The Evolution of a Wonky Art Form

The Evolution of a Wonky Art Form

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Mayor Jerry Sanders prepares to take the stage to deliver his 2011 State of the City address.

The State of the City address is a kind of wonky art form; a mayoral manifesto that, if crafted and delivered just so, transcends matters “expedient and proper” – the bar set by a 1963 city charter amendment establishing the yearly briefing. More like evocative and inspiring. A good State of the City addresses strives to illustrate a vision for the coming year, to set an agenda and strike a tone.

Interim Mayor Todd Gloria is the 10th mayor to give the State of the City address since Frank Curran started the modern tradition 50 years ago. Some offered eloquent entreaties for the city to collectively rise up and do better. Others overreached and become the subject of derision.

No small task, the State of the City.

Here’s a look at some of the more memorable State of the City speeches over the past half-century:

Sanders’ Video Gambit (2012)

In January 2012, Mayor Jerry Sanders opened his seventh and final State of the City speech with a six-minute video, accompanied by a heavy metal and rap soundtrack. Here’s how KPBS described it:

The room goes dark and a video begins to play. A young boy appears in a gritty part of downtown San Diego. As Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself” starts to play, the boy is seen running past the lot where a new Chargers stadium may be built, then the rendering of a new stadium is faded in. The video continues hitting all the major projects proposed for the city, an expanded Convention Center, new central library, a revamped Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park.

And then the ominous tones of “Hells Bells” rang out across the Balboa Theater. The video screen and lights flashed red as Mayor Jerry Sanders walked on stage. The meaning was clear, Sanders’ term is in its final innings, and just like famous Padres pitcher Trevor Hoffman, Sanders is looking to close out the game with a win.

As a legacy address, this went way beyond “expedient and proper.” The video and speech, in which Sanders talked about “closing the deal” on large civic projects, was a gamble. As it turns out, none of those projects materialized during his administration, although he pushed the decades-old dream of a new Central Library closer to fruition than any of his predecessors.

Some observers said the video carried an implicit anti-neighborhoods message.

“The message is simple: If you’re concerned about your crime-ridden neighborhood, run away downtown to the new Convention Center!” wrote VOSD’s Scott Lewis.

But the event in itself drew raves from the crowd.

“Mayor Sanders is right – it’s time to take San Diego to the next level,” District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said on SD Rostra. “It’s critical that we build on the Mayor’s accomplishments and not lose the forward momentum he has created.”

Sanders Reads the Riot Act (2006)

Sanders took office in late 2005 during an extraordinarily dark time in the city’s history.

In his inaugural State of the City speech in January 2006, Sanders, an ex-cop and police chief, basically took the city to the woodshed.

“As best I can tell, the operating philosophy around City Hall involved one of these three words: delay, deny or deceive,” Sanders said.

Sanders continued with a laundry list of City Hall sins over the past decade, beginning with two decisions by the City Council to underfund the pension system while increasing lavish benefits for certain employees, and then deceiving potential bond market investors about the depth of the problem.

Sanders finished his address with an impassioned call for everyone to do better. “I don’t ask you for your trust, because I believe I must earn that. But no one will work harder to earn it.”

The speech earned Sanders praise far and wide, including this from CityBeat: “ (I)n our view, he’s off to a great start, and, as long as he remains his own man and stays true to his own values, he’ll do just fine.”

Afterward, San Diego indeed began to address most of its worst financial problems.

Golding Calls for Radical Government Reform (2000)

Susan Golding was a generally popular mayor despite the infamous Chargers ticket guarantee and a failed bid U.S. Senate bid.

Her final State of the City address coincided with the dawn of the new millennium, and she wanted to make it count. She called for the city to break away from San Diego County and form its own city-county, much like San Francisco. The new government that would be more agile and accountable to the people, she said.

She later said she was trying to be provocative, but it was such a radical idea that few took it seriously.

“(T)he lunatic mischief of her final State of the City address left this city resident gasping for air,” wrote Union-Tribune columnist Logan Jenkins at the time.

Golding’s Call for a New Canal (1994)

Six years earlier, Golding made another daring proposal, calling for the development of a canal that would link San Diego and Mission bays. It was a two-decades-old idea that had never been taken seriously.

Here’s how Ron Roberts, then a City Council member, reacted, according to the Union-Tribune: “I think there’s always this feeling at State of the City addresses that there has to be some visionary, uplifting part of the speech. That probably makes sense, but there has got to be some realism to the vision or it becomes a cartoon … and if she’s talking about a canal linking that harbor and that bay, this falls into that category.”

Struiksma Makes History (1986)

The 1986 State of the City was not memorable for its content as much as who delivered it. Deputy Mayor Ed Struiksma gave the address, becoming San Diego’s first non-elected chief executive to do so in modern city history (Gloria will become the second).

Struiksma became acting mayor when Roger Hedgecock resigned in 1985 after convictions –later expunged – on conspiracy and perjury charges. Struiksma at the time was one of more than a dozen candidates to officially replace Hedgecock. As a mayoral hopeful, some believed it was improper for him to give the address.

“I didn’t listen to it after the fourth line,” then-Councilman Mike Gotch said in the Union-Tribune. “It read like campaign material, so, it wasn’t worth listening to.”

For the record, Struiksma assessed the state of San Diego as “excellent.”

Pete Wilson Comes (1972) and Goes (1983)

Wilson served three terms as San Diego’s mayor, perhaps becoming best known for shepherding in the era of redevelopment.

“We must take care that our downtown does not become a miniature Manhattan, deserted after 5 p.m. each day,” Wilson said in his inaugural 1972 speech.  “We must commit to aggressively seeking major retail activity downtown. We must, in short, do whatever we can to make our downtown livable rather than a place from which people flee at day’s end to the suburbs.”

All in all, Wilson gave 12 State of the City addresses, changing their form from a dry statistical accounting to impassioned pleas for change. Under Wilson, State of the City addresses became must-attend events.

Wilson saw the speech as a “clarion call to strike forth,” Otto Bos, his former press secretary, told the Union-Tribune.

Wilson loved the State of the City address so much he used it as his farewell speech. From the Union-Tribune:

Wilson gave his last on Jan. 2, 1983, a Sunday, his final day as mayor. With his eyes glistening and voice breaking, Wilson said farewell and called San Diego and its people “the best America has to offer.” Shortly after his 35-minute address, he and his top aides were on a plane to Washington, D.C., where Wilson was sworn in the next day as a U.S. senator.

Curran Gets the Ball Rolling (1964)

Curran made the most of his historic opportunity to give the first official State of the City address. His major policy proposal, that the city create an Economic Development Corp. to help lure new business and commerce, became reality two years later. It’s now the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.

“We must constantly be on the search for leadership and participation to achieve municipal progress. Urban problems, more than ever, challenge our imagination and courage,” Curran said.

Curran, who died in 1992, had his share of controversy, including a bribery scandal of which he was eventually exonerated, but not before it killed his chances for re-election. But if nothing else, Curran can be credited with a near-perfect State of the City address on his first try. He was passionate; he exhorted people to greatness and he didn’t overreach.

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Jonathan Heller

Jonathan Heller

Jonathan Heller is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego and a longtime San Diego journalist and communications professional. Please contact him directly at jgheller2565@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: @jonathanheller.

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