San Diego to Choose a Mayor, Again

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The citizens of San Diego will go to polls next week to choose a mayor. The Republican establishment wants Jerry Sanders to replace Dick Murphy, who resigned earlier this year amidst ongoing financial and political corruption scandals. He faces surf shop owner and city councilwoman Donna Frye, who narrowly lost to Murphy as a write-in candidate last year. NPR business correspondent Scott Horsley reports on the race to run San Diego.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And voters in San Diego will choose a new mayor next week. The office has been vacant since mid-July, when the last mayor quit amid corruption allegations. Whoever is elected on Tuesday will inherit a massive budget deficit, a fractious city government and the ongoing scrutiny of federal investigators. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

You might ask why anyone would want the job of leading America's seventh-largest city. San Diego has a $1.4 billion deficit in its pension fund, it doesn't have enough money to make basic street repairs and the city's finances are under investigation by both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department.

Mr. STEVE ERIE (UC-San Diego): Seven or eight years ago, we were considered one the best-governed cities in the entire country. How did the wheels fall off so quickly?

HORSLEY: Political scientist Steve Erie of UC-San Diego says the city government has been squeezed between residents' fierce opposition to new taxes and their demand for high-quality services. To help bridge that gap, the city underfunded employees' pensions for most of the last decade and now the bills are coming due.

One Wall Street bond rating firm says the challenge for San Diego is more political than economic. In a May report, the Fitch Rating Service said the city has a robust economy but needs, quote, "strong leadership and political consensus." Those are two other areas in which San Diego has been running a deficit.

Mr. ERIE: There are larger backdrops here. One backdrop is that this is a city that has been red that is going blue. It is becoming a Democratic city. This is partly a titanic battle for the future of San Diego.

HORSLEY: In less than two months, a charter change takes affect giving San Diego's incoming mayor broad new executive powers. What panics some members of the city's business establishment is that new mayor could be City Councilwoman Donna Frye. She's a Democrat, a longtime environmental activist and the co-owner of a surf shop. Last year, Frye surprised many with a write-in campaign that almost unseated the incumbent mayor, and she was the top vote-getter in this year's July primary. After a more conservative candidate was eliminated in the primary, those nervous business leaders threw their support behind former police Chief Jerry Sanders. He's a moderate Republican who bills himself as a turnaround specialist.

The two candidates actually agree on many social issues and they propose similar austerity plans for the city government. The biggest difference between the two is taxes. Frye has taken the political gamble of calling for a sales tax increase as part of her recovery plan, while Sanders says that's premature.

Former Chief JERRY SANDERS (Mayoral Candidate, San Diego): I would not ask taxpayers to raise taxes to bail the council out of bad decisions they've made over the last five years.

HORSLEY: Both candidates describe themselves as agents for a fresh start in San Diego. Here's Donna Frye during a televised debate this week.

Ms. DONNA FRYE (Mayoral Candidate; San Diego City Council): I represent the new San Diego, and I'm anxious to begin that and I want to change the way the city of San Diego has done business in the past. My opponent represents the old San Diego.

HORSLEY: Sanders quickly countered that Frye is part of old San Diego because she has the support of organized labor.

It's little wonder both candidates want to distance themselves from San Diego's rocky recent past and look towards a future that's brighter than the murky present. Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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