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Thursday, April 28, 2005 | Mayor Dick Murphy’s resignation this week isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that some San Diegans are shocked – and even embarrassed – that something like this could happen here.
But they shouldn’t be.
Many San Diegans simply don’t know that the history of San Diego is most characterized by government and civic corruption.
San Diegans lack an understanding of local history, a necessary component for the populace of a truly global city.
Understanding history, and the role an individual can play in it, motivates people to take action in civic affairs.
Tens of thousands of people move here every year, many of them young, with the goal of enjoying San Diego’s beaches, weather and low unemployment. Justifiably, they have little interest in local history and rarely participate in civic affairs.
Mike Davis, a MacArthur Award-winning urban theorist and an El Cajon native, describes San Diego’s political character better than anyone in the book “Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See.” He coauthored with San Diego City College professors Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew months before our councilmen went under investigation for taking bribes from strip club lobbyists or word of the pension underfunding was published.
Davis writes: “Wall Street aside, San Diego is arguably the nation’s capital of white collar crime … It is also the seat of chronic municipal corruption to rival that of Youngstown (Ohio) or Providence (Rhode Island).”
A short lesson:
The first mayor of San Diego was elected in 1850 and his name was Joshua Bean. He was a Wild West saloon owner and his brother was Roy Bean, the legendary Texas judge who ordered the hanging of nearly every defendant who entered his courtroom. Mayor Bean was killed by a man in an argument over a woman. His belongings went to his brother, whom the mayor had appointed to a high-ranking post in the California State Militia in a moment of uninhibited nepotism.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the most powerful man in the city was C. Arnholt Smith, who owned the Westgate Hotel, the Padres, a taxi company, even an airline. Smith, a campaign contributor close to President Nixon and “Mr. San Diego of the Century” in The San Diego Union, was arrested in one of the largest corporate fraud schemes in American history in 1975.
Less than two years after winning his election to mayor of San Diego – thanks to an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, surfers, low-wage workers, progressives and gays – Roger Hedgecock resigned from office in 1985 because he accepted more than $300,000 in laundered campaign contributions from a single source and took another illegal $120,000 to remodel his house.
Just as with Murphy, articles prominently describing Hedgecock’s failures appeared in Time magazine in October 1985.
Corruption and failure in government leadership are not new here.
Thankfully, as demonstrated by popular overwhelming frustration with local government today, San Diegans, even young ones, are gaining an understanding of the vocal role they must have in civic affairs.
But why is it important for San Diegans to know local history?
Because history translates into culture, and we cannot allow this history – or this culture – to translate into our future.
Ramsey Green is a native San Diegan and manages a regional energy efficiency program. He has taught high school social studies in south Louisiana, organized political campaigns and worked in politics and public policy within San Diego and New York City. He graduated from New York University in 2001. Reach him at