This is the first step in getting a new stadium.
New mayor faces a host of troubles at City Hall
By Matthew T. Hall
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
12:38 a.m. November 9, 2005
Former Police Chief Jerry Sanders defeated Councilwoman Donna Frye last night to become San Diego's 34th mayor, capturing the decisive victory that eluded his predecessor a year ago.
Both addressed their supporters about 11 p.m., with Sanders declaring victory and saying he was very proud to be elected, and Frye saying she planned to call him shortly to congratulate him.
"In late 2004 and 2005, as I watched the meltdown at City Hall, I knew I had something to offer – the experience and the skill to turn things around," Sanders said to loud applause. "To my surprise, I discovered that thousands of San Diegans just like you felt the same way."
Sanders, 55, spent 26 years with the San Diego Police Department, the last six as its chief. He later was chief executive of the local United Way chapter and then went on to become board chairman of the local Red Cross chapter.
Frye, 53, is an environmental activist and surfboard business owner who has served on the City Council since 2001.
A year ago, both signed an argument mailed citywide against San Diego's switch to a strong-mayor form of government. The measure won, and when the change takes effect in January, Sanders will assume the city manager's power to hire and fire personnel and prepare the budget.
While Frye refrained from naming potential top managers, Sanders said he would bring in retired Navy Rear Adm. Ronne Froman, the top executive of the local Red Cross, as the chief operations officer in his administration.
Last night, Sanders credited a crew of 500 volunteers for the large margin between the two candidates. He singled out 30 people who showed up every day and who called 9,000 households that the campaign had identified as undecided voters, contacting many homes more than once.
Frye was optimistic early last night as she followed the returns from her Clairemont home, which she shares with her mother and her husband, surfer Skip Frye. She gave her concession speech in front of supporters at Golden Hall.
Frye faces a June primary and a possible runoff election in November for a second full-term on the City Council.
Asked why Sanders was outpolling her so heavily from the outset, Frye said, "Sometimes real change is unsettling to people, and people feel more comfortable with a sort of father figure and someone who tells them there won't be a requirement for great sacrifice."
Sanders, who appeared confident and relaxed all night, said voters chose him for his experience and suggested Frye's advocacy for a sales tax increase hurt her among voters seeking relief from San Diego's fiscal morass.
"She was honest about it, but I don't think that the people want a sales tax to solve the problems that have been going on for some time at City Hall," he said.
Frye said she wasn't sure if her sales tax proposal worked against her.
"I always believe telling the truth is the best way to do it," she said. "If it did have a role (in the defeat), I would do it again."
Sanders will be sworn into office in early December at a time of unparalleled uncertainty at City Hall. San Diego is three years behind on its annual audits. Fees are up, services are down and some say bankruptcy is near. Several federal investigations into possible wrongdoing by a range of city officials and employees that began in February 2004 don't seem to be ending.
Neither candidate could offer an easy way out for city employees or taxpayers. Sanders spoke of four years of pay freezes and going into greater debt to pay down a pension deficit of at least $1.4 billion. Frye backed a sales tax and said she'd immediately stop paying city employees benefits that have been called illegal by City Attorney Michael Aguirre.
If the campaign was unconventional because of its subject matter, it was also a classic battle pitting labor interests and the Democratic Party against hoteliers, others in the business establishment and the Republican Party.
Local political races are technically nonpartisan but, as is often the case, this one featured cash infusions from both major parties.
In an unusual move caused by the circumstances of the campaign, the city employee unions remained on the sidelines as both candidates stressed a need for benefit reductions and layoffs.
The contest had its roots in the city's fiscal crisis and Mayor Dick Murphy's decision to resign in July in the midst of it.
Last year Murphy drew a serious challenge to his re-election from county Supervisor Ron Roberts, his opponent in the 2000 election. By every indication, Roberts looked headed toward unseating Murphy.
But five weeks before the November 2004 election, Frye entered the contest as a write-in candidate.
Most pundits wrote her off, but she nearly won. The courts ultimately decided the issue, tossing out more than 5,500 ballots that had Frye's name written on them but without the corresponding bubble filled in, as required by state law.
Many of her supporters ardently believe the November election was stolen from her.
Murphy, who had fought in court to stay in office, was declared the victor.
In April, Time magazine ranked him among the three worst big-city mayors in America. The city's fiscal crisis continued to deepen, Murphy clashed almost daily with Aguirre, the new city attorney, and there was growing talk of a Murphy recall.
It was too much. Saying he could no longer govern effectively, Murphy announced in April that he would resign July 15, seven months into his second term.
The field of candidates to replace him numbered 11 and included Frye – seen as the candidate to beat – along with Sanders; businessman Steve Francis; lawyer Pat Shea; Libertarian activist Richard Rider; and Harley-Davidson dealer "New York" Myke Shelby.
In the July 26 primary, Frye placed first with 43 percent of the vote, followed by Sanders with 27 percent.
The political dynamic changed after the primary, with Frye suddenly the underdog again. Sanders picked up Francis' endorsement after the primary, and it appeared likely he would gain enough of the remaining electorate to beat Frye. The Sanders campaign also outspent Frye's more than 3-1.
In the closing few weeks, as the two faced off in a series of televised debates, Frye sought to cast Sanders as part of the "old San Diego" that got the city into its fiscal crisis.
Sanders countered by saying Frye was part of an "old San Diego" marked by labor union control of City Hall.
Sanders went on the offensive first, setting an edgy tone over the summer in what had been a cordial relationship with Frye.
In May, when they filed their candidacy papers, both Frye and Sanders made glowing remarks about one another, promising a respectful relationship on the campaign trail – a promise that would be broken during the fall campaign.
Sanders took aim at her voting record in 2002, when she joined with everyone else on the council in votes to underfund the pension and grant benefit increases.
Frye shot back that as soon as pension board whistle-blower Diann Shipione went public with warnings of pension system abuses in November 2002, she became the council's only voice against pension underfunding.
Sanders also criticized Frye for taking a benefit perk in 2003 that allows city employees to buy credits to enhance their pensions. She formally asked retirement officials to take back the perk this year.
Frye also criticized Sanders' pension, which grosses $84,000 annually. After alimony payments, Sanders said he grosses $60,000 a year in retirement pay.
Sanders rolled out his fiscal-recovery plan in pieces, while Frye, for the summer, said little.
In September, she unveiled her AAA fiscal-recovery plan, which included calls to aggressively expand the powers of the mayor's office, including asking voters for exclusive right to negotiate benefit rollbacks with labor unions.
It also included asking voters for power to unilaterally take the city into bankruptcy court if talks fail.
The most politically significant piece of her plan was the possibility of asking voters in tax-averse San Diego for a temporary half-cent increase in the sales tax.
Sanders accused Frye of pushing a $1.1 billion tax increase, but his own tax rhetoric was anything but clear.
In the primary, he made remarks indicating that taxes might be a distant option. This left him vulnerable to a TV ad from Francis accusing him, and Frye, of preparing to raise taxes if elected.
Late in the primary, Sanders sought to recover, finally declaring, "No taxes."
For the rest of the campaign, he would explain that he is against tax increases for the current crisis, but that taxes might be an option in the future if voters want to raise funds for things such as infrastructure repairs.
Frye accused Sanders of being dishonest with voters and said she told the public the truth before the election.
Sanders' plan called for a more-conventional mix of cuts to the bureaucracy, salary freezes, selling some city land and going into deeper debt – through the sale of pension-obligation bonds – to address the pension deficit.
His plan needed major revisions.
Later in the campaign he said he would threaten to lay off 10 percent of the general fund work force as a weapon to get labor unions back to the bargaining table.
Then, he said public safety workers were exempt. That meant instead of nearly 700 workers whose jobs were on the line, there were 300. Annual savings that he first touted as $64 million were downgraded to $35 million.
Frye's plan included a vow to lay off 500 workers.
Things grew testy in the closing weeks.
In mid-October, Sanders accused Frye of failing to take responsibility for her pension votes and for buying pension credits in 2003. He said this raised "serious questions about her character and her integrity."
The same day, Frye appeared at a news conference outside City Hall with a supporter wearing a yellow chicken suit. In a taunting tone, Frye said Sanders was afraid to tell the public the truth about his financial plan.