most certainly cost him his own election to the presidency in 1976. In my opinion, his actions were the most classic examples of self-sacrifice for the benefit of our nation.
What’s the most important issue facing California, why, and what should be done about It?
The State faces huge challenges: infrastructure, housing, homelessness, education, pension reform…the list goes on and on; however, we’re never going to fix any of these issues until party leaders–and their followers-learn to talk to each other in a civil way. Partisanship has poisoned our political system to the point of paralysis. Many find finger-pointing more satisfying than actual progress. For all the criticism leveled at President Trump, I think many of us from across the political spectrum have in a way, become just like him, reveling in the blame game and personal attacks rather than constructive dialogue and solutions.
There are lots of proposals for education reform. What would you change and why?
For me, it’s not as simple as the changing of policy but the changing of our attitudes. My focus over the years has been on higher education and more accurately, post-secondary education. There is this low hanging fruit idea that everybody should go to college. Nothing could be further from the truth. [ed. Amen brother!] Oh, everybody who wants to go should have the opportunity and we certainly need to improve access, but it’s simply not for everyone. Students need to be told so and encouraged to seek a “best fit” career path without having to worry about the all too common stigma of not going to college. Or, worse yet, in the minds of some, the supposed stigma of going to a community college instead of a four-year program. Nothing ticks me off more than someone–and I run into this all the time–downplaying the role and value of community colleges. I once had a political leader who should certainly have known better actually say to me, “Well, that’s not like real college.”
I would argue that it is not only real, but many times better than a traditional, so-called four-year school in that the specificity actually prepares you for jobs in the real world. I’m a proud alum and supporter of San Diego State, in fact a past president of their Alumni Association. But, I also take great pride in work I’ve done with the Mesa College Foundation, as well as the entire San Diego Community College District generally. Whether one is looking for a true head start as a transfer student to either SDSU or UCSD, or somewhere else, or a degree in a specific field, community college is the ultimate, cost-effective jewel of California’s post-secondary education system.
If you were a competitive eater, which food would be your specialty?
I actually won a competitive pizza eating contest during my freshman year at San Diego State. I consumed 3 ½ large pizzas before my closest competitor bowed out. I could’ve eaten more, but the pizza started to taste like cardboard. If I were to compete today, it would likely be in a hot pepper contest. My food can never be spicy enough, much to the chagrin of many a chef!
Favorite sport and why?
Baseball, because it’s never over ‘til it’s over.
What’s your favorite baseball memory and when did it happen?
It’s a three-way tie. One for each of my favorite teams…On July 23, 1966 (my 11th birthday), with me in the stands at Yankee Stadium (the original, real one 1923-1974) Mickey Mantle hit his final career grand slam. I know he hit it just for me. On October 16, 1969, I played hooky from school to go to Shea Stadium where the Mets won game five of the World Series and with it, the World Championship. The ticket was $15. I also ran onto the field and escaped with a big piece of the outfield grass. On October 6, 1984, I was at the Steve Garvey home run game in the NLCS against the Cubs. Need I say more? [Ed. No, you don’t. I was there too. The Murph had never seen anything as dramatic. The crowd – and San Diego – went delirious.]
Most people say they got a lucky break at some point. Tell us about yours.
In the fall of 1976, shortly after election day and needing eleven units to graduate from San Diego State the following spring semester, I found out about a program called the Washington Center for Learning Alternatives and decided to apply. WCLA provided internships in Washington, D.C. in the legislative and executive branches. Because I had worked in the Hayakawa campaign for the U.S. Senate, I sent the campaign a letter asking them to accept me for an unpaid internship. They thought I wanted a job and I got a rejection letter. I called them, explaining I was “free help” and that made the difference, as became Hayakawa’s first intern. I was literally one of the first fifteen or so people in his Washington office, which ultimately grew to about forty. Because he was short on staff, I was able to do things well beyond a “normal” internship–including serving as his staff assistant for his work on the Senate Agriculture Committee. I was ultimately hired full-time as a Legislative Aide, serving two years in DC before being asked to run his San Diego field office for the last four years of his term.
Who shaped your thinking most on politics?
Senator S.I. Hayakawa. He always thought outside of the box and spoke his mind for what he believed was in people’s best interests. He never really cared about the political consequences and that may have been why he only served one term. To a great extent, my thinking has been very much like that. I only wish I could be as bold as he was
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received and who gave it to you?
To paraphrase since it was many years ago…never lose sight of your principles nor lose respect for the rights of others to have a different opinion. Congressman Clair Burgener. As a public servant, Clair was without equal.
What advice do you have for young people starting out?
We live in a very competitive world, so my advice is simple and straightforward. It’s also based on my experience as an intern. If a door opens for you, even the slightest bit, kick it open and go for your dreams. If you don’t, the person behind you most certainly will. Work your tail off–it will be noticed!
If you could return to a place you’ve traveled, where would you go?
London: My ancestry is largely British, and I’ve only spent two short days there with my Mom nearly 25 years ago. I’d like to go back to see more of the city and country at large.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when grew up?
A professional baseball player, of course! In fact, Coach Jim Dietz (Tony Gwynn’s predecessor at SDSU) launched me into my political career, such as it was. Why? Because when I was a freshman, he cut me from the Aztec baseball team.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
The friendships I have forged during my career in San Diego public and community relations are by far my greatest treasures. None of my professional accomplishments would’ve been possible without the support of my good friends from across the political spectrum. They have enriched my life in ways that cannot be quantified, and in turn, I hope I have been a loyal and trusted friend of theirs as well.