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They had an unprecedented coalition.

Two big-name former rivals to lead the push: Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders and Democratic Councilwoman Donna Frye. A compelling message: the city’s public safety is suffering. The first real comprehensive package of reforms and taxes the city of San Diego had seen since it plunged into the abyss earlier in the decade. Business. Labor.

And they got trounced.

Maybe in another climate it would’ve been different, if it wasn’t a midterm and the turnout had been higher or if the economy wasn’t so rancid.

Regardless, Sanders returns to work today facing the very real possibility that city services will be significantly thinner when he’s done than they were when he began. By waiting until the last moment, he may have only given himself this one chance to put a financial package before voters.

He’ll have to come up yet another plan to comply with the pledge he made to voters in 2005 and 2008 — that he’d be the one to fix the city’s chronic budget mess once and for all. If the Yes on D campaign was truthful, don’t expect the same public safety protection, library hours, park upkeep and whatever else you rely on from your local government.

Regardless of district or demographic, the message from voters was simple: They can’t afford to pay the taxes and fees already on the table, and they don’t trust City Hall.

“It’s another expense for people who are paying more. Always taxes, taxes,” said Lorena Alvarez, a 38-year-old immigrant in City Heights.

“I think they’ve got the money they need — they need to spend their money more wisely,” said Robert Johnson, 69, of Rancho Bernardo.

John Nienstedt, the pollster for No on D, said the opposing campaign faced three hurdles from the start: low voter trust, low turnout and opponents with official city titles on the attack.

“The overall point is that this was a super tough sell from the outset,” he said.

The kind of voter that would vote for a tax increase, Nienstedt said, wasn’t the kind who would come out to vote in droves in a midterm election.

“Had they gone in 2008, they would’ve had a better shot,” he said.

Sanders certainly had earlier chances to try to put a coalition and a ballot measure together. But he had long held out against supporting any tax increase from his early days on the campaign trail. He chose not to shock the system but rather go for incremental change and bet on a continued strong economy. Then, that economy dropped out. And it didn’t come back. Officials in private and public raced down to the wire to get an admittedly flawed proposition before voters this fall.

Frye shrugged at the suggestion that the measure could’ve done better in a different election. There’s never a good time to ask people for more money, she said. Going forward, though, things are going to get worse, she said.

“There are not going to be better options. They are going to be worse options,” Frye said.

The councilwoman, whose nine-year stint on the City Council ends next month, said she thinks the coalition that came together around Proposition D isn’t going away. And either is she.

“I’m never gone,” Frye said.

The mayor and the business community now trust her, she said.

Still, for Frye, who put this whole thing in motion, the final big victory eluded her. She remains the spirited rebel on the short side of the big vote.

The loss does nothing to her legacy, she said, contrary to what some guy had predicted earlier.

“This is not my legacy. My legacy is standing up for the public. Giving them a choice. A chance to be heard,” she said. As a matter of fact, that’s what Prop. D did, she said: Put something out there for the public to decide on.

Earlier in the night, Murtaza Baxamusa, an analyst for the left-leaning Center on Policy Initiatives, waited for the first results to roll in. He said it was his big hope, regardless of what happened to Prop. D, that its coalition sticks together for another five years.

“That’s the only hope I have today,” he said.

The principal campaign opponents, Councilmen Carl DeMaio and Kevin Faulconer, said the coalition’s message that public safety cuts were coming was a bluff.

Now, San Diego will see if they’re right or if they’re bluffing.

DeMaio and Faulconer managed to win the campaign without giving a competing plan, but here’s the basic message: The city can cut employee compensation simply and fix its problems if it wants to, and it doesn’t need a tax increase to do it. DeMaio has promised his plan after the election.

The real onus to put together a coalition now falls on those two. Their reforms often ignored the practical roadblocks to getting things accomplished at City Hall, the kinds of roadblocks that can be overcome with a coalition.

Both have designs on being mayor in 2012. And both now have a mayor-like responsibility to show the city how to succeed the reality they’ve helped create.

“I think the voters have sent a very clear message tonight, which is do these things first,” Faulconer said of the reforms. “I’m ready to get to work and I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to get it done.”

Andrew Donohue wrote this story but received reporting help from Kelly Bennett, Liam Dillon and Adrian Florido. Please contact Donohue at andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0526. Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewDonohue.

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