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San Diego: The Model GOP City

August 11, 1996|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the John M. Olin fellow at the Pepperdine University Institute for Public Policy and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He is also business-trends analyst for Fox TV

Republicans meeting in San Diego this week would do well to take a look around them. The host city for their national convention is a work-in-progress embodying a strain of Republicanism that could make theirs a majority party well into the next century.

San Diego Republicans have crafted a model of efficient, low-cost and pro-business governance. Their approach embraces many of the economic ideas associated with the Reagan revolution, while retaining the open-minded spirit characteristic of Southern California life. This means delicately balancing tax rates and regulation, to stimulate the private sector, with demands on the public treasury, to pay for essential services.

"This is a city that represents a lot of what the Republican Party has talked about," contends San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, who was reelected earlier this year with 78% of the vote in a city whose registration is equally divided between the two major parties.

For a big city, San Diego has one of the lowest ratios of public employees per thousand residents--8.7--in the nation, fully one-third less than Los Angeles'. San Diego County, although a large urban county, has the second-lowest ratio of county employees per capita in California.

To a large extent, this is not primarily the result of a comprehensive privatization program. Rather, it stems from a "Republican" form of urban governance. In San Diego and in other traditionally GOP cities, like Dallas and Phoenix, city managers play pivotal roles in running city affairs.

This political model, first developed by Republican Progressives in the early 20th century, adapts the best private-sector accounting and hiring practices to city government. Such governments tend to see themselves as a utility that serves the public rather than as a vehicle for political patronage and redistribution of wealth.

"City managers implement policies," explains William D. Eggers, author of "Revolution at the Roots." "City councils do not much interfere in day-to-day governance. . . . "It's a business mind-set in these cities."

Along with its mild climate, relatively low business fees and top-flight scientific and technical faculties at the UC campus at La Jolla, San Diego's decentralized government has helped make the region increasingly attractive to high-tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The unemployment rate is now almost two points below the statewide average.

Equally important, San Diego has been able to squeeze more out of less. Although it only has 2,000 police officers for a population of roughly 1 million, one of the lowest ratios among major U.S. cities, its crime rate has been falling faster than virtually any major urban area in California. Most big cities depend on unionized police for even the most petty security functions. San Diego, by contrast, uses civilians to perform various office and administrative duties. "When you go into a police station in San Diego," says Eggers, "you tend to see as many Hawaiian shirts as blue uniforms."

In addition, some 800 civilian volunteers, many of them retired, help organize community-policing efforts. Many of these volunteers work 40-hour weeks, relieving police and civilian employees of certain tasks and saving millions for taxpayers.

But Republicanism, San Diego-style, is more than a triumph of efficiency and law-abiding citizens. It has managed to turn its once-derelict central district into a tourist-friendly locale. There, an expanding middle-class population engages in high-end business services, trade and electronic media. Downtown San Diego now boasts the highest concentration of telecommuters per capita in the country.

San Diego's turnaround owes much to the replacement of its old, often inward-looking financial and real-estate elites by a new, more diverse group of companies oriented to international trade, telecommunications technology, software and biotech. Five years ago, for example, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce was well on its way to irrelevancy. Its membership totaled a mere 2,000, the result of a 20% drop between 1990-92. But due largely to an aggressive marketing campaign, the San Diego Chamber has nearly doubled its membership and emerged as a leader in forging closer ties with burgeoning Baja California and Pacific Rim countries.

"The crisis of the recession was a wake-up call for the business community," says Gilbert Partida, who has headed the chamber since 1992. "We are now involved in the process of reshaping the city more and more, not just in business but in the whole life of the city."

This kind of private-sector activism constitutes a critical component of making smaller and less expensive government work. In a devolved political structure, strong grass-roots participation from business, community and religious organizations becomes ever more critical to filling in the gaps left by a shrinking federal apparatus.

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