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Integrity Trumps Other Issues in San Diego's Mayoral Race

Cities: Voters' distaste for politicians makes Judge Dick Murphy's image a big asset against county Supervisor Ron Roberts.

October 22, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — In a season of cynicism, San Diego voters are picking a new mayor, and the issue of honesty in high office has pushed aside the concerns about crime and urban sprawl that have dominated previous mayoral campaigns.

On the strength of a squeaky-clean image, Superior Court Judge Dick Murphy appears to be running dead even with, or possibly even a few points ahead of, county Supervisor Ron Roberts, according to polling done for local radio and television stations.

Seven months ago, based on the primary election, the odds against a Murphy victory seemed long. In the March primary, which included seven major candidates, Roberts placed first with 26% of the vote and Murphy second with 15%.

Although cynicism about politics has a firm grip on American culture, this year's negativity in San Diego seems to be at a new high--even for a city where two of the last five mayors have been indicted.

The reason, say many: Voters have become deeply alienated by the controversies over the Padre ballpark project and by the ticket deal between the city and the Chargers that has cost the city more than $5 million this season.

"They have a feeling that all politics is about deal-making between big-money interests and a bunch of Chamber of Commerce-picked politicians," said Frank Baber, a professor of political science at the University of San Diego. "They know their involvement is not wanted and they resent it."

From the beginning, the Roberts-Murphy race, featuring two Republicans who got their starts in politics in the 1970s as appointees of then-Mayor Pete Wilson, was seen as the mayoral equivalent of the hare and tortoise.

Roberts has more experience, more campaign money, and, until recently, more big-name endorsements--all the ingredients that usually spell success in San Diego politics. For three years, since losing a mayoral primary in 1992, Roberts has been preparing for a second attempt.

But Murphy has something Roberts seemingly cannot touch: an aura of incorruptibility and independence after being above the political fray for 15 years as a judge.

Murphy is also scoring points with a low-key, squarer-than-square personality against the more combative, assertive Roberts.

When a local newspaper reporter asked each candidate to name his favorite "adult" beverage, Roberts said Myers rum and tonic. Murphy said milk.

At a debate last week in La Jolla, Roberts continually needled Murphy over his positions on numerous issues, including his support for a downtown library.

Murphy replied with a gentle gibe that may have been more telling.

"My opponent, while not a bad person," Murphy said matter-of-factly, "has been a career politician for 13 years."

After seemingly nonstop controversy over sports projects and amid a federal investigation into whether a city councilwoman broke the law by getting a stock tip from Padre owner John Moores, San Diego voters are decidedly sour on politicians.

A poll by the local public radio station found that nearly three-quarters of voters believe there is corruption on the City Council.

Even before the KPBS poll, both candidates seemed to anticipate that their campaigns would need to overcome a tide of civic surliness. Each proposed a city ethics commission to monitor questions of conflict of interest and timely disclosure of contributors.

"There's a depth of cynicism that we've never seen in San Diego before, a kind of turning against local government, that is new," said former City Council aide Scott Tillson.

Both candidates have denied being too close to Padre owner Moores. Murphy conceded that he and his family sat in the owner's box at Qualcomm Stadium after Moores served as a juror in Murphy's courtroom.

Roberts admitted that he was a passenger in Moores' private jet to a Padre game in Hawaii, but said he assumed his daughter had paid for the trip, which was meant as a Father's Day gift. Roberts wrote a check to Moores last week to reimburse him, three years after the trip.

The Roberts campaign has unleashed a television commercial hitting Murphy for not disclosing the names of people who contributed $99 or less to his campaign. The commercial includes a grainy, sinister-looking photo of Murphy with the logo "politics as usual."

The Murphy campaign responded with a TV spot in which the candidate talked about his accomplishments without mentioning Roberts. To reply with an ad attacking Roberts would risk losing the advantage of being seen as the nonpolitician, Murphy advisors said.

Roberts, 58, was an architect before being elected to the City Council in 1987. In 1994 he was elected to the Board of Supervisors, where he emerged as a leader in the budget-cutting effort to streamline government and turn some functions over to private industry.

Murphy, 57, practiced law before being appointed in 1981 to the council, where he earned a reputation for hard work and attention to community issues, though not necessarily as a leader or a consensus builder, the kind of skills required of a San Diego mayor.

In 1985 Murphy left the council to join the Municipal Court bench, and four years later was promoted to the Superior Court.

Baber of the University of San Diego said the Murphy-Roberts race is akin to the Bush-Gore race, each pitting what some see as a quirky but likable outsider against an experienced but overly packaged insider. This is not a good year for insiders, he said.

"At least goofy is not slick," Baber said. "People don't want slick this year."

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