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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

During a typical hour, the subjects raised by callers can range from the threat of war in the Persian Gulf and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to complaints about a neighborhood convenience store. The same diversity is found in Hedgecock's in-studio guest list, which is as likely to include Democratic presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt as it is hypnotists or authors on the book circuit.

Displaying the glibness and mental agility that made him a daunting political debater, Hedgecock handles each issue or interview with ease and keeps the program moving crisply. A man whose range of knowledge rarely fails to impress, he alternately cajoles, challenges and, sometimes, insults listeners to provoke stimulating debate.

"It's a little more than gossip but a little less than the Great Debates," Hedgecock says of the show.

He contends, however, that on several occasions, his show prompted listeners to call public officials, influencing proposed legislation. Hedgecock says that he tries to assist other listeners who are frustrated by the bureaucratic maze of local government, often providing names and telephone numbers of officials whom callers can contact for help.

"It's clearly the best show of its kind in San Diego and one of the best I've heard anywhere," says Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego).

Some skeptics, however, argue that Hedgecock's program provides more lightweight entertainment--Trivial Pursuit is a regular feature--than substantive debate or impact.

"I wouldn't say the lights go on or off at City Hall based on what Roger says," City Councilman Bill Cleator says.

KSDO's decision to hire Hedgecock one month after his December, 1985, resignation was a gamble that measured his celebrity against his notoriety.

"From some of the letters we got--most in the 'How dare you hire that felon!' vein--you'd have thought that this guy was an ax murderer," says Jack Merker, KSDO's program director and vice president of operations.

Twenty-one months later, some of those passions still have not subsided.

"When I heard that Roger Hedgecock was going on the air, that station was permanently removed from the radios in all three of my cars," financier Stickel says. "I think it's a travesty that he's been given this opportunity to get into a celebrity position. I've never listened to his program and I never will. Perhaps if he does a live remote from his jail cell, then I'll listen."

Another factor in Hedgecock's success on radio may be that listeners enjoy "hearing him rattle some cages and knock some things that don't get rattled or knocked very often in public," says San Diego political consultant Jim Johnston.

"One thing I had to quickly unlearn was being 'politic' in my comments," Hedgecock explains, smiling broadly. "One of my secret satisfactions about this job is that I can now speak the truth as I see it, without any gloss or varnish, without worrying that some pressure group or voting bloc might become offended. So I hold nothing back."

Last summer, Hedgecock infuriated San Diego's gay community, which strongly supported him during his public career, with this remark on why, if he were still mayor, he would not have walked in the annual Gay Pride parade: "I don't think people ought to be proud of a situation which has led to the worst plague that we have had in Western culture since the Black Death in the 16th Century." That caustic comment was particularly shocking to gays because it came from Hedgecock, who provided gays, blacks and other minorities with greater access to City Hall than ever before in the city's history.

Hedgecock's other conservative on-air positions--his staunch backing for rejected U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork, his Reagan-esque posture on Central American issues--also contrast sharply with the progressive policies he espoused as mayor.

"People I talk to think he's moved to the right of Genghis Khan," said Evonne Schulze, Hedgecock's former community-relations assistant. "Whenever I listen to his show, I end up screaming at the radio. I guess the question is, did we see the real Roger Hedgecock when he was mayor or are we seeing it now? I feel like maybe we all got fooled."

Favorite Hedgecock targets are the San Diego Union and Tribune, two newspapers that he has long accused of biased coverage of his campaigns and trials. When an unflattering reference to the former mayor appeared in Tribune editor Neil Morgan's newspaper column recently, Hedgecock responded by calling Morgan a "slimebag" on the air. "Now there's something I may have felt, but certainly couldn't have said as mayor," Hedgecock says, his eyes flashing, during a break in his program.

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