“The voters want[ed] someone to show strong leadership. They want a mayor that’s going to go in immediately and restructure City Hall.”
—Jerry Sanders, Sept. 24, 2005
“This report makes it painfully obvious that various processes failed us. This is not a happy day for me or my administration.”
—Jerry Sanders, July 19, 2007
During the mayoral campaign of 2005, non-politician Jerry Sanders promised to make America’s formerly “finest” city “finest” once more. Two years later, amidst the flap over a development project gone terribly wrong, now-Mayor Sanders has had to admit that his goals of massive city reform have fallen well short of the mark.
With Sunroad Enterprises agreeing to reduce the size of its Kearny Mesa building to comply with federal aviation standards and the release of a report exonerating the mayor and other city officials from willful wrongdoing, the whole sleazy Sunroad saga may be starting its slow fade. But, just a week shy of the second anniversary of the special election that led to his ascendance to the mayoral throne, the political future of Jerry Sanders may be fading as well.
What a difference a couple of years can make in the political life of a city. Not the real, day-to-day life of a city, mind you. San Diego still has not gotten its financial house back in sufficient order to reenter the bond markets. City services continue their slow degradation, brought on by years of under- and deferred funding caused by said financial maelstrom. The employee-pension program and the retiree-health-benefits programs are still woefully underfunded. National media continues to label San Diego a den of mismanaged inequity. And the same city government that brought San Diego to the brink of financial ruin and national humiliation (the former of which we still teeter on, the latter of which we have long since plummeted over)—both elected and appointed, politician and career civil servant—is largely still running the place.
It was supposed to be a the dawning of a new day in town when Sheriff Jerry took over, wearing the whitest of non-political, untainted white hats over his new mayoral duds. Unsullied by the pollution of previous political participation, there being no campaign contributions and grasping special interests in his background, Sanders could rise above the foul fray of politics and, with his trusted sidekick, likewise nonpolitical and universally applauded former Navy Admiral Ronne Froman at his side, provide exactly the kind of stern, strong, successful leadership that his predecessors had failed to do. The sun was rising on San Diego again.
Back in the good ol’ days of ’05, Sanders was going to demand the resignation of 300 city officials to bring the bureaucracy to heel, use the threat of massive layoffs to bring the municipal unions to heel, wave his bully-pulpit and appointment power to force the resignation of a half-dozen pension board members to bring that group to heel and use Mad Dog Mike Aguirre as the mayor’s own personal pit bull to bring the council and everyone else to heel. He was going to speak with gentlemanly softness while swinging a big, city-cleaning stick. Now these promises lie like bleached bones on the political trail Sanders has trodden to this, the near halfway point of his administration. And maybe it’s all finally catching up with him and—at last—the public.
Now, you can blame a lot, if not most, of Jerry’s jinxes on the usual host of San Diego suspects always on hand when ideas of political reform and change need assassinating. The municipal unions, doing what they are supposed to—which is look out for the security of their members first and foremost—have not been compliantly willing to simply roll over on Sanders’ command and give back the benefits and pay they won in collective bargaining.
The pension board members essentially did to the mayor’s request for en masse resignations what they’ve done to everyone else for the last decade: gave them a big political raspberry. The city bureaucracy simply locked its bureaucratic shields and avoided any substantive change (creating enough frustration to drive Ronne Froman right out of city government). And the City Council and the city attorney have proven themselves far more dedicated to each others’ mutual annihilation than to working out meaningful compromises and solutions under Sanders’ smiling auspices.
Throw in Sanders’ hanging on to his no-new-taxes pledge, but only at the cost of substantially boosting water and sewer fees, and the straight-shooting mayor has seemed to miss his targets more often than not.
But, at least, through all this, Jerry had one unassailable thing going for him. He was seen by the public, the press and even most political players to be a straight-shooting genuinely nice guy. As CityBeat itself pointed out in March 2006, during Jerry’s honeymoon, even as Sanders was admitting he was having trouble gaining traction in his first 90 days in office, “Sanders, a likeable figure with a slow, deliberate speaking style and grandfatherly charm, has proved a calming influence at City Hall.”
But along came Sunroad. And Jerry is just not the same anymore.
Yes, the report compiled by Sanders’ ethics chief, Jo Anne SawyerKnoll, commissioned by the mayor in the face of rising public scrutiny over the Sunroad project, says that, while mistakes (read: incredible incompetence) occurred in the city’s handling of the issue, no criminal or otherwise corrupt wrongdoing was found to have occurred. Of course, when the mayor’s office issues a report largely exonerating itself from charges of wrongdoing, one should keep a big shaker of Morton’s on hand to accompany the swallowing thereof. But Aguirre’s previous protestations now falling silent and there being no rumbling of interest at the county, state or federal levels, it is highly likely that this report will be the final official word on the matter.
But the Sunroad story leaves a whole host of questions and queries that, while they may lie unaddressed over the coming dog days of summer, are sure to rise up again during Gentleman Jerry’s bid for reelection.
Of course, none of this is exactly new news. Back during the 2005 campaign, there were allegations by his opponent and echoed in the press that Sanders wasn’t really all that different from the same old City Hall establishment he was lambasting. Calling for open and ethical government, he then acted positively Murphian in keeping the press from interviewing Froman, his anointed chief of operations. Then it came out he’d received campaign contributions from the previous president of the ill-fated pension board, a central figure in that scandal. Under pressure, Sanders returned the money, but the incident lent credibility to then-candidate Donna Frye’s claim that he was just part of the same old downtown political guard committed to business as usual.
Which included business with people like the mysterious president of Sunroad, Aaron Feldman, a man who likes to operate out of the public eye and apparently on the edge of ethical business practices just as much as making friends in high places to help him keep things that way. Feldman helped raise thousands more dollars for the Sanders campaign. When the oversized Sunroad project in the Montgomery Field flight path was initially derailed by Aguirre last fall, Feldman had two private meetings with Sanders. After each meeting, the city took steps to help Sunroad—and Feldman. Not until May, more than a half year after Aguirre first raised the roof on Sunroad, did Sanders finally stand tall and tell Sunroad to back down.
Coincidence? Collusion? Corruption? Who really knows. But what San Diegans now know is that Sanders is a politician like the rest of them, taking money in large chunks from powerful interests for whom favorable things just seem to happen. Maybe that’s why his poll numbers are starting to slide.
Sanders may, of course, weather this latest sun-storm. The SawyerKnoll report went out of its way to throw dirt at Aguirre for contributing to the problem. Given how the Union-Tribune likes to see everything through “It’s all Mikey’s fault” glasses anyway, it’s only a matter of time until this is spun as Aguirre’s failure. For his part, Mauling Mike seemed more than happy to play nice-nice with the mayor at last Thursday’s news conference unveiling the report. Aguirre is already off on his next crusade—questionable land deals involving San Diego City College—and the press will move on as well, and the Sunroad saga will quietly set.
Come 2008, Sanders also has one major advantage that might well outshine the nasty glare any resurrection of the Sunroad story might produce: He has no real opposition. City Council President Scott Peters wisely says he doesn’t want the job. Wealthy businessman Steve Francis doesn’t have the political base. Frye says she’s not running. There just ain’t no other white-hat-wearing strangers coming into town to take a shot at being the new political sheriff.
Thus, tarnished badge and all, halfway through a far-from-stellar first term, Sanders—Sunroad or no—still has a political future. But as the public increasingly realizes that Gentleman Jerry is no gentleman at all, but just another politician, that future is anything but certain. One more Sunroad just may do Sanders in.