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Finances a Focus of San Diego Mayoral Contest

Times Staff Writer

Only a few months ago it appeared that fire protection would be the hottest issue in the mayoral primary election Tuesday in which Mayor Dick Murphy faces two strong challengers.

A fire erupted Oct. 25 on the city’s brushy edge and destroyed more than 200 homes as the city Fire Department struggled with aging firetrucks, outmoded communications gear and fewer firefighters and fire stations than any large city in the country.

Even before the embers cooled, the political uproar over the Cedar fire was burning, with much of the anger aimed at Murphy, who had allowed the lease on the city fire helicopter to lapse only days earlier.

But as the primary approached, the issue of city finances eclipsed fire protection in the campaigns of challengers Ron Roberts, a member of the county Board of Supervisors, and Peter Q. Davis, a banker who is on the Port Commission.

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However, municipal finances -- and issues of pension under-funding, slipping credit ratings and rising bond interest rates -- do not seem to have captured the passions of voters. Polls suggest that Roberts and Davis have been unable to chip away significantly at Murphy’s lead in his bid for a second term.

Even news that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether city employees broke any laws by misleading Wall Street about the pension problems has not seemed to make much of a splash.

Several polls show Murphy with a comfortable lead but facing a runoff in November. If no candidate gets more than 50%, a runoff is held between the two top finishers.

A poll last week for KPBS radio, the Public Broadcasting System station, showed Murphy with 33%, Davis with 15% and Roberts with 13%. Longshot candidate Jim Bell, an environmental designer, had 3%. After an almost pro forma campaign, 36% of voters remained undecided.

If the voters have a sense of deja vu, they’re entitled. All four candidates ran four years ago. Roberts also ran in 1992, and Bell in 1996.

Murphy, 61, Davis, 63, and Roberts, 61, are all moderate Republicans, and all got their start in local politics in the 1970s with the patronage of then-Mayor Pete Wilson.

Murphy and Davis were trainees in the banking business. Murphy left banking for law, a seat on the City Council and later a Superior Court judgeship. Davis started his own bank. Roberts was an architect before joining the City Council.

In 2000 Roberts placed first in the primary, and Murphy narrowly bested Davis to earn a runoff spot. Davis then endorsed Murphy, who easily defeated Roberts.

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One of the mini-dramas has been Murphy’s sense of betrayal that Davis is opposing him. At a recent debate, Murphy said his biggest regret in life was naming Davis to the Port Commission.

Davis and Roberts have leveled a series of charges at Murphy: that he misled the public on the pension problem, that he has bungled the city’s dealings with the San Diego Chargers, and that he has endangered public safety with pinch-penny budgets.

Roberts calls the city’s budget problems “Enron-like” and has promised to lead a drive to fire the city manager, the city’s top budget officer. Davis says he has a “secret” location where a new stadium for football’s Chargers could be built.

Murphy, a Midwesterner who appears uncomfortable with the eye-gouging part of politics, has said that Roberts and Davis are exaggerating the city’s pension fund problems and has trumpeted the city’s recent triumphs, including completion of a downtown ballpark for the San Diego Padres.

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Bell, 62, a Democrat, has stuck to the “green” issues that have marked his previous campaigns, including a call for solar-power panels citywide. For management experience, he has pointed to his service on the board of a food cooperative in retro-hippie Ocean Beach.


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