The amorous adventures of Mayor Bob Filner are the latest blot on the image of San Diego. How can such a sunny city have such dismal mayors?
Is it bad karma, an ancient curse, something in the water? Or more credible reasons? Race riots? Natural disasters? Economic crises? Not really. San Diego has had its problems but no more than other cities. Our wounds are self-inflicted.
As a newspaper and TV reporter and editor, I’ve watched 10 mayors come and go. Only Pete Wilson stood out. The others range from pretty good to really bad.
In 1954, I was assigned to cover city hall and Mayor John D. Butler. The city manager ran the city while the mayor presided over the City Council and showed up at ceremonial events. Bored by the job and its $5,000 yearly salary, Butler declined to run again.
Unlike Butler, Charles C. Dail was a happy surprise. As a three-term city councilman, he scrapped constantly with his colleagues and staffers.
As mayor, Dail led a remarkable team at city hall that produced the downtown civic concourse, new sewer plant, and visionary development of Mission Bay Park and Torrey Pines Mesa. All this activity took its toll. Crippled by childhood polio, Dail’s physique failed, he began drinking heavily and became even more quarrelsome.
Frank Curran followed Dail on the City Council and as mayor. While their Democratic politics were similar, the two men had sharply different styles.
Fiery and combative, Dail was a leader. The low key Curran was a plodder, dominated by businessmen C. Arnholt Smith and John Alessio who later went to prison for their misdeeds.
Curran and seven city council members were indicted in a bribery scandal involving Smith’s Yellow Cab Company. All were acquitted, but the affair doomed Curran’s reelection prospects. He finished fourth in a race won by Republican Assemblyman Pete Wilson. I was on Wilson’s campaign staff in 1971.
Wilson ran as an environmentalist and political reformer. He was elected three times all by 2 to 1 margins.
A relentless workaholic, Wilson turned city government upside down. He purged the planning and civil service commissions, restructured the city council and instituted campaign finance reform. His efforts helped keep the Padres in San Diego and started downtown redevelopment.
The new mayor headed a divided City Council which enabled him to cast deciding votes on two major issues. Voting with four environmentalists, he slowed urban sprawl by pushing through a managed growth plan. With four fiscal conservatives, he fought off union attempts to liberalize pension benefits for city employees. Unfortunately neither position prevailed. But Wilson did.
In his long political lifetime, Wilson won 20 elections for the Legislature, mayor, U. S. Senator and governor. Historians may debate his legacy in Washington and Sacramento but in San Diego there’s no doubt. Wilson towers over all other mayors.
His successor, county Supervisor Roger Hedgecok embraced Wilson’s environmentalism, and promised to be “a mayor for all the people.” Then the wheels came off. In 1984 he was indicted for receiving $350,000 in illegal campaign contributions and perjury. His first trial ended in a hung jury, his second in 13 felony convictions. An appeals court overturned them on technicalities, but Hedgecock had to resign.
Four days later he began a new career describing himself as the radio mayor of San Diego. His talk shows continue to attract an enthusiastic base of right wing listeners.
Democrat Maureen O’Connor was San Diego’s first female mayor. She straddled the economic spectrum. As one of 13 children, she worked her way through school and at 25 won an upset victory to the City Council. She later married millionaire Robert Peterson.
Her administration provided a welcome interlude between scandals, but 20 years later she has one of her own. After gambling away millions of dollars, including funds from her late husband’s foundation, O’Connor is destitute awaiting sentencing in a federal court.
Unlike O’Connor, San Diego’s only other woman mayor, Susan Golding, had ambitions far beyond city hall. Elected to the city council, Board of Supervisors and mayor, Golding immediately eyed a U. S. Senate seat. Pandering to the public and Republican leaders, she made some bad financial decisions — subsidizing the San Diego Chargers and hosting the 1996 Republican National Convention — while failing to adequately fund city employee pensions. San Diego is still paying the price.
Dick Murphy was elected in 2000 as the ideal antidote for Golding. He’d been a reliable Republican city councilman and a respected superior court judge.
Instead, he struggled unsuccessfully with the burgeoning pension debt and saw his popularity plummet. The New York Times called San Diego “Enron by the Sea” and Time said Murphy was one of the three worst mayors in the country. A few weeks later he resigned.
San Diego got a seven-year respite when it twice elected the city’s former police chief, Jerry Sanders, who restored civility and sanity to city hall.
That ended abruptly in 2012 when Bob Filner became San Diego’s first Democratic mayor in 20 years. His liberal agenda is overshadowed by accusations of harassing women. His greatest fans are late night comedians. Almost overnight, he’s become our most infamous mayor.
While half of the last 10 mayors have performed poorly, I can find no pattern of misbehavior. None has spent time behind bars. Yet. Only Curran and Hedgecock have come close.
Curran was somewhat corrupt. Golding became a victim of her own ambition. Murphy was just plain incompetent. Filner and Hedgecock are ruled by their egos. One lacks morals and the other ethics.
So blame it on the climate. Good for golfers and surfers, but not so hot for any politician except Wilson. Mostly, San Diego’s troubles are the result of coincidence and bad luck. We may look pathetic but we’re not alone. We have a Filner, but New York may yet get a Weiner.