Coming this fall: A battle for the future of San Diego

San Diego’s City Hall is a nondescript modernist office tower nestled in a downtown civic center of nondescript modernist office towers. You could drive right by and not notice it, except you can’t really drive by: Only the San Diego Trolley and pedestrians get to use C Street out front.

Drivers headed to the Hall get swooped up into a parking garage and spat out onto a cement concourse surrounded by the workaday forest. Need to find a council meeting or the mayor’s office? They’re inside one of the now-faded beige boxes around there somewhere.

But of course, most San Diegans don’t ever need to find City Hall. In “America’s Finest City,” the philosophy of government is that it’s one of those things people worry about in places with bad weather.

Because decades of its citizens haven’t paid attention, San Diego is now up to its eyeballs in a political and financial hurricane, the kinds that last for decades and wash away bundles of politicians, bureaucrats and tax dollars by the time they finish.

It’s easy to itemize some of the harshest realities:

– A pension deficit of at least $1.4 billion (likely much higher), which basically means that the city owes its employees far more money over the next few years than it plans to collect.

– Ongoing FBI investigations into the city’s mystical accounting practices (they hired Enron’s accounting firm) that ultimately keep the city from passing bonds to do things like fix roads or improve schools.

– A city council which, after watching two of its members go to jail for fraud and corruption in July, has numerous vacant seats, no real leader and no capacity (or willingness?) to bite into the hearty plate of big problems facing it.

The problems go beyond one issue, body or action, threading instead through much of San Diego’s past. We had a city government that, until recently, was basically run for developers and businessmen, an original population that came from small towns and tried in vain to keep San Diego one and a local newspaper that doesn’t like to report anything ugly.

So if national and state politics weren’t so exciting these days, a no-bull telling our fair town’s fall could entertain the country better than a so-called “summer blockbuster.” But no use crying over spilt milk — instead, we ought to be crying about the upcoming mayoral election: the most important choose-wisely-or-pay challenge possibly to ever face the voters of paradise.

It began as a circus with 11 candidates — 11 human ones, anyway, because Nevada businessman Steve Francis was clearly too much of a snake to pass for a homo sapien. Most of them had a disappointing night on July 26, when all but City Councilwoman Donna Frye and former police chief Jerry Sanders were eliminated in the primary. The cast of candidates tells its own story, though: Republican nominee Francis ran a TV campaign with the help of top GOP advisers (having few good ideas himself). Harley-Davidson dealership owner Myke Shelby (“New York Myke” to his friends) easily convinced everyone he was going to beat them up if he didn’t win. La Jolla attorney Pat Shea (whose wife blew the whistle on the city’s ruined pension fund) said with Harvard eloquence that the only way out of the city’s mess was court-run reorganization — filing for bankruptcy.

With such a diverse pack, it seems a bit strange that the only two primary survivors have almost exactly the same stance on The Big Issue, that doggone pension deficit. Both Sanders and Frye think they can wean city employees off the expensive benefits (that their leaders basically took while no one was looking) without having to hold the legal gun of bankruptcy to their head.

That — or perhaps with the call-me-by-my-first-name charm they share — is where the candidates’ similarities end.

The tall, blond Frye entered politics through environmental activism. She owns a surf shop with her husband, famous surfer and board shaper Skip Frye, and is seen by her die-hard supporters as a sort of Christlike mortal enduring the filthy fray of politics for the good of San Diego. She goes by “Donna,” speaks with a plain, disarming humanity, and nearly always calls reporters back to answer questions — even when their deadlines have obviously passed. Oh yeah, another poetic detail: Excepting one judge’s ruling that her name written on a ballot wasn’t enough, Frye would be San Diego’s mayor right now. (The guy who won in her stead, Dick Murphy, stepped down four months after “winning.”)

Her opponent, Sanders, is a round, ruddy-faced ex-cop who looks and talks exactly like a big-city mayor. Though he’s not the slash-and-burn kind of Republican Francis was, he’s got some of the city’s top conservative advisers in his war room, and with Francis out, he’s the go-to vote for San Diego right-wingers. Sanders has good credentials, having brought a couple of nonprofits back from the brink when he ran them, but his biggest strength is that he is eminently likable — a dangerous quality for a leader in don’t-bother-me San Diego. Mister mismanagement Murphy won as the vanilla candidate, his former campaign manager told me, and Sanders is running on the same platform: lots of press conferences, few specifics. Just remember, Jerry: everyone knew Francis’ vague posturing was bullshit.

With two nice-guys who sort of agree running against each other, how ugly will fall campaigning get? Hard to say. Frye has always exploited her populist reputation with grassroots campaigning; Sanders has establishment support, thousands of pretty signs and probably more than twice the money of his opponent. One thing is for sure: If San Diegans are ever going to pull their heads out of the sand and move to get the kind of city we all want, now would be a good time.