And so begins a new chapter of ‘America’s Finest City’

Though it’ll happen far in the future, I can picture the professors now, scratching their beards and adjusting their spectacles as they ponder the angle of this book/article/lecture:

Did the people of San Diego learn something in that rough year of 2005? Did all the self-analysis imposed by a citywide political upheaval actually produce some change and/or good?

As the climax of a long-stewing battle, the Nov. 8 special mayoral election will be a fun chapter for the writers of San Diego’s history. Though print deadlines dictate that this column be composed before the winner is declared, it’s fun to imagine what gripping narratives could be superimposed over the too-real turbulence we’ve experienced this past year. (“The day SD went progressive,” “Much ado about little change,” “Voters still uninformed and apathetic,” etc.)

Helpfully, the candidates have already done this for us. In the days leading up to the election, both Donna Frye and Jerry Sanders have declared themselves part of the “new San Diego,” hoping to write a little history in advance.

Anything they come up with is probably sweeter than what will fill the pages up to this point. It seems hard to believe now, but San Diegans were making this same decision only a year ago, when voters chose then write-in candidate Frye over Mayor Dick Murphy. The former judge was put back in office due to a court’s problem with 5,000 unfilled bubbles next to Donna Frye’s handwritten name. It was like San Diegans reached for the future and had reality tossed back at them with a note reading, “You aren’t ready for this yet.”

Maybe we weren’t. Amid simmering legal challenges to his “appointment,” Murphy announced his resignation last April. The same week in July that he actually left the office, two city councilmembers (one of which was supposed to take over as acting mayor) were convicted of corruption for a few promises they made to a local strip club owner with lawmaking aspirations.

Later that same month, the motley field of 11 wannabe San Diego mayors was trimmed down to the pair still foaming for the high chair as I write this.

And as that year of resignations, convictions, investigations, lawsuits and name-calling came full circle this week, the candidates of the future were selling less-than-academic versions of the past that brought us to this sore spot.

Fomenting a class war in the old Marxist mold — labor versus capital — Frye and Sanders offered two easy, damning histories. To hear them tell it in the last debates, the pension crisis, the investigations, the corruption and the general dysfunction of the system are all due to the influence of either the downtown business/development interests or labor unions.

(Our professor-poets are chuckling in the future: O, the dirty underbelly of politics! O, the partisan histories! O, the five-second panaceas!)

Of course, these constructions of the past are just convenient backdrops from which we are supposed to derive their opponent’s inferiority. The candidates’ messages are strikingly similar: The unions ran the city or the businessmen and developers did — vote for the candidate free of special interests.

But, uh, which one is that?

Frye, whom Sanders accused of being in the pocket of the unions, has received over $200,000 in friendly independent expenditures from various labor groups. The once-influential municipal employees’ union, whose pension deal is under fire in the current crisis, sat out the race and has promised legal action if parts of the councilwoman’s plan are acted on. They are clearly not on her side.

Moreover, Sanders’ idea that the current problems at City Hall are the fault of too much influence by labor is pretty shaky. As a local union president put it in ye olde Union-Tribune, “San Diego doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a union town. It’s been a Navy town and a town friendly to business. If we were in control, why did we just agree to a two-year pay cut?”

And if Frye was, as Sanders likes to say, part of the problem at City Hall, why did she alone vote against the rotten deals the minute whistleblower Dianne Shipione revealed them?

His portrait of Frye is clearly, and purposefully, deceptive. But so might be the picture of Sanders that puts him also totally in someone’s pocket, this time that of the downtown business community. The developers and businessmen are overwhelmingly in favor of the Republican, but that might not be as indicative of his plans as Frye would have us believe.

In the current climate of national politics, it may be hard to remember that not all Republicans are crony-loving dollar-hogs (right?). Especially when Sanders has received more than $300,000 in support from the San Diego County Republican Central Committee and other usual suspects, many of which contributed to the losers of old. But he has a spotless record of service, having made no real enemies as a municipal police chief, which puts him at a comfortable distance from all the dirt-digging and finger-pointing going on.

Both of their plans have changed so much that it is impossible to attribute any overriding ideology to either. In their latest versions, Frye actually wants to fire more city workers, while Sanders is more cautious about throwing out possibly illegal benefits for union workers.

Neither candidate’s monochromatic version of history truly jives with reality. For all the self-analysis of this race, an appreciation for the extreme complexity of the issues at hand still seems to escape them. Or maybe that lack of firm intent and ideology in their plans is the candidates’ signal that, underneath all the rhetoric, they both actually know that the path ahead is as murky as are their idealizations of the past.

I’ll leave the detail-sorting for the Ph.Ds. Right now, it is worth appreciating: With the election of a new mayor in San Diego, a new chapter — likely both in the history books and reality — has begun.