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Man About Town : San Diego's Ex-Mayor Roger Hedgecock Hasn't Let His Felony Conviction Get Him Down. But This Week, the Past May Catch Up With Him.

December 06, 1987|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Barry Horstman is Times staff writer based in San Diego who covered Roger Hedgecock's administration and is reporting on his trials

THE SCENE is a San Diego bowling-lane cocktail lounge called "The Alamo." Designed in a haphazard mixture of motifs, its red Naugahyde booths blend with hanging Tiffany lamps and a garish red lighting system that resembles a descending space ship. The room would not have looked out of place as one of the Las Vegas bar sets, circa 1962, on the TV show "Crime Story."

A rock band is playing '60s hits for a crowd dressed for a '50s theme party--bobby socks and ankle-length skirts on many of the women, T-shirts with cigarettes in rolled-up sleeves popular among the guys.

And on stage is a face instantly recognizable to practically every San Diegan, though his celebrity has nothing to do with his singing talents, which, to be charitable, probably should never leave the shower. "Well, at least he remembered the words and pretty much stayed in key tonight," his partner says later. On that limited basis, this evening will be judged a musical success.

As the band launches into "Wild Thing," several young couples cluster at the door to the lounge. Glancing at the lanky, middle-aged man in white pants and Hawaiian shirt on stage with a microphone, one woman does a double-take and shouts to her friends.

"Hey, check this out! The ex-mayor's in here singing!"

"Who?"

"The ex-mayor! Hedgecock. Roger Hedgecock!"

"Hedgecock? Singing ? You mean he isn't in jail yet ?"

With an appeal on the 13-count felony conviction that drove him from office scheduled to go to court this week, Hedgecock's show-biz days may be ending. But on this night, the possibility that he could spend a year in jail seems distant.

Nearby, Dan Greenblat, a leading San Diego political consultant, grins and shakes his head incredulously.

"Where else but San Diego," Greenblat roars, "are you going to find the ex-mayor singing 'Born to Be Wild' in a bowling alley?"

CONSIDER THIS rewriting of recent political history: Imagine that the legal woes that drove Roger Hedgecock from office in December, 1985, had never occurred. Under that scenario, Hedgecock, twice elected mayor of San Diego--during his tenure the biggest city in the nation with a Republican mayor--would still be one of the hottest Republican properties in California.

As such, many believe that Hedgecock could have been governor before the decade was out, and then, just maybe--after a few years' national exposure as head of the nation's most populous state--might even have been positioned for a run at the White House in the 1990s. Admittedly, that hypothetical leap from San Diego City Hall to the White House--and, for that matter, even to Sacramento--hinged on a lot of variables. But at the peak of his power four years ago, Hedgecock's political future appeared unlimited.

To conjure up those speculations, however, is to engage in precisely the kind of what-if thinking that the 41-year-old Hedgecock strives to avoid these days. "You can't change the past, and the future will work itself out, so I stay focused on the present," he says.

And so, several weeks after his "Alamo" appearance, Hedgecock reclines on a San Diego beach on a midweek afternoon, taking a measure of his life two years after the ignominy of being forced to resign following his conviction on campaign-law violations.

"There's no question I'm amazed over how many positive things have come out of something so seemingly disastrous as what I went through," Hedgecock says.

More time with his family--"more in a week than I used to get in a month," he says--is one improvement. The radio talk show that Hedgecock began shortly after resigning has since become the highest-rated program of its kind in San Diego history, allowing him to retain a potent public forum and widespread popularity.

The income from the radio show, "talent fees" from product endorsement ads and occasional land-use consulting work is "substantially more" than double his former $50,000 annual mayoral wage. That is all the more impressive because he's on the air only about three hours a day, leaving plenty of time for two passions--reading and surfing.

"Where would you rather be on a Friday afternoon? On the beach or at City Hall going over a city manager's report on sewage?" he asks, scanning the waves, his surfboard still bearing the San Diego city seal.

Meanwhile, he quickly ticks off other pluses: In demand as a public speaker, Hedgecock receives rousing ovations these days, even from business groups that once considered him a political anathema. Former foes confide that his stirring oratory and forceful take-no-prisoners style of leadership are sorely missed at City Hall. Not that Hedgecock, the onetime comer in statewide politics doesn't profess to have run his last campaign (a protestation that always brings knowing "don't-bet-on-it" winks from most listeners.)

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