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Five weeks ago, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders was racing to find an answer to the city’s chronic budget deficits, the problem he was first elected to solve. The city is set up to spend more money than it collects, and the mayor was privately piecing together a fiscal reform package to meet an Aug. 6 deadline to put measures on November’s ballot.

Now, with that deadline less than two weeks away, the race could no longer be his to win or lose. Ever since Sanders’ plans leaked in late June, both people and events have overtaken him.

On its own initiative, the City Council will decide this week if a tax increase will appear on November’s ballot, a discussion now overshadowed by the choking death of a toddler after paramedics strained by budget cuts were slow to arrive. The city’s Republican, Democratic, business and organized labor leaders have made their positions known.

The mayor has shied from the debate.

But this election is a defining moment in Sanders’ five years in office, political observers say, the mayor’s last, best shot at achieving voter-mandated financial reforms. Two years from now, the next opportunity to put reform measures on a ballot, voters will be choosing Sanders’ successor, clouding and diminishing the mayor’s influence.

In other words, this election defines the line between Sanders-as-leader and Sanders-as-lame-duck.

“He has lost his opportunity then to be leader,” said Glen Sparrow, a professor emeritus at San Diego State University who has advised the mayor. “Then he becomes actually, figuratively, the caretaker.”

Others already are filling the public space that Sanders hasn’t seized. The mayor remained silent for nearly two weeks as his Republican and business allies bashed a sales tax increase at the center of his reform discussions. Sanders only emerged to disavow a tax increase, saying he would find ways to cut more costs instead.

The same week that Sanders’ plan failed, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith proposed privatizing the city’s trash collection services to save $34 million annually, an idea Goldsmith said he wouldn’t have raised if the mayor still was leading reform talks. Soon afterward, City Council President Ben Hueso resurrected the sales tax proposal, saying it had been “withdrawn before being fully vetted.”

Chances of the tax increase making the ballot looked bleak until Tuesday night when Bentley Do, a two-year-old boy in Mira Mesa, died after choking on a gumball. Paramedics took nine-and-a-half minutes to arrive, slowed in part because budget cuts had shelved one nearby fire engine. The next day, Councilman Tony Young called for the immediate restoration of the Fire Department’s funding and cited the sales tax increase as a possible long-term solution.

Through the last month, the mayor has allowed these other actors to take the stage.

He didn’t offer an opinion on Goldsmith’s plan. He has maintained his opposition to a sales tax, though only passively offering his view. He has asked the fire chief to review the department’s cost-cutting strategy, though he hasn’t yet responded to Young’s appeal.

Sanders’ actions, said Steve Erie, a University of California, San Diego political scientist, are in keeping with his tenure. The mayor, Erie said, hasn’t made major reforms and instead has used his time in office to reassure San Diegans after the city’s pension scandal made it a national embarrassment.

“Nothing that Sanders has done in the last four weeks is surprising,” Erie said. “It’s all cut out of the same cloth. He’s a follower, not a leader.”

Said Sparrow: “The mayor is a cautious person. We’ve known that for five or six years. He does not jump out in front of issues and lead the way.”

Sanders’ office rejected any “caretaker” characterization. His spokesman, Darren Pudgil, ticked off the series of reforms initiated at Sanders’ behest. The elimination of 1,400 city positions. The installation of a two-tier pension system with lower benefits for new hires. Six percent wage cuts for all city employees. Outsourcing some information technology services. Tripling the city’s cash reserves.

“The bottom line is this mayor’s record of accomplishment and aggressive agenda are unmatched by any mayor we’ve seen around here in a very long time,” Pudgil said. “And he’s done it all during a horrific national recession. If that’s not leadership, I don’t know what is.”

But even the mayor’s fiscal successes draw criticism from those who believe he hasn’t marketed them as well as he could.

Lorena Gonzalez, San Diego’s top organized labor leader, praised Sanders recently for working toward a financial reform package. He should explain to the public his reforms, she said, and show why new revenues are necessary.

“I think none of this passes unless we have a leader who’s pushing it,” Gonzalez said. “We need the mayor to be a leader on revenue.”

Time and again, San Diegans have given Sanders broad mandates. His election in 2005 put him in office at a time when City Council’s past approval of pension underfunding deals crushed its credibility. Voters overwhelmingly reelected him in 2008, despite the fact that his opponent far outspent him. Just last month, 60 percent of city voters agreed to make permanent the “strong mayor” form of government, a system that increases Sanders’ power.

Sanders’ record of support, Sparrow and Erie said, gives him an enviable bully pulpit. He could take even more political risks, they said, since he’s vowed to seek no other office.

But the mayor’s reform victories, Pudgil said, shows that he uses his bully pulpit effectively.

“His accomplishments have happened because he is very careful in how he uses the bully pulpit,” Pudgil said.

The next time Sanders has a chance to use his influence comes Monday when the council discusses the sales tax proposal. Do’s death has cast a pall over that discussion.

Nothing any city political leader said about financial reform before Do’s death matters, said local Republican political consultant John Kern. He said the incident showed that the cuts to the fire department are dangerous. That means politicians should allow voters to decide if they would approve a tax increase to better fund fire services, he said.

“Every great political figure adapts to changing circumstances,” Kern said. “If the death of that child isn’t a changing circumstance, I don’t know what is.”

If Sanders decides not to develop or endorse any financial plan prior to the ballot deadline, Erie and Sparrow said, he will have lost his chance to make substantial change.

But Erie said maybe that’s OK with the public.

“In many ways, he’s exactly what San Diego wants,” Erie said. “Appearance of leadership without hard choices and any call for sacrifice. He’s a feel-good mayor. It’s a feel-good town.”

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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