In San Diego, the Mayor's Style Evolves on the Job

Times Staff Writer

More than any mayor this city has had in decades, Jerry Sanders is a work in progress.

His modern predecessors -- from Pete Wilson in 1971 to Dick Murphy in 2000 -- all had been elected officials before becoming mayor. Their political styles and leanings were known.

San Diego voters respect experience in their mayoral candidates. This is a military town. Nobody graduates from boot camp and becomes a general.

Several business leaders have failed to become mayor. So did a greenbelt-loving academic.

Sanders, 55, is different from other mayors: This is his first elected office. He was a street cop for 20 years, police chief for six, and then an executive with United Way and the American Red Cross when both organizations were trying to correct financial and image problems.

The fall campaign to succeed Murphy, a Republican who resigned amid the city's $2-billion pension deficit debacle, was a generic affair: Sanders, the Republican, versus Councilwoman Donna Frye, the Democrat. Well-funded and well-scripted, Sanders won easily.

Now Sanders has been mayor since Dec. 5, inheriting enhanced powers under the new strong-mayor system endorsed by voters. He has held a series of news conferences to explain himself and on Thursday night delivered his first State of the City address.

So what's emerging as the Sanders mayoral style?

* He's definitely not Murphy, a mild-mannered former judge and City Council member who was faulted for not sensing the gravity of the city's financial problem.

Murphy saw overstatement as intellectually shallow and unworthy of a leader.

Sanders suffers no such misgivings. He embraces the idea that the city is gripped in crisis and scandal.

"As best as I can tell, the operating philosophy around City Hall involved one of these three words: delay, deny or deceive," he said in his address.

Murphy stubbornly believed in innocent-until-proven-guilty. Sanders appears to have trouble getting his arms around such a politically inexpedient concept.

Two weeks ago, after five former city pension board officials were indicted on fraud charges, Sanders said he was tired of people violating the public trust and enriching themselves. The five have yet to be arraigned.

* Nothing in his public comments seems out of sync with his political base: the Republican Party, the Chamber of Commerce and the editorial page of the San Diego Union-Tribune, all of which had turned on Murphy for straying from bedrock conservative principles.

Sanders embraces the civic mantra: Government should be lean, that building permits should be issued faster, that tourism should be promoted and that San Diego is truly America's finest city, as the boosterish civic motto suggests.

During the campaign, Sanders had suggested that the city's problems possibly weren't beyond repair. He was immediately spanked in print.

He retreated, adopted a gloomier view and has been rewarded with front-page stories heralding his newfound realism. Sanders did a similar about-face after Republicans scolded him for suggesting that a tax increase might be necessary.

Sanders is more pessimistic than City Council President Scott Peters. Peters has said bankruptcy is not an option; Sanders said he won't rule it out.

While Sanders sees the glass as half-empty and getting emptier, Peters thinks the city is about to come out of its "funk" and end the City Hall blame game. "This is the year we'll get past the lawyering and the finger-pointing and refocus our energy on the people's business," Peters said.

* The new mayor respects power -- the power of the editorial page in a one-newspaper town, and the newly acquired power of City Atty. Michael Aguirre. Sanders has sided with Aguirre over the City Council in Aguirre's struggle for control of the pension board.

John Kaheny, a retired assistant city attorney and Aguirre critic, thinks Sanders has committed a "political blunder of the first order" by becoming allies with the volatile Aguirre.

"Has the mayor gone over to the dark side so fast?" Kaheny asked.

* Sanders talks the language of management: centralized control, efficiency, flattening organizations, "re-engineering our management processes." As his chief operating officer, he has hired a retired admiral who specialized in management.

* He's probably destined to be seen as the most employee-unfriendly mayor since Wilson. City workers picketed Thursday's speech, and some booed at the mention of Aguirre, who considers their pension increases illegal.

Judie Italiano, president of the Municipal Employees Assn., told reporters that she was offended that the mayor did not warn her about the tough talk in his speech. "I feel I have no relationship with the mayor," she said.

Unless employees agree to givebacks in wages and pension benefits, Sanders has threatened massive firings, possibly up to 10% of the workforce except for police and fire departments.

"There will be days when I make everyone angry," he said. "But I need to say and do what I think is right."

Many of the details of what Sanders thinks is "right" have yet to be disclosed, such as how to get a new stadium for the San Diego Chargers and keep the team from moving to dreaded Los Angeles.

Sanders and Peters talked Monday with Chargers President Dean Spanos but without Aguirre, who is considered by team officials to be a strong opponent of any public subsidy for a new stadium.

San Diego CityBeat, an alternative weekly, has suggested that the Sanders-Aguirre-Peters arrangement is a "three-headed beast" that may prove to be at war with itself.

That, too, is a work still in progress.

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