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In a special election in 2005, San Diegans chose Jerry Sanders to pull their city government out of the financial and political muck that had sullied City Hall. His reelection in 2008 will likely boil down to a simple choice: whether voters think he’s made enough progress in restoring the city’s finances and bringing calm to a chaotic political climate.

He’s up against a familiar, and well-financed, foe. Steve Francis, founder of AMN Healthcare, has opened his deep wallet and looks poised to spend several million dollars of his own money on the campaign. Francis and Sanders, both Republicans, faced off in the 2005 primary election, with Sanders besting him by 3.5 percentage points for the right to face off against Councilwoman Donna Frye in the general election.

This time around, Francis is running a more populist campaign, veering to the left of his conservative, business-themed campaign of 2005.

Cartoon: The mayor struggles in a tough fundraising environment.

Incumbents rarely lose and Sanders is generally seen as being popular. But Francis’ money is seen as an X-factor in the race. No one knows just how much of punch his unprecedented campaign spending could pack.

The two have company in Floyd Morrow, a former elected official in his 70s on a political comeback tour. Morrow, a Democrat, served on the City Council from 1965 until 1978 and has run for mayor twice.

Sanders’ ascendance to City Hall’s top spot was made possible by the resignation of Mayor Dick Murphy, who stepped down amid state and federal investigations into city finances and questions surrounding the validity of his 2004 election victory.

After the resignation announcement, Sanders, the former police chief, stepped into a crowded field, trumpeting his credentials as a turnaround-artist with a history of saving distressed organizations.

After an era of political madness that included indictments against council members and former pension officials, the appearance of a new mayor brought political calm to City Hall. A $20.3 million investigation by private consultants finally drew to a close, and the city negotiated a settlement on charges of securities fraud from 2002 and 2003 in November 2006.

The Sanders administration has stuck to a pretty meat-and-potatoes regimen. He boasts increased funding to the city’s long-neglected, long-term deficits, such as those for infrastructure and the pension system, as one of his biggest accomplishments. The mayor claims he bought transparency to the budget process; he also says he’s trimmed $50 million and 670 jobs in his time at City Hall. He’s given raises to police officers in an attempt to squelch a recruitment and retention problem, and has been applauded for his handling of the Mt. Soledad landslide and the October 2007 wildfires.

Sanders has begun streamlining city departments one-by-one and implementing a privatization measure voters handed him in 2006, although both endeavors have fallen behind schedule.

Cartoon: Steve Francis heads to the left for victory.

Francis pivoted his stances in the campaign around Sanders.’ The businessman has hammered the mayor on virtually every decision while trying to evolve his image from an anti-tax conservative that was the preference of the Republican Party in 2005 into a nonpartisan independent passionate about the environment and protecting City Hall from special interests like developers.

And it was a developer who handed the mayor the one major scandal of his tenure: a brutal political brouhaha over his political connections to a developer who built an office tower that violated federal airport safety guidelines.

Sanders will have to face one unpleasant fact. More than two years after his election, the city remains without a credit rating and, therefore, still barred from Wall Street. Returning the city to the good graces of the financial markets stood as one of the key issues in the 2005 campaign. And while the mayor has made progress in finishing some of the audits delaying he return, outstanding issues continue to hold it up. Without access to Wall Street, the city must continue paying higher rates to borrow money on the private markets for vital infrastructure projects and other borrowing plans.

The primary election will be held June 3. If no candidate captures more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will advance to the Nov. 4 general election.

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