Tuesday, May 31, 2005 | Ronne Froman is the personable retired admiral whose heroics in providing low-cost Navy housing in San Diego are remembered gratefully by a generation of Navy families. Her performance seemed almost a revival of the classic Jimmy Stewart role in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

During her hyperactive years as San Diego’s Navy mayor, she exploited her insider wiles from years of junior command at the Pentagon to lobby both Pentagon and Congress to fund public housing for thousands of homeless Navy families in the San Diego region and throughout the entire 11th Naval District that she commanded. More than 5,000 units were eventually built, most of them in San Diego, through a public/private Pentagon contract such as Ronne Froman had proposed, pointing out their effectiveness in the California market. It was the first time the Navy had approved such a contract.

Currently, she serves as chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

In mid-aged retirement, she has been beseeched by many San Diegans, including this reporter, to run for mayor or to offer herself as a candidate for city manager. She has always declined.

But on Saturday afternoon, as my wife Judith and I chanced on Admiral Froman browsing a linens sale at Macy’s, I renewed my urgings that, at this desperate civic hour, finally, she get involved.

And this time, she grinned.

“I was getting ready to tell you,” she said. “Jerry Sanders and I have worked together on a lot of civic business over the years. We are friends. We sat down some time ago and looked at each other and said, ‘OK, which one of us is going to give in and run for mayor?’”

Sanders, by now, of course, has announced he will run. Ronne, to almost no one’s surprise, has declined again to seek office. But the big news from our meeting at Macy’s is that she has signed on with her own public pledge.

“If Jerry is elected mayor,” she said, “he has my promise that I’ll serve as his chief of staff.”

Such a dual candidacy makes eminent sense. No matter which mayoral candidate you favor, this is constructive thinking. In a perfect world, each mayoral candidate would do the same, announcing publicly who would serve at his or her side.

What makes this so screamingly obvious are the circumstances of Mayor Dick Murphy’s disastrous fall.

If history ever were to provide a reasonable understanding of the impenetrable Murphy catastrophe, it will focus on John Kern, his wily chief of staff. How could a sound, sensible, well-educated, likable mayor like Murphy, his judgment and instincts sharpened by his years in the law and as a Superior Court judge, become so seemingly oblivious to the corruption that built within his own camp?

The answer lies in Kern, who once went to the trouble of denying descriptions of him as Murphy’s Rasputin. Kern is a brilliant political strategist and manipulator. He proved it as campaign manager for Murphy, who was not expected to have a chance to win the mayoral race.

But then a grateful Murphy exposed his naivete in political affairs by rewarding Kern with appointment as his chief of staff. Murphy has said often that he has no political instincts. Murphy brought Kern along to handle the politics of his mayoral years. But Kern had no administrative acumen or training. He is a campaigner, not a manager. His years in political affairs had marked him with a cynical absorption in cronies and deals.

As Murphy passed off the political side of his mayoral role to Kern, he exposed his fatal lack of understanding: He failed to realize he was taking an irretraceable step toward stranding himself as a figurehead, a charming and efficient presiding officer at city council and a warm and reassuring presence at local groundbreakings and dedications.

Meanwhile, it was Kern who made the power deals in Murphy’s back offices. Almost certainly, he reported on each to Murphy. Almost certainly he briefed Murphy on such liaisons. The question may go unanswered as to whether Kern told Murphy of those deals’ implications – and whether Murphy failed to understand, or refused to understand.

Freed to make deal after deal, Kern found his experience in managing political campaigns for a soaring and ambitious San Diego labor movement imbued him with the vision of a labor takeover of City Hall.

That, in effect, is what happened in the city pension fund miasma. Some pending criminal charges hinge on an exchange of letters between City Hall and labor union leaders, conspiring in explicit quid pro quo to run up the pension deficit while declaring additional benefits for insiders both at City Hall and in union halls.

Deals like these have brought the city down, and aspiring mayoral candidates will all be offering their own views of how to bring the city upright again. With the nightmare of Kern’s back-room regime still vivid, it would prove interesting to San Diego voters to know what chief of staff each mayoral candidate would appoint. Voters would have a chance to decide whether checks and balances were likely to be in balance in the mayor’s office. They could more readily hope that a runaway mayor or a runaway chief of staff might be brought into harness by the other.

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