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Thursday, March 1, 2007 | It was a funny scene: Two mayors, one long removed from office and one sitting in the office, talking on the phone together with thousands of people listening.

The mayor sitting in the Mayor’s Office was Jerry Sanders. The other mayor, whose time at the top of City Hall came and went a couple of decades ago, was Roger Hedgecock. It was one of Sanders’ weekly appearances on Hedgecock’s radio show.

Hedgecock hit the current mayor with some emotionally charged questions like why he would advocate that homeless people sleep in the doorsteps of local businesses. It was a wild, and intentional, distortion of the mayor’s position on a new policy that keeps the police from issuing tickets to people sleeping in open public — not private — property.

Sanders handled Hedgecock’s questions with chuckles and ease. But while he took the questions and spoke to Hedgecock’s large audience, the mayor was busy staring at a computer screen and clicking away at his mouse.

I imagined that he was being fed talking points from one of his many press assistants sitting in an adjacent room. Or perhaps, I thought, he was madly looking up supporting documents in files set up just for him to use in situations like this.

So I asked.

No. He was playing Freecell: the computer solitaire card game. While many people would be at least a little self-conscious doing an interview with the fiery afternoon talk-radio host, to Sanders, the experience seemed like a relaxing interlude to his busy day.

And he should be at ease with the media — dealing with journalists and broadcasters occupies much of his time.

Let’s take that day, Thursday, Feb. 22: At 7 a.m., Sanders appeared on KUSI’s morning news program. A few hours later, he was holding a press conference with environmentalists who supported his push to raise sewer rates citywide. A little after 4 p.m., I was sitting in his office. Soon after that, he was talking with Hedgecock.

It is fair to say that image and public outreach is not an afterthought in Sanders’ administration. It is one of the highest priorities.

I think I’ve been, over more than a year, one of the strongest critics of the mayor’s policies and public rhetoric. So, I decided to try to spend some time with him occasionally to have a conversation. He agreed. Maybe, over time, these meetings can be a more intense back and forth, but this first one in the series was pleasant.

I did have a couple of specific questions to get into with him and I didn’t have much time.

In his answers, he may have made some news. For instance: He has decided that if National City actually does come up with a viable plan for a new Chargers’ stadium, he’ll work to provide city of San Diego land that could be handed over to the Chargers and their partners for development as a way to finance the deal.

This is the most specific expression I’ve heard from Sanders about what the city might do to help a neighbor build a new football stadium.

“If National City is the one that can put it together, then we’re going to have to find some way to provide them some property. When we say ‘provide property,’ I don’t want to mislead the public into thinking that it’s just a gift. What we’re talking about is redeveloping an area that would generate tax increment and sales tax and other things that you have to do to help balance out a deal for the Chargers,” Sanders said.

But the mayor said that he hadn’t made the same conclusion that San Diego would need to help any other neighboring city build a new stadium. Oceanside and Chula Vista have both talked about getting in the game.

And there was another point I wanted to ask the mayor about. A few weeks ago, City Attorney Mike Aguirre accused one of the mayor’s top aides of corruption. An office tower being built near Montgomery Field airport had been built too high for comfort. The city didn’t stop its construction. Aguirre said that was a result of corruption.

I wanted to know what the mayor, personally, thought of such an accusation.

“I told Mike I didn’t care for that a bit. I was very direct with him. With his assertion — that I did not think was valid even in the least — he was really saying that I was corrupt,” Sanders said.

I tried to remember that I was there to just talk with Sanders — to get a feel for how he thinks. But I had one other serious question. Our news team reported recently that Sanders told a group of supporters that he was going to run for reelection.

He didn’t deny it.

“I’m aiming toward that,” Sanders said. “We’re just waiting until we find out when the primaries are and then we’ll make a final decision.”

How was it being mayor?

The former police chief said politics was a “completely different experience” than his career in the police department. Obviously, right? But he made an interesting point:

“People may violently disagree in the police department but it’s always over little things because everyone’s thought process has been similarly molded for 20 to 30 years by the time you get up to the decision-making level,” Sanders said.

Politics, on the other hand, is a different game.

“Here, people are usually 180 degrees away from each other on most issues,” he said.

At his office that day he was easygoing. I’d like to see him mad sometime, just because I can’t picture it.

He seemed anxious to talk to his daughters. He was quite aware of his own schedule that day — it didn’t seem like he needed someone to remind him of where and when he had commitments.

A block of space was set aside on his calendar — one of the two pieces of software he knows how to navigate on a computer (Freecell being the other). The space was marked “personal.”

How was his wife taking the experience?

“The only concern she has are the times when I’ll get home, and it will have been a long day — almost every day is a long one — and I won’t be able to unwind immediately. She’ll want to chat and I’ll say ‘I really don’t want to talk right now. You need to give me some space.’”

He said that tactic doesn’t work so well.

“That always concerns women, I think, when you don’t want to give everything out all at once and you’re still trying to unwind. They don’t take that very well,” he said.

I hope that doesn’t get him in trouble because I had a good chat with the mayor. I’ll try to do this as often as possible to keep a little perspective. The coming budget season is surely going to be a tense one.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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