San Diego Voters Talking Tough

Recent turmoil has some residents hoping for a new mayor who will 'clean house.'

By Tony Perry
Times Staff Writer

July 25, 2005

SAN DIEGO — This city is not known for civic toughness. Politically two-fisted cities like New York and Chicago, definitely. Los Angeles, maybe.

But San Diego, sun-drenched, image-conscious, tourist-friendly, zoo- and SeaWorld-centric San Diego? No way.

Yet, with the election Tuesday to find a replacement for Mayor Dick Murphy, much of the talk is about being tough: tough with labor unions, tough with bureaucrats, tough with accountants and consultants and, maybe, tough with the city's aggressive — some say, out-of-control — city attorney.

"We need somebody who will come in and clean house," said Scott Shookhoff, who works in the online division of a book publishing firm. "How can a place that is so beautiful have such a mess?"

The new mayor will inherit a government whose upper ranks have been thinned by death, criminal convictions, resignations and firings.

One City Council member died awaiting trial, two more were convicted last week. Murphy had quit July 15 rather than continue struggling with a $2-billion pension deficit. Six-pension board members face criminal charges. The city manager and several high-level officials were either fired or pressured into leaving.

And add to the mix a local congressman — Randy "Duke" Cunningham — facing a federal probe into the sale of his home to a military contractor and you have a city beset with political turmoil.

"Downtown and the Gaslamp [entertainment district] are going great," said Kisha Jarrett, a coffeehouse clerk. "But the government is down in the dumps. We need someone to come in and start firing people and making things right."

Voters following the City Hall drama appear alarmed to the point of seeking unusual solutions, such as declaring bankruptcy, demanding pension rollbacks, outsourcing city jobs — toughness. (No candidate, however, is advocating higher taxes in tax-averse San Diego).

Even Pete Wilson, arguably the strongest mayor in city history, never faced a set of challenges so daunting or a public so thirsty for leadership, many observers agree.

Take Thursday's mayoral forum at the local Public Broadcasting Service station — a stage more associated with fine arts and discussions of political theory.

After the six leading mayoral candidates had given their standard campaign spiels, a member of the audience apparently could stand it no more.

"There's probably never been a more important time for this position," said Janie Davis, part of a civic betterment group called Envision San Diego, as she scanned the hopefuls. "What makes you think you're tough enough?"

Five years ago, Murphy won the job on the strength of being less aggressive than his main opponent, a county supervisor known for feuding. He resigned seven months into his second term, amid relentless criticism of his handling of the city's pension deficit and threats of a recall.

Pollster Richard Babcock said he had never seen the San Diego public so disgusted with government. A recent poll, he said, indicated that a large percentage of voters thought top city top administrators were guilty of crimes, although none had been charged. "When it gets to that level, it shows that trust in government has disappeared," said Babcock, vice president of DataMar Inc.

If toughness is a desired attribute, honesty is close behind.

"They're all liars over there," said Lance Gibson, a carpenter. "They've got to stop pulling our leg about things, stop lying to us about things being fine when they're not. A new mayor, that's a start."

The turnout in Tuesday's election is expected to be low. Babcock's poll that found only a fourth of voters were paying much attention to events.

"I don't know anything about it; I don't watch the news," said Rocio Romo, a clerk with the county government. "It's all too confusing."

Adding to the confusion was the conviction July 18 of Deputy Mayor Michael Zucchet and Councilman Ralph Inzunza.

The two were found guilty of conspiracy, wire fraud and extortion for taking contributions from a strip-club owner in exchange for promising to change city law to allow nude dancers to sit on the laps of patrons.

A third defendant, Councilman Charles Lewis, died a year ago, before the case went to trial.

Meanwhile, the district attorney has filed charges of conflict of interest against six current and former pension board members. The U.S. attorney is also investigating.

"We desperately need a real mayor, somebody we can take on the road and tell the world that San Diego is solving its problems," said Andrea Moser, a marketing executive with the Regional Economic Development Corp.

Councilwoman Donna Frye, 53, a Democrat and surf shop owner who almost beat Murphy in November, appears to have a lock on finishing first, but short of a majority needed to avoid a runoff.

Former Police Chief Jerry Sanders, 55, and business owner and fellow Republican Steve Francis, 50, appear deadlocked for second. But Francis, owner of a business that supplies nurses to hospitals, is surging, thanks to a $2-million television blitz.

The current troubles are not the first time City Hall has been rocked by criminal charges. The mayor and City Council members were indicted in the 1970s in a bribery scandal; Mayor Roger Hedgecock was ousted in 1985 after a conviction for conspiracy and perjury involving campaign contributions.

The current problems are more complex, involving city, state and federal prosecutors and millions of dollars in attorney and consulting fees. Wall Street is losing faith in City Hall. The situation also involves more public money and risk to taxpayers.

And the tone is different.

The sniping between City Council members and City Atty. Michael Aguirre is caustic and continuous. (At one forum, candidates were asked: "How are you going to deal with Mike Aguirre?")

Aguirre, elected in November after two decades of seeking public office, is not shy about criticizing city officials in repeated press conferences and six lengthy reports questioning council members' honesty and competency in dealing with finances.

Michael McDade, a lawyer who was involved in the Wilson and Hedgecock administrations, says he's never seen such a level of discord.

"Before we can begin solving problems, we have to start acting respectfully to each other, stop pointing fingers and start acting like adults," he said. "There's been a total breakdown in civility."

If nothing else, the problems at City Hall have given rise to local humor.

The La Jolla Playhouse this month ended a successful run of the new screwball musical "Palm Beach." One of the lines getting the biggest laugh was added specifically for San Diego.

"If you want more fun," the cast sings at the finale, "San Diego politics is second to none."

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