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If Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher wins his mayoral bid, he’ll join a very short list of independent mayors during San Diego’s 162 years as a city. Two of them made big marks in the history books for all the right — and wrong — reasons.
One independent mayor served during wartime and left a legacy of high achievement, modest ambitions and an immortal quote. “Anyone spending that kind of money is not buying good government,” he declared about a rival who wanted to raise $35,000 for his campaign.
The other, who’s still our youngest mayor ever, was a fast-talking promise machine who’d ultimately end up in the clink, setting an unhappy precedent for future City Hall types who’d spend time behind bars. He had his own memorable quote: “A man is honest as long as he intends to be honest,” whatever that means.
Big Deeds and Broken Boulevard Dreams
If Fletcher looks to the past for inspiration from independent mayors, Mayor Harley Knox is his best bet. The former dairyman served as mayor from 1943-1951, overseeing the fast-growing city during the last couple years of World War II and its aftermath.
“I was the first San Diego mayor ever to come from the wrong side of the tracks,” he declared one day. He may have been right: Knox was a Nebraska native and high-school dropout who bought a cow here and became a top local dairyman.
As befitting a dairy farmer, he had a Bessie in his life. But it was his wife, not the cow.
Knox successfully ran for City Council in the 1930s with a platform of goals that don’t sound too out-of-date today: “We are fighting for the things that make these homes worthwhile: a yard big enough to raise a garden; a paved street in front; sewers that don’t stop up; garbage cans emptied weekly; decent playgrounds for the children; a tax bill we can afford to pay.”
He helped develop Mission Bay and pushed for recovery from the war. “Like a tropical hurricane the war effort swept over San Diego, tearing at its normal way of life, uprooting carefully laid plans, disrupting municipal services …,” he said in 1946. “Now the gale has subsided. Around us is the wreckage and debris that must be swept up.”
He had some failures. Knox couldn’t get support to create a grand boulevard of government buildings — similar to the National Mall in Washington D.C. — from what is now the County Administration Building to Balboa Park. “He either owned some property or somebody thought he did, and they accused him of wanting to develop it in order to enhance his own property values, which is so far from anything he would have thought of,” said Iris Engstrand, a University of San Diego history professor who wrote a book about Knox.
And Knox ultimately couldn’t manage to convince the city to move the airport east to the Miramar area.
Unlike future mayors, Knox didn’t dream of moving on to the governor’s office, the U.S. Senate or the White House. “He was as modest in office as in his campaign promises,” wrote Voice of San Diego co-founder and former Evening Tribune editor Neil Morgan in 2003. “He wasn’t wondering what he would run for next. He did his best, with supreme openness and conscience, until his heart quit.”
Knox died in 1956 after suffering from the health problems that prevented him from running for mayor again in 1951. He was 57.
An elementary school in the Lincoln Park neighborhood still bears his name.
The Fast-Talking Boy Mayor
No schools are named after San Diego’s other independent mayor, and no wonder. He seems to have been a bit of a scoundrel, at least after he left office. One thing is definite: William “Billy” Carlson, still our youngest mayor — he was just shy of 29 when first elected in 1893 with 1,219 votes — was quite a character.
If there was a voter in San Diego whom he did not personally interview, or a man who wanted anything that he did not promise to secure for him, neither have since come to light.
As soon as “Billy” got into the mayor’s chair, there were to be new electric car lines on every street equipped in an impossible manner, hotels fitted up á la Edward Bellamy, lines of steamships to every port on earth, transcontinental railroads galore, the park was to be improved at once, everybody was to have plenty of work at the highest wages, and, in short, the millennium was to come then and there.
Before he was mayor, Carlson and a developer created the Ocean Beach neighborhood. According to legend, Carlson drew a sketch of the area, wrote “Ocean Beach” on it, and the fellow developer “supposedly looked at it and thought Ocean Beach would be a great name,” says local historian and tour guide Patty Fares, whom we profiled a few years ago. (Things didn’t work out well for the duo as San Diego real estate tanked in the 1890s. Carlson’s partner would commit suicide.)
As mayor, Carlson had a rocky term as he struggled to realize priorities of bringing water and the railroad to the city. He lost the election big time in 1897 after The San Diego Union called him “‘a relic of the boom,’ a charlatan, faker, traitor to the people, a cigar-and-smile trickster, political quack, pretender, clown, cheap gambler, bamboozler and a liar.”
Carlson would go on to Los Angeles, where he’d falsify notes in his job as a bank president and end up in prison for four years, Fares said. He set a precedent for other San Diego mayors who’d get in trouble with the law, like the drunken hit-and-run mayor. Carlson died in 1937.
Of San Diego’s 36 mayors since 1850, two more may have been independent. The history books don’t identify political parties for Joshua Bean, who served in 1850, or George Tebbetts, who served in 1852.
Mayor Bean — the brother of famous judge Roy Bean, who had his own history in San Diego — faced allegations that he was crooked. Among other things, he presided over the shoddy construction of a jail, and “there has been some suspicion through the years that this was San Diego’s first example of official graft,” wrote historian Richard Pourade.
As for Mayor Tebbetts, historian Orion Zink writes that he didn’t just stand by during the lynching of thieves of his own horse but actually took part.
Federal investigators came to arrest all the lynchers, but were informed that “they would have to arrest nearly all of the people in San Diego, as practically every male in town had hold of the ropes,” Zink writes.
So they left and “nothing further was heard of the matter.”
Not long after, nothing further was heard of the office of mayor. In 1852, the city went bankrupt and the state took over. No one served officially as mayor again until 1889.