He last ran for local office in 1979. He redeployed to Washington in 1983, leaving no successor and no political machine.
He has not attempted to meddle in city affairs from afar, despite plenty of opportunities. When he left his state job in Sacramento last year, he moved to Los Angeles.
Still, Pete Wilson, former San Diego mayor, U.S. senator and California governor, hovers over this year’s San Diego mayor’s race like a blimp at the Super Bowl.
Nearly two decades have passed since he was mayor, but this is still Pete Wilson’s town, politically speaking.
Three of the top six candidates to succeed termed-out Mayor Susan Golding got their start in local politics--as did Golding--with Wilson’s blessing.
Two others have their own Wilson links. Even the only Democrat among the major candidates seems to be trying to remake himself into a latter-day Wilsonite.
Regardless of who gets elected, there seems little doubt that the new mayor of California’s second-largest city will closely follow the Wilson mayoral playbook for limiting spending, encouraging downtown redevelopment and making sure the police chief never forgets who’s the boss.
Call it the San Diego political orthodoxy.
For better or worse, this is a city where the political bandwidth is narrow, with serious mayoral candidates bunched up on the moderately conservative side, and Wilson remains the exemplar of how things should be done.
This is not Los Angeles, where there is more of a left-to-right political spectrum and where unions and ethnic groups wield power in combat with the more traditional business interests that congregate around City Hall.
Nor is it San Francisco, where the spectrum is from liberal to more liberal to over-the-rainbow liberal.
“In political terms, San Diego has more in common with other Sunbelt cities, Phoenix-by-the-bay, than it does with Los Angeles or San Francisco,” said UC San Diego political science professor Steven Erie. “San Diego is caught in a time warp from the 1950s. Politics is still very boosterish, very pro-business, very centered on the downtown business community. Insurgents have a tough time here.”
Although Democrats hold a 39% to 36.5% registration edge over Republicans, the power players that groom and finance political candidates--the Chamber of Commerce, downtown law firms, the building industry and the editorial page of the San Diego Union-Tribune--are solidly GOP.
“Forget registration numbers; San Diego is a one-party town,” said George Mitrovich, founder of the City Club of San Diego, which serves as a community forum.
Two Democratic officeholders with a portion of San Diego in their districts--Rep. Bob Filner and state Sen. Steve Peace--were bruited about as possible mayoral contenders. Both opted out.
That’s a familiar pattern in San Diego mayoral elections. Prominent Democrats who already have jobs prefer to flirt rather than actively woo the mayor’s seat.
“San Diego is a company town,” said Norma Damashek, head of the city issues committee with the local League of Women Voters. “The companies may change, but the mentality stays the same. Our choices remain very limited and in the same mold.”
Wilson Staked Out the Middle Ground
Growth is a defining political issue, and voters have repeatedly shown a preference for a middle ground. It’s ground plowed in his early years by Wilson, who was elected mayor in 1971 when the city was beset by suburban sprawl.
In the 1980s, a pro-growth city councilman, once quoted as saying he never met a building project he didn’t like, ran twice for mayor. He got thumped both times.
In the 1990s, a slow-growth academic ran on a platform of PLAN (Prevent Los Angelesization Now), calling for a building moratorium. The Chamber of Commerce and the editorial page of the Union-Tribune portrayed him almost as if he were a heretic busting up Sunday worship services. He was beaten.
This season all the major candidates are of the “manage but do not stifle” school of growth control.
The majors include three insider-outsiders--wealthy banker Peter Q. Davis, Superior Court Judge Dick Murphy and county Supervisor Ron Roberts--and three City Council members: Barbara Warden, Byron Wear and George Stevens, the lone Democrat in the race and the only African American ever to run for mayor here.
Six longshots--including a magician, an actor, a female wrestler and a World Trade Organization foe--round out the field of 12.
If no candidate gets a majority in the March 7 primary, the two top vote-getters will advance to a November runoff to succeed Golding, a moderate Republican who has served two terms and has yet to announce her post-mayoral plans. She was appointed to the council in 1981 with Wilson’s backing and later was elected a county supervisor. The two are close friends.
Polls show Davis leading Roberts, with the others close behind. Using more than $800,000 of his own money, Davis has had a sustained blitz of television commercials that, among other things, include a picture of Wilson from his early mayoral years.
“Davis wants to be Pete Wilson,” said Tim McClain, editor of the San Diego Metropolitan magazine, a monthly publication devoted to business and politics. “They all want to be Pete Wilson.”
Davis, 59, Murphy, 57, and Roberts, 57, all got their starts in local politics as Wilson appointees: Roberts to a neighborhood planning group and then the city Planning Commission, Davis to the redevelopment agency (after being nominated by a councilman), and Murphy to a city recreation board and then a vacancy on the City Council.
Roberts, an architect, felt so strongly about Wilson that in 1982 he switched his registration from Democrat to Republican to vote for Wilson in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate.
In temperament and resume, Murphy is possibly the closest to Wilson.
Both are earnest, detail-oriented, unflashy Midwest natives who went to Ivy League colleges, served as military officers, attended law school in California, and joined blue-chip law firms in San Diego before venturing into politics.
“Dick is virtually a Pete clone,” said Scott Harvey, former Wilson mayoral staffer and now a lobbyist. In San Diego political terms, that’s a high compliment.
So how does one explain this cult of Pete?
His statewide reputation may be sullied by the divisive fight over illegal immigration and his feud with the state teachers union, among other wars.
But in San Diego, Wilson is remembered as the mayor who stopped runaway growth, wrested power from the bureaucracy and proclaimed San Diego to be America’s Finest City.
“He was young, he was appealing, he was photogenic and, more significantly, he was the mayor who represented what San Diego has become,” Mitrovich said. “Pete Wilson was San Diego’s first modern mayor.”
Previous mayors had largely been businessmen who treated the mayor’s job as a part-time occupation. Wilson, fresh from two terms in the Assembly, changed that.
“Pete viewed the City Charter [which severely limits the mayor’s power] as a quaint and outmoded document,” Harvey said.
Old Issues Still Top the Public Agenda
During Wilson’s 12 years as mayor, the issues that still dominate the public agenda here came to the fore: redevelopment, expansion of public transportation, community policing, growth management, and use of government to promote tourism and industry.
If San Diego is a city where the past is a good predictor of the future, the City Council members running for mayor have a rough road ahead.
No sitting member of the council has been elected mayor in four decades. Incumbents tend to accumulate all the supposed sins of city government, like lint sticking to dark socks in the dryer.
Wear, 45, a former lifeguard and political consultant, worked on Wilson’s 1982 race for Senate. On her campaign Web site, the first qualification listed by Warden, 58, a former community newspaper publisher, is her appointment by then-Gov. Wilson to two law enforcement advisory boards.
Only Stevens, 67, a Baptist minister and former civil rights activist, can be said to be outside the Wilson orbit. Attempting to jump from council to mayor, Stevens has moved to the political middle.
Still, he is given little chance of surviving the March primary, in large part because of his long history of confrontation with political opponents. Also, he has virtually no campaign money.
Although better funded, Wear and Warden have their own baggage. Wear was caught by the press fudging his resume. Warden is dogged by controversy in her district about ear-splitting Marine Corps helicopters.
Faced with a blizzard of like-minded candidates, San Diego voters have learned to pick up on small gradations of difference, much like natives of frozen regions are said to have 50 or more terms to describe different kinds of snow.
Davis wants to increase the hotel-motel tax. Murphy is concerned about financing for the downtown ballpark; Warden is said by insiders to represent a power shift toward the newer neighborhoods along Interstate 15; and Roberts blasts the council for selling too much city-owned land.
For bolder statements, voters had best look to the also-rans.
“I’m running because it’s time to change the Kitty Litter at City Hall,” said Loch David Crane, the magician.