Today, Bob Filner will take the baton from Jerry Sanders to become San Diego’s 35th mayor.

We spoke with Sanders, a Republican and former city police chief, about his tenure and some of his successes and challenges he faced.

Some highlights: Sanders held fast to his claim that he’d solved the city’s longstanding budget problems, despite recent contrary evidence. (We examined that issue in our evaluation of the financial promises the mayor made.) He called the 2007 Sunroad development scandal his biggest blunder.

And he said his 2007 public turnabout on marriage equality might have had more impact than anything he’s ever done.

Sanders, who endorsed two of Filner’s opponents (one in the primary and another in the general election), took some pointed shots at his successor for what he called twisted campaign messages.

One final note before we dive into the Q-and-A. The questions and answers are compiled from both Sanders’ final press conference and a brief one-on-one interview we did afterward. We merged them together for readability.

What do you think you’ll be remembered most for?

I hope it will be that we turned this city around financially. When we stepped into this place, I don’t think anybody had even an inkling of how bad things were.

Would it disappoint you if for a lot of people that moment is the turnabout on same-sex marriage?

No. I guess there’s a couple things. I might have had a bigger impact on that than anything else I’ve ever done.

Why do you think that that resonated nationally as it did?

I think seeing an old white guy, who’s a Republican, stand up and say, in the way that I did it, that we need equality, I think resonated with a lot of people.

I think this has been the civil rights issue of our era. Of the last 10, 15 years. I had a lot of people who said, “No. 1, I disagree with you. But I appreciate the fact you’re standing up for your family and you’re standing up for other families.”

The other thing I had was a lot of people who came up and said, “You gave us permission to be more out about our children, to love our children.” I had some people come up and say, “My dad’s never talked to me, refused to talk to me, since I told him I was gay. And all of a sudden, he said if the mayor can do it, I can.”

So I think it touched a lot of people because I think that the gay and lesbian community has been very courageous in coming out. I think everybody has a family member, a friend, a co-worker, somebody they know. Now they’re feeling like: “I can talk to them, I can treat them just like a normal person.”

What lesson do you think that taught you for the rest of your tenure? What was notable about that at the time was you rejected the advice of your political people.

I think what that told me was I needed to go with my heart more than I needed to go with political advice.

Was there another example you could think of when that happened?

I think a lot of things I’ve done. I can’t think of a specific example. I’ve gone with what I thought was right rather than the political advice.

If you had to do anything over again, what would that be?

You know, I don’t know that I think about things that way. Obviously, Sunroad was a great learning experience for me. I told people that I was going to screw up when I got elected. I said I’ll make mistakes and I’ll own up to them. I owned up to that one. And that was a learning lesson for me in that there is a business side of it and then there was a political side of it. I don’t think I was smart enough to understand most of that was political. It took us a long time to figure that out, and to finally straighten it out. That’s something I wouldn’t have done in the future.

You look at some of the recent public polls that have come out, your personal approval rating is over 60 percent. Very high for an outgoing mayor. At the same time, the polls also say that only 30 percent of the people wanted to continue your policies at City Hall. Why do you think there was a disconnect between the views of you personally and your policies?

I’m just a likeable guy, Liam.

I don’t know. I think I’ve always been very honest with people. I think I’ve been approachable by people out in the community.

I think I’ve had two benefits about being here. One is a sense of perspective. After you’ve been a cop for 26 years, I think your perspective is different. Because you know everything is not life and death. You know that not everything is going to work perfect. And the second thing I think that I had a benefit was I knew the community after working so long in every community in San Diego, working at United Way, working at Red Cross, I really knew a lot of people there. I’ve been able to stay out in the community.

But why do you think there would be that disconnect between you as a person and your policies?

I don’t know. I think that one of the things that we’ve seen just in general, is that politics has kind of turned this into an us-against-them sport. The haves and have nots. I think a lot of people feel like they haven’t gotten what they deserve, even though we have paid a lot of attention to neighborhoods. I look at the libraries we’ve put in, in those neighborhoods. I look at the (road) paving. I look at all that. It’s very easy to turn it around by saying, “We’re done with business and now we’re going to focus on neighborhoods.”

Business is what creates jobs for the neighborhoods and what creates the revenue for the neighborhoods. I think that’s pretty easy to twist. I think that’s probably part of it.

So you think Filner’s message of neighborhoods vs. downtown fed into the same thing?

Yeah. I think that’s a very easy message to get out there. I don’t think it means anything.

A healthy downtown provides the revenue for all the communities. But that’s not a sound bite. That’s not something you put on your street sign. You can’t do the “Communities First” if you don’t have the revenue from business and the jobs from business.

That goes back to something else about your tenure. When you were first elected the focus was almost entirely on financial issues facing the city. As your term wore on, we talked a lot more about big projects: Convention Center expansion, Plaza de Panama, Chargers. Do you think that change fed into this issue as well?

I think it’s easy to say a Convention Center doesn’t make any sense. But there’s 12,000 jobs there. Twelve thousand people work at our current Convention Center. And 7,000 new jobs. That’s 7,000 people who don’t have jobs right now.

I think it’s pretty easy to twist those. I think the other message that was twisted was: We can just tax these hotels and then take that money and use that for other things.

You can’t. I mean you literally can’t. But you can say you can do anything you want. That’s another message that sells really well even though it makes no sense.

At the beginning of your term, obviously finances were the most important thing. We’ve come to a point where you say you’re able to get the budget balanced for the long term. But now there are a lot of significant budget uncertainties. How secure are you that that goal is something that you’ve met?

I feel very good about it. I think what you’ll find is we have over 14 percent in reserves right now. That is designed to cushion even if we pay off the worst-case scenario that the [independent budget analyst] came up with, we’ll still be above our 8 percent target in reserves.

Sure, but that’s for one year.

No, it’s not for one year. That is for two years for [the impacts of June’s pension initiative] and that’s the two years that are critical because you have the higher cost when you close the system. After that, you start saving money.

The redevelopment, that is going to be cushioned for the first two years in the same way. We just don’t know what the impact is going to be with redevelopment.

So you can go to sleep at night saying, “I structurally balanced the budget”?

Yeah. I have no problem at all with that. We worked really hard on that.

Late in your term at public appearances you would announce how many days you had left as mayor. Did you ever like your job?

You know, people always said, “Aren’t you having a lot of fun?” And I said, “This is not supposed to be a fun job.” I have enjoyed it from the perspective of we’ve been able to get a lot done. But I’m not a politician by nature. I’m not a politician by training. And I found politics to be a relatively difficult occupation. I didn’t enjoy some of that.

But working with everybody, we’ve been able to accomplish a lot. I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment working with so many people to solve so many problems. So I did enjoy that.

Interview conducted and edited by Liam Dillon, who can be reached at or 619.550.5663. Liam covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Like VOSD on Facebook.

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.