One man in Havana

Whales and pols at play in the Cuban sun

This is not a column where Jay-Z and Beyoncé get mentioned a lot—or ever. But it was mildly fun to watch the right-wingers flip out over Mr. Z and Ms. Knowles’ recent visit to Cuba earlier this month. Were the pop power couple trying to undermine our Cold War efforts just when we’ve almost got it won?

Sure, Bites gets that some of these “cultural exchange” trips—like the one Jay-Z and Beyoncé took on their fifth wedding anniversary—are just a way for rich people to enjoy vacations a bit more exotic and taboo than the rest of us law-abiding, broke-ass citizens can manage. But so what? How is the Cuba embargo even still a thing?

Well, a Havana junket led by California superlobbyist Darius Anderson—with several California legislators in tow—has got our local right-wingers in a tizzy, too.

Anderson is sort of a star in his own right. Chief bagman for Gray Davis and fundraiser for Willie Brown. Perhaps not coincidentally, developer of Treasure Island. His company, Platinum Advisors, has a diverse and powerful client base, including AT&T, Clear Channel Communications Inc., Pfizer Inc., PG&E and various Indian casino interests, to name a few. Anderson was also fined $500,000 by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in 2010, after a pay-to-play investigation involving investments in CalPERS and the New York employee-pension system. (He admitted no wrongdoing.)

Anderson is variously described in the press as a heavy hitter, influence peddler, power broker, rainmaker, mover, shaker and insider’s insider. Mostly, Sacramentans just know him because of the basketball thing. Anderson is an investor in Downtown Plaza, a longtime friend of Ron “the Whale” Burkle and key player in the campaign to build a new publicly subsidized Sacramento Kings basketball arena downtown.

He also runs a nonprofit called Californians Building Bridges, which organizes trips to Cuba. His interest in the island appears to be connected to his obsession with all things Jack London. Long story, but an interesting one. The upshot is Anderson’s been collecting first-edition London items since he was a boy—we can all relate, right?—and when he learned that London honeymooned in Cuba, Anderson fell in love with the place, too.

Anyway, the trips are billed as humanitarian; there’s not much detail beyond that on the organization’s website. The trips do seem to be popular with political types. Willie Brown wrote in his column in the San Francisco Chronicle in the 2011 about one trip with Anderson, “who turns out to be very big in Cuban investments. So big, in fact, that the night he was missing from the group, he was dining with the president.”

Sounds very humanitarian.

An Anderson excursion over the Legislature’s spring break caught the attention of the conservative blog CalWatchdog, which described it is as a “secret trip” organized by a “shadowy” organization. CalWatchdog also lamented the unwillingness of the California Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate.

Alas, “Darius Anderson has been taking members on these trips for 10 years. It’s no secret,” explained Craig Swaim, chief of staff to Republican Assemblyman Katcho Achadijan of San Luis Obispo County, one of eight state legislators to make the pilgrimage last month. Swaim also told Bites that the assembly member paid his own way on the trip, at considerable personal expense, as did other legislators.

Still, the right-wingers raise a good question. Embargo or no embargo, why are state legislators traveling to any Caribbean island with Darius Anderson? And who went on the trip? The only other legislator to confirm attending is Democrat Cathleen Galgiani, state senator from Stockton. Swaim confirmed other legislators were there but wouldn’t name them.

California legislators don’t have much to do with Cuban policy, so what did they talk about to pass the time? Indian casinos? Streamlining environmental laws to make it easier to build pro-basketball arenas?

“As a policy, we do not publicly announce information about individual members of the delegation, regardless of their occupation, except as required by federal law,” said Californians Building Bridges spokesperson Jason Kinney, in a statement emailed to Bites. “These are non-governmental educational exchanges with the people of Cuba, not policy trips—which means that no policy issues are discussed and certainly none relating to anything going on in Sacramento.”

So there’s that. We can’t know which lawmakers went on Anderson’s supersecret, socialist, tropical-island getaway, but we can rest assured that no lobbying went down.

Bites is not saying that members of our little local city council are in over their heads, doing arena business with a guy who bankrolls top politicians, takes California lawmakers to Cuba and has a half-million to spend to make Andrew Cuomo go away. All that goes without saying. It’s just fun to learn a little something about your traveling companions. And Anderson is a trip.