Wednesday, May 14, 2008 | If he’s elected, Steve Francis promises to cut high-school dropout rates, work to introduce green curriculum in schools and improve health care, electricity pricing options and high-speed Internet access. Not to mention addressing gas prices.

Problem is, he’d only be San Diego’s mayor.

As the Republican businessman has campaigned against incumbent Mayor Jerry Sanders, Francis has often touted his sweeping vision for the city’s future. Those ideas and proposals are incorporated in a 53-page plan that extends promises across jurisdictional spectrums, from his plans to tackle education to his idea to overhaul the city’s taxi fleet into hybrids.

His plan’s promises far exceed the typical job description given to San Diego’s mayor, who does not have the authority to set such things as school policies, health-care standards or electricity prices.

Francis took those pledges farther in a recent campaign commercial, suggesting he’ll impact inflation. His 15-second television commercial warns: The cost of groceries, gas, health care and college tuition is skyrocketing. On top of that, the city has a $1 billion pension debt that we’re still paying for. Don’t we need somebody to finally fix the mess?

The vision is often predicated more on leveraging Francis’ influence as a regional leader than on having the tangible power to do anything about it. He laments high-school dropout rates, and promises that if elected, “the Mayor’s Office will give its undivided attention to this classroom crisis.”

“That’s very nice,” said John Kern, a political consultant and former chief of staff to Mayor Dick Murphy. “But he’s got no authority, and other things to do except screw around with education. If you say you’re going to do something about health care and groceries and education, I don’t believe you will. And if you do, you’re ignoring something else.”

How Francis’ drop-out plan translates into action is described more amorphously. Francis’ plan says he “will work with officials … to re-strategize and reverse the high school drop out crisis and seek alternative programs for at-risk students.” He does not say who would run them, how they would be funded or how he would effect those significant changes. He says he will annually raise $1.5 million in private funds for schools and hire an education liaison to work in the Mayor’s Office. But San Diego’s city charter expressly places school administration duties in the hands of the San Diego Unified School District — not with the mayor or City Council.

If he is elected and acts to fulfill his promises, Francis will have to significantly leverage the power of his office, the influence that comes simply from carrying the title of mayor. Those following the race say Francis’ approach is commonly used by big-city mayoral candidates.

“This is standard campaign tactics, to try to push all of the hot buttons with voters,” said Steve Erie, political science professor at University of California, San Diego. “Outside of the bully pulpit, the powers of the San Diego mayor are not that great. Clearly, nobody can deliver as a mayor directly on a lot of that stuff.”

Francis commits to working with San Diego Gas & Electric to advance a renewable-energy pricing program in which customers could pay more to have their electricity come from green sources. That would ultimately have to be decided by the California Public Utilities Commission.

But the city — and mayor — could help influence that type of plan, said Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at University of San Diego.

“Everything has to be approved by the commission, but that doesn’t mean the city couldn’t cajole,” Anders said. “The mayor doesn’t have any authority, but the mayor has the bully pulpit and some political leverage.”

Francis has touted his vision as a contrast to Sanders’ reelection promises. While Francis is pointing to the future, Sanders is pointing to the past and his track record since he was elected in November 2005. When they discuss issues, Sanders uses the past tense and Francis uses the future tense. The incumbent mayor touts the fiscal reforms he has undertaken; Francis touts the broader changes he would make.

Sanders said his campaign’s focus on his financial reform achievements is a continuation of the promises he made in 2005, when he ran on a platform solely focused on restoring the city’s fiscal health.

“In terms of me saying that I want to take over the school system or health care or become grand poobah of [the Metropolitan Transit System], it’s not going to happen,” Sanders said. “There’s only so much a mayor can do, and my focus is going to be on restoring the city’s finances and making sure we have a firm financial foundation.”

Francis’ campaign said he was unavailable to comment for this story.

Kern, the political consultant, questioned whether most voters would actually read Francis’ plan. Even if they don’t, the document has helped pave the way for one campaign endorsement.

Richard Miller, chairman of the Sierra Club’s San Diego chapter, which endorsed Francis last week, said he doesn’t expect Francis to achieve every promise outlined in the document. But the plan helps communicate where Francis stands on issues, Miller said, and it offers a tangible scorecard to measure the politician’s promises if he is elected.

“There’s an actual document you can grab a hold of,” Miller said. “We haven’t seen that out of Mayor Sanders.”

Erie warned that campaign promises designed to secure endorsements can backfire.

“They’re a two-edged sword,” he said. “These groups are going to hold him accountable, because they consider it a contract. You have to over-promise to get the endorsement, but then they hold your feet to the fire.”

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

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