Bob Filner may be the latest San Diego mayor to tarnish the city’s image, but he is by no means the first. In fact, his offensive and sophomoric amorous adventures don’t even put him at the top of the list of San Diego mayors who have failed their constituents — at least not yet.
As a newspaper and TV reporter and editor, I’ve watched 10 mayors come and go over the last 60 years. Among them, only Pete Wilson, on whose first campaign I worked, stood out as a great mayor. And at least half of San Diego’s CEOs deserved failing grades.
My close observation of San Diego politics began in 1954, when I was assigned to cover City Hall. The first mayor I covered, John D. Butler, could hardly be called a mayor at all. The city manager actually ran the city while Butler presided over the City Council and showed up at ceremonial events. Bored by the job and its $5,000 yearly salary, he didn’t run for a second term.
The man who followed Butler, Charles C. Dail, was a happy surprise. As a three-term city councilman, he scrapped constantly with his colleagues and staffers. As mayor, Dail led a remarkable team at City Hall that produced the downtown civic concourse, a new sewer plant and visionary development of Mission Bay Park and Torrey Pines Mesa.
But his term wasn’t unblemished. He was twice indicted by a grand jury, alleging he had helped a local businessman obtain a liquor license in exchange for financial favors. He beat the charges, as well as a recall attempt. But, crippled by childhood polio, Dail’s physique failed, and he began drinking heavily and became even more quarrelsome.
Frank Curran followed Dail on the City Council and as mayor. While their Democratic politics were similar, the two men had sharply different styles.
Though fiery and combative, Dail was a leader. The low-key Curran was a plodder, dominated by businessmen C. Arnholt Smith and John Alessio, who later went to prison for various financial misdeeds.
Curran and seven City Council members were indicted in a bribery scandal involving Smith’s Yellow Cab Co. All were acquitted, but the affair doomed Curran’s reelection prospects. He finished fourth in a race won by Republican Assemblyman Pete Wilson. Wilson ran as an environmentalist and political reformer. He was elected three times, always by 2-1 margins.
A relentless workaholic, Wilson turned city government upside down. He purged the planning and civil service commissions, restructured the City Council and instituted campaign finance reform. His efforts helped keep baseball’s Padres in San Diego and started downtown redevelopment.
In his long political lifetime, Wilson won 20 elections, serving as a state assemblyman, mayor, U.S. senator and governor. Historians may debate his legacy in Washington and Sacramento, but in San Diego, Wilson towers over all other mayors.
His successor, county Supervisor Roger Hedgecock, embraced Wilson’s environmentalism and promised to be “a mayor for all the people.” Then the wheels came off. In 1984, he was indicted for receiving $350,000 in illegal campaign contributions and for perjury. His first trial ended in a hung jury, his second in 13 felony convictions. An appeals court overturned them on technicalities, but Hedgecock had to resign.
Democrat Maureen O’Connor was San Diego’s first female mayor. Her administration provided a welcome interlude between scandals, but 20 years after she left office, she had one of her own. After gambling away millions of dollars, including funds taken from her late husband’s foundation, O’Connor is today destitute, awaiting sentencing in a federal court.
Unlike O’Connor, San Diego’s only other female mayor, Susan Golding, had ambitions far beyond City Hall. Elected to the City Council, Board of Supervisors and mayor in quick succession, Golding then had her eye on a U.S. Senate seat. Pandering to the public and Republican leaders, she made some bad financial decisions for the city — subsidizing pro football’s Chargers and hosting the 1996 Republican National Convention — while failing to adequately fund city employee pensions.
Dick Murphy was elected in 2000 as the ideal antidote to Golding. He’d been a reliable Republican city councilman and a respected Superior Court judge.
But as mayor, he struggled unsuccessfully with the burgeoning pension debt and saw his popularity plummet. The New York Times called San Diego “Enron by the Sea,” and Time magazine said Murphy was one of the three worst mayors in the country. Ultimately, he resigned.
San Diego got a seven-year respite from bad management when it twice elected the city’s former police chief, Jerry Sanders, who restored civility and sanity to City Hall.
That ended abruptly in 2012, when Filner became San Diego’s first Democratic mayor in 20 years. His liberal agenda has now been overshadowed by accusations that he harassed women. His greatest fans are late-night comedians. Almost overnight, he’s become San Diego’s most infamous mayor.
So what’s the tally? Half of the last 10 mayors have performed poorly, and only one has been a standout. Accusations of corruption have surfaced time and again, but none of the mayors spent time behind bars, and only Curran and Hedgecock even came close. O’Connor could still end up in prison, but not for anything she did while in office.
I tend to blame it on the climate: Good for golfers and surfers, not so hot for politicians. And though we may look pathetic, we’re not alone. We have a Filner, but New York may get a Weiner.
Peter Kaye was a politics writer and associate editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune and a television reporter and producer for PBS in San Diego and Washington.