Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007 | Over a breakfast of omelets and fresh fruit, Mayor Jerry Sanders made himself clear to a group of his heftiest political supporters two weeks ago: He will be seeking a second term in next year’s elections.

Sanders has not publicly announced his aspirations for reelection, but the announcement — confirmed by several attendees of the Jan. 22 event — signals Sanders’ efforts to shore up political and financial support before any other potential challengers can begin courting them.

While the presentation focused on Sanders’ plans for reorganizing the city government to compensate for looming funding shortfalls for pension, retiree health care and infrastructure, the mayor mentioned his intentions to run for a second term during his remarks, attendees said.

The move allows Sanders to begin staking out commitments from the political players whose endorsements and fundraising prowess aided his 2005 mayoral race and last fall’s passage of Propositions B and C.

“It’s very common practice to get out early if you are in a very strong position like the mayor is, with a strong approval rating, to signal that you have the intention of running for reelection,” said Republican political consultant Ben Haddad, who noted that he did not attend the breakfast meeting or know about Sanders’ announcement. “If you leave things uncertain for too long, you might encourage others to get into the race. If you had announced earlier, you could have headed things off.”

The announcement was delivered at the Town & Country Resort to about three dozen members of the business and real estate community who had contributed to the mayor’s past campaigns. Attendees spoke about the event on the condition of anonymity because of the mayor’s decision to make his plans public at a later date.

Sanders would not comment on the announcement in an interview this week. “I’ve spoken to my supporters about a lot of things, but that’s not something I’m going to comment on right now,” he said.

Attendees said they sensed Sanders wanted to provide the crowd full of political kingmakers an early indication in hopes backers will maintain their allegiance before any other potential candidates begin to feel out their support. “I think it was basically to discourage others from getting into the race,” one booster said. “That was the message: Don’t sign up with anyone else, don’t get in with anyone else, because I’ll be running.”

One supporter guessed that the hint was dropped out of protection from a challenge by someone of the same Republican ilk as Sanders, such as his 2005 opponent, healthcare magnate Steve Francis. In that primary election, Sanders and Francis split the business community’s support and Francis garnered the county Republican Party’s endorsement before Sanders prevailed. Francis spent about $2 million of his own money in that campaign, and experts predicted his deep pockets would likely make him an immediate contender if he jumped in.

“Steve Francis is somebody who had the means to wage a citywide race by himself, so you have to take someone like that seriously,” Haddad said.

Although Francis said he has not decided yet whether he will run for mayor, he has inserted himself into the policy side of City Hall by founding a think tank, the San Diego Institute for Policy Research.

And while other business leaders have publicly rallied around the mayor, Francis has not shied away in criticism. For instance, Sanders has laid out a 5-year forecast to pay off the city’s various liabilities, and claims the first year’s deficit, which is $87 million, will be plugged through cuts and layoffs by the time the budget season ends this June. In an interview Tuesday, Francis said, “What good is a plan with $500 million deficit if there’s no plan to solve it? It’s borderline comical.”

Other potential candidates that have been rumored for a run are Port Commissioner Steve Cushman, former state Sen. Steve Peace and City Councilwoman Donna Frye, who beat out both Sanders and Francis in the 2005 primary before Sanders defeated her in a runoff. In interviews, Cushman and Peace denied an interest in seeking the Mayor’s Office in 2008, and Frye said it was “highly improbable.”

Supporters and observers said they expect Sanders’ second campaign to focus on asking voters to allow him to continue working through the city’s financial problems. Sanders repeatedly underscores that he inherited the city’s billion-dollar pension and retiree health care deficits, a crumbling infrastructure and a suspended credit rating that prevents the city from borrowing money for construction projects at optimal interest rates. By highlighting some improvement in those areas and a plan for correcting the remaining deficiencies, Sanders can make a strong case for reelection, they said.

“I think the business community is very, very supportive of Jerry and see that the job at hand is perhaps more difficult than any of us have ever imagined,” said Cox Communications Vice President Bill Geppert, who said he did not attend the Jan. 22 meeting.

Francis said “the jury’s still out,” and said Sanders had the pressure of showing that his plans will move the city forward. “The tough decisions have not yet been made and the vision of how to close the gap has not been articulated,” Francis said. “Until that’s articulated, it’s very difficult to decide whether the mayor performed what he promised in his campaign.”

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