THE 4 FRESHMEN : Vision of Coalition Comes Unraveled

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Times Staff Writer

One year ago, their election began the most complete overhaul of the San Diego City Council in a decade. Four educated, ambitious, politically savvy men--they were the first group to take their seats together as newcomers since 1977.

They were instantly nicknamed The Four Freshmen, and they almost as quickly predicted that they could become a force on the nine-member council.

“We’re going into office as a coalition of sorts,” District 8 Councilman Bob Filner said the day after he was elected with the 2nd District’s Ron Roberts, 4th District’s Wes Pratt and 6th District’s Bruce Henderson. “People may wonder how or where the mayor and the current council members might get votes from us. But, on the other hand, with four of us coming in, we only need to pick up one vote to do what we want to.”


As Filner could best attest, it has not worked out that way. The freshmen’s political differences soon dashed any semblance of a coalition forged in the heat of the campaign, and their fortunes have followed divergent paths.

But each began to carve a niche for himself as the council fought and lost the battle to rein in growth, confirmed a new police chief, selected a site for a new Civic Center, grappled with an expensive sewage problem, authorized yet another study of how to relocate the airport, endorsed Mayor Maureen O’Connor’s Soviet arts festival and raised hotel taxes to pay for it.

Here is a look, in district order, at the Four Freshmen’s first two semesters.

The day after he was elected, District 2 Councilman, Ron Roberts promised to “hit the ground running.” These days, it is said around City Hall, Roberts is running--for mayor.

A Friend to All Issues

Roberts, whose district stretches from Point Loma to Mission Hills, greets returning warships, fires starter’s pistols at track meets, cuts ribbons, accepts awards and gives speeches. His energy is so boundless, his presence so ubiquitous, his name in the news so often, that it is difficult to remember he has been on council only a year.

Roberts has yet to meet an issue he doesn’t like. Whether it is growth management, safety and noise at Lindbergh Field or sewage treatment and water reclamation, Roberts has studied it, and he has a plan for improving it.

More than any of the four new council members--perhaps more than any other council member except Gloria McColl--Roberts has nimbly stepped into the power vacuum created by the city’s weak mayor form of government and O’Connor’s hands-off leadership style.


Mixed Reviews

At year’s end, he had positioned himself in a tenuous coalition of five moderate-to-conservative Republicans that could dominate the nine-member council if its members can overcome longstanding differences among them. At the same time, he remains close to O’Connor, who endorsed only him among the eight candidates in the 1987 election.

Some of Roberts’ adventures have backfired. An attempt to remove the city’s highly successful Motion Picture and Television Bureau from the Chamber of Commerce led to an embarrassing defeat and ill will from the chamber. “I would do that differently if I had it all to do over again,” he said.

Slow-growth activists, who had high hopes for Roberts when O’Connor endorsed him as “someone who knows how to say ‘no’ to developers,” now consider him the architect of some of Proposition H’s worst features.

“Ron Roberts talks like Mr. Rogers but votes like Attila the Hun,” was a standard campaign stump line from Citizens for Limited Growth’s Peter Navarro.

Roberts deftly handles speculation about his ambition. “The things I’m doing are because that’s how I interpret the job of being on the council. If there is, at a later date, a reward in citizens

saying, ‘We’re willing to to let you step up to a higher office,’ that’s fine.”

O’Connor, who this month began a new four-year term in office, has heard the whispers about Roberts’ ambition but is unconcerned.


“I have to tell you, I think they’re all running for mayor. Everybody’s running for mayor. Secretly, and I’ll talk generically, any council member who serves as a council member has kind of a little, secret desire to one day be mayor,” she said.

“My philosophy is ‘good government is good politics,’ ” she added, “I work hard, I try to serve the community well. It’s their choice. What will be will be.”

High-Profile Concerns

Blessed with intelligence, drive and an All-American, good-guy personality, Roberts has benefited from the fact that the issues he is best able to tackle are among the city’s most high-profile concerns.

Roberts’ district includes Lindbergh Field, so he is a natural to work on the pressing matters of noise and safety at the airport--issues watched closely throughout the region. Point Loma is home to the city’s only sewage treatment plant, so Roberts has become outspoken on the city’s need for a $1.5-billion upgrading of its sewer-treatment system, and, more specifically, on the need to develop water reclamation technology.

As an architect and former chairman of the Planning Commission, Roberts was installed as chairman of the committee that wrote Proposition H, the council’s growth-management plan. He became the leading spokesman for it during the unsuccessful election campaign.

But Roberts’ success is mostly of his own making. He worked with Point Loma residents and the Port District to fashion the compromise plan approved this month that will limit noise from takeoffs and landings at Lindbergh. He has ridden in an airplane cockpit to assess the danger, if any, posed by the Laurel Travel Center building at the foot of the airport runway. He is involved in discussions with the Navy to reshape the landscape at the foot of Broadway.


Somehow, Roberts finds time for his district. He has worked to revitalize Ocean Beach and is helping Point Loma’s planning board devise ways to lessen peak-hour traffic, caused largely by sailors, on Catalina Boulevard and Rosecrans Street.

“That man is working day and night,” said Ann Jackson, chairman of the Peninsula Community Planning Board. “I feel very fortunate that he chose to leave the architectural profession and try serving the city and the community. He’s doing a wonderful job.”

Roberts points to a new downtown plan, a new waterfront plan, the growth-control debate and the airport as his major issues in 1989. He also will be heavily involved in the council’s redistricting efforts and is rumored to want to add a chunk of downtown to his district.

Wes Pratt took office, took one look at the crying needs in his impoverished council district and took to the streets of Southeast San Diego. He lectures schoolchildren on the evils of drugs, marches to protest gang violence and goes door-to-door exhorting homeowners in the battle against crack dealers.

Long before district elections were approved by voters in the November, Pratt, the council’s lone black member, focused his energy on the concerns of his largely minority constituents in the 4th District, which includes Southeast San Diego, Encanto, Paradise Hills and most of the California 94 corridor. If that meant that his colleagues would grab the limelight, so be it.

“I decided I would simply concentrate on district-related issues and getting out into the district,” he said.


His record is true to that decision. In his first year, Pratt sought more money for social services to AIDS victims, a growing concern of the minority community. He championed the losing Charter Review Commission ballot initiative for a tough police review board and was critical of the police shooting of Tommie Dubose during an arrest.

He was actively involved in the negotiations to sell Southeast’s San Diego Physicians & Surgeons Hospital, and at year’s end was leading the effort to have the city’s Convention Center named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the slain civil rights leader

Staying Above the Fray

Pratt has developed a reputation for staying above the fray on City Hall’s 10th floor, where the deal-cutting and alliance-building among council members can be fast-paced. That stance has allowed Pratt to acquire some power as a somewhat unpredictable swing vote on the nine-member council. It was Pratt, for example, who came back from his sickbed to break a 4-4 tie on the size of the increase of the city’s hotel room tax.

“I didn’t ask to be in that position,” he said. “It’s just the way I conduct myself in the City Council is to be pretty straightforward and not ally myself with one faction or another.”

Herb Cawthorne, executive director of the San Diego Urban League, believes Pratt “has done an exceptional job. He’s surprised a lot of people with his ability to grasp the larger issues. He has a tremendous amount of pressure on him, because his balance makes him the swing factor a lot of times.

“I think, as he matures, he will learn to exercise the power in more far-reaching ways,” Cawthorne added.


George Stevens, an aide to Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) and Pratt’s opponent in the council race, praises Pratt for his stand on the police review issue and for his responsiveness to neighborhood needs.

But Stevens believes that Pratt should be supporting a committee recommendation to include King’s full name in the convention center title instead of Pratt’s proposal of “San Diego King Convention Center.” And he believes Pratt should have gotten an even larger share of this year’s Community Development block grant money than the $2 million his district received.

A rare politician who does not feel the need to give extended speeches before each vote, the quiet, burly Pratt has earned the respect of colleagues with his allegiance to doing what is right.

“Wes Pratts don’t come along very often,” said Mayor Maureen O’Connor. “He’s got a rare quality about him.” And “99% of the time he’s on the side of the angels,” she added.

“I basically want to be about the business of good government,” Pratt said. “I will continue to do that. I don’t feel I have to wave a big flag. Wes Pratt is not going to be here forever. People have to take up the mantle and serve.”

Bruce Henderson has taken a prominent role in some important citywide and district issues. Henderson was the architect of Proposition K, the advisory ballot measure calling for a mandatory, citywide program of staggered work hours to reduce peak-hour traffic congestion.


Along with several other council members, he has championed an ordinance to preserve single-family neighborhoods, which make up a sizable part of his 6th District, which includes Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and Clairemont. He led the fight to equip the city’s police force with two helicopters captured from drug runners. One chopper is now operating and the other is being outfitted.

Henderson continues to be the council’s maverick on its $1.5-billion sewer system upgrade, insisting that the effort is not necessary. He also led opposition to a $1.5-million consulting contract to publicize the issue, narrowly losing his effort to sharply reduce the program, but managing to pare $300,000 from the price tag.

Despite that sizable first-year agenda, Henderson is best known inside City Hall for the publicity stunts, his long, sometimes unfocused speeches and his class-clown tendency to interrupt colleagues during council sessions.

Blowup Sharks, Posters

Henderson has filled the council chamber with the ominous background music from the film “Jaws” and adorned the room with inflatable sharks to make his point that “consultant sharks” are feeding on public tax dollars. He altered a “Jaws” poster to show the shark munching a dollar bill.

His “Fly Me” poster focused attention on the helicopters. He handed out a commuter survival kit at a press conference to exhort voters to approve Proposition K.

Henderson has “a sense of humor, a different way of doing things,” said O’Connor, who concedes she has at times become exasperated trying to silence Henderson at council meetings. “He has fun and doesn’t take it personally. . . . He does make you laugh.


“He tries to exaggerate to make his point. And, through his exaggerations, he makes his points. That’s his way of doing it.”

Henderson agrees that he’s trying “just to have a little fun” during council meetings that can stretch eight hours or more.

“The sharks captured the council’s attention,” he said. “I didn’t win, but at least I saved the city $300,000.”

Admits to ‘Fine Line’

But, he acknowledges, “I have to be careful because there’s a fine line between using them and amusing (council members) and over-using them and irritating (council members).”

Behind the clowning, council members agree, is a keen mind and a financial acumen that many other council members lack. Henderson has also concentrated on his district, focusing on a traffic study of Mission Bay, Pacific Beach and La Jolla and closely scrutinizing requests for exemptions from the city’s Interim Development Ordinance in his neighborhoods.

He has also maneuvered himself into the chairmanship of the Public Facilities and Recreation Committee, where he will have a more direct impact on Mission Bay Park.


Henderson was perhaps the council’s most outspoken opponent of the growth-management plan, though he did vote for it after weeks of negotiation. “I didn’t like H . . ., “ he said of Proposition H. “I was very pleased by the voters, that they rejected it.” Henderson called the voters’ decision “a reaffirmation of representative democracy,” because it put the future of growth management back in the council’s hands.

Henderson, “I think, has been less of an environmental supporter than we had expected,” said Barbara Bamberger, the Sierra Club’s conservation coordinator. “And we didn’t expect much.”

This has not been Bob Filner’s month.

It started Nov. 29 when a coalition of five council members relieved him of $1.7 million in Community Development block grant funds that City Manager John Lockwood had recommended for his 8th District. The following day, the same group turned down O’Connor’s suggestion that Filner head a council committee and installed Henderson as chairman instead.

A week later, they were at it again, refusing to allow Filner to represent the council on the Metropolitan Transit Development Board.

Filner’s colleagues say they were trying to teach him a lesson. They say he is abrasive, that he takes political and philosophical debate and raises it to the level of personal attack.

“Bob tends to personalize it: ‘you’re evil, you’re bad, you’re mean, you’ve broken the law, and I don’t like you, and I’m going to take my football and go home,’ ” Henderson said.


Roberts, one of the group of moderate-to-conservative Republicans who engineered Filner’s thrashing, claims he was motivated by Filner’s attempt, during back-corridor wrangling over committee chairmanships, to put together a slate that would have left Roberts without a chairmanship.

Convenient Target?

Filner remains defiant, claiming that the group he has dubbed “the Gang of Five” was motivated by common ideological and political goals, not personal ones. As perhaps the council’s most liberal member, Filner believes he makes a convenient target.

“The defeat of the H and J has emboldened the pro-development forces on the council,” he said, referring to council members Ron Roberts, Bruce Henderson, Judy McCarty, Ed Struiksma and Gloria McColl. “I think that’s what is behind some of the recent votes with the Gang of Five.

“There’s an ideological, partisan effort to make sure I am kept weak,” he said.

He does not deny trying to put together a slate of committee chairmen without Roberts on it. “Why is my attempting to put together a slate that’s helpful to me any worse or better than his trying to put together a slate that’s beneficial to him?,” he asked.

The answer is that Roberts had the votes to win and Filner didn’t. Votes are the bottom line, said Andrea Skorepa, executive director of a San Ysidro social service agency and a Filner antagonist who supported his opponent, Mike Aguirre, in the most recent election.

“I think, for our community, he hasn’t been as effective a representative as he could be,” she said.


Earlier in the year, Filner watched helplessly as the council overruled his recommendation and gave a publicly run recreation center in his district to Skorepa’s organization.

The internal conflict has overshadowed Filner’s accomplishments in his large, meandering district, which stretches from Hillcrest through downtown and includes San Ysidro and Otay Mesa. A fanatical worker, he is perhaps the council’s most cerebral member, who has a tendency to intellectual honesty even if his views are not politically popular. He is on leave from San Diego State University, where he teaches history.

Variety of Concerns

Filner was the only council member to oppose placing Charter Commission initiatives directly on the ballot without review, arguing that the position was an abdication of the council’s responsibilities. In recent months, some of his colleagues have begun to agree.

Filner guided the Balboa Park Master Plan to adoption, insisting that it call for maximizing open space. He has brought capital improvement funds to South Bay parks and worked on the revitalization of San Ysidro Boulevard. Last month he called for higher taxes to put more police on city streets.

Filner has proven himself one of the council’s most ardent slow-growth advocates and remains a solid pro-environment vote. He has defended the Sierra Club from attempts to oust the organization from its Balboa Park office.

“Bob Filner is one of the few consistent supporters, who has been out there and has been aggressively fighting for the preservation of open space and sensitive lands,” said the Sierra Club’s Bamberger.


Filner pledged to soften his tone if it will mean more success for his district, which could be vulnerable in next year’s redistricting.

“I’m willing to look at my own behavior,” he said. “If it’s hurting me from achieving things for my district, that will change.”

But he adds: “I’m an outspoken person. I represent a district that has historically been powerless. I’m going to continue to (be outspoken). If that gets me into trouble, so be it.”