San Diego power politics hinges on mayor's trial

At one point or another, the young career of Mayor Roger Hedgecock has surprised nearly everyone in this town. This week that career hangs in the balance -- a career that, many here aver, has marked a subtle but historic shift in the focus of political power in this robust city, the eighth largest in the nation.

At this writing, the jury is out in the mayor's trial on 13 felony charges: one count of conspiracy to evade campaign finance and financial disclosure laws and 12 counts of perjury.

It is a case, some say, that exposes the mayor's unscrupulous political ambition -- but that others (polls indicate many in San Diego) see as politically motivated by the mayor's opponents.

The case against Mr. Hedgecock was built in the aftermath of the collapse last winter of J. David & Co. The San Diego investment firm briefly cut a high and glamorous profile in the city -- contributing heavily to philanthropic causes -- and is now accused of bilking hundreds of wealthy investors of more than $100 million.

Two principals in the company, Jerry Dominelli and Nancy Hoover, are also accused of laundering thousands of dollars of illegal contributions to Hedgecock's mayoral races through the political consulting firm of a former Hedgecock aide.

From the outset, the trial has turned less on the basic facts than on what they add up to -- on nuances of intention and connection.

The prosecutor in the case, Assistant District Attorney Richard Huffman, describes Hedgecock as an ambitious politician who ``strained to the absolute limit to use those legal resources available to him, and still needed money.''

As soon as it was clear that former Mayor Pete Wilson had a good chance at the US Senate in 1982, thereby vacating the mayoralty, argued Mr. Huffman to the jury last week, ``the faucet turned on and the J. David money began to flow like water.''

Hedgecock's attorney, Michael Pancer, described the case as an illusion ``created by the manipulation of isolated facts ripped out of context. . . . We've had trial by innuendo . . . trial by raised eyebrow . . . trial by character assassination.''

San Diegans, at least last November, were apparently not impressed with the charges. After months of well-publicized indictments and a few days into the trial, the mayor was reelected, with 58 percent of the vote.

``Roger personifies what's going on in San Diego right now. There's a powerful struggle going on,'' says City Councilman Uvaldo Martinez, who, like Hedgecock, is a Republican. ``If he is found innocent, I think the transition will be complete. If he's found guilty, then the struggle will go on.''

The struggle described by Mr. Martinez is between the conservative San Diego ``establishment,'' which has dominated civic affairs for decades and a broad array of up-and-coming constituencies, which has achieved increasing influence.

The ``establishment'' refers to the downtown business interests, major property holders, and old families of the city, including the Copley family, which owns both of San Diego's daily newspapers.

``I think the mayor's election [in 1983] opened a lot of people's eyes,'' says Bob Schuman, chairman of the county GOP. During now-Sen. Pete Wilson's term as mayor, he says, ``downtown had good access.''

But the ``downtown'' candidate to succeed Mr. Wilson, Bill Cleator, failed even to make the runoff election. Instead, the race went to Hedgecock, a liberal Republican associated with environmentalism and planned growth. Many of Hedgecock's aides and supporters are Democrats.

Hedgecock has developed a broad base of support in San Diego as an effective and articulate mayor, even if he also has developed a reputation for personal arrogance.

Hedgecock has the ability, Mr. Schuman says, to appeal to ``totally diverse groups and have them perceive him as their man.'' He succeeded in campaigning under indictment this fall as a populist under attack by established power -- ``big press, big business, and big lawyers,'' Schuman says.

Hedgecock's election, says Mr. Martinez, ``sent a pretty clear message to a lot of us who are in politics to assess how we run for office in San Diego.'' The message was that establishment support is not enough any longer to win the mayoralty. ``The power of the Copley newspapers can't sway an election.''

This political struggle is portrayed as an aspect of larger shifts in a maturing city. San Diego, says one prominent Hedgecock supporter, veterinarian Michael Clark, ``is no longer the sleepy city it was in the '50s of just Navy and `we've got a great zoo.' '' It's more cosmopolitan now, he says, and contains a wider spectrum of interests.

Typical among the mayor's advocates, Dr. Clark describes the charges against the mayor in cynical terms. ``[District Attorney Edwin] Miller just decided to go after him. There was no single issue he could hang him on.''

If Mayor Hedgecock is found guilty of any of the felony charges against him, he will be removed from office. Whether he can run for reelection or not would depend on the nature of his conviction and sentence.

Whatever the verdict, Hedgecock's career has sustained political damage. ``In politics, we call it `shadow,' '' says Martinez. ``Shadow is as damaging as reality in politics.''

``He could have been somebody very, very big in the state,'' says Schuman. ``He's got a much longer road now.''

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