Edgy Interview: Sara Katz
Sara Katz has been a force in San Diego public affairs for as long as I can remember. In fact, little known trivia, the Katz & Associates offices were in the same building as the Competitive Edge facility when we were located in Mission Valley! Sara has many claims to fame, but the one I like best is rebranding the recycled water program. Back in the early 2000s, the program had been tagged as “toilet-to-tap.” The ick factor was a real problem until Sara came up with “Pure Water Program.” A few years later we scientifically tested that new labelling on behalf of the Public Utilities District, and, while residents had mixed feelings about drinking recycled water, the image of the Pure Water Program was stellar. I think you’ll agree from Sara’s thoughtful answers, she brings her A game to everything she does.
How did you first get involved in your line of work and what keeps you there?
It started off with a political science college internship that I secured in the San Diego Mayor’s office, and then I worked several local, state, and federal campaigns throughout California, Nevada, and Texas. From there, I was recruited to work on back-to-back statewide ballot propositions in California. When I decided to hang out my own shingle (that is a whole other story), I was drawn to issues that had a nexus to policy, but also to the environment – water, wastewater, transportation, energy etc. And here I am, some 30+ years later, still doing this. And why? Our mission statement at Katz & Associates is simple: Helping People Communicate About Things that Matter, and these policy issues probably matter more today than they did when I started the company. I have met fabulous people along the way, which has made the journey even more personally and professionally satisfying. I’m also proud of the small contributions I made in the communities where we have worked, often for many years, on important issues such as potable reuse (you know – “Toilet to Tap” ????), transportation improvements, overcoming NIMBY opposition to site important infrastructure… lots of examples I could share.
What was your favorite musical genre as a teenager and what are you listening to now?
Soft rock: The Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Rolling Stones, Loggins & Messina, Fleetwood Mac, Sade, Prince, Phil Collins, Elton John — a very long list. Throughout my youth there was often music playing in our home – I can see my parents dancing in the living room to the music of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett that was playing on their Curtis Mathis stereo. So, when I started playing “my music,” I can hear my dad complaining that they just don’t make music like they used to. I love concerts, festivals, and dancing, so music plays an important role in my life!
Today I still listen to all the above, but I quite like several of today’s artists including Chainsmokers, Kygo, Dua Lipa, Gryffin, Harry Styles, Shawn Mendez and Lady Gaga, as well as some of the EDM music that my son blasts from his garage mancave.
First concert you attended and how did it make you feel?
The first “real” concert I attended — and that I remember made a BIG impression on me — was an all day, outdoor, no assigned seats, August 31, 1975 at Balboa Stadium (now a part of City College). It was about eight to ten hours in length and featured Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac, and Loggins & Messina. [ed. Tickets were $7.50] I was way too young for any distilled spirits, etc., but there was no need… the vibe and energy, the dancing and singing to the music of legends that were bigger than life for me at that time was all that was needed for this youngster.
If you could go back in time, which former President would you like to chat with and what’s the topic?
President Ronald Reagan. I attended the University of New Hampshire in 1980 on an exchange program with San Diego State University. I was encouraged by former Mayor Pete Wilson to get involved in the New Hampshire presidential Primary – a unique opportunity, he said – so I did. I ended up organizing Youth for Reagan on campus and quickly networked throughout the state, a great place to be during the fall of a high profile, presidential campaign. I was at the event in Portsmouth, NH, when then-candidate Reagan grabbed the microphone and said (paraphrasing): “I paid for this microphone.” Many may remember this was a defining moment in that presidential election. So, in some ways this was the first real “mic drop”.
Our conversation? I would listen intently, drink in his thoughts, visions, applaud his patriotism and love of America. President Reagan owned the reality that he (and others) were voted into office to represent all Americans – and the litmus test of “red or blue” did not dictate the conversation. I would ask him what it takes for politics to work. Compromise, collaboration, and mutual respect? President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neil, while often on opposite ends of the political spectrum, frequently set a great example on how to compromise and get things done, an example that I certainly wish our current leaders would try to emulate. As an econ major, I would ask about his focus on supply-side economics, known then as Reaganomics, and how he wrestled the inflation rate of over 12% down to 4% while in office.
In 1984 I was lucky enough to serve as a California delegate for President Reagan and Vice-President George Bush at the Republican Convention in Dallas, Texas. Barely out of college, this was such an honor for me. So, no doubt in my mind, I’d like to chat with President Ronald Reagan.
Are America’s best days ahead of her or behind her?
This is a tough one, John. I have often said that I was born 20 to 25 years too late. I am a big fan of the Greatest Generation, which both my parents were on the tail-end of. My father graduated from high school at age 16.5 years, joined the military at age 17 and embarked on a 21-year military career (1940-1961). He was active in two wars, with 4,000 jet hours logged. My lens on America as a child was viewed through a stay-at-home mother, and a retired Air Force Major father who went to college (SDSU) and law school (USD) at night while working full-time every day for eight years. Hard work, sacrifice, respect, core values (regardless of your color or religion), and a “no-free lunch” mentality. Kick the can and hide-and-go seek were afternoon playdates. It wasn’t perfect or easy, but compared to what I see today, is sure feels more honest, less complicated, and certainly more real.
But as I look to the future, I am inspired by the advancements we are making in so many fields – telemedicine, technology, clean energy, etc. I applaud the social progress that has been made concerning equality — for women, same sex marriage, religious freedoms, and working to ensure a greater parity for people of color — the list is long. We moved to San Diego in the early 1960’s and Jews were not allowed — or perhaps I should say the real estate community would not sell homes — in some communities (i.e., La Jolla) to people of the Jewish faith. As history notes, only people of Caucasian European ancestry were allowed. So yes, progress is not easy, but it is being made. However, I am not sure if I can say with confidence that our best days are ahead of us.
America has been through several dark periods, and I feel we are in one again. In the past 10 or so years, the lack of civility between people here in our country is appalling. The dominance of social media and the control it has on our youth is of great concern. The days of TV and print media that largely told (versus editorialized) the story and highlighted the facts are all but gone. Government’s dominance in our lives feels all pervasive. Our pendulums simply, IMHO, swing too far one way or the other. We have more in common than we have in conflict, but it is the conflict that is highlighted to the point of saturation these days. I guess my response today would be… flip a coin, or it’s a tie.
Who would you want to have play you in your biopic?
I worked my way through high school and college as a food and cocktail waitress at several places in San Diego County, starting when I was 16 at Pernicano’s Pizza in El Cajon, and ending up at 21 working at Time Conspiracy, an upscale fine dining and dancing restaurant in UTC. Time Conspiracy was a themed restaurant where sectioned off areas had different motifs such as Roaring 20’s, Medieval, Old European, etc. The waitstaff also wore costumes and yours truly was Wonder Woman. Over the years I have been told many times I look like Linda Carter (I wish). But if I had to choose, I would have Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman 2.0, play me in my biopic. She is bad ass. A positive feminist, a mother of two, a lawyer, a former IDF soldier, and was crowned Miss Israel – and all of this was before the age of 35. She has also faced head-on anti-Semitism, which is clearly on the rise. We need more badass icons like Gal Gadot. So when the time comes for my biopic, please reach out to Gal to see if she has the time to take this on!
What is your favorite sports moment?
Setting aside my son’s club soccer days or my daughter’s high school lacrosse games – my favorite sports moment was on October 28th, 2018. It was game five of the World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox at Dodger Stadium. I was George Mitrovich’s “guest and chauffer,” and we were guests of the Red Sox Nation. For those who knew George, I am sure you are smiling as you envision George walking around Dodger Stadium like he owned the joint, showing off a previous Red Sox World Series ring to anyone what would stop to look, etc. While our politics rarely aligned, it didn’t matter, and I was honored to be a founding member of FOG (Friends of George – along with Dan McAllister, Jan Percival, and Jeff Marston). The sunset that night was stunning, our seats were great and yes, we also were invited to spend the last few innings in the Red Sox private suite. So, that evening and the Red Sox victory must be my favorite sports moment. If you were a Boston fan, the energy was simply contagious. The consummate baseball fan, this was the last World Series George would ever watch or attend. RIP Mitrovich from the Authority!
What advice do you have for young people starting out?
Earlier this year I participated on a panel of women business owners hosted by Dr. Kaye Switzer at SDSU for her Capstone Campaign Class in the Communications Department. We were asked a handful of questions to help some soon-to-be college graduates get a jumpstart in the “real world.” One question was along these same lines: What advice can you give a college senior as they are preparing to enter the workforce (in your field)? In no order of priority, here are some of my top suggestions:
- Invest in your job search by securing a couple of internships. That is a great way for both parties to “test drive” one another, so to speak. Don’t simply tell us you want to be in communications because “you like people.”
- Spell check and QAQC any written submission. Too many people over the years have sent cover letters or even resumes that included serious errors: Public has an “l” in it. We are not in the business of pubic relations.
- Show an interest: Volunteer, raise your hand, ask questions, show an interest in what you are doing or being asked to do. Find a way to standout. Initiative pays off.
- Look everyone in the eye. Effective communications and personal engagement require a connection that can’t be made solely with 280 characters in a Tweet. Get rid of the “you know,” “like,” “ummmms,” etc. As a representative of your employer/company, you are their brand, and you need to look and act the part.
- Be willing to pay your dues. You should not get a promotion or a bonus just for showing up on time and/or having occupied the chair for a year. Good work, a positive attitude, and a little extra effort can and will go a long way.
- Read the damn newspaper. Can’t tell you the number of people we interview that have college degrees in communications, public relations, or even journalism that do not follow the news everyday – heck, even once a week. Yet they think they would be good in media relations… WTH?
We see a lot of FB posts of you and your kids. Any proudest moments you want to share?
Two of my recent proudest moments are both associated with my kids. My daughter Alena was accepted to a coveted program at University of Southern California (USC) in the field of Occupational Therapy. Even with an impressive GPA, great aptitude scores, and a well-rounded CV, the competition was fierce. USC was her first choice for this specific program — an accelerated six-year doctoral program that only accepts 10 students each year. And to top it off, she was the recipient of the only merit scholarship awarded by the college for her undergraduate degree. #ProudMom
The second of these recent proudest moments was in June of 2020 when my son graduated from the University of Oregon. U of O was his top choice for college, and it proved overall to be a good fit. While we never imagined his graduation ceremony would be held virtually in our family room, compliments of COVID-19, it turned out to be wonderful and even extra special: surrounded by close friends who were there in person to celebrate this accomplishment.
What would you change about yourself?
I have said for years that I have a college degree in worrying… certainly nothing to brag about. And sometimes I think I went on to receive my master’s degree, even with honors, in worrying. Big stuff, little stuff, things I have no control over, yet still I find reason to worry… In fact, as I respond to this interview, I worry if this is what you were looking for in terms of responses ????