For her decades of leadership and advocacy, inveterate political insider Laurie Black will receive the Founders Award at the Downtown San Diego Partnership’s annual recognition dinner.
The March 14 event marks the 30th anniversary of the The Downtown Partnership and will be held at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel. The nonprofit DSDP is both an advocate and service provider for the business community in the city’s urban core.
Black served as president of the Downtown Partnership from 1997 to 2001. She also represented the City of San Diego as a commissioner at the San Diego Unified Port District and was a board director for the Centre City Development Corporation.
“Laurie has been part of the political, civic and business landscape in San Diego for more than 35 years,” DSDP president and CEO Betsy Brennan says. “I’ve been lucky to know her as a friend and community leader during my previous roles and have long admired her passionate advocacy…Laurie’s tenacity and strategy has paid tremendous dividends to downtown…She continues to be a mentor to many for positive change in downtown and we are certain her efforts will reverberate throughout the community for years to come.”
Prior to holding office at the Downtown Partnership, Black worked on California political campaigns for Tom Bradley, Jerry Brown, Lucy Killea and many others. In 1992, she served as chief of staff for Congresswoman Lynn Schenk. She’s still a political insider and behind-the-scenes advocate.
Black is the daughter-in-law of the late M. Larry Lawrence, a Democratic fundraiser and former owner of the Hotel del Coronado.
On March 3, 2023, I spoke with Black about getting this award. (Full disclosure: I helped her write an as-yet-unpublished autobiography.) We talked about breaking ground as a female in politics, taking workplace comments like “urine-stained bums” personally, and breaking ground for the DSDP’s Clean & Safe program.
What was happening downtown in the mid-90s?
Laurie Black: By 1996, lots of things weren’t happening. A potential ballpark wasn’t quite moving along. A central library wasn’t quite moving along. The North Embarcadero Visionary Plan wasn’t happening. Craig Irving was the new chairman of the board of the Downtown Partnership, which was looking for a new president. I applied and got the job and it was a big deal that I was a woman.
How did things start off?
LB: Within two months, a board member told me, “It’s your job, Laurie Black, to get rid of the urine-stained bums from downtown.” And that’s when I realized they needed education. That was the beginning of letting people in downtown understand what mental health was within homelessness. And that many of the people who talked to the trees were paranoid schizophrenics on crack.
This was a personal issue for you.
LB: I had my personal experience with my own brother’s homelessness. Brian Black really became a bit of a poster child, poster man, for what could happen when people cared enough to help people experiencing homelessness with housing and wraparound services. I guess one of the saddest things for me today, in 2023, is we’re still talking about this and it’s worse.
Where did the idea come from to start San Diego’s Clean & Safe Program?
LB: We did research on what Downtown Partnerships in other cities were doing. We kicked off what became Clean & Safe in 1999 with a vote (Proposition 218) for property owners to tax themselves. [Today, Clean & Safe provides enhanced maintenance and safety services, beautification efforts and comprehensive unhoused care services for 275 blocks of downtown.]
How does it feel that the Clean & Safe program now has an app?
LB: Back in 1997, my office didn’t have computers. It’s so good to know there’s actually an application on a phone that does Clean & Safe. I mean, I’m the root, that’s the wings. Good for them.
Current DSDP CEO Betsy Brennan calls you a mentor. What’s your relationship like with her?
LB: I met Betsy when she was working for then-City Councilmember Scott Peters. Betsy is an attorney, aside from everything else, and what she has done with the Downtown Partnership is phenomenal. Betsy is a leader, very respected and she’s nonpartisan for the most part. I didn’t like the Political Action Committee that was started before Betsy. I felt that it diluted some things. Homelessness is not partisan. Potholes after a rain are not partisan. Betsy’s gone back to “let’s just get this job done” and not worry about what the politics are.
What does it mean to be getting this award on the 30th anniversary of DSDP?
LB: The first thing I said to Betsy when she called was, “It means I’m old.” (Laughs.) I’m going to be 65 in June. When I started at the Downtown Partnership, I was 39. Public service has always been something I do. It was wonderful to have a career advocating, especially for those who couldn’t advocate for themselves. I pretty much lived in the trenches of the city. But I didn’t believe that doing a press conference every day benefitted anybody. You just do the job and then eventually communicate how it’s being done. SDSun