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Bob Filner, a longtime Democratic congressman, will take over as San Diego’s mayor next week. If all goes well, he won’t have to break into City Hall, occupy the place overnight and declare himself mayor hours before the official inauguration ceremony.
After all, it’s been done. In 1905, to be exact, when one of the most bizarre stories in San Diego’s political history unfolded.
At issue: the mayor-elect’s pension and his right to double-dip on the government dime. (Some issues never change.) His challenge: Become mayor before a judge could order him not to become mayor.
And so began what a historian calls a “cat-and-mouse game” in the halls of power of what was a little town around 17,700.
Far from the state’s three major cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland, San Diego had yet to hit the big time, although an 1894 tourist guidebook lauded our “perfect” sewer, “swift electric cars,” “elegant” opera house and “first-class” daily papers.
In 1905, the campaign for mayor pitted a Republican of the old guard against Councilman John Leicester Sehon, a former military captain who’d tried to serve in the Spanish-American War but was too ill and landed on disability.
Sehon was a Republican, but he drifted and became an independent. (No, really some things never change.) The San Diego Union, conservative as ever, called him a “renegade Republican.” For his part, Sehon railed against “bossism”-style politics and the control of cops and the fire department by politicians.
He ended up winning with 2,018 votes to 1,376 for his main opponent and 438 votes for a Socialist candidate.
Then the big drama began. Opponents said Sehon couldn’t serve as mayor because he’d illegally have two sources of income from the government — a city salary and a military pension. They persuaded a judge to issue a subpoena.
But there was a catch: Someone had to personally serve Sehon with the subpoena, and he’d conveniently vanished. The Union asked in a headline: “Has Anybody Seen Capt. John L. Sehon?”
His pals said he may have gone to the country for some rest and relaxation. (Later, it was hinted that he decamped to Tijuana.) That might be true, the Union reported, but “his absence interfered mightily with the progress of the case.”
Sehon then decided the best way to preserve his right to become mayor was to actually become mayor.
So his cronies broke into City Hall at Fifth Avenue and G Street downtown at around 2 a.m. on the day he was to be inaugurated. Glass shattered, doors were forced open. Sehon entered, having carefully avoided the first part — “breaking” — of “breaking and entering.”
Once inside City Hall, Sehon promptly declared himself mayor and later told a Union reporter that “he had found nothing to bar his way when he arrived at the doors.”
A sign declaring Sehon to be mayor promptly appeared at the mayor’s office, and he later repeatedly declined to comment to a reporter on mayoral matters. He was “none too amiable in spirit,” according to the Evening Tribune.
So let’s recap: A Republican politician goes independent. The big paper in town can’t stand a mayoral candidate but fails to stop him from winning. There’s a fuss over a candidate’s pension and charges of double-dipping. And the guy elected mayor wishes reporters would get lost.
Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
Judges, including three serving on an appellate court, allowed Sehon to stay in office. One wrote that to ban officeholders with military pensions would “disfranchise a class of eminently deserving men and deprive the state of their services.”
His 1905-1907 term was brief but eventful, highlighted by one of San Diego’s biggest disasters. In July 1905, a Navy gunboat blew up in the harbor, killing 65 men in the Navy’s deadliest peacetime accident up to that point. We recounted the accident and other explosive local disasters in 2010.
Sehon didn’t vanish from the history books after serving as mayor.
He became the superintendent of the police department and was in charge for two major crackdowns — one targeting prostitution downtown (we looked back at that excitement in a story you can read here) and one that drew national attention “as leaders fought leftist union protesters with violence, vigilantism and a brazen attack on constitutional rights.” Read more about the city’s epic free speech clash in our story here.
Sehon died in 1913. San Diego’s fights over double-dipping, newspaper endorsements and political party switches would live on. And on.
Note: This story is based on newspaper accounts from the time, accessed via microfilm at the San Diego Public Library, and an essay by local historian Rick Crawford.