What Does Malin Burnham’s Possible Take-Over of the U-T San Diego Mean?

by on October 23, 2014 · 12 comments

in Culture, Economy, History, Ocean Beach, Politics, San Diego

Malin Burnham fullhueAs  ‘Old-Money’ Point Loman Burnham emerges to operate San Diego’s daily, questions are raised whether this is the “Moderate Wing” of the Establishment reasserting itself?

Part One of two parts.

By Frank Gormlie 

The news has been out for nearly a month now that well known wheeler-dealer and financier Malin Burnham of Point Loma has initiated efforts to purchase the U-T San Diego from Doug Manchester, the current owner and publisher.

Burnham, who calls himself a moderate Republican and who has lived in Point Loma all  his life, told the press that he is the spokesman for a 5-man group of economic power-brokers who want to form a non-profit that will take over the newspaper and run it as a profit-making enterprise.  Any profits, Burnham has pledged, would go back into community charities.  Now as crazy as that plan might seem in this day and age of folding newspapers and expanding internet news sites, there are at least two other major dailies in the country that are run by non-profits.

With Manchester’s knowledge and even acquiescence, the group is currently awaiting approval by the IRS for their non-profit plan.  The 90 day waiting period should be up around Christmas time and maybe the IRS will hand Burnham and his gang a sweet holiday present.

Burnham has been very upbeat about the project, despite all the many questions that dangle about this arrangement – and Manchester has  been clear with the press that currently there is no deal, but that he’s open to some kind of arrangement. Reportedly, Manchester and Burnham have been tossing figures back and forth.

If his group buys it, Burnham has said that there will be “a firewall” between the editorial department and the daily operations of the paper, and that the editorial board would be made up of a “cross-section of the community.” This, of course, would be in stark contrast to how Manchester currently runs the U-T, often using it as a platform for conservative Republican politics, issues and candidates only, and where readers have a difficult time at discerning where the editorial pages start and stop.

So what does all this mean? Will this possible acquisition be good for San Diego? And who is Malin Burnham anyhow?

The OB Rag wanted to find out, so we began doing a little digging about Burnham and in the process, shot emails off  to people in the media and politics for reactions to the ‘Malin Group Take-over’ (which will be covered in Part Two).

Mr Downtown San Diego?

Malin Burnham is many things to many people – and the mainstream media has quickly and happily crowned him a “philanthropist” – and Burnham  has indeed set the gold standard for philanthropy in this town. He could easily be called “Mr Civic San Diego” or “Mr Philanthropy San Diego”.

But what the mainstream media failed to do is scratch below the surface of his history and what he actually stands for – which is “Mr Downtown San Diego”. How so?

Before he “retired” and went into philanthropy, Burnham built Southern California’s largest independent real estate brokerage firm, Burnham Real Estate.  He was a partner in more than a hundred commercial developments and projects, which added up altogether, amounted to investments of $1.1 billion. In 2008, the firm was acquired by Cushman & Wakefield, and  Burnham still remains as a vice chairman of international commercial real estate.  He also is a co-founder of the First National Bank of San Diego.

In typical self-deprecating form, Burnham had an audacious moment in an interview recently with Fred Dickey of the U-T San Diego.  In the interview published Oct. 13th in an article entitled “Philanthropist Has Vision for Community – and Newspaper” Burnham denied having any connections to downtown interests.  Dickey wrote:

“[Burnham] says he’s been accused of being tied to ‘downtown interests.’ He is amused when he says it, adding that the only connection he has to downtown is the office he answers his phone in. He  says he has no ownership of any business and owns no real estate in San Diego County other than his home.”

Even though our quick research shows how ludicrous this statement by Burnham is, Dickey had no come-back or retort, accepting that statement whole-cloth, apparently – and not pointedly awakening readers to the underlining significance.

Yet, does it matter? Does it matter what exactly Burnham’s background, history and connections are?

Many of the reactions among the San Diegans that we queried about Burnhams’s possible acquisition were along the lines of ‘can’t be worst than Papa Doug Manchester’. A typical response was shown by East County community activist Ray Lutz:

“I welcome the change. I can’t imagine we can do any worse than Manchester, and his plan to run it as a community-oriented nonprofit seems like a great idea to me.”

And it all may be a good development  for San Diego that he and his group take over the paper – this despite Burnham’s talk of cutting back the number of days it’s published in a few years and even making it a weekly in ten years.

Burnham seems to have emerged from the shadows. Just  where did he come from?

The easy answer is that Burnham, 86, has been around all the time. Even though he has been able to draw the mantle of philanthropist up around  his shoulders, he still has been one of San Diego’s major capitalist wheeler dealers over the decades, whose origins date back to one of the old-money families that used to run the city for decades and decades.

Corte Madera Mountain – which some call the “Half Dome of San Diego”, rises just south of the old-money Corte Madera Ranch, and now the peak is a favorite hiking spot.

In short, Malin Burnham is a rock solid member of San Diego’s Republican establishment. He describes himself as a “moderate” Republican and that he’s more and more non-partisan.  In contrast to other San Diego GOP leaders, Burnham has historically been willing to cross the aisle and work with Democrats and independents. Often  he bucks the more conservative Republican Establishment, when for example, he supported Nathan Fletcher for mayor – and not DeMaio, and when he was Bob Brewer’s largest contributor in his recent race against Republican Bonnie Dumanis.

This entry into the limelight by the Burnham crew to take over San Diego’s daily represents a very significant step from the wing of the establishment that he hailss from and represents. (More on Burnham’s cohorts  in Part Two.)

For one thing, Burnham is a totally local boy – yes, from the privileged elite – but local!

Corte Madera aerial

The Corte Madera Ranch, circled in red, just south of I-8 and Pine Valley.

Having grown up in Point Loma within a wealthy family, a community where his own kids attended local public schools in the Peninsula years later, Burnham attended Stanford University, graduated in 1949 – too late apparently to enlist in the World War – and came back to San Diego. Upon his return, he immersed  himself in the family business of commercial real estate – and  reaped the financial rewards from a city that was taking off. San Diego in the Fifties was booming.

“The Last of the Corte Maderan”

Mike Davis, the well-known sociologist and historian from San Diego, describes Burnham as the “last Corte Maderan”. In his collaborative book with Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew, “Under the Perfect Sun”, Davis explains how in an earlier time San Diego’s privileged elite coalesced  during the boom years of the 1920s:

“While San Diego was growing fat on its new diet of naval dollars and Midwestern retirees, the chief beneficiaries of the boom decided to properly ‘aristocratize’ themselves by creating an exclusive retreat in the backcountry, a local counterpart to the Bay Area’s Bohemian Grove or Pasadena’s Valley Hunt Club.

Located near Pine Valley, it was called the Corte Madera Ranch: 3,400 wooded acres with a lake and  polo field. The dozen families who built cabins at the Ranch during the 1920s were, for the most part, the second – and third-generation offspring of the 1870s and 1880s speculators. … For the next fifty years, the ‘Corte Madera set’ would be a synonym for San Diego’s cloistered and incestuous old money.”

The Corte Madera Ranch still exists, presumably, just south of I-8 and Pine Valley. A private road behind a locked gate  leads up the hill to whatever still exists of the cabins, lake and polo fields that once were the backcountry center of life for the local establishment. Despite the locked gate and secrecy (can’t find anything on google), with google maps, one can make out roads and cabins hidden underneath spreading trees. The lake looks totally dried up, however. What can be found is beautiful Corte Madera Mountain, which some call the “Half Dome of San Diego” and has become a favorite hike for those backpackers up to the task.

For years, the Corte Madera set ruled San Diego as its establishment, as its organized aristocracy. Back then, the only real power base was in downtown. Yet, San Diego’s establishment – like any establishment or ruling elite – has always been beset by competing wings or factions fighting over this or that advantage or financial role or position, whether it was over water rights, over railroad rights or different politicians. These  factions constantly form and reform, align or re-align with other factions, and since the late 19th century, have played out San Diego’s own Game of Thrones.

corte Madera aerial Xcloser

Ranch houses are still nestled among the trees at Corte Madera Ranch.

For most of the 20th century, the primary battle line between the major San Diego camps was characterized by the “Smokestack vs Geraniums” conflict, between those who wanted to bring factories and their (polluting) manufacturing and their jobs to San Diego, versus those who wanted the area to have non-polluting types of industry, such as tourism, educational institutions, bio-medical and high-tech industry – and, importantly, the Navy.  A hundred years ago, this conflict played out as San Diego’s own oligarch, John D. Spreckles, the one man who ruled over and dominated San Diego, was being challenged by George Marston and the Progressives.

Forty years later, we saw one of these power plays by the local rich and famous. These power plays  are usually below the surface and behind closed doors where the wheeling and dealing goes on, but occasionally burst out into the sunlight of day. This came down over Mission Valley in the Fifties. There, the downtown interests, the old-money, lost out to the new-money that wanted to develop the lush river floodplain.

Corte Madera Mtn hike aerial

Hiking trail to Corte Madera Mountain.

So, like “the last Mohican”, Burnham, as the last Corte Maderan, is the last of  his people as well, in terms of a network of families being power brokers in San Diego economics and politics.

But far from disappearing into the dust of history,  Burnham is still out there, whether he’s sincere in his media project, whether he’s building more of a legacy – or whether he’s trying to resurrect the moderate wing of San Diego’s Establishment – or ‘all of the above’, Malin and his gang of 5 have stepped up and moved into center stage in San Diego’s media world. They deserve a closer look.

The Yachtsman

An internationally known yachtsman,  Burnham, when he was 17, won an international yacht racing competition. He has continued sailing since and during the late 1980s, was instrumental along with Dennis Connor in bringing the America’s Cup to San Diego. He recently was quoted:

My activities in the America’s Cup series are pretty well-known. I worked hard to bring some of those competitions to San Diego.”

The America’s Cup race in San Diego Bay.

But philanthropist or not, Burnham is not beyond lobbying for public monies, whether redevelopment funds or directly from taxpayers to finance his priorities, whether its the renovation of downtown or to cover the America’s Cup expenses. He told columnist Don Bauder years ago that he believed taxpayers should pay for America’s Cup, which is one of the most privileged “sports” in San Diego.

Mr Charity

In the late 1980s, after amassing enormous sums of wealth for himself and Roberta,  his wife and their four children, Burnham reportedly sold his companies and devoted himself to philanthropy. He said:

“I’ve got enough money to do what we want to do. I don’t have any debts, and we don’t live extravagantly.”

Burnham has over the years chaired 9 non-profits and helped establish 14 foundations, chief among them the most prestigious – the medical research powerhorse-  the Sanford-Burnham Institute. He was instrumental in forming the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine in order to obtain state money for stem cell research; he’s board chairman.  He’s heavily involved with the San Diego Foundation and its Center for Civic Engagement, which he directly supports, and the region’s major universities, plus he served on the Stanford University Board of Trustees.

Besides his many medical research projects, Burnham has reportedly given to Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, and to the USS Midway Museum.  Other areas of San Diego life where he has dabbled include sports and the arts.

 The Sports

Besides his favorite of sailing and his substantial role in bringing America’s Cup to San Diego, Burnham also played a leading role in bringing the U.S. Olympic Training Center to Chula Vista.

He is also a former partner – owner of both the San Diego Padres – in the 1990s – and the San Diego Sockers when they were in town.

The Arts

Of note, Burnham was one of six major donors – including Manchester – who each pledged $100,000 for the permanent Kiss statue, installed for a while down on the waterfront.  Malin was  also was behind a failed attempt to put a 500-foot statue of wings on the Navy pier.

Mr Developer

Obviously, Malin Burnham’s history of projects and developments are way too many to list. But just to show you how active and imaginative he is, Burnham is on the board of the Smart Border Coalition, a group organized to improve efficiency along the border. One thing the group is looking at is getting the Desert Line railroad running again, which, Burnham believes, could take the place of the thousands of trucks that cross the border each day.  He stated to the press:

“Heavy manufacturing in Tijuana comes across the border via trucks, and about 3,000 trucks come across the border every day. It’s slow, it pollutes the air with all the waiting time and it adds a lot of traffic to the roads.”

He sees this as a chance to save serious money, and change the way good made in Mexico are transported to the U.S.  and doesn’t understand why MTS is not more  interested.

 The Enlightened Republican

To demonstrate how Malin Burnham is indeed an “enlightened Republican” it’s instructive to examine another conflict between the ruling elites in San Diego.  This time around it was over “controlled growth”. Again we turn to Mike Davis.

During the  mayoral reign of Pete Wilson – who supported controlled growth – Malin Burnham made a pact with major power-brokers Kim Fletcher and Gordon Luce to build support for Wilson and his smart growth policies. Davis:

“Fletcher and Luce, of course, had another self-interested stake in growth  control.  Together with Malin Burnham, they were the second-generation leadership of San Diegans, Inc. (SDI). which in the early 1970s was grappling with new threats to downtown as grave as those that first prompted the elite group’s founding in 1959.”

Once again, it’s downtown interests – led by Burnham in San Diegans, Inc.  – facing off with competing factions that threatened their hold on the hierarchy. A major challenge was the faction led by C. Arnholt Smith and Ernest Hahn who pushed Fashion Valley to be the city’s retail center; another challenge to downtown was a large project called the University City complex . Mike Davis explains:

“… SDI believed it was essential to slow down growth at the periphery long enough for tax-driven redevelopment projects – a proposed Horton Plaza mall, a convention center, a marina village, a “gaslight district” along Fifth Avenue, and so on – to resuscitate downtown property values.”

Pete Wilson ended up going with the downtown redevelopment plan backed by Burnham, and Horton Plaza was born. This was during Wilson’s “green period”, and it may very well have been Malin Burnham’s influence on him that give him that original cast of supporting controlled growth and green policies. (And supporting OB’s stringent growth controls in its first community plan and the establishment of the OB Planning Board.)

And again, history shows us how Malin Burnham fought for downtown San Diego, even while siding with the new emerging ecology movement. Decades later, Burnham gave his name to another group of the power elite in the 1990s, when the “Sorrento Associates” was formed, notes Mike Davis, who quotes the Union-Tribune in describing the organization:

“a private group of thirty or so wealthy San Diego business executives committed to investing in homegrown high-tech and biotech firms,”

Sorrento Associates included other moderates of the Establishment such as Irwin Jacobs and Sheila Lawrence (Lynn Schenck was also a member).

Years later in 2012, Burnham and the Jacobs partnered up over the mayoral campaign of Nathan Fletcher – who challenged the Republican conservative wing, represented by Carl DeMaio.  Matt Potter, in the SD Reader:

In 2012, Burnham gave $25,000 to an independent expenditure committee calling itself ICPurple that backed Fletcher’s then-independent bid for mayor in the race ultimately won by Democrat Bob Filner.

Malin and Irwin Jacobs, the billionaire who founded Qualcomm, and Jacobs’ son Paul, were the biggest backers of Fletcher, while Manchester propped up DeMaio and supported the GOP’s Lincoln Club.

Currently, Burnham and Jacobs both support the reelection bid of House Democratic freshman Scott Peters over challenger DeMaio.

These political moves function to position Burnham as an alternative to the policies of the other wing of the Establishment.

Should San Diego be encouraged? Moderate Republicans in control of San Diego can allow political space within which progressive projects, politics can develop and grow. San Diego has history of this, of moderate or maverick Republican political leaders; we saw this during Pete Wilson’s “green years” before he became a rabid racist governor, and during Roger Hedgecock’s reign, before  he became an ex-felon rapid racist vigilante.

With Malin Burnham at the helm of San Diego’s daily, could this opening occur again?

Part Two examines Burnham’s associates, the reactions of San Diegans to the possible take-over of the U-T, and what it all means.


San Diego Reader, Matt Potter

U-T San Diego, Fred Dickey

The Times of San Diego


Voice of San Diego, Liam Dillon

Under the Perfect Sun – the San Diego Tourists Never See“, Mike Davis, Kelly Mayhew and Jim  Miller

Part Two

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

SunsetCliff October 23, 2014 at 11:31 am

I would welcome, even cheer, at the transfer of ownership of the U-T to this man. The elimination of, what is currently, a “bully pulpit” for Manchester to a return to “real news-reporting” might even make me buy a newspaper again! Mr. Burnham, hope you cinch this deal!


Tom G October 23, 2014 at 7:29 pm

I canceled my subscription to the UT the day Manchester’s involvement was announced. As much as I loved reading a physical newspaper, I couldn’t stomach the thought of contributing one penny to anything involved with him. So, yeah, I don’t think anybody could be worse. But I’ll be watching for part two. Thank you Frank, for the excellent in depth background info. I’d been hoping to read this kind of coverage and you delivered.


Rufus October 24, 2014 at 5:53 am

Sounds like a successful, good guy. There’s nothing in the article that concerns me.

Frank, I did laugh at your use of innuendo and rumor threaded throughout the article. (He’s a rich guy who sails boats! Gasp!). You tried hard, but came up with nothing other than what appears to be grudging envy for Burnhan’s success.

From your own words it seems there ain’t no boogie man behind the curtain.

I say let the guy do his thing and take him at his word.


Geoff Page October 24, 2014 at 9:55 am

Very nice piece, Frank, as I’ve said before, this is the kind of thing the Rag excels in. In contrast to Rufus above, I feel it is a balanced piece. It is unfortunate that the OB Rag’s reputation as a left oriented media organization gets in some people’s way of reading articles like this.

Sounds to me as if Rufus is a little too quick with his praise. To start with, of course Burham is successful, he started out that way by being born into a wealthy family. That doesn’t make he automatically a “good guy” nor does it make him a bad guy, he was lucky if anything. And “take him at his word?” That just sounds naive.

Look forward to Part 2.


Frank Gormlie October 24, 2014 at 12:17 pm

Please see today’s part 2 http://obrag.org/?p=88495


Geoff Page October 24, 2014 at 5:05 pm

More excellent reporting, thanks for that effort, Frank.


JR October 24, 2014 at 11:54 am

NOTE: MALIN’s last name is spelled BURNHAM!

MALIN was & still is a 24 karat guy & so what if he was born into a wealthy family; just look at the Man’s Bio/Profile!

For he must have been raised with love, taught good table manners, knows biz etiquette & how to share his wealth, then often gives praise to others for their ideas, good works & philosophical contributions, which sooner or later he often funds & it’s with HIS OWN $$$$$. . .

So hurray for a very honorably standup guy who exudes praise on others, this often in the presence of his local fellow men & women who come from all colors & walks of life. And he being the subject matter focus of this front & center article piece on 1 out of 2 other major mover & shakers in San Diego deserves a freeway to be named after him.

And boy, wouldn’t that be a switch away from the way too many office-hotels & a school stadium being named after 1 local developer/publisher whose clueless on what it is to have integrity, then lives it everyday & teaches it, then humbly to graciously offers thanks to Our almighty Father to having lived & given another day existentially by free will. This in his reaching out to every San Diegan in ways many will never know it came down, from or through Malin Burnham. . .

What San Diego & for that matter the World needs now more so than ever is other Honorable, Handsome Humanitarians like Malin Burhnam, ones that truly will become role models to many at all ages, as Burnham’s type is a rare-breed almost to soon being extinct. . .

So thX U God for Blessing San Diego in having giving us an unselfish man named: MALIN BURNHAM. . . .Amen. . .


Tyler October 24, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Is this for real? I’m actually a fan of Burnham and his hopes of taking over the UT, but this post is just insane….


Frank Gormlie October 24, 2014 at 12:17 pm

JR – fairly certain I spelled it correctly, if not, then they’re typos.


Geoff Page October 24, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Well, there’s real proof that OB still retains vestiges of the 60s. Wow.


Judy Swink October 27, 2014 at 5:20 pm

These are an excellent & informative pair of articles except that I do have one substantive correction to offer. Malin Burnham is not descended from the George W. Marston brother-in-law Frederick Burnham.

The name similarity and business success locally, as well as Malin Burnham’s substantial role influencing many areas of interest in San Diego, are purely coincidental. This statement is based on a response directly from the widow of Hamilton Marston, grandson of GW Marston; it was GW Marston’s sister Lilla who married Frederick Burnham.

Malin Burnham’s grandfather, John Burnham, was born in England and came to the U.S. with his family in 1881, coming to SD early in the 1910s, living initially in National City and working with his brother in a real estate, insurance & investment firm established by George Burnham, George Burnham & Co. John Burnham & family had moved to SD by the 1920 census and lived in Loma Portal. George Burnham apparently decided to focus on banking and it appears that George Burnham & Co. became John Burnham & Co. So, Malin Burnham is definitely third generation of a successful family but not “old money” in the sense I, at least, would interpret it.

All of the above information about Malin Burnham’s family is from the U.S. census reports of 1900, 1910, 1920 & 1930.


Frank Gormlie October 29, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Thanks Judy for helping to peel back the layers of the onion. Just for the record, neither Mike Davis nor this article stated that Malin Burnham is related to the Marston-Burnham family. Seems we both agree however that Malin is a wealthy man and is the 3rd-generation of a family that made it big in real estate.


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