Had voters rejected Proposition D, the measure to make permanent the strong-mayor form of government, they would have sent Mayor Jerry Sanders back to the City Council dais like mayors of the past.

And I think he would have had to consider resigning.

Not necessarily because he had done something wrong. But more because of personal reasons.

After all, what is the opposite of getting a major voter mandate? “Vote of no confidence?” No, it would be worse than that.

Had voters rejected the initiative, they would have sent Sanders a defeat more painful, perhaps, than not being re-elected. It’s often said it is better to fire an employee rather than give him a demotion. Imagine telling the president that he’s done running the military, the State Department and he’s done negotiating major international treaties. But he gets to be the Speaker of the House!

No, voters did not do this to Sanders. That’s not to say the proposition sailed through. Don’t let the landslide fool you. There appears to have been major last-minute worry — nerves that spurred a massive investment of cash into the campaign for the proposition.

But the campaign for strong mayor and the mayor himself were spared the humiliation of a rejection and demotion.

In fact, Mayor Sanders comes out looking, well, strong.

Even as the city has deteriorated — from roads to libraries to optimism — the mayor has remarkably never suffered politically.

How is this possible?

The mayor and his team’s political philosophy can be summed up simply. It’s not conservative or liberal. It’s caution mixed with good nature and humor. His strategists use the mayor’s avuncular charisma when they can and work tirelessly to keep him from getting wrapped into any sort of polemic.

It’s like we’re standing on the pier, watching our giant ship slowly sink and joking about it with the captain. Every once in a while he reminds us of his plans to put a new main library, stadium and convention center on top of our beautiful ship. And then we pause, try to picture those in our head and watch the big boat slip further.

The mayor was not the central figure in the campaign to keep him strong.

Most of the cash raised to keep the strong mayor system — and juice it up with extra veto power — went to fund a campaign that was focused on persuading voters to imagine how much worse things could be. Yes, the message helped remind people how bad things were and highlighted the stability and honesty Sanders had brought.

I, too, am happy the city no longer misleads the people who lend it money.

Opponents recognized that they could remind people this was an experiment. A five-year test meant to determine whether this government worked. It dawned on critics they could simply ask, a la Ronald Reagan, are we better off?

But they were too late and they had no money. Mel Shapiro, the City Hall sleuth who hated the concept of strong mayor so much back in 2004 that he dumped $20,000 of his own savings into the campaign to thwart it, wasn’t able to find anyone to match a smaller contribution he hoped to make this time. And it was only in the last few weeks that opponents were able to rally with intensity against it.

And this is what began to cause worry.

Adding a ninth council district is, however you want to justify it, an expansion of government. Combined with a ubiquitous understanding that the city is deteriorating, it’s no wonder proponents began to worry about the fate of the strong mayor.

I don’t think even the Mayor’s Office would argue that San Diego’s quality of life, its neighborhoods and its infrastructure are better than they were five years ago. They’d just argue it’s not his fault that things continue to slide. It’s the recession and every once in a while, it’s the labor unions and their cronies in the City Council.

But it’s not the mayor.

This is the genius behind the political thinkers that have ensured the mayor a victory in every single ballot measure that could be considered a referendum on his leadership. After years of practicing, they’ve crafted the quintessential San Diego form of government.

It has a few simple rules:

Don’t do anything wild. If something bad happens, make sure it’s clear it’s not your fault. In fact, exhaust every possible explanation for why it’s nowhere close to your fault. When things really get ugly, point out how someone is worse or how another city is suffering more.

Do this and do this well and you can’t lose.

Unfortunately, we’re now left with a strange conundrum. We have a mayor who will have more power than any other in recent history. He also enjoys the widespread support of voters — a mandate, if you will. And he’s not seeking any kind of new office or re-election.

In short, he’s perfectly positioned to truly lead this city through a recovery. Yet, at the same time, he’s only achieved this by being cautious and sidestepping the realities of our current state.

Here’s to hoping that he does see what’s wrong with this city and that he stops wanting to be cautious about it.

Scott Lewis is the CEO of voiceofsandiego.org. You can e-mail him at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on twitter @vosdscott.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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