Under Fire, San Diego Mayor Quits

Times Staff Writers

Mayor Dick Murphy, who won a disputed election five months ago, abruptly announced his resignation Monday amid mounting criticism of his handling of the city’s pension deficit and threats of a recall.

Murphy read a short statement and took no questions. “It is clear the city needs a fresh start,” the 62-year-old Republican and former Superior Court judge said at a hastily called news conference.

Murphy had become the focus of public anger toward City Hall over a pension deficit of nearly $2 billion and investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. attorney’s office. He said he will stay in office until July 15.

His stature as mayor, already damaged by the city’s weak response to the 2003 wildfires, was further undermined by an election victory in November in which he was declared the winner only after thousands of votes for a write-in challenger were declared invalid.

Last week, Murphy was singled out by Time magazine as “one of the three worst mayors in the country,” causing an uproar in this image-conscious city.


“At some point he realized it was just not going to get better,” said John Kern, his former chief of staff and top political confidant for 25 years.

At the news conference, surrounded by his family and staff, Murphy struggled to keep his voice from breaking. He declined to answer questions.

The mayor reached his decision Saturday and announced it to his staff Monday morning at a meeting that provoked tears and anger from his loyalists, according to a staff member.

Deputy Mayor Michael Zucchet will assume Murphy’s mayoral duties once he leaves. The council will then decide whether to hold a special election or appoint a successor.

Zucchet, meanwhile, faces troubles of his own. He and Councilman Ralph Inzunza are to stand trial in May on charges of accepting illegal campaign contributions from the owner of a strip club. The post of deputy mayor is rotated annually among City Council members.

Although Murphy has been criticized because of the investigations, neither of the federal inquiries has yet resulted in criminal or civil charges and there is no indication Murphy is a target of either action.

Still, newly elected City Atty. Michael Aguirre had branded Murphy a hindrance to solving the city’s legal and financial problems and earlier this month called on him to resign. An organization seeking Murphy’s recall established a website and was preparing to gather signatures.

In December, Murphy was declared the winner in his bid for a second term only after a judge ruled that several thousand ballots cast for write-in candidate Councilwoman Donna Frye were invalid because voters had not darkened the oval on the line where they had written her name. If those votes had been counted, Frye would have beaten Murphy.

“It just never went away,” Kern said of the controversy.

In his resignation statement, Murphy acknowledged the damage done by the way he won the election. “I now believe to be effective, the city will need a mayor elected by a solid majority of the voters and with a clear mandate,” he said.

Under the City Charter, the council can name a replacement to serve as mayor or call for a special election to let voters choose Murphy’s successor.

Frye, a Democrat and co-owner of a surf shop with her husband, surfing legend Skip Frye, told reporters that she would be a candidate if an election were held to replace Murphy.

Through a spokesman, county Supervisor Ron Roberts, twice defeated for mayor by Murphy, said it was too early to decide whether he would be a candidate.

Fred Woocher, the attorney who sued to get the “empty oval” ballots counted, said the council “should do the right thing and appoint Frye to the vacancy.” The legal case is on appeal.

Murphy said he hopes the council opts for a special election, which he said could be aligned with the November state ballot.

A soft-spoken, polite Midwesterner, Murphy was never comfortable with the increasingly strident world of San Diego politics.

“He’s been his own worst enemy,” said Councilman Scott Peters, an ally. “People were looking for someone who grabs problems by the throat, tackles and solves them. I think people didn’t have that impression of him.”

Two years ago, Murphy announced that he would not seek reelection, but he was persuaded by supporters to change his mind.

“I think his first decision was the right one,” said attorney and lobbyist Louis Wolfsheimer. “In his heart of hearts, he doesn’t need the daily beating he’s been given by the press.”

Zucchet said that, “given that the politics of the day are so out of control, from Mayor Murphy’s perspective, it’s the right decision” to resign.

Aguirre said in a statement that Murphy had “shown an admirable determination to do what is right and also shown a level of courage to which all in public life should aspire.”

Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, a local think tank that has been critical of the mayor, said Murphy’s support among the business community, his natural constituency, was eroding.

“He clearly showed he was out of touch,” he said. “He always blames the problems of San Diego on others.”

Last week, in response to Time magazine’s criticism, Murphy complained that it had not included his achievements in its two-paragraph story about him. Among those achievements, he said, were the opening of Petco Park, building six branch libraries and pushing ahead with plans for a downtown library.

Steven P. Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego, suggested that the final blow for Murphy may have been a recent council vote to require companies with city contracts to increase salaries and benefits to their employees. The idea had been opposed by the chamber and the mayor.

“It showed the business community that Murphy did not control the council,” Erie said.

Aguirre’s call for Murphy’s resignation followed the mayor’s refusal to demand that his appointees to the city’s pension board waive attorney-client privilege as requested by the U.S. attorney’s office.

Federal authorities say they need certain legal documents to help determine whether any city employees and labor leaders were guilty of a conflict of interest in devising a pension plan later adopted by the City Council.

The plan called for increased benefits to be paid from profits on Wall Street investments. When the stock market suffered a slump as the dot-com “bubble” burst, the council opted not to increase the city’s contributions to the pension plan.

The result was a rising deficit. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether security regulations were broken when city officials didn’t report the bad news about the deficit on documents submitted to the bond market before the sale of city bonds.

Frye was an early opponent of the so-called under-funding of the pension plan. Murphy last year called for reductions in benefits and increased city contributions, but the political damage had been done. The city’s credit rating plummeted and now the city finds itself unable to sell bonds to help reduce the deficit.

Murphy began his political career as a protege of then-Mayor Pete Wilson. He was appointed to a city commission and then, with Wilson’s sponsorship, was appointed by the council in 1980 to a vacancy in a district representing suburbs on the city’s eastern edge.

Murphy holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Illinois, an MBA from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford. He served as an Army officer and then held jobs in San Diego with the Bank of America and a law firm.

In 1985, he was appointed to the San Diego bench, where he spent 15 years until he ran for mayor in 2000 to succeed the termed-out Susan Golding.

“A good leader knows when it is time to move on,” Murphy said at the news conference. “It is time for me to move on.”

Times staff writers Tonya Alanez and Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.



Dick Murphy at a glance

San Diego’s 33rd mayor

* Born Dec. 16, 1942

* Native of Oak Park, Ill.

* Bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Illinois, master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University, and a law degree from Stanford University.

* Wife, Jan, and three children -- two daughters and one son.

* San Diego resident for more than 30 years.

* Active member of San Carlos United Methodist Church.

* Served as an officer in the Army and later worked for Bank of America in San Diego.

* Joined San Diego law firm of Luce Forward Hamilton & Scripps, handling civil litigation.

* In December 1980, appointed to the San Diego City Council (7th District) with the backing of Mayor Pete Wilson after Councilman Larry Stirling won election to the state Assembly. Murphy was then elected to a full term and served from 1981 to 1985.

* In June 1985, appointed Municipal Court judge by Gov. George Deukmejian.

* In July 1989, appointed Superior Court judge by Gov. Deukmejian and served until 2000.

* In Nov. 2000, elected San Diego mayor.

* In Nov. 2004, reelected San Diego mayor.

Graphics reporting by Tonya Alanez

Los Angeles Times