Francis (Frank) Earl Curran, who rose from stevedore to mayor of San Diego and saw his career blessed by the city’s growth but ultimately cursed by a wide-ranging bribery 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 Sunday at San Diego’s Mercy Hospital.
Curran’s career in San Diego politics turned abruptly to scandal in 1970 when he was indicted on bribery charges. He was found innocent of those charges the next year.
Civic leaders chose to remember him as an easy-going man who set in motion the events that have since made San Diego 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 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 1950s 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 but acquitted on charges he accepted bribes from Yellow Cab Co. officials.
Curran was first elected to the 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.
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 2-1 margin.
But three years into his term, 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--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 saying 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 afterward, to improve it.”
After his defeat, Curran was appointed executive director of the Central City Assn., a downtown business group. He served from 1971 to 1983 and is widely credited with the transformation of C Street downtown, where sidewalks were widened and a trolley line installed.
Curran was born in Cleveland and 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 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.
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.