Photo by Sam Hodgson
San Diego could soon elect a home-grown mayor. A first? Nope. But definitely an oddity in this city of transplants.
In 163 years of cityhood, we’ve had only had two elected mayors who were born in San Diego and grew up here: Maureen O’Connor (1986-1992) and John D. Butler (1951-1955). Compare that with San Francisco and Los Angeles, which have elected multiple born-and-bred mayors.
The odds are against another native mayor. Nineteen people are in the running to appear on the mayoral ballot next month, but only Councilman David Alvarez — whose local roots grabbed the spotlight last week — fits the born-and-bred-here criteria. At least three were born outside of the country, according to the docs they filed with the city clerk.
Former City Attorney Michael Aguirre was born in San Diego but “moved several times throughout the West,” according to an old campaign bio. Local preservationist Bruce Coons has been in town since 1958, when he was four, longer than most of the leading candidates have been alive. Councilman Kevin Faulconer graduated from San Diego State in 1990, while ex-Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher came to the San Diego area in 2001 at the age of 25.
Still, San Diego’s out-of-town pedigrees are common among the mayoral candidates and our political class as a whole. Listen closely and you’ll hear New England and Southern accents in the halls of power.
How come our leaders are anything but “locals only”? Here are a few theories.
We Haven’t Been Big for Long
Big cities that have been big for a long time tend to have lots of natives. Consider San Francisco, a boom town if there ever was one thanks to the Gold Rush. With more than 56,000 people, it was one of the country’s 15 most populous cities way back in 1860. Those people spawned generations of native San Franciscans who live there to this day.
As for us, well, back then San Diego was a backwater town of a couple thousand people who liked slavery and hated Abraham Lincoln.
Outside of a big population boom in the 1880s, followed by the bust revealed in this amazing photo photo, San Diego’s almost always been little or just medium-sized. The city grew steadily but not by giant leaps until the second half of the 20th century. Then we nearly quadrupled in population from about 334,000 in 1950 to 1.2 million in 2000.
Some of those new people, of course, were born here (often to transplants), stuck around, and are now in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Still, one in four of San Diego’s residents were born outside the U.S, according to 2009 figures. By the strictest definition — you gotta be born here — that’s a lot of non-natives.
Our Past Doesn’t Control Our Present
Historian Kevin Starr, state librarian emeritus and an expert on California’s past, calls San Diego a “tabula rasa.” He means that we’re a blank slate, an undefined city where people feel they can start anew without having to fit any preconceived notion of what it means to be a San Diegan.
That’s not always a good thing, especially for those who can’t turn their lives around once they land here. As Starr notes, transplants in the 1910s and 1920s often felt like failures, mercilessly mocked by the eternal sunshine. They turned San Diego into the nation’s suicide capital.
These days, San Diego is “up for grabs,” Starr said. “You can come out of nowhere and become a leading official.”
Case in point: The most successful San Diego politician of all time, a man who happens to also be one of its boldest carpetbaggers in our history.
Back in the 1960s, Pete Wilson heeded the advice of a crony of Richard Nixon and moved to San Diego with an eye on running for office after a few years. That’s the definition of out-of-towner political opportunism, but it didn’t stop him.
Wilson became an assemblyman. Then mayor, senator and governor. He even ran for president. Not too long ago, he attended the unveiling of his own statue in downtown.
OK, So Now What?
Born-and-bred local types are anything but powerless in local politics. Alvarez is a top contender for mayor, while a couple of natives — Councilman Todd Gloria and former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña — got plenty of press as possible candidates.
Former Councilwoman Donna Frye and County Supervisor Ron Roberts, whose names were also in the mayoral campaign mix, have deep roots here and seem likely to remain powerful players. Outside city politics, there’s a rarity for San Diego politics: an actual family dynasty. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter is the native son of another local congressman.
Meanwhile, demographics are shifting.
The number of California residents who were born in the state keeps going up and up, and they’re now more than half the population. San Diego’s population has leveled off, and the number of born-and-bred types seems likely to rise as transplants have kids, producing new natives.
That might translate to more candidates who make sure that native San Diego voters know where they’re from. And it could mean, for once, that it actually matters.
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