San Diego Mayor's Hard-Driving Career Takes a Detour : Hedgecock: He Has Never Liked to Come in Second

Times Staff Writer

In 1972, a cadre of ambitious young men convened monthly meetings over lunch at the Executive Hotel, a block from City Hall. Their purpose was to plot their futures as San Diego power brokers.

Among the group was a dark-eyed attorney named Roger Allan Hedgecock.

"Roger's dreams were very environmentally oriented--the basic dream of protecting San Diego from becoming Los Angeles," said Dick Murphy, a city councilman who was one of those at the meetings. "That was half of his dream.

"The other half of his dream was to be in charge."

Hedgecock, 38, is the kind of guy who always has to be in charge, according to dozens of people who have known him.

A born leader and hustler, he bought his first house when he was just out of high school, worked his way through college by promoting rock concerts, then cut his hair, graduated as president of his law school class and plunged into a career of politics. He was a conservative Republican who struck political pay dirt in the liberal environmental movement.

By 1983, when he became mayor of the nation's seventh-largest city, Hedgecock had redefined San Diego politics by assembling a coalition of "yuppies," labor union members, minorities, businessmen and homosexuals. He did it partly by presenting, in a convincing and charming manner, a riveting vision of San Diego's future.

He also thrived on a biting, intimidating style best reflected by how he once advised a friend to run a political campaign: "Attack, attack, attack."

"Roger was all about power in so many ways," said Scott Piering, a London rock-music agent who worked and lived with Hedgecock during his college years in California.

"It's a confrontational world, in business and politics," Piering said. "Roger was not about to come in second."

Now Hedgecock has, for the moment, won again, gaining a mistrial last Wednesday in San Diego County Superior Court on charges that he committed perjury and conspired in a complex scheme to illegally funnel thousands of dollars into his 1983 mayoral campaign. Hedgecock will be able to retain his office, but he and the city face an agonizing replay of the court case.

More than just a case about the finer points of the law, the trial that ended Wednesday was a public hearing on the mayor's complex character and personality.

While Hedgecock and his attorney argued that he was an honest man guilty of inadvertent mistakes, prosecutors painted a portrait of a former county supervisor who was so unscrupulous and consumed with "raw ambition" that he ultimately lied, cheated and connived to steal an election.

Whatever the view, San Diego's mayor remains a person who, very early, realized that he was different and better.

"Everything he did reeked of confidence," said John J. Bowen, Hedgecock's civics teacher at St. Augustine High School 21 years ago.

'You Feel Inadequate'

"I had an exchange a couple of times where he made me feel like I should go back to college," said Bowen, who still remembers Hedgecock well. "Roger had a definite knack of making you feel inadequate at times."

Part of that knack came from Hedgecock's formidable mind, which, friends and former aides say, is able to quickly absorb vital information from stacks of law briefs and technical government reports. His ability to sometimes recall the most arcane facts puts him at an advantage during arguments and debates.

Dennis Hedgecock still remembers how his brother, three years his senior, would ignore invitations to play outside and lock himself away to read books. He remembers that his brother particularly liked biographies and accounts of California water history. It was as if Roger were researching how "other people acquired, dealt with power in their lives," Dennis Hedgecock said.

When it came to earning money, young Hedgecock was just as intense. Dennis said: "That guy was hustling for money." Childhood jobs included a paper route and shelving books at a local branch of the library, the earnings from which were parlayed into a $12,000 down payment on a small house in Ocean Beach.

By the time he was 17 years old, Hedgecock was a landlord.

'True Nonconformist'

Hedgecock plowed through St. Augustine, an all-male Roman Catholic school, with aplomb, earning the yearbook title of "true nonconformist" by the time he graduated in 1964.

Meanwhile, Hedgecock, the ever-hustling entrepreneur, also became manager of a musical band composed of high school buddies. The hobby grew into a business at the University of California, Santa Barbara, that eventually helped him pay his way through the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

During that time, Hedgecock adopted the attitude and dress of the counterculture, on one occasion dressing to emcee a concert in a shirt that looked like a U.S. flag. But Haight-Ashbury could not divert him from The Plan.

"He had his life very well mapped out," said Piering, a roommate in San Francisco and a partner in the concert promotion business. "Roger knew what he was going to do in the next 10 years. He wanted to be an attorney, and he completed that on target.

"He didn't specifically talk about becoming mayor, but he said he wanted to get involved in local (San Diego) politics. And then he would get involved on the state level."

Environmental Calamity

The means to accomplish that sprang from environmental calamity. A pipe in an offshore oil rig near Santa Barbara broke in 1969, spewing oil over the ocean and onto the beaches. In January, 1971, two oil tankers collided in San Francisco Bay, leaking oil to the shore.

Drawing on his skills, Hedgecock plunged into the environmental movement. He worked for the Sierra Club, helped create an environmental club at Hastings and earned election to a student advisory panel to the federal government.

Days after the tankers collided in San Francisco Bay, Hedgecock and other student environmentalists were scheduled--coincidentally--to meet with William D. Ruckelshaus, the head of the newly created federal Environmental Protection Agency. Hedgecock brought a can of oily scum left over from the accident.

"He pushed it across to Mr. Ruckelshaus and asked, 'What are you guys going to do about this mess?' " said one environmentalist who helped arrange the meeting. "Roger was earnest, in a sort of prosecutorial way."

The only thing Hedgecock lacked for The Plan was a power base, and he returned to San Diego to build it.

Caught Eye of 'Yuppies'

First, he got everyone's attention by campaigning for the 1972 proposition that formed the California Coastal Commission and by fighting plans for development in the city's coastal canyons. His efforts angered some of the wealthy clients of the law firm where he worked, but they caught the eye of "yuppies" such as Del Mar Mayor Nancy Hoover, who was instrumental in selecting him as the city's attorney in 1974.

"I was dazzled by the guy," said Solana Beach attorney Dwight Worden, who was a University of San Diego law student when he heard Hedgecock give a speech about environmental concerns in 1972. "He was committed, so totally into it, that it was contagious."

In 1976, Hedgecock made his move. Bypassing the party structure, he used his coalition to score an electrifying victory over county Supervisor Lou Conde. He had attained real power by age 30.

Almost immediately, he earned a reputation as a bad boy for excoriating county officials and workers who dared cross him, or belittling those who tried to bluff their way through public meetings. On several occasions, he crossed swords with Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller, the man who would later open the grand jury investigation that led to the current felony case.

Even his friends began to sense a change, a growing impatience. Hedgecock's approach to life was reflected in the way he chose a book--first speed-reading 100 pages to make sure he was not wasting his time.

No Doubt of Goals

"There was no doubt in your mind he wanted to go somewhere else," said Craig Frederickson, a onetime political ally who is now with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. "You spent five minutes with the guy and you got that feeling."

That "somewhere" was to be San Diego City Hall. In a special election called for May, 1983, to fill the vacancy created by then-Mayor Pete Wilson's elevation to the U.S. Senate, Hedgecock nudged out Maureen O'Connor, a former city councilwoman and wife of the founder of the Jack in the Box fast-food empire.

The bitter campaign featured scenes of vintage Hedgecock. One aide, who asked to remain unidentified, remembered how the hard-charging Hedgecock would fall into a deep sleep within five seconds of getting into his campaign car. Then, without a nudge, he would jolt awake and full of energy as the driver stopped at the next public appearance.

Victory did not mellow Hedgecock. A month after being sworn in, he became irritated because political ally Mike Gotch, a city councilman, proposed at a controversial hearing that each side be allowed one hour for public testimony. Hedgecock had set a 30-minute limit for each side.

When Gotch managed to win the procedural skirmish on a council vote, Hedgecock jumped out of his chair and blew up at Gotch. Swearing at Gotch, within earshot of other colleagues, he said: "You're going to pay for this as long as you're on this council."

'The Nixon Syndrome'

"Roger reminds me a lot of the Nixon syndrome," said Councilman Murphy. "Either you are my friend or you're my enemy. . . . Roger sees things either in black or white.

"Roger's mind-set is that he believes that he can achieve his goals best by intimidation. Whatever he's trying to do, whether it is good for the city or to further his political career, intimidation is his way of operating."

"Roger placed no limitations on himself, no limitations at all," said Lee Grissom, president of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce. "Any constraints that are placed on him come from the outside."

The ultimate constraint would come in February, 1984, when the La Jolla investment empire of J. David & Co. collapsed into bankruptcy. The firm's demise generated scandal and exposed Hedgecock's financial ties with principals J. David (Jerry) Dominelli and Hoover, the former Del Mar mayor.

Put on Defensive

The controversy would rage for a year, putting the acerbic mayor on the defensive for the first time since his 1983 election. He struggled for command in explaining why he took a $130,000 loan from Hoover to remodel his State Street house; why he never reported the sale to Hoover of a $16,000 promissory note in November, 1982; why he asked Hoover's attorney to hold off recording the sale until after the May, 1983, election, and why--oddly--he continued to collect interest on the note after he sold it.

Hedgecock would blame the controversy on a "conspiracy" to topple him by Dist. Atty. Miller and by the San Diego Union, the city's largest newspaper. He was so convincing that voters reelected him in November, 1984, while he was under indictment.

And, in the end, Hedgecock was able to convince the most important person so far--the one juror who held out for his innocence. Hedgecock, who had reached for so much so fast, was able to stay in charge.

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