Edgy Interview: Craig Benedetto
Craig Benedetto has been a fixture in San Diego’s civic landscape for decades. He and his firm, California Strategies, take on a diverse range of projects and work hard. Craig’s deep background in land-use issues stems from a rich set of experiences forged at the Building Industry Association, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and his work with local, state and federal elected officials. He’s one of the good guys in politics who gets personally involved in local causes.
Example: Craig was recognized by BOMA San Diego for his efforts on behalf of commercial real estate during COVID. He’s also a dedicated family man who can be found on the links on any given Sunday with his young son. Or maybe Craig and his lovely wife Melanie will be travelling off to Italy or Africa or Central America. Craig is one of those people who wrings the most out of life and then uses his experiences to broaden his horizons.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was 12, I used to read the newspaper and then grill my parent’s friends when they came over on the day’s events. I always had an interest in politics and got my mom in a bit of trouble with a family friend, when I put up a yard sign for someone running against that friend. I guess, I’ve always liked to stir the pot [ed. Craig’s friends regard this as an understatement].
Tell us your Stryper story.
I attended Christian High School and it was at the time of “backward masking” and accusations of certain music types being satanic. Stryper was a popular metal band, and also a Christian band that enjoyed quite a following but was considered by some at our school — including the administrators — as merchants of evil. I wanted to see for myself and, with a promoter friend, went to see them perform at the California Theater (one of the last shows played in that house). I wanted to write up a story for the school newspaper and show who they were and show they were not Satanists. The show was amazing, and the crowd was on fire. Between songs they’d talk about their journey and their faith and throw small Bibles out to the crowd. After the show, I got to interview the two brothers who founded the band. In my opinion, they were the true spirit of Christian faith and ministry, going to the masses the way Jesus did. The resulting story and editorial became a bit of a donnybrook with the administration who took great exception to my conclusions about the band. It wasn’t long after that I was “removed” from the newspaper staff. I don’t regret the experience at all and appreciate that a few years later the administration recanted their jihad against bands like Stryper.
First concert you attended and how did it make you feel?
Night Ranger at Magic Mountain. It was with my brothers and the son of one of my mom and dad’s close friends. He was older and someone I looked up to at the time. He loved that band and was so excited to see them play live. I am still reminded of him whenever I hear Sister Christian. Sadly, he died in a tragic motorcycle accident a few years after that.
What was your favorite musical genre as a teenager and what are you listening to now?
Ska, new wave…and sometimes the dark wave…that said, I listened to a lot of things, from ska, to reggae, to new wave, to rock. Just loved music and still love it. I listen to a little more classic rock now, and find a mutual love with my son for AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen. But, I still go back and listen to 80’s music with a wistful ear.
Who would you want to have play you in your biopic?
It’s a tie between Michael J. Fox (loved “Family Ties” and “Back to the Future”) and Matthew Broderick (because “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” was a bit of an anthem for me).
What item would you like to buy if it went up for auction and you had the money to afford it?
The DeLorean from Back to the Future
Favorite cuisine and where do you get it?
Italian…. In Italy, Florence preferably. Although, it’s called food there!
If you were a competitive eater, which food would be your specialty?
Totino’s Pizza Rolls… cuz, it’s pizza in a fried roll… what’s not to like? I could eat boxes and boxes of them.
What three things are must-haves in your fridge at all times?
Hot sauce (Cholula), good charcuterie and cheese.
How did you first get involved in your line of work and what keeps you there?
It started in college when I met Ralph Inzunza who helped link me up with a political consulting firm run by Larry Remer and Tom Shepard. I got to work with them and Scott Barnett and eventually got placed to run a campaign for County Supervisor. Fast forward through a victory, policy work, another campaign, another victory and I’ve stayed with politics ever since… and much to the chagrin of my Dad, who thought it wasn’t a reputable profession. I stick with it to prove to him that it is a profession worth having and a value to our society. He admitted, begrudgingly, that I proved him wrong. Proving people wrong and helping make my piece of the world a little better is still something that sticks with me and drives me today.
You’ve worked with a lot of candidates and on a lot of causes. Which one are you proudest of?
It’s probably the first one I worked on when I started my own business, the entitlement of San Diego’s 4S Ranch. I started my own company, and the owners of 4S were my first client. We spent a year working to get it unanimously approved by the County of San Diego, despite the objections of the adjacent community and their city council representative. It was my first taste of victory and also my first taste of NIMBYs. I like the former but not the latter!
If you could go back in time, which former President would you like to chat with and what’s the topic?
Thomas Jefferson. He’s not as popular as he once was given the resurgence of the play Hamilton in current affairs, but still important. I digress, but the play is amazing. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a national treasure, bringing history to life and relevant. Unfortunately, he blew up our third president in the process. For me, chatting with Jefferson would be to understand the how and why of the foundation of our country from his POV. And that includes the feud with Hamilton, his time in France and the international intrigue of the American Revolution.
If you could repeal one law, which would it be and why?
There are two, actually, and they are tied. Term limits and district-only elections. I think they both have created a bit of a myopic political culture that allows our elected officials to sometimes lose sight of the big picture.
Briefly review the last good political book you read.
“Killing Crazy Horse” by Bill O’Reilly. It’s similar to his other books and covers the history of the war on indigenous Americans. It’s a brutal description of the demise of the native population, the numerous battles between them and the growing expansion of settlers to the west. As the saying goes, history is written by the victors, which doesn’t make it accurate and shouldn’t be a reason to not look back and re-evaluate. The history of Europeans settling this continent and their treatment of indigenous peoples is really quite disturbing, and this book brings a piece of that history back to life.
Who is your favorite artist — any medium – and why?
J.D. Salinger, author of “The Catcher in the Rye.” I love books and I love good “old school,” coming-of-age fiction. I have a few anathematic symbols in my life, from The Who’s “Quadrophenia” album to Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher.” Perhaps it’s just a bit of my rebel soul and my desire to live my life my way. I was captivated by the book as a teen, and still am as an adult. So much so that we named our son Holden after the lead character.
We see a lot of FB posts of you and your son Holden. Any proudest moments you want to share?
Firsts are always amazing, but what I’ve enjoyed most is being able to coach him. We’ve won a couple of seasons for soccer and flag football. It was so incredible to not only see him succeed with his team, but be a part of it… and then have him tell me he’d prefer me to coach him. Warms my heart.
What is your favorite sports moment?
Watching Italy win the World Cup in 2006. I watched every match in Little Italy from the Waterfront Bar & Grill, including the final, despite having helped sponsor the “Jumbotron” on India Street. Although I am not a big fan of winning a match like that on penalties, it was a victory to savor. And following the match, it was amazing walking around Little Italy’s India Street in euphoria with the thousands of Italia fans.
Which reality TV show would you most like to compete on and why?
The Amazing Race. I’m hyper competitive [ed. Craig’s friends regard this as an understatement]. You play as partners, it has a lot of moving parts (physical and mental) and I love to travel, and, in this case, internationally!
Most people say they got a lucky break at some point. Tell us about yours.
1995 following the election. It was either head back to Washington, DC or stay in San Diego. Ultimately, for a variety of reasons, I opted to stay, but where to go next was the big question. I was fortunate that a few years before, the Construction Industry Federation had fallen apart due to the housing recession at the time. The Building Industry Association was looking to create an in-house government affairs program and needed someone. It was a shift in focus from doing policy for a government official to starting a lobbying program that I hadn’t anticipated at the time. And I’ve never looked back.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve received and who gave it to you?
“Don’t let them see you get mad, and when you do, take it out on your steering wheel and not in front of them.” It was a message my dad told me when he saw me get mad and frustrated. Like most of us, he didn’t always practice what he preached, but it’s a good message about keeping your cool even in the most difficult of situations.
What advice do you have for young people starting out in the lobbying world?
Get as many experiences as you can. You must understand how it works and what drives public officials from a variety of perspectives. If you haven’t worked on a campaign, worked for a public official as an aide and worked on behalf of a third-party external stakeholder (in my case it was for the Building Industry Association and the Chamber of Commerce), you won’t succeed as quickly as you could. Lastly, if it’s only about the money, then you’ll never have the passion and commitment to be the best lobbyist you can be.
Where do you see the lobbying profession headed? What innovations are coming?
Motivating public officials to hear your point of view and support your cause is a challenge in normal times. With the advent of mobile technology and social media, it becomes ever more challenging to use data and facts to drive decisions. The work has become even more about public opinion, which was always underlying decision making, but is now being driven in smaller bytes, technologically speaking. Capturing public opinion and delivering cogent, data-driven input via technology will become an even more important commodity in the public affairs, community relations space. Tight messaging driven by solid community relations likely done more by on-line platforms, whether by websites, social media or Zoom will be a permanent feature of advocacy.
What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
Same as I am today. I love what I do since it allows me to make a living being involved in civic affairs.
What would you change about yourself?
My quick temper and snap judgement… and maybe a little better language from time to time. As a Dad, I should do more to be a good role model.