As civic woes pile up, San Diego loses its usual cool

Budget cuts, lawsuits, and worsening services are fraying tempers in the run-up to mayoral elections.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor
A view of downtown San Diego, CA from Harbor Drive.

SAN DIEGO - East Coast transplants like to complain that laid-back San Diegans are eternally unruffled. But at City Hall, at least, this stereotype is no longer operative.

A few weeks ago, the mayor hurled a two-word epithet at his chief rival in a private moment at a debate. The embattled city attorney ordered a reporter to seek counseling. And a city spokesman's obscenity-laced e-mail about labor unions spawned a lawsuit from an employee who says he was fired for reporting the foul language.

The reason for all the hostility? After flirting with bankruptcy and having to slash municipal services, the nation's eighth largest city faces a blizzard of legal and financial challenges. On top of all this, it's still recovering from 2007's devastating wildfires and landslides.

The challenge now lies in finding common ground. "There's this general sense of disgust with City Hall," says Republican strategist Cynthia Vicknair. "Most people understand that the city's in trouble, but they really don't know what to do about it."

Nearly the entire city leadership is up for grabs during the June primary election, but neither the politicians nor the public are talking much about a unified purpose. Instead, anger seems to be the common currency.

Legal problems, including numerous indictments, dog the city, as does a pension-fund deficit estimated as high as $2 billion. The current mayor and former police chief, Jerry Sanders, won in 2005 amid a flurry of corruption scandals.

The only major rival facing Sanders now is another Republican, millionaire businessman Steve Francis.

The politics of the mayoral race notwithstanding, San Diego is no longer the Republican bastion that made it a favorite of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Immigration has transformed the city, which now has more Democrats than Republicans.

Candidates are trying to appeal to voters of both parties, although critics on the left accuse them both of hiding their true colors. "It's an election between the right and the far right," complains community college professor Jim Miller, coauthor of a book on San Diego's corrupt history.

Mr. Sanders, for his part, alienated unions with talk of privatizing city services. But he impressed liberals and made a national stir when he tearfully acknowledged his daughter's sexual orientation and became a supporter of gay marriage.

The mayor is known as a mild-mannered, even dull politician. But his recent outburst at Francis may actually help him, says University of California at San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser.

"It's not like Howard Dean's scream," he said. "It's not making people worry that our mayor is overly emotional and unbalanced. It shows he's taking this seriously."

Mr. Francis, running on a campaign of reform, has flooded local airwaves with ads. "There will finally be a mayor that developers can't buy," says one ad.

Voters are paying attention. Five to ten years ago, San Diegans worried about growth, traffic, and crime, says Republican pollster John Nienstedt. But this year, he says, the city's financial straits are top priority.

The city of 1.3 million continues to function, but residents are noticing cutbacks in everything from library and pool hours to street upkeep.

"If there's one thing San Diegans will complain about, it's the condition of the streets, sidewalks broken and streets not being repaired," says Ms. Vicknair, the Republican strategist.

Ultimately, the newly elected leaders may have to make decisions about issues such as employee benefits, the privatization of city landmarks like Balboa Park, and new taxes.

"The congenial, go-along-to-get-along attitude is what drifted the city into the financial crisis that it's in," says Vicknair. "What it really needs are some strong leaders who are willing to get out in front and sell people on the big changes that are needed at City Hall."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.