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The Life of Brians

A new political dynasty has washed ashore in San Diego

By Pat Sherman
Photos by Brevin Blach
(Published in the January 2011 issue)

Sandy-haired surfer Brian Patrick Bilbray won his bid for a seat on the Imperial Beach City Council November 2—the same day his father, Brian Phillip Bilbray, won another term as a Representative for California’s 50th congressional district in coastal North County.

The elder Bilbray began his own career as an IB city councilman in 1976, eventually becoming that city’s mayor and a county supervisor.

“I’ve lived in Imperial Beach pretty much my whole life,” says “Pat” Bilbray, as he’s known to friends and locals at IB gathering spots such as Scoreboard II and Ye Olde Plank Inn. “I love the small town kind of feel. I’ve tried to get away from it, but it keeps drawing me back.”

An avid surfer, sailor and Republican (like his father), Bilbray says he caught his first wave at age eight, while on a trip to Baja with his father, then a county supervisor.

“The first time I properly dropped into a wave was down just south of Ensenada,” Bilbray says. “I was so proud of myself. My dad jokes that my first steps were on a boat going from San Diego to San Clemente Island.”

Bilbray was elected to complete the four-year term of Councilman Fred McLean, who died of pneumonia in 2009. Though on his Facebook page Bilbray describes his political stance as “right of middle,” he says he is more liberal on social issues than his father, favoring amnesty for illegal immigrants once the border is secure and certain conditions are met. His father is strongly opposed to offering citizenship to illegal immigrants.

“I’ve been knee-deep in this issue since I was little,” Bilbray says. “We used to pull Mexican nationals out of our swimming pool, because they would jump our backyard fence not realizing that we had a pool. I probably understand (the issue) a little bit better than someone from Wisconsin.”

Bilbray says part of his motivation to run for city council was seeing the beach continuously dotted with closure signs (his father championed a sewage treatment plant in Tijuana that never came to fruition).

“I just felt that city hall wasn’t really taking the leadership role that I would like them to take with the Tijuana sewage,” he says. “I thought if I got on there I could really start pushing city hall to petition the federal government like we should. Having my dad in there helps; we can start really putting pressure on Mexico.”

Bilbray says he doesn’t feel enough federal money flows into his seaside hamlet, given that IB is home to a federal wildlife preserve and the Navy’s Ream Field. The city also collects the lowest per capita sales tax revenue in the county. He believes he can help IB businesses prosper and clean up the town’s shabby image.

Bilbray and his younger sister, Briana, attended West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Virginia, while their father was serving as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. As a boy, Bilbray says he longed to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he lost his passion for politics after high school. He enrolled in courses at Mesa and San Diego City colleges, though he never graduated, briefly working in his older brother’s plumbing business in Nevada.

“I wanted to be more of a surfer than anything,” says Bilbray, who rides a six-foot “potato chip” short board.

“I ended up going off to Europe, working on a pleasure yacht for two years. I was the deckhand/engineer’s mate.”

Bilbray says he did not tell his father he was planning to run for office last year.

“I was kind of trying to keep it a secret from him,” he says. “He was excited, but a little apprehensive because he knows how mellow of a guy I am. He didn’t think that I would be able to take the criticism that goes along with politics, but I think I’ll be all right. When you grow up around this type of stuff, you learn how to let things roll off your back.”

Like Father , Like Son
Comparing the region’s Republican dynasties

Duncan Duane Hunter, 34, and father Duncan Lee Hunter, 62: The elder Hunter served as a congressional representative from 1981 to 2009. His son, a U.S. Marine and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, replaced his father in the 52nd District (East County) seat in January of 2009. Duncan D. holds a degree in business administration from SDSU; Duncan L. attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.

Brian Patrick Bilbray, 25, and father Brian Phillip Bilbray, 59: The elder Bilbray served as Imperial Beach’s mayor before going on to join the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the U.S. Congress. The younger Bilbray was elected to the Imperial Beach City Council in November. Brian Philip is a graduate of Southwestern College; Brian Patrick attended classes at City and Mesa community colleges.

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