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Tuesday, June 28, 2005 | As I struggle to learn from the charming patter of their current televised road shows, our mayoral candidates appear not only numerous and gracious, but of absurdly differing levels of perception and preparation.

Yet it is only a month before we must vote on one of these as the mayor who tries to lead this city through the most difficult years of San Diego civic history.

The bad years will not be over when this next mayor takes office. They will be just beginning.

The first demand we should place on these candidates is that they closely study the ordeals of the great city of New York in the years following its near bankruptcy in 1975.

Until they do, I fear these candidates have only vague images of what they are trying to get into. The honor of being elected mayor is a fine addition to any family genealogy.

But until they understand the extent of the problems ahead, they cannot tell us what, above all, a voter needs to know now: How will they lead our city through its coming Gethsemane?

It took New York’s city government six years after the 1975 crash to make the city bondable again, to win back the ability to borrow money to maintain city services. They had to convince the world’s toughest bankers that the custodians of city government were prudent and would not go broke again.

In those six years, to avoid bankruptcy, the city of New York was forced to renegotiate every contract that it had signed with labor unions, lenders, contractors, state and federal government.

I wonder how many of our mayoral candidates understand the civic ordeals ahead; it’s safe to assume that most of the rest of us don’t.

This mayor must gather proven economic advisers that have been through such crises. They will need to be wise and durable enough to endure four punishing years like those six that New York endured.

The tone that disturbs me with some of the current mayoral candidates is that they and their consultants have worked up nice little talks about their experiences, their triumphs, their personalities and their allies.

But they are not running for Miss or Mr. America.

Their handlers may think they are in a popularity contest, but they are running for the most difficult years of their lives, every minute of it out there in public, not just hours sitting in the highest chair at City Council meetings, but dueling with lawyers and judges, accountants and investigators – and with the persistent pressures of inquiring media, hoping to atone for past oversights that allowed the present chaos to develop unheralded.

One will become the first San Diego mayor to assume strong administrative powers, rather than to be simply an exalted member of City Council. One will be asked to lead this city out of its worst economic debacle.

I remember how enthusiastic I was, six years ago, about a Superior Court judge whom everybody admired – Dick Murphy. I wrote that it would take a judge to clean up City Hall. I shared in civic pride at his sacrifice in leaving a lifetime position in the courts to serve his city.

Yet now even Dick Murphy leaves City Hall in disgrace. This is not a small-town job. Under the newly increased powers that voters have handed to this mayor, he will need to be competent to serve as CEO of a major business and to deal with a board of directors of more than a million citizens. Not everyone is prepared for this job. Just ask Dick Murphy.

Let’s remember, as we hear these candidates, to try to project each one forward a year in our minds. Imagine each one leading in rebuilding a broken city.

Ask which might manage to lead even while having both sides angry at him or her for doing what he or she believed was the right thing.

I suspect we would not have so many candidates for mayor if they all understood what is required of that mayor in the next four years. The questions we should be asking them are about whether they understand the problem, and whether they are prepared.

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