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After three years of searching for a long-term home for San Diego’s international airport, members of the airport authority this week drafted ballot language for a November initiative that would essentially pass their charge onto a vague group: government officials.

Should San Diego County government officials, the draft language reads, make every effort possible to persuade Congress and the military to open up a chunk of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar for use as a commercial airport?

With San Diego’s congressional delegation unmoved by Miramar and few other political heavyweights in the region stepping into the fray, airport authority officials’ eyes are turning to one government official in particular: San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.

The new mayor, still reveling in his post-election honeymoon popularity, is just six months into a tenure that will be dominated and judged by the success of his financial turnaround plan. But both existing Lindbergh Field and Miramar fall within San Diego city limits, and few elected officials enjoy the reach and popularity of the former police chief.

So what role could Sanders play in the airport authority’s push toward Miramar?

“The same role that Churchill played in the Second World War,” said William D. Lynch, an airport authority board member who favors Miramar. “And if he’s a (Neville) Chamberlain, kiss your ass goodbye.”

But airport boosters are unlikely to find in Sanders the outspoken champion they desire. Sanders would have to be willing to expend a massive batch of his early political capital on an issue that carries a sizable political downside and no clear-cut upside.

Even if voters approve the November ballot, it would take an act of Congress or the acquiescence of a defiant military to actually place a commercial airport inside Miramar’s 23,000-acre confines.

“It’s not our place to select a champion, but it definitely needs one,” said Paul G. Nieto, a San Diego County Regional Airport Authority board member who supports the Miramar initiative. “Hopefully it would be not just [Sanders] but a number of folks. But certainly the mayor of San Diego would carry a lot of weight.”

As testament to the prickly political path facing the initiative, Sanders is expected to take a nuanced, neutral stance on Miramar when he makes his announcement. The Mayor’s Office has scheduled a press conference for 10 a.m. Wednesday.

The Sanders camp has been busy formulating a strategy on the issue, which has the potential to shape the look and economy of San Diego for decades into the future. An airport authority committee’s decision to draft tentative ballot language Monday has forced the mayor to articulate his stance on Miramar for the first time.

“The authority’s position caught us a bit by surprise,” said Fred Sainz, Sanders’ spokesman.

If Sanders were to support the airport authority’s push, he would likely win points with the business community. He would lose points with the military, an industry he has championed for San Diego, and the voters of the influential neighborhoods that ring the Miramar base.

Though Sanders doesn’t have the sway in the airport debate that mayors in Denver or Los Angeles have had – airports there are city-run, not regionally run – he is center-stage here, said Steve Erie, director of the Urban Studies and Planning program at the University of California, San Diego. The mayor can be a cheerleader, Erie said, and form vital alliances with the congressional delegation.

At least in theory.

“Jerry is preoccupied with other issues,” Erie said, “and it’s a hot-button issue that could cost him votes. When you’ve got an airport in military hands basically you’re dead in the water unless the mayor is willing to take it on. This mayor has a full plate.”

Indeed, Sanders was elected last fall to rescue the city of San Diego from its dire political and fiscal straights – highlighted by a $1.4 billion pension deficit that threatens to consume annual city budgets for years to come absent a successful financial reform package. Just last month, he asked the City Council to allow the Chargers to negotiate with other cities in the county over new stadium demands, saying the city’s fiscal woes left him little time to engage the football team in serious talks.

His predecessor, former Mayor Dick Murphy, left the new airport as one of the unfinished of his famous 10 goals for his tenure when he suddenly resigned last year. The airport periodically came up as a question on the campaign trail last year, but the city’s immediate struggles have pushed the airport to the periphery.

When Denver made its push to build a new international airport in the early 1990s, the process spanned two mayors and some 20 City Council members. They united behind it, as did the region’s congressional delegation, said Stephanie Foote, a former Denver City Councilwoman and deputy mayor who helped oversee the airport’s construction.

“It has to be championed by the elected officials and the business community,” said Wellington Webb, Denver’s mayor from 1993 to 2001. “And it has to be viewed as what’s in the long-range, best interest of the community.”

Webb, who oversaw construction, and Mayor Federico Peña, who conceived the idea, each spent four years with little else on their agendas, Foote said, except for getting the airport built.

“It was a struggle every single day for eight or nine years,” Foote said. “That’s where you have to have the political will. We never had an easy day – because you’re building an airport.”

Please contact the reporters directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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