San Diego’s mayor doesn’t come under fire this time

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- It’s been a rough two years for Mayor Jerry Sanders, the cop-turned-politician elected in the middle of the city’s biggest financial debacle. He has jumped from one controversy to another while clashing with the city attorney and struggling to balance the city’s books without a tax increase or massive layoffs.

But his crisis management during the recent fires, which has won him a chorus of positive reviews, may serve him well in next year’s reelection campaign.

At multiple news conferences last week -- nearly all of which were televised live -- Sanders urged people to remain calm and follow evacuation orders. As he raced from location to location, providing assurance and briefing the public, his message was constant: We’re all in this together, no one is alone.

A San Diego Union-Tribune editorial said Sanders’ actions compare favorably with those of Rudy Giuliani in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Steve Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego, agreed, but added a king-size caveat.

Erie believes that the city should have done more to correct its chronic underfunding of fire protection -- an assertion largely rejected at City Hall, where officials blame the Santa Ana winds, not a lack of personnel or firefighting equipment, for the fires’ quick spread.

“The Giuliani comparison is true in two respects: absolute unpreparedness before the fact, and then rising to the moment when the disaster occurs,” Erie said.

George Mitrovich, president of the City Club of San Diego, said he’s been disappointed with other aspects of Sanders’ performance as mayor but was impressed with how he became “the face of leadership” during the fire, calming fears and projecting strength and confidence.

Indeed, if the symbol of the city’s response to the 2003 Cedar fire was a helicopter grounded by bureaucracy and political infighting, as one political cartoonist suggested, the symbol of these fires may be the Qualcomm Stadium evacuation center. An estimated 13,000 people were sheltered there without major problems or rancor.

Mitrovich and others have praised Sanders and county Board of Supervisors Chairman Ron Roberts for presenting confidence and a united front, compared with their predecessors during the Cedar fire, who seemed confused and overwhelmed and didn’t cooperate well together.

Although both are Republicans, Sanders and Roberts are a bit of a political odd couple. The former rivals have differing styles and their body language when together does not suggest that they are pals.

Yet, as Sanders joked: “Ron and I have been joined at the hip” by the fires.

“I don’t know that they’re the best of buddies,” said longtime city planner and architect Michael Stepner, “but they came together when it was needed. There was so much better coordination this time.”

Sanders has experience with life-and-death crises that require quick decisions.

In 1984, when he was head of the city’s SWAT squad, a gunman killed 21 people at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro. The gunman was threatening to kill more when Sanders gave the green light that allowed a police sniper to kill him.

With a thickening waistline, an often raspy voice and a comb-over, the 57-year-old Sanders hardly qualifies as a modern telegenic politician. His demeanor is so much more low-key than take-charge that many new arrivals to the city are surprised to learn he was a police officer for 26 years.

But people respond to his essential earnestness, which made him an immensely popular police chief before he retired in 1999 to run the local United Way.

“This mayor is a good person, a caring person, and he’s able to convey that,” Mitrovich said.

Sanders was elected in 2005 to succeed Mayor Dick Murphy, who resigned amid rising criticism of his handling of the city’s billion-dollar pension deficit.

Because of a ballot initiative, Sanders took office with more power than any previous mayor. But he has often found himself at odds with two other newly empowered political entities: the City Council, whose power was also increased by the ballot measure, and the city attorney’s office, where former litigator Michael Aguirre has asserted the right to power nearly equaling the mayor’s and the council’s.

In the last two years, Sanders has, among other things, angered local firefighters by opposing their bid for a salary increase -- the same firefighters he praised lavishly Monday as he reviewed the city’s response to the fire that claimed approximately 365 homes in the city.

Sanders has announced his intention to run for reelection and has no official opponent as of yet, although a business owner defeated in the 2005 primary has shown interest in a rematch.

Beating Sanders could be tougher now for any challenger.

Assessing the political effect of the fires, Mesa College professor Carl Luna was blunt: “Jerry is golden now.”