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Tuesday, November 08, 2005 | On a warm, breezy day two Octobers ago, mayoral candidate Peter Q. Davis stood on the lip of San Diego Bay as the city’s emergency firefighting helicopter performed its last training exercise of the season. Mayor Dick Murphy was allowing the helicopter’s lease to expire, Davis said, just as the Santa Ana winds kicked up and the fire season approached.

The largest wildfire in California history ripped through San Diego a night later. Entire neighborhoods burned helplessly to the ground and people died. The mayor’s race that was supposed to be a breeze for Murphy turned into a political storm that has yet to end.

Entire subdivisions have been rebuilt in the two years since, but the search for San Diego’s next leader continues.

“This may be the longest mayor’s race in the nation’s history – in fact, I’m sure it is,” said Steve Erie, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.

That should all end today when voters go to the polls to choose between City Councilwoman Donna Frye and former police Chief Jerry Sanders. But then again, using the past as precedent, nothing is certain in San Diego politics these days.

The race for mayor began more than two years ago, before there was a Pension Reform Committee validating many of pension whistleblower Diann Shipione’s early warnings. The city had a near perfect credit rating. The Justice Department’s interest remained only in the dabbling in strip club regulations by three young councilmen. It had yet to launch a broader probe into City Hall corruption.

The public, and Securities and Exchange Commission, had little reason to question the integrity of the city’s financial disclosures.

To be sure, early cracks in the city’s foundation existed and a few dissenters saw the warning signs. But it was generally thought that a second Murphy term was a lock.

“It was probably the fires – that was when the glow on the Murphy administration began to dull,” said Cynthia Vicknair, a political consultant who worked on Murphy’s 2000 campaign.

If the fires were the spark of the public’s doubt in Murphy, there was a long line of gunpowder in the background.

The bad news seemed to cascade as the election moved along. In February 2004, the public learned of federal investigations into city politics and finances. In September of that year, reports by the city’s hired investigator and the Pension Reform Committee confirmed that the pension problem wasn’t the result of poor stock market returns, as Murphy and others had claimed.

“The biggest change was the announcement of the investigation by the SEC in February 2004. Up until that point I thought there was a good shot we could take it in the primary,” said John Kern, Murphy’s former chief of staff.

Eventually, it became fact: the city had serious problems. Its credit rating was revoked by one of the three major credit rating firms and its fiscal year 2003, 2004 and 2005 audits all remain stalled pending the completion of an investigation into alleged wrongdoing in the pension and wastewater systems.

Its fiscal house resembled one of the charred homes at the end of a Scripps Ranch cul-de-sac.

The city was ready to settle things.

“One thing that’s really clear in the past two years is that people have grown to understand that our city government does not work very effectively or very well and that’s certainly a surprise,” said political consultant Larry Remer.

Despite the prescience of Davis’ October press conference, he placed third in the March primary. That meant the city had two choices: the incumbent Murphy or county Supervisor Ron Roberts. It was the same all-Republican choice voters saw in 2000.

Then Frye jumped into the race with only five weeks to go, energizing the local and national media with a status-quo-challenging superstar campaign that ended in victory. Nearly.

On Nov. 2, 2004, Frye grabbed enough votes to win. But a judge ruled that more than 5,000 votes in her favor were invalid; the voters had failed to properly shade the oval next to the blank write-in space.

Court challenges swung back and forth in Murphy’s first months of his second term. An air of illegitimacy tailed him. The commanding mandate needed to steer a city though a stifling pension deficit was absent.

New City Attorney Mike Aguirre, keen to public perception and bent on righting perceived wrongs, made the unpopular Murphy’s brief second term nearly impossible. During the council hearings that Murphy presided over, public speakers frequently addressed Frye as “Mayor Frye.”

Suffocated by strong criticism from as close as council chambers and as far away as Time magazine, Murphy spent only five months in office before announcing his resignation in April.

The race for his successor began that day. The first to declare their candidacies, Frye and Sanders emerged from a crowd of 11 in July and have been slogging through San Diego’s electoral drama ever since.

“I’m still amazed that things are as bad as they are,” said Darren Pudgil, Roberts’ chief of staff. “They have continued to get worse. The problems have escalated to the extent the public is rather furious at what has happened to their city and they are in a desperate search for a leader.”

The hope is that the search ends Tuesday.

“The past two years have been about people. Let’s hope the next several years will be about policy and getting out of this mess,” said Chris Niemeyer, executive director of the Lincoln Club of San Diego.

Indeed, the city’s financial problems don’t end with the vote count.

“This is a wedding day that lasts about as long as the vows,” Niemeyer added. “You’ve got to get to work right away.”

The city has no credit rating and, therefore, it has no access to public financial markets to borrow money for projects such as sewer upgrades, road repairs and other infrastructure construction. It can’t regain that credit rating until three years of back-logged audits are completed.

The investigation into wrongdoing that is supposedly holding up that audit has been ongoing since April 2004 and been undertaken by a now-disgraced law firm, the city attorney and, most recently, an audit committee. The committee, headed by former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, charges more than $800,000 a month and just announced that its December deadline had been scrapped and no new deadlines has surfaced.

Six former pension officials face felony corruption charges brought by the District Attorney’s Office. And even if the scandals of the past have forced from office a mayor and a host of officials, the ongoing SEC and FBI investigations hang over City Hall, a stern reminder of what the next mayor inherits on day one.

“The idea that we’re all the sudden going to have a new mayor and the problems are over, I think is wishful thinking for San Diegans,” Vicknair said. “The good news is we will finally have someone in the mayor’s chair who will have a majority of voters’ support and the political authority to move ahead, take charge and implement a plan.”

That is, if everything goes as planned.

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