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San Diego mayor leaves office with his legacy intact

The legacy of San Diego's termed-out mayor Jerry Sanders includes guiding the city back from the precipice of its worst financial debacle in history.

December 03, 2012|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders tours the city with a reporter, a week before he leaves office.
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders tours the city with a reporter, a week before… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

SAN DIEGO — On his last full day as mayor of San Diego, Jerry Sanders did something Sunday that took him back four decades.

He rode with a police officer assigned to the 2 p.m. to midnight shift patrolling downtown. In the mid-1970s, fresh out of San Diego State, Sanders was a rookie officer assigned to that same beat.

"I came in in a police car, I'm going out in a police car," Sanders, 62, had said with a laugh last week as he stood outside one of his signature achievements of his seven years as mayor: a new central library under construction.

A Republican in a city where Democrats hold a voter-registration edge and control the City Council, Sanders, who rose from beat cop to chief in his 26 years at the Police Department, has governed through relentless attempts at consensus and a deceptively low-key style that leans on sharing credit whenever possible.

Ask about the library project and Sanders says, "The library commission wouldn't take no for an answer."

Ask about his role in calming civic nerves during the 2007 wildfire that raged for days and destroyed hundreds of homes — a mayoral effort that led the local newspaper to compare him favorably to Rudy Giuliani after 9/11 — and Sanders mentions the help provided by two county supervisors.

Ask about his management style and he says he prefers to hire good people and then stay out of their way, but some who have worked with him point out that he watches even tiny details of important efforts.

Outside San Diego, Sanders may be remembered best for breaking with the GOP to endorse same-sex marriage, explaining that his daughter, a lesbian, should be free to marry someone she loves. He then campaigned against Proposition 8 and later went to Washington to join other — mostly Democratic — mayors to lobby Congress to repeal a law that defines marriage as between a man and woman.

In San Diego, his legacy includes guiding the city back from the precipice of its worst financial debacle in history through a series of politically controversial cutbacks in city services and then hard bargaining with labor unions that led to a salary freeze, reduction in health benefits for retirees, increased payments by employees to the pension fund and the end to guaranteed-benefit pensions for new hires.

Although the city's financial future, like that of other cities, remains uncertain, San Diego appears to be ahead of other cities, including Los Angeles, in dealing with the common problem of spiraling pension deficits.

"He did steady the local ship of state," said Steve Erie, political science professor at UC San Diego. "Whether he actually turned it around is another question."

Sanders lists the new library, the planned expansion of the waterfront convention center and the plan to remodel the core of Balboa Park as among his proudest achievements. All three faced opposition; the convention center and park plans are being fought in court.

"This isn't a hard city to govern," he said, "but it's very hard to get consensus."

One of his disappointments is the failure to put together a project to build a new stadium for the San Diego Chargers and keep the NFL franchise from leaving the city.

The Chargers issue, in which the public wants the team to remain in San Diego but does not want to spend public money for a stadium, will now be left to Sanders' successor, Bob Filner, 70, a Democrat who left a safe seat in Congress to run to replace the termed-out Sanders. Filner will be sworn into office Monday.

Although he was reelected easily in 2008, voters in 2010 turned down his request for a half-cent boost in the sales tax, which Sanders said was desperately needed to avoid additional cuts in city services. "We gave voters the opportunity," he said.

In style, Filner and Sanders are opposites: Filner is confrontational; Sanders usually isn't. Sanders appears without ego; Filner is different.

"I tell Bob that he's the most obnoxious individual I've met and that's what I like about him," Sanders said.

Lest anyone think of him as a rhetorical milquetoast, it bears remembering that, during the 2008 reelection campaign, he turned to an opponent and directed a two-word obscenity at him.

Sanders was an anomaly as a politician when he was elected in 2005 to replace Dick Murphy, who resigned amid criticism over the pension deficit. Sanders had never before run for public office, although he was a well-known public figure after six years as the highly regarded police chief.

As chief, he expanded the city's "community oriented policing" style that emphasized close collaboration between the police and neighborhood groups.

Retiring from the city in 1999, he served as chief executive of the local United Way and as president of the local Red Cross chapter — arriving when both organizations were beset by personnel turmoil and financial problems.

Sanders and his wife, Rana Sampson, will soon depart for a long-delayed vacation to Italy. Sampson retired Friday as vice president for development and marketing for the San Diego Center for Children, which provides educational and mental health services for at-risk youth.

Upon the couple's return to San Diego, Sanders will become president and chief executive of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

But first was that final shift as a beat cop downtown, asking people what help they need and providing a reassuring presence that says San Diego is a good place to live.

"Best job I ever had," Sanders said.

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