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Wednesday night, the Union-Tribune produced on a good idea: Ask potential 2012 mayoral candidates how they stand on Proposition D — perhaps the most important, and divisive, issue the city has decided at the ballot box in decades.

The newspaper claimed that Poway businessman, Vince Mudd, was among those who supported D.

Mudd, of course, led the group of business leaders who reviewed Prop. D on behalf of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. The report they produced basically concluded that Prop. D, as it was written, would not balance the city’s structural budget deficit. Though it comes with both reforms and a revenue increase, the measure does not guarantee those reforms will go very far.

Mudd’s group concluded that the reforms would have to add up to $73 million a year to really fix the city’s problems. And that the city would have to temper its excitement about the new revenue and avoid taking on any more than $20 million of new spending.

The City Council passed a resolution pledging to follow through with this level of reforms.

Mudd, for his part, has said the City Council did “everything” he and his committee asked of it.

Watch the dominos fall from there: The city’s two legacy business groups — the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. and the Regional Chamber of Commerce — supported it after months of criticizing the plan. The enthusiasm climaxed with an endorsement from a most unlikely source, the Union Tribune itself.

A lot of people, including the newspaper, assumed Mudd supported it.

But he had reason not to clarify.

I asked Bill Roper and Susan Snow, members of Mudd’s group — officially known as the Citizens’ Fiscal Sustainability Task Force — whether they supported Proposition D or not. They refused to say.

Roper: “I believe that it would be inappropriate for me (or any other members of the task force) to publicly disclose their personal opinion or voting choice at this time,” he wrote in an email to me.

Then there was the fact that two other members of the Mudd group — Dick Vortmann, the former head of NASSCO, and Dan Shea, the owner of Donovan’s Steak and Chop House (a prominent sponsor of the Fact Check) — both made strong arguments against the ballot proposition.

Mudd was balancing on a skinny fence.

When I saw the U-T post saying he supported it, I was shocked. I asked the paper, via Twitter, whether Mudd had really said he supported D. And I got this response from Watchdog editor Ricky Young:

“Assumption was made that Mudd made demands, city met, he must be happy,” he wrote. Young reported that the post had been changed to indicate that Mudd, in fact, had not responded to the U-T’s query about his stance on D.

I’m not aiming to pick on the U-T here. It was not a wild assumption for them to make.

The fact is, the Mudd report, and the resulting business support for Proposition D will prove to be a key — if not the deciding — factor in whether it’s approved.

Why? A tax increase is hard enough to pass in San Diego. Even if the ordinance only needs 50 percent of the vote, a bipartisan coalition led by the mayor must make it happen. If the entire business and conservative establishment lined up against it, it would undoubtedly fail. That’s just the reality of San Diego politics.

And it is what happened the last time Councilwoman Donna Frye herself led a push for a tax increase — a 2004 general election effort to raise the hotel-room tax. Nobody supported it beyond the people who would benefit from it inside City Hall. It still came close, but could not make the hurdle.

Getting the mayor on board and then watching him own the issue was Frye’s signature achievement. And the mayor doing what needed to be done to at least fracture the opposition to the tax is the only reason it has a chance to pass.

And how crucial was the Mudd report and follow up to achieving that?

“Very crucial,” said Ben Haddad, last year’s chamber chairman and a principle actor in the business community. “I don’t think I could support [Prop. D] with just the reforms attached to the ballot language and we’d have had a hell of a time convincing other chamber members.”

This is why Proposition D comes down to trust for so many people like Haddad. Opponents say Mudd’s effort only resulted in a nonbinding resolution the City Council could ignore.

“The mayor ends up drafting budgets for the most part, so if he’s going to live up to it and give his word he’s going to live up to it, that’s an important statement to me,” Haddad said.

Same for many, many others.

“I’m very reluctant to support a tax but I’m willing to trust the mayor,” said developer Julie Dillon.

You really can’t underestimate the power of what Frye did in demanding that the sales tax be paired with reforms. You can’t underestimate the importance of Councilman Tony Young’s decision to insist all of the reforms be met before the tax is triggered. And you can’t underestimate what the mayor’s decision to support it produced.

And now, you can’t ignore what Mudd has done to make this happen.

“EDC’s Board of Directors voted overwhelmingly to support Prop. D because of the report of the Citizens’ Fiscal Sustainability Task Force as well as their success in convincing the mayor and Council to embrace both a specific dollar target for reforms plus specific spending limits,” said Julie Meier Wright, the CEO of the Economic Development Corp.

Notice that “because.”

It was because of Mudd’s group that dozens of local business leaders were able to justify supporting the proposal. It provided a bridge a lot of those people were hoping to cross.

Is Mudd happy with that?

Who knows, he won’t say if he supports Prop. D and, as a Poway resident, he doesn’t need to vote on it.

But if Prop. D passes, supporters can thank him as much as anyone.

For the next post, I’m going to compile all that I can about what business leaders think of Prop. D. Are you a business owner? Please contact Scott Lewis directly at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/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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