Edgy Interview: Dan McAllister
Dan McAllister seems to have a nasty job. The Bible holds that tax collectors are vile and most people I know aren’t giddy with excitement at the thought of paying taxes “to the man.” But then there’s Dan, a gentleman with a sunny disposition who genuinely wants the process of paying taxes to be as painless as possible. I first encountered Dan in the political sphere during Susan Golding’s first run for Mayor. That ’92 race was extremely contentious, full of charges and counter-charges and wild accusations and, even, tears. But through it all, there was Dan staying on message when talking to reporters for the Daily Transcript, the Union-Tribune and TV stations. He was not only unflappable, but Dan was able to convey the right Golding message that cut through the clutter. In this interview 26 years later, I finally got a chance to learn what makes Dan McAllister tick.
What California issue interests you the most now? Why? And what should be done about it?
As the Treasurer-Tax Collector, I get involved in many things, particularly housing. My current job enables me to be more in touch with what is happening in the market, from an economic standpoint and a housing-needs standpoint. If the numbers are to be trusted and we are 145,000 housing units short of our present housing needs in San Diego County, then we have a lot of work ahead of us. I think pursuing a philosophy of collaboration is the best way out of this. My office deals with all the major banks in the region. We should seek to harness the finances and energy of these banks to work to resolve this issue, which is the lack of low/moderate income housing, housing for seniors, workforce housing, and housing for the disabled, veterans and homeless. The implications of this subject are far-reaching; all 18 cities, state and federal agencies, labor, and developers need to be part of this discussion. As an example, I am told that a community college district in Northern California, working in concert with other government agencies, has started to build their own housing for teachers and instructors to cut down on commute times. Petty revolutionary.
What’s the best thing about the USA?
We have so much freedom compared to the rest of the world. I’ve had a unique opportunity to travel around the world and meet people in many countries, as well as serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in a third-world country. Through these experiences, I developed keen perspectives that drive me every day – the sense that we live in a free country that enables us to pursue goals we’ve set for ourselves. It makes me proud to be an American.
If you could go back in time, which former President would you like to chat with and what’s the topic?
I have great admiration for many presidents that have served this country – Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan – but I am most intrigued by Harry Truman, because he was a local guy who came from local government on his climb to the presidency. He’s one of the presidents who started at the local government level. Tip O’Neill’s quote “All politics is local” makes me think that we need more local government influence in Washington, particularly from those who have served as a local elected official.
Who is your favorite artist — any medium – and why?
Alexander Calder is widely considered to be one of the most important American sculptors of the 20th century. He is noted for his colorful, whimsical, abstract sculptures, his innovative mobiles, and his kinetic sculptures powered by air currents.
What was your favorite musical genre as a teenager and what are you listening to now?
I feel like a product not of one era but of multiple eras and genres. Growing up in Southern California, music from the 60s and 70s exposed me to everything from the Beach Boys to the Beatles, the Doors and Rolling Stones. I love listening to the many songs of these artists as well as the music of Motown and the amazing sounds of Aretha Franklin. I played drums in several garage bands growing up, so I’m attracted to music with a variety of beats. When I get a chance on Sunday afternoons, I enjoy listening to Xavier the X man on 92.5 FM as he plays oldies and offers interesting background commentary on a wide variety of musical artists from the 50s through the 80s. It’s intriguing to see the progress of music as it moves through the generations. I worked for several radio stations earlier in my career, so I’m familiar with their formats and music. Soul music had a huge impact on my life. It always delivered a message and a distinctive beat. There’s nothing better than a band with horns, a strong danceable beat and soul to make it happen. Recently the passing of Aretha stirred a lot of memories of listening to great singers rooted in gospel music. Nothing better!
Tell us about your artistic talent(s).
I played drums for a lot of years. We had a band where we found out that you can play at bars on a military base if you’re under 21, so as a high school student, I played at bars on the bases. My parents weren’t happy because it was always on a school night and they had to drive us. We’d go to NTC and play, and we got paid what seemed like a lot of money at the time, like $125. They didn’t care what it sounded like as long as they could drink and dance to it.
If you were a competitive eater, which food would be your specialty?
Cheeseburgers, chocolate shakes and frosted animal crackers!
Favorite cuisine and where do you get it?
In a macro way, there’s nothing better than living by the Pacific Ocean for fresh fish and other delectables such as squid, tuna, halibut and sea bass. When I was in the Peace Corps, I survived on a steady diet of ocean-fresh tuna. I can still out-eat anyone when it comes to fresh fish, rice and fresh fruit. Growing up, Anthony’s was the place to go for the best and freshest seafood. My parents rewarded good report cards with a dinner at Anthony’s.
Which reality TV show would you most like to compete on and why?
It’s a show that has never materialized, but I feel like I’d be the best competitor on a TV show about puns. If I could compete in puns, I am certain I would win.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve received and who gave it to you?
One piece of advice came from an industrial psychologist I worked with. He said the best managers are the managers who are guilty of “commission” rather than “omission.” Take a risk; you might fail, and you will fail at times, but if you don’t take the risk, you’re not going to elevate the discussion and ultimately move things along.
Tell us a good story about the Tax Collector’s office.
There are many great stories that all relate back to our staff. We have accomplished tremendous things over the last 16.5 years. We have a team that speaks 17 different languages, we’re attuned with diversity like no one else. We help customers at break-neck speed and have them leave happy and appreciative of the service we give. One day, about 10 years ago, we got our own version of a tax protest. I got called down during peak collection, where the lines were long and over-heated, and I was confronted by two or three protestors. This guy brought his property tax payment of $3,400 in bags, and he said, “Nothing gives you the right to tax us, so we’re going to pay in pennies.” By then the deputies were watching closely. This had never happened to us, so no one knew how to handle it. The guy started to pour the pennies over the counter. I said, “This isn’t going to work. I want you to pick every penny up and I want you to count out the $3,400 in pennies you brought us, and then you can pay the taxes.” So it took them an hour or two to count out the money and they paid and went on their way.
Who shaped your thinking most on politics?
It was a combination. When I was in elementary school at Kate Sessions in Pacific Beach, we used to listen weekly to programs about John F. Kennedy and his support for a new volunteer program called the Peace Corps, and that planted the idea of serving for me. In addition, my parents were really involved in giving back when I was a little boy. Many of the Native American tribes in San Diego County were very poor. My parents organized clothing and food drives to deliver to several reservations in the area during the holidays. I think that these were two experiences that propelled me into public service as well.
What advice do you have for young people starting out?
Get involved. I’ve told my own kids, I don’t care what you get involved in, just get involved (if it’s legal). I don’t care about your politics. Outside of that, I hope young people internalize the notion of giving back through public service. Before I was elected in 2002, I was honored by the Staples Foundation for my volunteer work and giving back to my community. As part of this recognition, the foundation awarded me $1,000 to contribute to the nonprofit of my choice. They also gave me my own tile at the entrance of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Due to the size considerations, I was allowed to write a brief message on the face of my tile. In addition to my name, my message was: “GIVE BACK.”
If you could return to a place you’ve traveled, where would you go?
Italy is superb. It’s my favorite place outside of the US. Friendly and happy people, great history and great things to see.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted in the worst way to be a leader. I tried K-12 politics and it never seemed to pan out. I lost a few school elections, but there’s a time and a place for everything, and after my Peace Corps service and years in the business community, I ran for this office. It’s turned out to be a wonderful experience.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
My greatest accomplishment is producing two incredible kids. My daughter is an entrepreneur in Northern California after earning her degree in computer animation, and my son is in the Navy after graduating from the Naval Academy and earning his graduate degree from Johns Hopkins.