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From finest to foul

San Diego used to be a model city. Now its politics has turned it into a silly soap opera.

July 24, 2005|Steve P. Erie | Steve P. Erie, a professor of political science at UC San Diego, is the author of "Beyond 'Chinatown': The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California."

San Diego's sunshine has turned noir. Lauded as one of the nation's best-governed cities in the late 1990s, America's self-proclaimed "Finest City" now has the reputation of being among the most poorly managed.

For the third time in 16 months, San Diegans will trudge to the polls Tuesday to pick a mayor, someone to preside over a City Hall rocked by a $2-billion public pension debt; the threat of bankruptcy; federal fraud investigations; the corruption convictions of the acting mayor and a city councilman; the resignations of the mayor, city manager and auditor/controller; and acrimonious feuding between a crusading city attorney and other public officials. Because a runoff is likely, San Diego might have no duly elected mayor until November.

Historically, Sunbelt cities -- whether San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Tampa Bay or Jacksonville -- have featured strong business leadership, weak labor, powerless minorities and compliant politicians who advocate low taxes and a lean menu of public services. Yet these once-sturdy conservative urban regimes are unraveling. The Sunbelt's central cities (but not the suburbs) are going the way of Los Angeles -- growing minority, labor and liberal influence in City Hall and a governmental emphasis on expanding public services and rebuilding infrastructure. Even Barry Goldwater's Phoenix has a Democratic mayor. San Diego's mayoral election is but the region's latest referendum on conservative continuity versus liberal change.

Modern San Diego came of age in World War II. In the postwar era, the defense industry brought unparalleled growth and prosperity, but it collapsed when the Cold War ended, sending unemployment soaring. Bowing to business pressure, San Diego politicians embraced a local version of supply-side economics: low taxes and low debt, a small public sector and a business-friendly government. This formula appeared to work. By the late 1990s, San Diego had reinvented itself, with tourism, high-tech and real estate the pillars of a more diverse and healthy economy. Urbanist Richard Florida praised the city as a new "creative class" model of economic development based on technology, talent and tolerance.

Yet beneath the accolades lay serious problems: woefully inadequate infrastructure, a large and growing low-wage services sector, a school dropout rate that's alarmingly high, and one of the nation's least affordable housing stocks.

San Diego's public sector is also undernourished and overburdened. Relative to its size (1.3 million residents), the city's police and fire departments are among the nation's smallest. Their equipment is aging and deficient. In the disastrous 2003 Cedar fire, San Diego had no helicopters to help stop the blaze. After this year's record rainfall, it lacked money to repair potholes.

In the late 1990s, trickle down from the national economic recovery produced only modest municipal revenue gains as resurgent population and economic growth added pressures for more and better public services. Lacking other revenues, raiding pension funds swollen by the 1990s bull market was one of the few ways San Diego could balance its books without raising taxes. But there was little money left for services and infrastructure improvements essential to a sound economy.

California's other big cities were better prepared to cope fiscally. After Proposition 13 passed in 1978, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland enacted new taxes and tapped novel resources to expand and diversify their revenue bases. L.A.'s Department of Water and Power produced "surplus" revenue used to balance the city's budget. Had San Diego emulated these cities, its general-fund revenues would have been boosted by nearly one-third, services and infrastructure could have been financed, and its pension funds could have remained undiminished.

San Diego also faces the challenge of politically incorporating its minorities. The state's second-largest city is a border town, but its demographics are unusual for one. Other border communities in the Southwest have had Latino majorities. Not San Diego. The city's longtime white majority was attracted by military and defense jobs, the beaches and climate, and retirement leisure activities. Yet San Diego's fast-growing Latino and Asian communities are changing that. Non-Latino whites have dipped below 50% of the city population (but not yet in the county).

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