Wednesday, June 4, 2008 | San Diego voters tendered Mayor Jerry Sanders another four years to continue his efforts at rebuilding the city’s ruptured finances Tuesday, rejecting the slick, multimillion-dollar campaign of independently wealthy challenger Steve Francis in favor of the familiar incumbent.

Joy ran through the Sanders campaign party immediately after supporters passed around the first hand-written copy of the count of absentee ballots at about 8:15 p.m. The camp had hoped to get 47 percent of the early votes, thinking that they would do significantly better with the voters who cast their ballots Tuesday; the absentee ballots were mailed out before Sanders began his television advertising and the city of San Diego regained its credit rating after four years of setbacks.

Instead, the incumbent netted nearly 52 percent of the early returns and his numbers continued to rise throughout the night, zapping any suspense about whether the former police chief would win the election outright with more than 50 percent of the primary vote. From the moment the night began, he and his aides appeared jovial and confident they would prevail.

By 11:30 p.m., the mayor was ordering drinks at the bar of his election party on the second floor of the Westgate Hotel.

“Thirty months ago, I took office as your mayor in the midst of one of the worst crises in our city’s history. We got to work knowing that it didn’t have to be that way,” Sanders said in his victory speech minutes earlier. “And this evening, the voters of our city have bestowed on me a great honor by giving me the privilege to serve as your mayor for another four years so that we can continue the reforms so critical to our recovery.”

For his part, Francis refused to concede, even as the returns began to cement Sanders’ prediction. He retreated to Suite 203 at the U.S. Grant, and later slipped out without offering a concession speech.

His campaign manager, Charles Gallagher, admitted Francis was not likely to force a runoff, but said no announcement would be made until the morning. Francis went home and went to sleep, Gallagher said.

“When Steve gets up, we’ll make the announcement,” Gallagher said. “Obviously things don’t look encouraging for us.”

With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Sanders had 53.87 percent of the vote, nearly mirroring the 53.6 percent he grabbed in the 2005 general election.

Francis captured 35.1 percent of the vote this time around. Floyd Morrow, the Democratic nominee, finished with 6.19 percent, while Eric Bidwell netted 3.74 percent and James Hart had 1.1 percent.

The decision Tuesday now puts the seven years following San Diego’s historic financial collapse in Sanders’ hands. Voters first gave him the final three years of former Mayor Dick Murphy’s abbreviated tenure in 2005. Now, they’ve given him his first full term.

Sanders said he expects substantial progress in the next four years, but he cautioned that he didn’t anticipate the city’s financial problems to be fully resolved even by the end of his time at City Hall.

“I really think it will take until 2014, but I’m not going to be here then,” he said.

It was a peculiar, yet record-breaking election. Sanders, a Republican, saw his biggest competition come from within the party in Francis.

The two were familiar opponents. Francis went from a no-name to a near-spoiler in the abbreviated special election of 2005, using more than $2 million to get his message out and, along the way, force Sanders to move to a strict anti-tax platform. In that election, Francis netted 62,500 votes, or 23.53 percent, compared to the 59,846 he garnered Tuesday.

After the 2005 primary, Francis turned around and endorsed Sanders, who went on to win the general election against Democratic Councilwoman Donna Frye.

However, Francis’ gaze never strayed far from the Mayor’s Office. He stayed relevant in local politics by contributing to the mayor’s 2006 ballot initiatives and forming his own right-leaning think tank, the San Diego Institute for Policy Research. He not-so-subtly began to rib his former political buddy for some of his mayoral decisions.

Then, in January, Francis made official what was generally assumed: He was running for mayor. But he threw in a new twist: the by-the-book Republican all of a sudden sounded an awful lot like a Democrat.

He pushed environment, education and inner-city revival, tossed aside his anti-tax platitudes in favor of a more nuanced stance, and sought the endorsement of the unions he opposed in his earlier political career.

Along the way, Francis tried to fight the label of “flip-flopper” that came from making that move to the left. He said the campaign was a longer one and people were seeing Steve Francis in more depth. And he said he’d evolved over the last three years of watching city politics. However, his stances on issues such as immigration and the construction of the Sunrise Powerlink switched even as the 2008 campaign unfolded.

And, as Francis took what was essentially the opposite view of Sanders on nearly everything, it was hard not to see him as essentially the anti-Sanders.

He used an unprecedented television ad campaign to barrage San Diegans with a message that began with his biography and led to what generally became the theme of his campaign: The assertion that Sanders was in the pocket of developers and other special interests at City Hall. No citywide candidate had ever hit the airwaves with such sustained force, going on television every day for 15 weeks before the election.

To emphasize his point, Francis took no campaign contributions from anyone but himself. Francis, the founder of healthcare staffing company AMN Healthcare, spent more than $4.7 million of his own money on the campaign.

Francis acknowledged spending so much was painful. “It’s all relative,” he said early Tuesday evening. “We did very well with AMN. It is a lot of money. I’m not going to make light of it. You don’t do this very many times.”

The ads reached far and wide, but support for Francis didn’t follow to the extent that he needed to knock off an incumbent who hadn’t made any high-profile, significant missteps outside of last year’s Sunroad scandal.

Francis was never able to cobble together a powerful coalition of support. He nibbled around the edges by securing the endorsement of two labor groups, the Sierra Club and some neighborhood activists. He also got the implied support of Frye. But he couldn’t convince even those with running battles against Sanders, such as the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, the umbrella group of more than 100 area unions, to jump in. And he couldn’t get Frye to give her official endorsement.

Had the Labor Council and its campaign organization gotten behind Francis, and had Frye stood up before television cameras and given Francis her stamp of approval, perhaps things would’ve been different. But some groups on the left said they withheld endorsements because they harbored doubts that Francis had genuinely changed his views.

Francis also didn’t get help from the electoral calendar. Because California held its presidential primary in February, there was no national ticket to draw out voters who weren’t particularly interested by local elections, and turnout was low. That diminished the amount of casual voters at the polls who would’ve, perhaps, been exposed to local politics mostly through Francis’ television commercials.

Sanders also got a hand from a series of key revelations that came in the waning weeks of the election. First, the city regained its credit rating after a four-year banishment from Wall Street, a major milestone in its financial rebuilding and an issue that, if unresolved by Election Day, could’ve impeded his efforts to win straight away in the primary. The mayor also got a boost from a report from the Attorney General’s Office that exonerated him on the corruption allegations lobbed at him at the height of the Sunroad scandal by City Attorney Mike Aguirre.

At the same time, the Sanders campaign experienced two somewhat embarrassing, and even juvenile, episodes. The mayor in May admitted to rebuffing Francis’ attempt at handshake after a debate and then uttering “f— you, Steve” instead. Later, Sanders’ campaign manager, Michael McSweeney, resigned after his attempt to write a closing statement for dreadlocked candidate Eric Bidwell that was critical of Francis.

But with Tuesday’s victory, Sanders has four more years as San Diego’s top official. The city’s recovery from a period of historic legal, financial and political meltdown now rests squarely on his shoulders. It was clear from Sanders’ campaign slogan — “Getting the city back on track” — that he wasn’t claiming victory in his first term. Instead, he asked voters to allow him to continue the job he’d begun.

“Tomorrow morning, I return to work as your mayor and I pledge to you to keep this city moving forward and in the right direction,” he said.

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