Man About Town : San Diego’s Ex-Mayor Roger Hedgecock Hasn’t Let His Felony Conviction Get Him Down. But This Week, the Past May Catch Up With Him.
THE SCENE is a San Diego bowling-lane cocktail lounge called “The Alamo.” Designed in a haphazard mixture of motifs, its red Naugahyde booths blend with hanging Tiffany lamps and a garish red lighting system that resembles a descending space ship. The room would not have looked out of place as one of the Las Vegas bar sets, circa 1962, on the TV show “Crime Story.”
A rock band is playing ‘60s hits for a crowd dressed for a ‘50s theme party--bobby socks and ankle-length skirts on many of the women, T-shirts with cigarettes in rolled-up sleeves popular among the guys.
And on stage is a face instantly recognizable to practically every San Diegan, though his celebrity has nothing to do with his singing talents, which, to be charitable, probably should never leave the shower. “Well, at least he remembered the words and pretty much stayed in key tonight,” his partner says later. On that limited basis, this evening will be judged a musical success.
As the band launches into “Wild Thing,” several young couples cluster at the door to the lounge. Glancing at the lanky, middle-aged man in white pants and Hawaiian shirt on stage with a microphone, one woman does a double-take and shouts to her friends.
“Hey, check this out! The ex-mayor’s in here singing!”
“The ex-mayor! Hedgecock. Roger Hedgecock!”
“Hedgecock? Singing ? You mean he isn’t in jail yet ?”
With an appeal on the 13-count felony conviction that drove him from office scheduled to go to court this week, Hedgecock’s show-biz days may be ending. But on this night, the possibility that he could spend a year in jail seems distant.
Nearby, Dan Greenblat, a leading San Diego political consultant, grins and shakes his head incredulously.
“Where else but San Diego,” Greenblat roars, “are you going to find the ex-mayor singing ‘Born to Be Wild’ in a bowling alley?”
CONSIDER THIS rewriting of recent political history: Imagine that the legal woes that drove Roger Hedgecock from office in December, 1985, had never occurred. Under that scenario, Hedgecock, twice elected mayor of San Diego--during his tenure the biggest city in the nation with a Republican mayor--would still be one of the hottest Republican properties in California.
As such, many believe that Hedgecock could have been governor before the decade was out, and then, just maybe--after a few years’ national exposure as head of the nation’s most populous state--might even have been positioned for a run at the White House in the 1990s. Admittedly, that hypothetical leap from San Diego City Hall to the White House--and, for that matter, even to Sacramento--hinged on a lot of variables. But at the peak of his power four years ago, Hedgecock’s political future appeared unlimited.
To conjure up those speculations, however, is to engage in precisely the kind of what-if thinking that the 41-year-old Hedgecock strives to avoid these days. “You can’t change the past, and the future will work itself out, so I stay focused on the present,” he says.
And so, several weeks after his “Alamo” appearance, Hedgecock reclines on a San Diego beach on a midweek afternoon, taking a measure of his life two years after the ignominy of being forced to resign following his conviction on campaign-law violations.
“There’s no question I’m amazed over how many positive things have come out of something so seemingly disastrous as what I went through,” Hedgecock says.
More time with his family--”more in a week than I used to get in a month,” he says--is one improvement. The radio talk show that Hedgecock began shortly after resigning has since become the highest-rated program of its kind in San Diego history, allowing him to retain a potent public forum and widespread popularity.
The income from the radio show, “talent fees” from product endorsement ads and occasional land-use consulting work is “substantially more” than double his former $50,000 annual mayoral wage. That is all the more impressive because he’s on the air only about three hours a day, leaving plenty of time for two passions--reading and surfing.
“Where would you rather be on a Friday afternoon? On the beach or at City Hall going over a city manager’s report on sewage?” he asks, scanning the waves, his surfboard still bearing the San Diego city seal.
Meanwhile, he quickly ticks off other pluses: In demand as a public speaker, Hedgecock receives rousing ovations these days, even from business groups that once considered him a political anathema. Former foes confide that his stirring oratory and forceful take-no-prisoners style of leadership are sorely missed at City Hall. Not that Hedgecock, the onetime comer in statewide politics doesn’t profess to have run his last campaign (a protestation that always brings knowing “don’t-bet-on-it” winks from most listeners.)
But whenever Hedgecock begins to feel that this, perhaps, is one personal tragedy with more silver lining than cloud, he is jolted by a grim reality: At a time when many expected Mayor Hedgecock to be plotting a gubernatorial or senatorial campaign--following the lead of his predecessor as mayor, U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.)--Citizen Hedgecock faces the disquieting notion that his residence on Election Day ’88 could be the San Diego County Jail.
“I don’t dwell on it, but it’s something that’s always there,” Hedgecock says of the one-year jail sentence facing him if his conviction is not overturned on appeal. “Sometimes I worry about what would happen to my wife and kids if I’d have to serve the time. That’s the real down side to all this--that, and seeing your reputation . . . in shreds.
“So, yeah, on balance, life today is good--real good. But if you ask the question another way--’Would you still rather be mayor today?’--the answer is yes.”
HEDGECOCK HAS long prided himself on his ability to “compart mentalize”--to focus on the tasks before him while not being distracted by other events swirling around him. During his two 1985 trials--the first ended in a mistrial with the jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction--Hedgecock carried out his mayoral duties with aplomb even as he battled for his political life in court.
“My personality has been a blessing through all this, because bemoaning how unfair life is just isn’t my style,” Hedgecock says.
Still, he occasionally broods over what he defines as his “life in limbo” until his case is resolved. He perceives himself as an “internal exile in my own community.” Some movers and shakers keep their distance, and proposals he floats on his radio program in an attempt to influence city policy are often dismissed by elected officials “not because they’re bad ideas, but simply because they come from me.”
“We both try to be positive, but there’s still a lot of anger and resentment in both of us,” says Hedgecock’s wife, Cindy. “There’s a light gone from Roger’s eyes that I really miss. My husband misses being mayor. And he should still be mayor.”
But Cindy Hedgecock--and her husband--are both also acutely aware that some San Diegans believe Hedgecock deserves a room with barred doors and windows rather than his former suite on the 11th floor of City Hall.
They’ve heard obscenities sometimes shouted by drivers who pass by their spacious, imposing house overlooking downtown San Diego. There also are occasional embarrassing public scenes: As Hedgecock left a beachfront restaurant recently, a middle-aged man approached him, first asking for his autograph and then trying to sell him a pair of sunglasses for $3. When Hedgecock declined the latter offer, the man snarled: “What’s the matter? You ripped off San Diego, but you can’t give me $3?” And then there are the inevitable jokes. One sample: What do herpes, a Palm Springs condo and Roger Hedgecock have in common? You can’t get rid of any of them.
“There obviously are people out there who think I’m a crook who belongs in jail,” Hedgecock concedes.
Although Hedgecock has simply availed himself of the same legal appeals open to anyone--at least to anyone able to afford his $200,000-plus legal bill for three top-flight attorneys--some San Diegans interpret his current success as proof of favored treatment.
“I have only one question about the guy: When the hell is he going to jail?” a politically prominent San Diego businessman says. “If you or I had done what he did, I doubt that we’d be on the radio cracking jokes about it. We’d be in the slammer.”
“The way I see it, 23 of 24 jurors found Roger Hedgecock guilty of what in essence were crimes against the citizens of San Diego,” says San Diego financier Tom Stickel, a top fund-raiser for Gov. George Deukmejian. “He disgraced the mayor’s office, he disgraced the city. How someone who did that can still be so popular is surprising and, frankly, a little scary.”
A FORMER two-term county supervisor noted as much for his abrasive personality as for his leg islative achievements, Hedgecock brought a strong environmentalist record and the rallying cry of “Avoid Los Angelization!” to San Diego City Hall when he won a special May, 1983, election to fill the vacancy left by Pete Wilson’s elevation to the U.S. Senate.
The early months of Hedgecock’s 31-month mayoralty were heady ones, as his considerable accomplishments--highlighted by successful fights for expansion of the San Diego Trolley, toughened growth-management policies and voters’ approval of a downtown convention center--gave him remarkable public-approval ratings. In one October, 1983, poll, only 3% of those surveyed disapproved of Hedgecock’s performance in office.
That record and Hedgecock’s image as the “surfing mayor” attracted national attention. One popular scenario within Hedgecock’s inner circle had him rolling up a triumphant 1984 re-election, using that as a springboard for a successful race for state attorney general, then beginning to maneuver for a gubernatorial campaign.
And the long-range plan did not end with the governor’s mansion. “I know it sounds crazy now, but believe me, this guy had a 10-, 15-year game plan that took him to the White House,” one statewide Republican leader says.
HEDGECOCK’S decline was equally swift. In 1984, his popularity plummeted when he was accused--and ultimately indicted--of conspiring with several prominent supporters to funnel more than $360,000 in illegal contributions into his campaign, as well as falsifying financial disclosure statements to conceal the scheme.
The controversy drew former television newscaster Dick Carlson into the 1984 mayoral race--his central theme being that Hedgecock should be ousted because he had given San Diego “a black eye.” Hedgecock countered with a Trumanesque “give-’em-hell” style that produced a resounding 58%-42% victory only seven weeks after his September indictment, prompting even detractors to label him a political Houdini.
“One down and one to go!” Hedgecock said confidently at the time. Eleven months later, however, a Superior Court jury convicted him of 13 felony conspiracy and perjury charges. Hedgecock’s three co-defendants later pleaded guilty under plea-bargain deals that kept them out of jail, or, in one case, from having an existing sentence lengthened.
The 4th District Court of Appeal is scheduled to hear Hedgecock’s appeal this week, with a ruling expected early next year. If his conviction is upheld, Hedgecock, who already has begun serving his three-year probation, meeting twice monthly with a probation officer, will appeal to the California Supreme Court, where a decision to hear the case could push back a final resolution to 1989. But if the high court declines to hear the case, Hedgecock, as one of his former top aides puts it indelicately, “could be wearing one of those funny orange outfits picking up trash on Interstate 5” sometime next year.
Though clearly concerned about that prospect, Hedgecock often jokes about the subject. Recently, in an ad announcing that his radio show would be broadcast from the San Diego Zoo, Hedgecock said: “Tomorrow, I’m going to be where you always thought I should be. No , not there !”
If his appeal is successful, Hedgecock will be free to re-enter politics, but says it is “incomprehensible” that he would do so. As he sits in a claret-red wingback chair in his living room, with a panoramic view of San Diego behind him, Hedgecock becomes animated as he describes the joys of rediscovering time for his 6- and 10-year-old boys.
“Little League games and Cub Scout meetings, weekend camping trips, quiet nights at home--these may be everyday things for most people, but in politics, you never have enough time for them. . . . Until you get away from politics, you don’t realize how insane that life style is. I just wouldn’t put my family through it again.”
FEW PEOPLE TAKE Hedgecock at his word on that point, considering his denials as simply the only option open to him until his appeal is resolved.
“Roger’s still an opinion-maker but not a decision-maker,” says his former City Hall chief of staff J. Michael McDade. “I think he’d give his right arm to be a decision-maker again.”
Nancy MacHutchin, Hedgecock’s former campaign fund-raiser, and a close friend, interprets Hedgecock’s updating of his former political mailing list and his frequent speaking engagements as signs that he is at least leaving the door open for a political comeback.
“Given Roger’s ability to jump out of a nine-story building and not get bruised, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him run again and be successful,” says former San Diego County Republican Party Chairman Allan Royster. “Roger can pull more tricks out of the hat than other guys have hats.”
Indeed, walk with him down any street in San Diego and there is unmistakable warmth in voices that call out “Roger!” or “Mr. Mayor!” A major source of Hedgecock’s continuing popularity is his daily talk show on San Diego radio station KSDO. His “office hours,” as Hedgecock jokingly refers to the show, extend from 9 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday--considerably less trying than the 12-hour days typical during his mayoralty. His current dress code is also casual: khaki slacks and colorful short-sleeve shirts.
Wearing headphones and surrounded by video display terminals, microphones and other electronic gadgetry in a rather cramped studio, Hedgecock fields dozens of calls. Based on recent ratings, he reaches more than 150,000 people daily.
During a typical hour, the subjects raised by callers can range from the threat of war in the Persian Gulf and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to complaints about a neighborhood convenience store. The same diversity is found in Hedgecock’s in-studio guest list, which is as likely to include Democratic presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt as it is hypnotists or authors on the book circuit.
Displaying the glibness and mental agility that made him a daunting political debater, Hedgecock handles each issue or interview with ease and keeps the program moving crisply. A man whose range of knowledge rarely fails to impress, he alternately cajoles, challenges and, sometimes, insults listeners to provoke stimulating debate.
“It’s a little more than gossip but a little less than the Great Debates,” Hedgecock says of the show.
He contends, however, that on several occasions, his show prompted listeners to call public officials, influencing proposed legislation. Hedgecock says that he tries to assist other listeners who are frustrated by the bureaucratic maze of local government, often providing names and telephone numbers of officials whom callers can contact for help.
“It’s clearly the best show of its kind in San Diego and one of the best I’ve heard anywhere,” says Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego).
Some skeptics, however, argue that Hedgecock’s program provides more lightweight entertainment--Trivial Pursuit is a regular feature--than substantive debate or impact.
“I wouldn’t say the lights go on or off at City Hall based on what Roger says,” City Councilman Bill Cleator says.
KSDO’s decision to hire Hedgecock one month after his December, 1985, resignation was a gamble that measured his celebrity against his notoriety.
“From some of the letters we got--most in the ‘How dare you hire that felon!’ vein--you’d have thought that this guy was an ax murderer,” says Jack Merker, KSDO’s program director and vice president of operations.
Twenty-one months later, some of those passions still have not subsided.
“When I heard that Roger Hedgecock was going on the air, that station was permanently removed from the radios in all three of my cars,” financier Stickel says. “I think it’s a travesty that he’s been given this opportunity to get into a celebrity position. I’ve never listened to his program and I never will. Perhaps if he does a live remote from his jail cell, then I’ll listen.”
Another factor in Hedgecock’s success on radio may be that listeners enjoy “hearing him rattle some cages and knock some things that don’t get rattled or knocked very often in public,” says San Diego political consultant Jim Johnston.
“One thing I had to quickly unlearn was being ‘politic’ in my comments,” Hedgecock explains, smiling broadly. “One of my secret satisfactions about this job is that I can now speak the truth as I see it, without any gloss or varnish, without worrying that some pressure group or voting bloc might become offended. So I hold nothing back.”
Last summer, Hedgecock infuriated San Diego’s gay community, which strongly supported him during his public career, with this remark on why, if he were still mayor, he would not have walked in the annual Gay Pride parade: “I don’t think people ought to be proud of a situation which has led to the worst plague that we have had in Western culture since the Black Death in the 16th Century.” That caustic comment was particularly shocking to gays because it came from Hedgecock, who provided gays, blacks and other minorities with greater access to City Hall than ever before in the city’s history.
Hedgecock’s other conservative on-air positions--his staunch backing for rejected U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork, his Reagan-esque posture on Central American issues--also contrast sharply with the progressive policies he espoused as mayor.
“People I talk to think he’s moved to the right of Genghis Khan,” said Evonne Schulze, Hedgecock’s former community-relations assistant. “Whenever I listen to his show, I end up screaming at the radio. I guess the question is, did we see the real Roger Hedgecock when he was mayor or are we seeing it now? I feel like maybe we all got fooled.”
Favorite Hedgecock targets are the San Diego Union and Tribune, two newspapers that he has long accused of biased coverage of his campaigns and trials. When an unflattering reference to the former mayor appeared in Tribune editor Neil Morgan’s newspaper column recently, Hedgecock responded by calling Morgan a “slimebag” on the air. “Now there’s something I may have felt, but certainly couldn’t have said as mayor,” Hedgecock says, his eyes flashing, during a break in his program.
Similarly, Hedgecock rarely misses an opportunity to get in a dig against Dist. Atty. Edwin L. Miller Jr., who he argues pursued the investigation into his finances with such vigor primarily because of their longstanding animosity. When a divorced female caller complains that she is having difficulty getting the district attorney’s office to enforce a spousal support order, Hedgecock replies: “The D.A. has the discretion to chase after politicians he doesn’t like, but not to help ordinary people with legal problems.”
Denying he has undergone a philosophic change--or that he crafted an
image as mayor false to his true beliefs--Hedgecock says that he simply had little occasion to discuss national or international affairs during his career in local politics. “If people are surprised, it’s just because they never heard me speak about these things before, not because I’ve changed,” he says.
For the radio station the gamble has paid off. A few KSDO advertisers initially canceled buys in protest, Merker says, but most have since quietly returned to the station “because they can read the ratings, too.”
MUCH OF Hedgecock’s income is derived from his personal endorsements and ads for a wide range of products. Throughout his program Hedgecock extolls the virtues of walking shoes (“Comfortable and good-looking, too!”), home-security systems, facial rejuvenation clinics (“If you want to look as young as you feel”), lawyers and the Pain Treatment Center. (“You owe yourself a stress-free life!”) While radio personalities commonly endorse products, some of Hedgecock’s closest backers say that they find something demeaning about a man who, as mayor, sold a convention center to San Diego voters, now hawking vacuum cleaners, pain cures and shoes.
“Every time I hear him say, ‘Do you want to get rid of those wrinkles on your face?’ I could just cry,” says former City Hall aide Schulze.
Hedgecock, however, bristles at any suggestion that he is “huckstering for anything that comes along.” He stresses that he is selective and that he personally checks out each individual or product that he advertises.
Advertisers’ apparent eagerness to have their products linked to Hedgecock also yields, he believes, an unusual insight into his standing in San Diego.
“I don’t know many other convicted felons who could go on the radio and sell products and services,” Hedgecock says. “Normally, you’d think advertisers would run the other way. But the fact that they’re seeking me out--I mean, how more ironic can you get than a convicted felon doing an ad for an attorney?--is an indication of the acceptance I have with the general public.
“So sometimes I think to myself, ‘For a convicted felon, you sure are selling a lot of things.’ That must mean I have credibility with someone out there.”
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