A four-letter word has enlivened an otherwise wonkish mayoral race between incumbent Jerry Sanders and businessman Steve Francis, attracting much more attention than the two Republicans' disputes over infrastructure needs and municipal financing.
Annoyed by Francis' multimillion-dollar barrage of television commercials questioning his honesty and integrity, the normally low-key Sanders refused to shake Francis' hand after an Earth Day debate and instead said to him, ". . . you."
The unprintable expletive was not heard by the Balboa Park audience. But Francis quickly told a friendly blogger about the incident. The news website Voice of San Diego picked up the story, followed by the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The incident presaged an escalation of rhetoric on both sides. Francis' TV ads have become more biting. Sanders has lashed back, calling him a hypocrite who is trying to buy the mayor's seat.
The incumbent and the challenger agree on one point: The flap has injected some energy into a campaign that had not captured the public's interest.
If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote June 3, there will be a runoff.
There are three other candidates: Eric Bidwell, 25, a dreadlocked T-shirt salesman; Jim Hart, 55, who is running on an environmental platform; and Floyd Morrow, 75, who served on the City Council in the 1970s.
Francis, 53, who made a fortune running an employment agency for the medical industry, contends that his business experience enables him to better handle the city's chronic budget woes. He says Sanders is too cozy with developers.
Sanders, 57, a former police chief and Red Cross and United Way executive, argues that progress is being made on the city's finances and that the public should be patient. He says he crafted the city's toughest-ever disclosure law to ride herd on developers and their lobbyists.
In 2005, Sanders defeated self-described "surfer chick" Councilwoman Donna Frye, a Democrat, to serve out the unexpired term of Mayor Dick Murphy, a Republican who had resigned amid a furor over his handling of the city's pension deficit. Francis was eliminated in the primary.
Clashing constantly with City Atty. Mike Aguirre, Sanders has moved to trim the city's payroll, restructure its pension program and regain the trust of Wall Street so the city can sell bonds for an array of delayed projects. Sanders was widely praised for his leadership during last fall's fires, which destroyed hundreds of homes.
Francis says Sanders is too slow, tentative and unfocused. He suggests that, unlike the mayor and most City Council members, he will be able to get along with Aguirre, whose combative -- some say self-aggrandizing -- style has alienated city, county and federal officials.
In his own reelection bid, Aguirre is facing a Superior Court judge, two City Council members and a former deputy city attorney. Francis has declined to endorse in that race; Sanders says, "Anybody but Aguirre."
Election officials have predicted a turnout of about 35%. For weeks, the mayor's race seemed overshadowed, even in political circles, by the story of a former City Council member arrested on suspicion of masturbating in his truck in a residential neighborhood where he was campaigning door-to-door.
Then came the Earth Day exchange. Francis says the episode shows how thin-skinned the mayor is when his policies are questioned.
"He's not used to it. People are usually fawning all over Jerry Sanders," Francis said. "I think it showed that Sanders is not really the nice guy that he wants people to believe. . . . If you're the mayor of a big city, you don't say things like that."
Sanders chides Francis for making what he said public.
"I haven't been tattled on since I was in third grade," the mayor said during an interview in his political consultant's office in the Little Italy neighborhood.
"For some reason, this seems to have resonated with the public," he said. "I'm not proud of it, but I'm not ashamed. I wasn't in a mood to exchange pleasantries."
At a debate at the University of San Diego a week after Earth Day, Sanders and Francis shook hands. But they did not make eye contact.