Tim Nader has places to go, people to see.
And trolleys to catch.
On a recent pre-dawn Monday, below a black, star-spangled sky, Nader drove to Chula Vista’s Palomar Street Trolley Station, his usual weekday destination. Ready for work — suited, wearing a digital wristwatch and electric-blue JanSport backpack — he stepped away from his parked car and into the chilly morning fog, finding his way to the station’s kindled port. Beaming like a light, he greeted three red-eyed, sleepy journalists on assignment. It was barely 6 a.m.
“You don’t hate me for this,” Nader said, extending his hand for a shake, “do you?”
Shivering, a half-awake journalist replied, “Not at all.”
Three to four times a week Nader, a Southwestern College Governing Board trustee, rides the trolley to downtown San Diego, where he works as a deputy attorney general for the State of California.
“I have been riding the trolley off and on since it opened in the early ‘80s,” he said. “I want to do something good for environment.”
He also said, quite candidly, he wants to do something good for his pocketbook.
“It usually costs me nine bucks for each day that I drive and park downtown — just for parking, not the gas, wear and tear on the car and all that,” he said. “I’ve got better things to do with nine bucks than park my car, or I like to think I do.”
Parking downtown is not just expensive, he said, it is scarce.
For those reasons and others, he said he prefers to commute downtown with the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, even with its faults.
“It’s not uncommon now to have (passengers) who are obviously on drugs, harassing other people,” he said. A few weeks ago “some guy came on who was drooling and yelling nonsense and there was no security there to do anything.”
Nader said he remembers a time several years ago when his rides were “wonderful.”
“It was really comfortable,” he said. “You could do some work while you were in transit, which you couldn’t do if you were driving, or you could read or you could talk to somebody you had never met before. People were by and large very courteous to each other.”
On the morning Nader met the journalists his ride was not as smooth.
Upon boarding the undeniably red trolley — Blue Line, northbound — an MTS security guard stopped Nader and the three journalists.
While riding the trolley, the security guard said, it is against the law to take photographs, record video and record interviews. The tense standoff, which lasting about a minute, caused Nader and the journalists to exit the trolley with the guard.
“What ordinance is it?” Nader inquired, standing once again where he stood when he first arrived. He identified himself as an attorney. Befuddled, the security guard said ordinance “two.”
“Ordinance two?” a journalist asked.
Backtracking, the security guard changed his mind.
It was actually an MTS rule, he said.
“If there is such a rule,” Nader explained, “it has to be publicly accessible.”
No sign was posted and the security guard now seemed hesitant. He called his supervisor and then told Nader and the journalists they needed to go an MTS building at the 12th and Imperial Station in San Diego to learn about the MTS rules.
The journalists, not wanting to press the issue further, told Nader that they were okay with not recording a video or an interview with him on the trolley. The four trolley riders, now closer by the experience, boarded the trolley once again, pledging to the guard that they would not record a video or an interview. Before they boarded, however, Nader, a one-time winner of The Sun’s Free Speech award, gave his closing statement, kindly mentioning to the guard the guaranteed rights of citizens protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Born in Fresno in 1957, Nader moved with his family to Chula Vista at age one. He first became aware of politics on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he said. From then on he had a penchant for politics.
As a teenager he joined the San Diego Youth Commission, politics for minors essentially. He graduated from Hilltop High School in 1975 and went on to the University of California, Berkeley where he graduated from law school.
Upon returning to Chula Vista seven years later, he was hired as a prosecutor at the California Attorney General’s Office.
In 1986 and’87, Nader served on the Chula Vista City Council. Then, in 1991, he was elected Mayor of Chula Vista. He was 33.
His predecessor Gayle McCandliss had died suddenly of cancer, less than a month into her tenure. She was 36. Nader said her death was particularly difficult – he had known her since they were teenagers. They had served on the city Youth Commission together. A special election was held after her death and Nader said he had to run for the good of Chula Vista, although he would have given anything to have her back.
“Serving as mayor was certainly one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “We brought in new programs for youth, for recreation, for law enforcement, for housing, social services and environmental protection. We were one of the first cities our size – I’m pretty sure in the world – to start to develop a greenhouse reduction plan… Those things I can fairly say happened because I was the mayor.”
As mayor, Nader said, he did not ride the trolley as much.
On that Monday morning, though, Nader was a true rider.
For a few stops he stood, the passengers around him held bags on their laps or set them on the floor. They coddled their smartphones and wore headphones. One passenger, who boarded the trolley, blasting reggae music, brazenly announced after a few stops that he “did not have headphones!” A woman, a moment earlier, had politely asked him if he could lower his music or if he had headphones.
Nader eventually found an open seat and pulled his iPad from his backpack. Casually he skimmed emails and surfed the web.
Some passengers closed their eyes, resting before their stops. Others slept.
Nader and the three journalists, friends by this point, arrived at the Civic Center Station in downtown San Diego. It was 6:55 a.m. and time for breakfast. The four went to Coffee Bean and got coffee and jalapeño cheese bagels. Delicious! They walked to the steps of his building, chatted momentarily, said goodbyes and parted ways.
Nader said he hopes more public leaders will start making a serious commitment to public transit as an alternative to the automobile. They could also use more guards, he said, ones who would be able deter actual misconduct.
“There’s only one legitimate reason to run for office or to desire power of any kind,” he said, “and that is to help others… If you remember that you’re there to serve and not do things for yourself, it’s probably the best way to stay out of trouble.”