Thursday, June 30, 2005 | Voters go to the polls to make one of the most important decisions in San Diego’s history in less than four weeks, and they’ve just begun to get to know many of the candidates.

As the troupe of mayoral hopefuls scampers across town for the rapid-fire series of debates, interviews and television spots in this rushed election cycle, subtleties in style and substance have emerged between a group that includes an environmentalist, a former police chief, a CEO, a motorcycle dealer, a taxpayer activist and a bankruptcy attorney.

Eleven candidates officially qualified for the ballot at the end of May in the wake of Mayor Dick Murphy’s announced resignation. Of those, slightly more than half have put together effective public information campaigns.

One of them will be given the duty, be it in July or November, of extracting the nation’s seventh largest city from the murkiest of financial and legal muck.

The two frontrunners in the month-old campaign, Councilwoman Donna Frye and former police chief Jerry Sanders, take precise care in their speeches to remind crowds that they don’t merely need to trust them. Instead, both have begun saying lately, the public already knows them and their records: Frye as the maverick councilwoman who rarely voted with a City Council largely blamed on the campaign trail for today’s messes, and Sanders as the former patrolman who made decisions that affected San Diegans every day as chief.

The rest of the candidates went into the debate cycle weeks ago dealing with a lack of name recognition, lack of money to get their name known, or both. In the numerous debates over the course of the last two weeks – including two separate debates Wednesday before retired city workers and a downtown business group – each has forged a specific identity, leaving San Diegans to find stark enough contrasts in the personas of their candidates, if not in most of the financial plans.

Steve Francis

Francis also appeared calm and comfortable this week in debates after coming across as slightly tense and formulaic in the first gatherings. The founder of AMN Healthcare, Inc., a large provider of temporary health care staffing, Francis came into the debates as the candidate with the least experience dealing in local politics, and it showed as he often tripped his way through specifics.

However, the immaculately coiffed Francis grasped issues and arguments more strongly this week as his popularity rose in polls following the media blitz.

He at times quotes a plaque from Ronald Reagan’s desk and brings a simple message: He’s a businessman and an outsider. It’s a mantra repeated time and again in nearly every answer he gives.

“We’re going to need someone with business experience, someone from the outside,” Francis told retirees at the War Memorial Building in Balboa Park yesterday.

The 50-year-old former Nevada state legislator is consistent in his repeated message, though he continued to answer some specific questions with answers that were more or less unrelated.

For example, when asked by the moderator at the Downtown Partnership’s debate about how he would deal with three public projects downtown, Francis reverted back to criticism of the City Council. Relying on one of his frequent campaign lines, he accused members of “mortgaging our future for short-term political gain.”

And while Francis can boast a successful business career, his claim that he is an outsider without ties to the “nest of special interests at City Hall” raises doubts in some who refer to his ties to hotelier Doug Manchester, someone who has also used his independent wealth throughout the years to influence municipal decisions.

Francis, who has spent $750,000 of his own money on the campaign, is one of the few candidates to promise not to use Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to reorganize the city’s finances.

Donna Frye

In some debates, she has surprisingly read off of a prepared script for her opening or closing statement. Frye is the only candidate to advocate placing the pension system in receivership, a method she and others believe may be the only way to get the pension board to release documents sought by the city’s outside auditors and federal investigators.

Frye, who became somewhat of a national celebrity last year after her near-victory in the fall mayoral election, has also repeatedly pounded home one of her key campaign pillars: open and transparent government.

One of the biggest challenges for Frye, however, is shaking off the perception that she is unfriendly to the business community and not suited for the job of vast fiscal reform.

“I think part of your fear is that you don’t know me,” she said to the group of downtown business interests Wednesday. “And to know me is to love me.”

Richard Rider

In one debate, when two candidates stated that staying in their first marriage for too long was their biggest regret in life, Rider quipped that he better not choose that answer because he is still married.

The anti-tax advocate’s plan is based on one implemented in Indianapolis in the 1990s. Rider calls it the “Yellow Pages Test.” If there’s a company providing services that the city provides, he wants to pit city workers against the private sector to promote efficiency. This will force employees to become more efficient or their departments will become casualties to the free market.

“It’s all about getting more bang for your buck,” Rider said.

One of his key struggles will be just getting into all of the debates. The libertarian hasn’t been invited to a number of the debates, including the kick-off debate held by the Lincoln Club of San Diego County. The conservative business group didn’t invite Rider, he said, because he was “too Republican” for them.

He also admits that he’s not a visionary who will never get reelected.

“My popularity will start low and end up even lower, I suspect,” he said.

Then, there’s the nasty side of privatization that arose in Indianapolis, allegations of waste, mismanagement and scandal – a private version of today’s public San Diego.

Jerry Sanders

His competition has poked fun at him for the slow-trickle release of his financial plan, which has come out gradually since May in five chapters and given him lots of free media time. When pressed on specific financial measurements of the plan, the grandfatherly Sanders has said that he will need to get into the mayor’s office and open up the books before being able to calculate the savings. He has been measured, relaxed and funny in the debates.

He told retirees Wednesday that the solution to the city’s financial plan won’t be easy: “There is going to be pain for everybody and I’m sorry.”

Sanders, a former patrolman who has attracted the support of the city’s downtown business establishment, banks on a public trust built over six years as police chief and his experience in turning around two nonprofit agencies.

“Trust my record, trust my 26 years on the police department,” Sanders said.

Pat Shea

Shea’s still working on getting people to see past the word and actually look into the process, which he makes sound pretty great.

“If this were called basketball or eating a sandwich, you people would jump all over this,” Shea said at a debate last week.

He’s got low name identification outside of the civic community, and he’s got a campaign that’s built on one specific, in-depth financial program. It’s no frills, slogans or catch phrases.

None of the other financial plans will work, Shea says. So, San Diego can go through the bankruptcy process now and protect its assets or go through it in five years once its sold its land and raised taxes.

“I’m not here to throw candy off the fire truck at the Ocean Beach parade … This is about doing the structural finance work that gets us back out in our lifetime,” he said. “We don’t need to do this for the next 18 years. We can do it in a year or a year and a half.”

Myke Shelby

Shelby, who like Rider doesn’t get invited to all the debates, is airing television ads and is already known by many from other political campaigns and ads for his dealership.

His messages, despite being forcefully delivered, have varied. He’s called the city’s living wage ordinance a fraud and a welfare program, but he’s also been the most sensitive toward city employees on the campaign trail. Shelby has called for San Diegans to feel good and optimistic about their city, but warned them that illegal aliens and terrorists are ominous threats because of mayoral neglect of border security.

“I think instilling confidence in the people of San Diego is our number one job,” he said.

Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at

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