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Edgy Interview: Tony Manolatos

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A San Diego Union-Tribune reporter in a previous life, I met Tony Manolatos while he served as Communications Director for then-Councilman Kevin Faulconer. So Tony is one of those savvy San Diego City Hall veterans with a background in journalism. Probably more important to his success in campaigns and elections, Tony has a knack for putting together and managing crack teams of professionals who work in synch to move the needle for his clients. It’s not easy balancing client demands with diverse talents, but that’s what he does at his brand-new firm Manolatos Public Affairs.

Tony Manolatos and family

Who should play you in your biopic?
Ralph Macchio. I’m kidding but he is top of mind because of a series I just watched on Netflix. If you watched Karate Kid when you were younger check out Cobra Kai on Netflix. It’s cheesy, over the top, and most of the acting is pretty awful, but it’s also a lot fun catching up with these guys 30 years later…and finding yourself rooting for Johnny. 

How did you first get involved in politics?
I was an investigative reporter at the Union-Tribune. I spent the final four years of my 12-year journalism career there. The buyouts had started, and you could see where things were headed. My wife Elizabeth, who had also worked at the newspaper and was then at the county’s communications office, emailed to tell me I should apply for a job with then-Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, who was looking for a communications director. “Ugh,” I remember thinking, “I don’t want to do that.” But I knew I didn’t want to watch the newspaper business continue to unravel, and even during the best of times I knew I didn’t want to be the 55-year-old reporter with greasy hair and stains on his tie who scoffed at the young guys getting all the best assignments. I applied for that job at City Hall and left the newspaper business the old-fashioned way – I put in my two weeks notice. Life at City Hall along with my time as a reporter set me up for what I do today. Take away either of those experiences, and I could not do my job well.

If you could repeal one law, which would it be and why?
The beach booze ban. Duh. 

Briefly review the last good political book you read or movie you saw.
I watched On the Basis of Sex a few months ago on Hulu because I wanted to learn more about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early days, the foundational success she achieved, and the intense struggles she faced, and, boy, is that a fantastic movie. It’s especially relevant now with her passing.

Do you think America’s best days are behind her or ahead of her and why?
We have never reckoned with our original sins of slavery and the genocide of the indigenous people; we elected a reality TV star president; our country feels more divided than ever; and we have lost more than 200,000 people in the U.S. to a global pandemic that isn’t showing any signs of relenting. I think better days are ahead of us. They have to be. 

First concert you attended and how did it make you feel?
Bob Seger with my parents followed by Neil Diamond, also with my mom. Loved every minute of those concerts, and I remember seeing Jazz Singer with my mom and thinking that was a fantastic movie. My folks introduced me to Motown – The Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder. We had a stereo system with a turntable and massive wooden speakers in our living room when I was a kid and I had the same set up through college.

Who is your favorite artist – any medium – and why?
Songwriters have always inspired me…Brian Wilson, Eminem, Eddie Vedder, Paul McCartney. These guys are lyrical geniuses. Listen to God Only Knows and Good Vibrations and tell me they’re not two of the best songs ever recorded. Eminem is a fascinating guy and I had a chance to dig into who he was and what life was like for him when I briefly covered him and his work when I was a reporter at the Detroit News. I expensed a bunch of his CDs while writing a profile of him and I remember thinking that was just the coolest thing. So many Beatles lyrics stand out for me including Elanor Rigby, Paperback Writer, Revolution, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam do not get enough credit for their beautiful songs, including Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town and Wishlist. I read once that Eddie was working at gas station in Pacific Beach, wrote some lyrics after surfing one day (still had sand on his feet, the story goes), recorded them onto a cassette and mailed it to Seattle to the guys who would soon become his bandmates. I’m a sucker for good San Diego and Detroit stories, which is one of the reasons why I devour anything Cameron Crowe puts out. I’ve literally driven down Sixth Avenue looking for the apartment building he lived in with his mom.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve received and who gave it to you?
My dad always told me: “Work hard and the rest will take care of itself.” My dad was a self-made guy. A successful small business owner who worked really hard, and my mom also worked really hard raising us and then later finishing school and working as a nurse. Hard work was just sort of a thing for me growing up in suburban Detroit. There’s more to success than hard work – you also have to be smart, lucky, and well-networked – but hard work certainly is a big factor. If you beat me, it’s not going to be because you out-hustled me. 

You recently started a new business. What’s the impetus and what’s the unique selling proposition?
My communications work varies from client to client but the jobs I enjoy the most are public affairs campaigns (building a brand or elevating a brand to achieve certain goals) and ballot campaigns (winning a vote on Election Day). More and more I have been building highly skilled teams of public affairs professionals – lobbyists, media relations pros, digital gurus, etc. Saying goodbye to my friends at Manolatos Nelson Murphy and starting Manolatos Public Affairs gives me more flexibility to work with the top talent in and around San Diego. One of the things I do well, I think, is build coalitions or third-party supporters to help my clients achieve their goals. For me, coalition building starts with building a solid internal team. Just within the last year I’ve had a chance to work with some of the best public affairs pros in the business, including Juan Hernandez and Anthony Astolfi at IVC Media, Tanya Castaneda, Jesus Cardenas, Rachel Laing, James Lawson, Lani Lutar, John Hoy, and you, Mr. Nienstedt. I mean, I can put together a rock star team in four hours and we can help a client quickly move the needle.

Favorite cuisine and where do you get it?
Pasta. When we could eat there, I loved Bencotto and Monello in Little Italy. We’ve ordered take-out a couple times from Siamo Napoli in North Park and the food there is fantastic. Our favorite neighborhood spot is Antica Trattoria. The owner looks like Tony Soprano, he’s from Sicily, and he’s always at the restaurant. The food there is amazing. Fresh, filling, comfort food.

We do love all the wonderful Asian food options in San Diego and our favorite is OB Noodle House. I met the family years ago when all they owned was a tiny donut shop in Ocean Beach called OB Donuts.

Final food point: you can’t get good Greek food in San Diego and that’s a shame.

What three things are must-haves in your fridge at all times?
La Croix, fruits and veggies, and Sriracha.

What is your favorite moment from sports?
I grew up watching the Lions, Tigers, Pistons, and the Michigan Wolverines so you won’t be surprised to learn that my favorite sports moments involve these teams. I watched the Pistons beat Bird, Magic and Jordan. Those were awesome rivalries and my most memorable moments as a fan who cared deeply about a team and the players on that team. Pound-for-pound, Isaiah Thomas was the best point guard to ever play the game and he’s underappreciated outside of Detroit. I was at the ALCS game in Detroit in 1984 when the Tigers won to advance to play the Padres in the World Series. What a scene that was. I had never seen anything like that before, where the game and the revelry spilled out into the streets. A man sat on our hood cheering as my dad slowly pulled our car out of the parking lot. “Bless you Boys” is how we the city collectively referred to the Tigers back then. I am, unfortunately, a Lions fan, but that does mean I was able to watch Barry Sanders play the game. He was special.

I have so many good Michigan football memories. The Wolverines have been the salve for me and many others Lions fans over the years. Bo Schembechler was a God in our house when I was a kid. Watching a game at the Big House in Ann Arbor, especially rivalries, is awesome. I remember once when I was a kid, we lost to Michigan State and the Michigan student section started chanting: “That’s alright. That’s okay. You’re gonna work for us someday.” I have to say though that Elizabeth, who grew up in Milwaukee and graduated from the University of Wisconsin, took me to a game at Camp Randall in Madison and it was wild. Such a scene and so much fun in the stands. I mean, picture 80,000 fans in red bouncing to Jump Around.

You’re a poker player. How did you learn the game and what was your biggest pot?
I learned to play poker sitting on my dad’s lap. When my dad was a kid his uncle owned a Poker Room (an illegal poker room behind a coffee shop) in Greektown in downtown Detroit, so everyone in his family played poker. I remember watching them play after Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, everyone huddled around a big smoky circular table in the basement, laughing and sharing stories. I found the same thing with a bunch of high school buddies. One time in Vegas like eight of us ended up at the same poker table in one of the casinos and someone said, “You know, we could have done this at home and saved ourselves a lot of money.” I recently found the same thing again with a group of dads. We play online on Saturday nights. Derek Danziger, President of Katz & Associates, set it up when COVID-19 hit as a way to keep local public affairs and PR dads connected. You play with us sometimes, Mr. Nienstedt. It’s great because it’s a mix of some of us in the public affairs bubble and dads who joined the game because they’re neighbors with so and so.

The competition and the camaraderie are what I enjoy most about poker, along with winning, of course. You have to have good cards to win and some nights the cards don’t come your way, but you also need to know how to play those cards, and you need to know how to read what cards everyone else is holding. That’s the hardest part. You can’t fall in love with your hand. As soon as do, you are going to forget that the guy raising you might have a higher boat than the one you’re holding. It’s not easy to win so those who do win consistently are like skilled tradesmen. They’re pros. If I play in a tournament and I don’t make the final table I’m disappointed. When I was younger and didn’t have any real expenses, I played in a lot of cash games – not unlike those basement games I grew up watching. I mostly play Texas Hold’em tournaments now. I think the biggest Hold’em tournament I’ve won was for $3k.

Say one of your kids wanted to go into politics. Would you encourage or discourage that?
I think one of our boys could be mayor one day. I really do and I’ve actually had that thought. Is that weird? He’s a natural leader and he’s one of those kids who people are drawn to. He’s funny and smart and a gifted athlete. When he throws a baseball to me it pops in my glove and sometimes I think, “Damn, who taught him to throw like that?” He’s only seven, but you already can tell that life comes easy to him, and on top of that he works really hard. He’s a determined little boy.

I would tell him to surround himself with smart people, people he trusts. I would tell him to trust his instincts. I would tell him to never lose his way. Too often, politicians do just that. They and their inner-circle can become arrogant and insulated. They forget who they are, why they were elected, and that they work for the people and not their donors or re-election team. I would tell him to be honest, take risks, do big things, listen, and lead.

What would you change about yourself?
Listen more. Talk less. The smartest people in the room are usually the best listeners. Spend less time working, especially when my kids are home. There’s nothing more important than family but that email or text or phone call often feels super important. More often than not, it can wait and it will be there for me when my kids are asleep.

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