Wednesday, April 27, 2005 | Mayor Dick Murphy did the right thing after doing the wrong thing. The right thing was to resign, understanding that his base of support had eroded and San Diego could not begin to tackle its problems without a new mayor.

The wrong thing was to run for a second term last year. Had he followed his gut instincts, which were always better than his political ones, he would have stepped down after one term. Instead, he let the amorphous “downtown business community” talk him into running again and, like George W. Bush, won an election thanks to a court ruling.

But gaining – or losing – a mayor is not like gaining or losing a president. Had Bush not been seated by the Supreme Court, both the nation and the world would have a very different look today, and likely far rosier ones. Presidents not only make wars, but make economic policy affecting us all. Mayors, in a city like San Diego, have very little impact on our lives, although that will be changing.

We know the issues that drove Murphy to resign. The City Council badly underfinanced the city’s pension funds, an action that degraded the city’s credit rating, driving up the costs of financing and attracting the attention of federal prosecutors and regulators. The word “bankruptcy” is heard, though the idea of politicians voluntarily turning political affairs over to the courts seems far-fetched.

Murphy could have faced up to the pension problem, but his win in November with a third of the vote in an election he would have lost had not the courts nullified some of Donna Frye’s write-in votes, cast an immediate cloud over his second term. Then came the thousand cuts inflicted by new City Attorney Michael Aguirre, a man for whom politics equals bullfighting as a blood sport, and, finally, the coup de grace delivered by Time magazine, naming Murphy one of the three worst mayors in America, along with those of Detroit and Philadelphia.

Detroit, Philadelphia and San Diego? You must be kidding. What does America’s finest city – with its sunny beaches, new downtown, full employment, rising home prices, growing population, splendid universities, growing tourist and biotech industries – have in common with tired old Eastern cities like Detroit and Philadelphia, with their declining populations, declining tax bases and inner city messes?

San Diego will now get a new mayor. The City Council should elect someone to fill out Murphy’s term, and preference must go to Frye, who won a plurality of votes in November and who still could be declared the winner of that election by a state appeals court. This is not the time for another general election in which the likes of Aguirre and Ron Roberts seek to politicize the issues and polarize the community. Nor do we need the invisible hand of the “downtown business community” pulling strings to produce a mayor, as it did in November, the electorate does not want.

The larger question San Diego faces is how did we get into this mess? What happened to produce a dynamic where we are now lumped with Detroit and Philadelphia as among the worst-run U.S. cities?

Institutionally, we have failed to evolve. Maybe it made sense to adopt a city manager form of government in 1931 when San Diego had a population of 150,000, but it makes no sense today. Voters recognized that fact in November when they approved a ballot measure that will, after January, make the mayor, not the unelected city manager the city’s chief executive and give him the financial accountability mayors have not had. When the council approves a mayor to fill Murphy’s term, that person will have, after January, more power than any San Diego mayor has ever had.

Part of the institutional problem has been the failure of the city’s power brokers to exercise their power responsibly. The nexus between the “downtown business community,” which is euphemism for “Republican Party,” and The San Diego Union-Tribune, a Republican newspaper, has corrupted city democracy. Had Murphy not been persuaded to run again and endorsed by the Union-Tribune, we might have been spared this debacle.

The Union-Tribune‘s decision last November to oppose Proposition F, which establishes the strong mayor system, was unprincipled. The newspaper had campaigned for a strong mayor system from the days Pete Wilson first proposed it more than 30 years ago. But Union-Tribune owner David Copley was persuaded by the “downtown business community” to oppose Proposition F because of the possibility that Frye, a Democrat, might win the election.

Both votes displayed the newspaper’s influence: In 1973, when Wilson first put a strong-mayor system on the ballot, it lost 2-1. In November, when the Union-Tribune opposed it, it won a majority.

Murphy never hid his distaste for politics, but in the end that distaste served the city well. Most politicians have to be dragged from office, which is why we have term limits. Murphy understood that the city needed a new start and voluntarily stepped aside. It was a generous and courageous thing to do.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune, and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Most recently, he was a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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