ELECTIONS ’92 : Outsider Becomes Front-Runner in Race for San Diego Mayor


University professor Peter Navarro, an unknown in San Diego five years ago and a political long shot when the primary season began early this year, has vaulted to the front of the mayor’s race in an example of anti-incumbent fervor.

Navarro, who holds a doctorate in economics and is a passionate opponent of runaway growth, was credited Wednesday with tapping into the same voter frustration and demand for change that has benefited expected presidential candidate Ross Perot.

In placing first, with 38.2% of the primary vote, Navarro surpassed a well-known woman candidate during the political “year of the woman,” conquered two Establishment Republicans in a city notable for its Republican power structure, and prospered as a “managed growth” candidate during a recession that has decimated the building industry.


Navarro’s victory showed “the power of the single idea, delivered with precision, to the right audience, at the right time,” said political consultant Jack Orr, a bitter opponent of the new front-runner. “And everybody should have seen it coming.”

“You can beat City Hall, and I think Peter proves you can take City Hall if you’ve got the campaign and the candidate and you address the issues that people are concerned about,” said Peter Andersen, field coordinator for the Navarro campaign.

Two-term San Diego County Supervisor Susan Golding, who led in pre-election polls from beginning to end, placed second in the six-person race with 31.2% of the vote, capturing the other spot in the Nov. 3 runoff election to choose a successor to retiring San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor. Four other contenders trailed the pack.

The totals could change slightly when 26,500 remaining absentee and write-in ballots are counted beginning today.

The runoff campaign got off to a bitter start Wednesday when Navarro admitted on a television talk show that he had called Golding press secretary Nikki Symington a “pig” when the two engaged in a brief shoving match Tuesday night. Navarro was captured in television footage elbowing the diminutive Symington as he attempted to join Golding before a local news camera for an interview.

Golding on Tuesday night professed satisfaction at having survived the primary, and one of her campaign consultants promised Wednesday to puncture the notion that Navarro is a local version of Perot.


“Peter did a very successful job during the primary of costuming himself in the image of Ross Perot, the great outsider. My opinion is that is a fraud,” said Tom Shepard, the Golding consultant.

Voters may admire Perot’s can-do attitude and record of accomplishment, highlighted by the rescue of some of his employees from Iran, but Navarro has accomplished nothing, Shepard contended.

“When you get down to this one-on-one contest, where voters are going to have to choose between the strength and weakness of two people, that masquerade is going to fall apart,” Shepard contended. “The truth is that Susan Golding is the only person who has accomplished something.”

O’Connor, still the city’s most popular political figure and no friend of Golding, doesn’t believe it will be that easy.

Navarro has “tapped into the frustration, and I think, right now, out is in and in is out. If you’re in politics and you have been there more than two terms, you’re out.”

Regardless of the outcome in November, no one can deny Navarro’s remarkable rise from a pugnacious community activist to the city’s front-running mayoral candidate in little more than four years.

A professor of economics at UC Irvine, the 42-year-old registered independent came to local prominence as chief spokesman for two 1988 ballot initiatives that sought to impose restrictive caps on the number of homes that could be built in the city and the county.

Both measures lost, confronted by a building industry campaign that spent more than $2.5 million, and in subsequent years Navarro failed twice more in attempts to rein in growth via the initiative process. He became the founder of the community group Prevent Los Angelization Now!

But the paradox of Navarro’s mayoral aspirations is that with each defeat, his reputation has grown as the leader of the opposition to traffic congestion, pollution, runaway growth and vanishing open space.