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Mitchell Carries Colorful Reputation Into Top Post

October 12, 1985|SCOTT HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

When San Diego City Councilman Bill Mitchell was running for mayor in 1983, he visualized himself sitting in the mayor's chair making mayoral decisions. A firm believer in the power of positive thinking, Mitchell was practicing what he called "knowingness."

"A winner doesn't say, 'I'm going to try to win,' " he explained at the time. "You work on knowing that you've already won . . . You've got to cleanse your mind of doubt. It's more than believing. It's a knowingness."

Mitchell received 4.9% of the vote, finishing a distant fourth.

But now that Mayor Roger Hedgecock has been convicted on 13 felony counts, Bill Mitchell will have his chance to sit in the mayor's chair. Mitchell, as deputy mayor, will become acting mayor when Hedgecock leaves office Friday.

Actually, Mitchell says he will continue working in his own City Hall office, saving the mayor's quarters for ceremonial purposes. He will be acting mayor only through December, when his yearlong term as deputy mayor ends.

The City Council is expected to call for a special mayoral election, to be held within six months.

If Hedgecock was a controversial leader, the short term of Bill Mitchell, 52, promises to be at least a colorful one.

The man who will take over the reins of California's second-largest city has been likened to a political Don Quixote--a noble crusader to some, an eccentric to others. Mitchell is a self-described "metaphysical Christian" who writes poetry, has a flaring temper and sometimes wears Scottish kilts to community functions.

In two terms on the City Council, Mitchell, a native San Diegan, has developed a strong record in law enforcement and preserving the environment, and is known as an approachable problem-solver in his district, which encompasses affluent La Jolla and the northern edges of the city.

But he has also gained a reputation for what fellow Councilman Mike Gotch calls his "off-the-wall" ideas and comments. Around San Diego City Hall, they are called "Mitchellisms"--oft-repeated anecdotes in which Mitchell, much to his chagrin, plays the buffoon.

Mitchell, on the other hand, perceives himself as a creative thinker who is often misunderstood.

For example, several colleagues recall that a Fire Department supervisor told the City Council that false alarms were running up the department's expenses.

"And Bill said, 'Why don't we just focus on the real fires and stop worrying about these false alarms?' . . . We all just scratched our heads," one councilman recalled. Later, after the supervisor explained that firefighters don't know whether an alarm is false unless they answer it, Mitchell reportedly recommended that the department only use its old equipment for such incidents.

People also talk about the time that Mitchell expressed doubt about the "nine-eleven" (911) emergency phone system. Why? Because there is no "eleven" on the phone.

"It was a joke," Mitchell says. But many delight in the notion that he wasn't joking--such is Mitchell's reputation.

The councilman offered this explanation as to why his colleagues perceive him as "off-the-wall":

"What I think it is, is that I'm right-brain and left-brain oriented. . . . The left brain is the logical side, and the creative brain is the right brain--innovative, artistic . . . . I've taken a lot of courses, and I feel I'm balanced on that.

"And when I'm into left brain, I'm with them. They understand me. But when I go right brain on 'em, they think I'm off the wall. That's when I get into my creative brain."

Despite his colorful reputation, Mitchell has created some more down-to-earth proposals--most of them involving law enforcement--that have become city programs. Police officials give him much of the credit for starting the city's "Neighborhood Watch" program, and it was Mitchell who persuaded Pacific Telephone, Yellow Cab and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. to encourage their employees in the field to watch for and report suspicious activity. Another Mitchell brainchild was a unique, multimillion-dollar property swap with Penasquitos Inc., a developer, in which the city acquired Rose Canyon as parkland.

Mitchell may not be a traditional politician, but he has proven himself to be resilient. A registered Republican and a real estate broker, Mitchell walked 500 miles soliciting votes door to door and upset a seemingly entrenched incumbent in 1977.

In his reelection bid four years later, he finished second in the primary but came back to win the general election. He now faces another tough reelection test Nov. 5 against law professor Abbe Wolfsheimer. Mitchell finished first in the primary with 53.1% to Wolfsheimer's 42.2%. A third candidate took 4.5% of the votes.

The added visibility that will come with Mitchell's role as acting mayor might help him fend off Wolfsheimer's challenge. But even if Mitchell loses, he will remain in office until Jan. 1 and serve as acting mayor.

Mitchell's run for mayor in 1983 embroidered his reputation. After one candidates' forum, he accused Hedgecock supporters of throwing out his campaign literature and promised violent retribution if it happened again.

"The man is mentally ill," Hedgecock said of Mitchell the next day.

But a few weeks later, the two made amends. After failing to make the runoff, Mitchell endorsed Hedgecock, and the two later became allies on the City Council, consistently voting together in support of a managed-growth philosophy.

The verdict Wednesday was an "emotional shock," Mitchell said.

"People in my (campaign) headquarters had tears in their eyes, including me . . . This is a living Shakespearean tragedy.

"He's been a great mayor. It's just too bad it had to work out this way."

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