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In San Bernardino, new mayor banks on his political inexperience

Sitting in a spare office on the sixth floor of City Hall, a sweeping view of San Bernardino behind him, the incoming mayor paused a conversation and picked up a ringing phone. It was somebody wanting to know what time the office closed.

"I don't think I was supposed to answer that," he said, cracking a smile.

Carey Davis didn't hide the fact that he doesn't yet know his way around City Hall. If anything, the 61-year-old accountant sees his status as a political newcomer as an advantage as he takes the helm of a deeply troubled city.

San Bernardino is bankrupt, the result of costly pension obligations and a tax base that evaporated as businesses fled. Crime has risen and residents say basic city services aren't being delivered. Roads are pocked, parks poorly maintained.

Many say that has led to a sense of apathy, a notion reflected in low voter turnout. Only about 15% of registered voters cast ballots in the runoff election last month that Davis won, or about 12,000 voters in a city of about 210,000 people.

"The condition of the city is certainly less than desirable compared to when I knew it a long time ago," he said, adding that he aims "to change the legacy for future generations ... and to help the city achieve the potential that I think is possible."

He entered the political fray in San Bernardino at a particularly rough moment: A recall effort pushed out the longtime city attorney and the city councilwoman whom Davis would later defeat in the mayoral race. Two other members of the City Council faced criminal charges — one of whom, also a candidate for mayor, resigned as part of a guilty plea. The other was voted out of office.

But as Davis prepares to take office, that means he will be joined by others who are new to politics, and some in the city are choosing to embrace it as an opportunity for a fresh start.

"We have a golden opportunity to get it right," said City Councilwoman Virginia Marquez, who was elected in November to a second term. She said residents want to see a "solid, united front and some stability. They're looking for some fresh new leadership."

In San Bernardino, the mayor has broad authority to direct the city and its resources. Department heads and staff members, for instance, report to the mayor, rather than to a city manager as is common elsewhere.

"You become the chief executive officer," said Judith Valles, a former mayor. "You're the boss."

The question is how the rookie politician will fare. Davis, who had been a corporate controller for a manufacturing company, is every bit the methodical accountant. His opponent colored him as a stuffed shirt when the city needed a charismatic pitchman.

"He's very calm and collected," said Richard Tejada, a member of the group of young residents called San Bernardino Generation Now. "He's not a career politician, just trying to make his way up. He's in it because the city is in trouble."

Valles, who was a political novice when she was elected mayor in 1998, said Davis would have to make his presence as a leader palpable, driving the council and boosting a "demoralized" city staff.

"Right now, let's face it, we don't look good," Valles said. "You have to build morale, you have to create a place where people want to live and work and play. And San Bernardino has that potential. That will take time. It starts with a real leader."

Davis acknowledged that the "learning curve will be steep. But because I've done quite a bit of homework, I'm able to have a point of reference that allows me to understand issues that are being discussed."

The foremost issue remains the bankruptcy and the problems that caused it. Davis must look for ways to make burdensome pension costs "affordable" and find new sources of revenue. Among his goals, he said, is building a budget that could withstand hard times.

His skills, he said, "matched the need of the city."

But there are other challenges: improving public safety, resurrecting the sleepy downtown and attracting better-paying and more stable jobs, especially for young people.

In the weeks leading up to Monday's swearing-in, Davis has been keeping the same schedule he maintained during the campaign: Waking well before sunrise to commute to his job in Los Angeles, then coming back in the early afternoon to San Bernardino, where he's been working in temporary quarters down the hall from his predecessor, Patrick J. Morris.

On a recent afternoon, Davis acknowledged he's not the type of politician who can light up a room. He pauses to think before he answers questions. He's not one to talk about himself either, or really much at all. ("He doesn't do that well," said Deanie Gallaher, a longtime friend who organized campaign volunteers.)

"I can bring people together and get them started," he said. "I will sit back and listen. I'm going to hear a lot more than if I'm just trying to put forward my view."

Gallaher said she didn't support him just because she has known his family. She said she heard him speak and saw the "inclusive" way he ran his campaign. After growing disappointed in the city where she has lived for much of her life, she had high hopes for Davis.

"We know he's more than just a bookkeeper," she said.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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