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Former Mayor Curran Dies; Led Downtown Restoration

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Francis (Frank) Earl Curran, who rose from stevedore on the North Island Navy docks to mayor of San Diego and saw his career blessed by the seeds of the city’s growth but ultimately clouded by scandal, has died. He was 79.

Curran had been in ill health for years and underwent surgery three months ago for a broken vertebra suffered in a fall. He died shortly after midnight Sunday at Mercy Hospital.

Curran’s proud career in San Diego politics turned abruptly in 1970 to scandal, when he was indicted on bribery charges. He was found innocent of those charges the next year, and civic leaders opted Monday to remember Curran as an easy-going man who set in motion the events that have since pushed San Diego to grow into the nation’s sixth-largest city.

“I thought Frank Curran was a real pioneer,” said Roger Hedgecock, San Diego’s mayor in the early 1980s and now a radio talk-show host. “He took the first steps to creating the modern San Diego.”

Curran, Hedgecock said, was dedicated to revitalizing downtown San Diego. The Gaslamp Quarter, once the home of naughty bars and tattoo parlors, now bustles with theaters, shops and restaurants. “Frank Curran really is an unsung hero in getting San Diego to think about the revitalization of San Diego as an achievable goal,” Hedgecock said Monday.

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Curran used to remind people that his plans for San Diego stemmed from a real love for the place. “My wife and I have no children,” Curran would tell audiences when he was on the campaign trail in the ‘50s and ‘60s. “Instead, I have adopted a whole community.”

Curran served 16 years as a San Diego city councilman and mayor. He was defeated in his bid for a third mayoral term after he had been indicted and acquitted on charges he accepted bribes from Yellow Cab Co. officials.

Curran was first elected to the San Diego City Council in 1955 and served as a councilman until 1963, when the late Mayor Charles Dail, Curran’s friend and political adviser, became ill and stepped down from the mayoral post.

Councilman Curran filed for the vacancy and was elected. He ran for a second four-year term in 1967, easily defeating former Councilman Allen Hitch by a 2-to-1 margin.

In 1970, Curran was indicted on charges that he and other council members had accepted illegal campaign contributions from Yellow Cab in return for a 1967 vote granting the taxi firm a 22% hike in fares.

After being acquitted, Curran doggedly ran for an unprecedented third term, saying he hoped his reelection would serve as an exoneration of his involvement in the Yellow Cab case.

Instead, he ran a poor fourth in the primary election--behind a tough lineup of challengers that included a young state assemblyman, Pete Wilson--and admitted he was not surprised. “I had to give the people the opportunity to censure me,” he said at the time.

Wilson, who ultimately was elected mayor that year and has since become California’s governor, issued a statement Monday that said Curran “deserves to be well and long remembered as a good mayor of San Diego. He loved the city and worked hard, not only as mayor but afterwards, to improve it.”

Curran was the first of six city officials to be tried in the Yellow Cab scandal. He was indicted in October, 1970, on two counts of accepting bribes and one count of conspiracy--all felonies.

That October afternoon, county marshals walked into the mayor’s office and served Curran with an indictment that charged he accepted $3,500 in bribes. Just a few hours later, the mayor appeared at a dinner speech before the Associated General Contractors of San Diego.

He told the audience about his arrest and booking at County Jail, quipping: “For awhile there, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. Fortunately, they don’t shave your head any more.”

Later in the evening, however, Curran broke into sobs and admitted to the crowd that his political career was almost surely finished. “My political career ended at 5 o’clock today,” he said.

His trial began in December, 1970, at a time when he had been scheduled to become president of the National League of Cities at its convention in Atlanta. But with Curran in court, the convention gavel that year was wielded by NLC Vice President Richard Lugar, then mayor of Indianapolis and now a senator from Indiana.

Curran’s trial involved charges he accepted bribes in exchange for ramrodding through a 22% rate increase for the taxicab firm. Yellow Cab then had a virtual monopoly on cab service in San Diego.

Curran testified at the trial. So did Yellow Cab officials. On Jan. 6, 1971, jurors found Curran innocent of all charges.

Among the mayor’s congratulatory messages was one from then-President Richard Nixon. A few weeks later, Curran announced plans to run for a third term.

During the 1971 campaign, Curran campaigned hard on his record of accomplishments during his eight years as mayor: development of Mission Bay Park; creation of the Economic Development Corp. to bring light industry and corporate headquarters to San Diego; completion of the Civic Center; establishment of the Unified Port District; acquisition of the city’s bus system, and construction of San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

He also promoted several construction projects that have failed to come to fruition: an international airport offshore to relieve Point Loma of noise from nearby Lindbergh Field; a monorail through Balboa Park to relieve traffic congestion; a 168-foot statue of explorer Juan Cabrillo on Point Loma that would rival New York’s Statue of Liberty.

It wasn’t enough.

After being defeated and leaving office, Curran was appointed executive director of the Central City Assn., a downtown business group. He served it from 1971 to 1983, and is widely credited with the transformation of C Street downtown, where sidewalks were widened and a trolley line put in.

Until his death, Curran maintained an interest in community affairs. And at City Hall, he was still called “mayor.”

Curran was born in Cleveland but moved to Oceanside with his family at age 7. He graduated from Oceanside-Carlsbad High School in 1931. His high school yearbook prophesied Curran’s career in politics.

That summer, he met his future wife, Florence, who was vacationing with her family in Oceanside. Five years later, they were married at the San Luis Rey Mission near Oceanside.

The Currans then moved to San Diego where he continued to earn a living at odd jobs, including work as a painter at the newly opened Del Mar race track and a stint as a deputy county assessor. He finally obtained full-time work as a stevedore on the Navy docks at North Island.

Curran never received a college degree but took courses at several schools.

In 1940, Curran was promoted into a civil service post from his stevedore’s job and served as supervisor for procurement of materials for the Navy until 1949. He did not serve in World War II because of flat feet.

In 1949, Curran became secretary-manager of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie 244, whose members included most of the city’s politicians and political aspirants, among them Dail.

In 1955, Dail, then a city councilman, ran for mayor of San Diego. Curran and 11 others filed for Dail’s 5th District council seat and after a runoff election against Murray Goodrich, Curran became a city councilman.

Sixteen years later, after his defeat for a third term as mayor, Curran admitted that he would miss his political life.

“I’ve developed an appetite for people and it’s like being an alcoholic--it’s going to take some time to will myself away from it,” Curran said.


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