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California and the West | NEWS ANALYSIS

Controversy Clouds Legacy as San Diego Mayor Leaves Office

December 04, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Someday, Susan Golding may be remembered as the mayor who initiated the city's biggest downtown redevelopment project, created nationally acclaimed child-care and environmental protection programs, and boosted the local economy by making the city more business-friendly.

Someday. But not today.

As Golding, 55, leaves office today after eight years, her political reputation is clouded by continued controversy over the stalled Padres ballpark project and a Qualcomm Stadium lease that has cost the city millions for unsold Chargers tickets.

"It's unfortunate, but I don't think people are ever going to take the trouble to see what she really did as mayor," said Frank Baber, political science professor at the University of San Diego. "Her legacy, in the public's mind, is going to be the two sports deals."

Considered a rising political star after San Diego hosted the Republican National Convention in 1996, Golding saw her career aspirations damaged by the controversy over public subsidies for sports teams that has gripped civic life here since the convention.

Golding abandoned her run for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in 1998 amid a furor in which the city's $80-million plan to expand Qualcomm Stadium appeared to be unraveling because of a lawsuit and a citizens' initiative.

Already faced with problems in raising money and getting attention outside San Diego, Golding was being criticized daily by stadium boosters who complained that she was putting her political career ahead of helping to rescue the expansion plan.

"There are times when it is possible to hold office and run for a different office at the same time," she said in announcing the end of her Senate campaign. "But with the many challenges facing San Diego right now, this is not one of those times."

The criticism, however, did not end with Golding's run for the Senate. Public dissatisfaction has grown over the Chargers and Padres deals, and the mayor, fairly or unfairly, has been a focus of that discontent.

Delayed by a dozen lawsuits, the downtown ballpark project--approved by voters in the afterglow of the Padres' 1998 World Series appearance--stalled for lack of money in October.

While federal prosecutors decide whether to seek to indict Councilwoman Valerie Stallings for receiving a stock tip from Padres owner John Moores, the city has been legally barred from the $299 million in bonds needed to resume work.

The Qualcomm expansion survived a legal challenge, and San Diego is still scheduled for the Super Bowl in 2003. But one provision in the city's lease with the Chargers has become the political equivalent of Frankenstein's monster.

In the 20-year contract, the city promised that in the first years it would pay the team and reduce its rent for every game in which attendance did not exceed 60,000. In exchange, the team must stay in San Diego and pay some of the highest rent in the NFL in the contract's latter years.

In 1996, with the Chargers fresh from a Super Bowl appearance, the ticket provision seemed to Golding and the City Council to be a reasonable risk to take to keep the team in San Diego. More recently, however, the Chargers have played poorly and attendance has plummeted; this year the city will most likely pay out $7 million for unsold tickets and receive nothing in rent.

In 1999 a county grand jury leveled charges against Golding, alleging back-room dealings with the Padres. The district attorney tossed out the charges as unfounded, but damage was done.

In a telling indicator of her political status, neither of the candidates in this fall's mayoral election sought Golding's endorsement.

Candidates for four seats on the City Council competed with each other to see who could denounce the Chargers ticket deal most loudly.

Still, Golding remains convinced that the civic angst over the Chargers will fade, that the Padres ballpark will ultimately be built and prove an economic bonanza for San Diego, and that she will be judged on her whole record.

Prevented by city law from seeking a third term, Golding said she plans to join at least two boards of directors of technology firms and possibly to accept a nomination to a federal commission.

"Susan Golding has as much of a political future as she wants," said Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican strategist now teaching a course on campaign politics at UC Berkeley. "She is still one of the most visible women in a party that needs to reach out more to women voters."

Although she endorsed U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for the Republican nomination for president, Golding said she has had a preliminary inquiry from those close to George W. Bush about whether she would be interested in a job in a Republican administration.

"I don't feel the need to stay in politics," Golding said. "I've tried to leave the door open but not entirely open."

Even her most ardent boosters concede that the sports issues have overshadowed Golding's achievements.

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