Bill Walton speaks at Mission Beach Town Council meeting on Oct. 2, 2023.
Bill Walton speaks at Mission Beach Town Council meeting on Oct. 2, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Five years ago, before the pandemic, before that hellish year of 2020, a couple colleagues of mine and I visited Bill Walton at his home for breakfast. After we arrived, a worker pointed us to the garage where he was working out.

He knew me and our work but my mission that day was to help him understand it better and, ideally, get him to publicly endorse it, maybe make a video for us. He was San Diego’s most famous resident until he died, Monday, at age 71 from colon cancer nobody I have talked to knew he had.

Getting a nod from him, a video we could send out maybe, would be worth far more than just a donation from him. He was not just a famous person who lived here — he represented San Diego’s sunny soul. An endorsement from Walton had no downside – he was not controversial at all. He supported political candidates but in a way that also managed to be apolitical. In 2015, we sat together at a banquet celebrating 100 years since the Panama-California Exposition made Balboa Park what it is. I asked him if he would ever consider running for mayor. He demurred, mumbling something about not being able to.

His wife, Lori, told me to stop asking him. They could not afford it, she said, with a look of deadly seriousness. He needed to work and was content to support political leaders when they were doing something he believed was positive and productive.

I wanted Voice to be part of his collection of beloved San Diego institutions.

It was an easy sell but a very interesting breakfast. As we ate, he told me he believed San Diego leaders should strive for the city to be known for three things worldwide: solar power, bicycling and cannabis.

I told him that was an amazing quote that I would like to use. It would have made a simple headline and a post on our site with unquestionably wide reach. I asked if I could quote him.

He sat silent for a moment and said no. He still was a broadcaster, a color commentator, of the most colorful variety possible, for NBA and college basketball games. He said he believed his corporate employers were not ready for him to openly endorse cannabis use.

I couldn't stop myself from laughing. Imagine being scandalized upon learning Bill Walton enjoyed cannabis. He was recognizable with his seven-foot frame and wide wingspan at Grateful Dead and Phish shows across the country. I regretted not leaning in more and getting high and spending the day with him talking over San Diego’s problems and possibilities.

Bill Walton at his home with former Voice director of development Iris Magid, board member Bill Osborne and Scott Lewis in August, 2019.

He became a diligent reader. Once he wrote to one of our board members “I love, and live for VOSD, please let me know how I can ever help … we will survive, we are alive, shine on, heal on, teach on, carry on, thank you, BW, Bill Walton.”

He was relentlessly positive. Even when he was endorsing what we do, which isn’t always positive, he put a positive twist on it. “We’ll never learn what we don’t want to know,” he said.

Walton didn’t just go to the big fancy banquets or the chicken dinners and award ceremonies, he would go to City Heights for the opening of a basketball court or to a community leader’s funeral, carrying around his tall chair, his only relief from the chronic pain he suffered.

Former San Diego City Councilmember Marti Emerald recalled how he brought that enthusiasm to the push for a new Central Library downtown. He testified four separate times to the City Council advocating for approval for the project. It was never a given they would support it, especially as the Council balked at a hefty gap between what it would cost to build and how much money it had raised. His mother was a librarian. He wasn’t going to give it up.

Finally, when philanthropist Irwin Jacobs stepped up to close the gap, it still wasn’t clear they would get the votes. Walton helped put it over.

“He made the most of his celebrity and standing to help others. He never did anything just to be seen. He was there, often quietly, just to provide support,” she said. “The common link was kids. He was always there to support anything that would meaningfully show kids that they could achieve anything they wanted.”

He was always there to support Mel Katz, a relentless civic advocate himself and one of the main reasons the library was built. Walton clearly believed Katz had the right compass, once telling me that he would do whatever Katz asked him.

“He loved San Diego, working people and progressive causes,” Katz said.

Before the pandemic, the only contentious causes Walton had weighed in on were the ill-fated redesign of Balboa Park that Jacobs proposed and worked relentlessly to implement and the ballot initiative for a higher minimum wage in the city of San Diego. Even then, nobody ever fought with Walton – if he had adopted it as one of his causes, that was just something opponents had to accept.

Something happened, though, after the pandemic. Like everyone, it had isolated him. The giant man who loved concerts, big basketball games and people, and who needed to keep working, lost all of it. In the year after the pandemic began, downtown San Diego and Balboa Park went from vibrant fun places to dystopian hellscapes. It felt like a bomb had gone off downtown, as businesses closed and temporary Covid testing sites popped up.

Jails stopped taking minor offenders and let others out. Homeless shelters had to clear out. Tens of thousands of people were newly unemployed and traumatized. A new mayoral administration had taken over with a new approach to homelessness and the crisis became more disturbing and ugly than ever. Something had happened on one of Walton’s bike rides and he started getting frustrated with the homelessness crisis.

I heard he began sending Mayor Todd Gloria, whom he had supported, a series of increasingly hostile emails. When I finally got them, I was shocked. They had the most negative and acrimonious statements I had ever seen Walton make. Despite our rapport, I had trouble getting him to confirm the emails were his and when I finally did, he didn’t want to discuss it.

“once again, while peacefully riding my bike early this Sunday morning in Balboa Park, I was threatened, chased, and assaulted by the homeless population, in our Park,” he wrote Aug. 28, 2022, to Mayor Gloria.

“once again, you’ve done, and continue to do, nothing.”

His liberalism and kindness had shifted to a desire for something of a crackdown on homeless residents “who are allowed to disregard the rules.”

Bill Walton (left), Executive Committee Member, Dan Shea, (center) Lucky Duck Foundation and Executive Director Drew Moser (right) speaks at a press conference at the University of San Diego Institute for Peace and Justice Theatre at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace Studies on Sept. 27, 2022.
Former NBA Star Bill Walton (left), Executive Committee Member, Dan Shea, (center) Lucky Duck Foundation and Executive Director Drew Moser (right) speak at a press conference at the University of San Diego Institute for Peace and Justice Theatre at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace Studies on Sept. 27, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Gloria’s staff took Walton on and the feud became increasingly personal. In a notorious press event at University of San Diego, Walton said Gloria should resign as mayor.

“Our neighborhood is under siege,” Walton said Tuesday, referencing a homeless camp in a corner of Balboa Park close to his Hillcrest home. “Everything in our lives is dictated by the homeless.”

He took to calling homeless encampments “Gloriavilles” and encouraged others to do it as well as he demanded the crisis attract an urgent response.

“He never expressed a lack of compassion for the people on the street who had no other options. His focus was on the lack of prosecution of the criminal element,” said Dan Shea, an executive committee member of the Lucky Duck Foundation, who had dove into the homelessness crisis in 2017 in partnership with the late Padres Chairman Peter Seidler. Shea was at Walton's side when the relentless San Diego booster became Gloria's toughest foe.

“We deserve clarity on what he was pissed off about. He wanted to see real progress on the crisis — help for the people who needed it and enforcement of law on people who preyed on them. Instead of just moving them around town until someone complained enough to move them again,” Shea said.

For other longtime friends of Walton, it was hard.

“He was doing the only thing he thought he could do,” Katz said. “I don’t think he was realistic about how big the problem is and how difficult it was to address.”

Walton eventually went so far as to say he couldn’t recommend people visit San Diego or build lives and businesses here. It was a shocking shift in tone from San Diego’s son, its biggest star and its biggest booster. Gloria pushed for a ban on encampments, more explicit than ones that already existed, arguably in part because of the pressure Walton helped mount but Walton never relented. He began advocating for Sunbreak Ranch, an idea to put a large camp somewhere to house all homeless people and provide services and more forcibly disallow them on city streets and public spaces.

When Walton died last week, several people noted Gloria did not put a post on X. Gloria had sent out a simple statement – much shorter than former President Barack Obama’s – but about how his thoughts were with the family.

I asked Gloria to speak a bit more on it.

“He wanted to see the problem dealt with yesterday and I agree. I am impatient too. He was always a fairly patient person and an easy-going fellow and this issue frustrated him and he saw it only getting worse. I agreed with him and lot of San Diegans but there were just no simple solutions,” Gloria told me.

There were no simple solutions, even the simplest, Sunbreak Ranch, is unfathomably complex and expensive and little more than a dream still. But people on all sides of the issue, perceived the same thing Walton did: That Gloria was not treating the issue with the sense of emergency it demanded. It was a complex civic problem the city was slowly chipping away at, not a humanitarian emergency.

“Ask Todd Gloria why he won’t utilize all the public resources, facilities and properties to provide the immediate shelter, the food and the rehabilitative services that our homeless population needs and deserves now,” Walton said in a video last year.

It was jarring, it wasn’t entirely productive, but Walton’s rants were as San Diegan as his sunny and spiritual boosterism had been in the years before. He was still articulating the essence of San Diego, which was still vaguely liberal, still interested in bicycling and cannabis, but disgusted by what was happening and confused why it couldn’t be more forcefully and immediately addressed.

And like many, he was worried we had lost something, we had lost what we loved about the city.

The homelessness crisis does not seem to be improving. Officials last week spun ever-worsening numbers as a hopeful sign just because the problem is at least getting worse more slowly than before.

It was just not the kind of thing even San Diego's greatest booster ever could champion.

Only One Finalist Stood at End of Contentious County CAO Search

This week, the chair of the Board of Supervisors, Nora Vargas, made it official that she and all four of her colleagues had, as we reported last week, offered the job of chief administrative officer overseeing 18,000 county employees to Ebony Shelton, the current chief financial officer. She will be the first Black woman to lead the county and her financial expertise will come in handy immediately as the county braces for state budget cuts.

The Board will make it official Tuesday.

In the Union-Tribune story about the appointment, Vargas subtly sent a dig at her critics pointing out that all the supervisors had supported the process they went through and then there was this sentence:

“Finalists were also interviewed by a panel of 10 community members — two from each supervisorial district — who provided feedback to the board on the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate,” the paper wrote.

That's not true: Yes, each of the five supervisors appointed two community members to interview the finalists. Yes, they met Monday May 27 via Zoom to do that. However, I have confirmed via several of them that they did not find out until that meeting that they would only be interviewing one candidate. The search firm and the supervisors had decided to only send them two candidates: Shelton and another from outside San Diego.

But the one from outside the county dropped out. They interviewed Shelton but there was no official feedback provided to the Board of Supervisors about her from the panel.

If you have any ideas or feedback for the Politics Report, send them to scott.lewis@planetcob.com.

Scott Lewis oversees Planetcob’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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3 Comments

  1. I think he probably spoke for many more people than you and Todd Gloria but I understand why the two of you took everything so personally and feel obligated to have the last word. That being said, there are many less tents on the street today so it seems Walton got what he wanted and now you and Gloria can do what you do best, take credit lol

  2. The open frustration regarding the homelessness crisis expressed by Bill Walton may have been jarring, but it may be understandable. First, I have noticed that people overall are less respectful since Trump made rude behavior commonplace and more impatient after the pandemic's disruptions to everyday freedoms. Second, I now wonder when Walton received his colon cancer diagnosis. Being diagnosed with a terminal condition and being in pain from this condition and/or treatment would make most people crankier than normal and impatient for solutions to problems that impacted even the small pleasures of their numbered good days left.

  3. Sure, Bill Walton's commentary about homelessness stagnation seemed “Jarring” - perhaps because it appeared to be at odds with his sunny, optimistic public persona. Yet he had lived in the very same neighborhood for nearly 40 years. He'd no doubt seen the slow progressive, deterioration and decay of the homeless issue up close and personally. If you read his 2016 memoir, you would know just how many times he'd been dealt a lousy hand, and yet figured out a way to overcome it, while encouraging others in similar positions to do the same. Who knows when his diagnoses came down, but given everything else he'd been through - orthopedically, financially (Donald Sterling, the doubters in Portland and elsewhere, the dismissal by ESPN in the late 2000's, maybe this once it was okay for Bill Walton to step a bit out of expected persona and land solid on someone - especially when that someone (Mayor Gloria) ran on a platform of effective action and policies to address homelessness, while the the problem just seemed to spiral further out of control? The big readhead deserves - at the very least - the benefit of the doubt on this one.

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