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Friday, Aug. 11, 2006 | As more bad news came down from city hall, I felt I had to at least try. I called Pete Wilson, the most effective mayor San Diego has ever known, and asked him what Mayor Jerry Sanders should be doing.
The 11 years that Pete Wilson was mayor of San Diego – from 1971-83 – should be reexamined as a new regime seeks to shape itself at city hall.
Despite the bankruptcy threat, there is no reason why Jerry Sanders’ tenure should be less successful than Wilson’s, during which a seedy downtown was salvaged and reborn, tax inequalities adjusted and runaway sub-dividers reined in.
Wilson later became a United States senator and governor of California, but he was never again as audacious as during his San Diego years.
Smart deeds flourished at city hall. Wilson chose his staff for talent, not for politics. He built alliances within the City Council to support his ambitious goals for rejuvenating our city. To demonstrate his toughness in his first month, he shut down a public school that was flouting city regulations.
When Teamsters Union organizers from Los Angeles threatened to shut down Lindbergh Field if San Diego city police were not unionized, Wilson called a 7 a.m. media conference to make their blackmail public. That ended it.
Pete was a persuasive politician, but it was the city itself that profited from his dealings. Leaning hard on the developer Ernie Hahn, he caused Horton Plaza to appear as the lifeline of a dying downtown. The first San Diego downtown apartment towers rose to join El Cortez Hotel in the city’s first tentative high-rise skyline.
He understood blackmail too. He quietly warned builders that if they wanted to continue to receive permits for profitable home subdivisions, they’d have to invest in rebuilding downtown.
Neither Wilson nor any back-lobby colleagues grew rich from his tenure.
I wish I could announce a Pete Wilson platform for San Diego today. I asked him for one, but he’s far too wise to play that game. As he says more politely, it’s none of his business. But, from the first exposure of the city’s pension fund disaster, he urged bankruptcy for the city. He was probably right then too.
Twenty-three years after Wilson’s tenure as mayor, San Diego is different. As Wilson recognizes, labor unions – and particularly the public employees union – are far more powerful. Money floods into government from unions and Indian casino gambling.
But it was the wry old Wilson who said to me: “We are seeing far too many people in government everywhere who can tolerate anything but the reform of political corruption. The trouble is, too few people in government are exercising common sense. And we are seeing a level of spending that not even Ronald Reagan would have tolerated.”