In covering Steve Francis’ campaign announcement this week, I couldn’t help but think back to the first time he announced he was running for mayor in 2005.

Virtually a political unknown at that point, Francis’ introduction to the San Diego press corps was a total bomb.

From my May 20, 2005 story:

It was a puzzling start for a wealthy, unknown candidate running for a vacated mayoral seat in the United States’ most dysfunctional city.

Steve Francis, the candidate insider Republicans have been raving about since Dick Murphy announced his resignation April 25, was unveiled to the media Thursday outside City Hall on a cloudless morning.

And after a reading from a prepared speech with his wife and son at his side, Francis was quickly whisked away by his well-paid throng of celebrity consultants without taking questions from the bank of assembled journalists.

“Hey, Steve, we’re over here,” cried one journalist.

The reporters and cameramen then followed the rapidly retreating health care executive to the City Clerk’s Office, where he again refused to answer questions from reporters standing only inches away. He stood looking straight ahead, waiting for a clerk to bring him campaign papers.

“Why do you want to be mayor?” one quizzed, for example.

“…” Francis replied, not looking at the questioner.

“Why aren’t you answering questions?” another unsanctioned question came.

“…” Francis replied, not looking at the questioner.

George Gorton, a consultant who has run campaigns for Pete Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Boris Yeltsin, told reporters that Francis would not be answering questions Thursday and such an action was normal for campaigns.

Both of the other declared candidates, Councilwoman Donna Frye and former police chief Jerry Sanders, always answer questions and then regularly speak one-on-one with reporters after their press conferences.

Francis then went into a room in the clerk’s office to complete his paperwork. His consultants gauged the press’ discontent. They chatted to each other and on cell phones. After nearly 30 minutes of contemplation, they allowed Francis to take a limited number of questions from the press. 

His handlers played it off as if Francis had to meet strict time guidelines, like business people do. But even as he waited around for a clerk he didn’t answer simple questions from reporters.

The tactic clearly backfired, leaving the press corps agape.

Needless to say, Tuesday’s announcement went off a bit better — and with the help of applause from a throng of campaign staff and supporters. Although a number of journalists were clearly frustrated with Francis’ lack of specifics, both he and his campaign manager made a point of stressing that Francis would be taking questions.

“I’m willing to answer any questions you have for me,” Francis said in concluding his opening statement Tuesday.

ANDREW DONOHUE

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