Democratic mayoral candidate David Alvarez has never been silent with his criticism for former Mayor Jerry Sanders.

The final two years of Sanders’ term overlapped with Alvarez’ first years as a city councilman and Alvarez complained about Sanders punishing council members if they didn’t support the mayor’s projects.

Alvarez went further in an interview last week, saying that Sanders, a Republican, favored downtown above neighborhood interests, was out of touch with the city and acted petty and aloof with those who challenged him.

“It was a culture of secrecy that I think held back our city,” Alvarez said.

Going after Sanders-the-man isn’t something major mayoral candidates have done over the past two years. Even Democrat Bob Filner – who succeeded Sanders and had no problem criticizing anyone, anywhere, at any time – spent more time talking up Sanders than tearing him down. Filner’s successful neighborhoods-first campaign message instead served as an implicit knock on Sanders’ tenure, though Sanders thought that framing distorted his record.

Sanders, who now heads the local Chamber of Commerce, has escaped scathing words in part because voters like him. Polls show high approval ratings, and a new GOP poll lionizes his popularity.

“Sanders is truly a rock star in San Diego politics,” said a memo accompanying the poll.

But Alvarez said Sanders delayed projects important in the southern neighborhoods he represents because the two didn’t get along. Alvarez also didn’t like that Sanders would sit in the audience at council meetings when major issues were being discussed, but rarely answered questions. And he took aim at a video introduction during Sanders’ last State of the City speech, which showed minority students running from their neighborhoods toward big downtown projects.

Sanders declined to comment through a Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman.

Here’s the Q-and-A with Alvarez:

Talk to me about your relationship with the Sanders administration.

It wasn’t good. Jerry Sanders maintained a culture of secrecy at City Hall where departments weren’t able to communicate with council members. They weren’t able to communicate with the public. They obviously weren’t able to communicate with the media.  It was a culture of secrecy that I think held back our city.

I don’t know how he felt because I didn’t have a relationship with him. I went to see him a couple times early on. His staff said that I was rude when I asked questions during council meetings.

I think people fed him information. He was a very strong political individual and he surrounded himself by a lot of political individuals that protected him. I think he wasn’t aware of the realities of what (was) happening in the day-to-day happenings of the city.

How did that express itself in the issues you cared about?

A lot of projects were delayed.

Can you think of any in particular?

Yeah, we were trying to install street lights in Stockton that had been funded for years before I got there. It took probably two years, it was toward the end of the administration when those finally went up. That’s a very easy example to do.

On policy matters, the Property Value Protection Ordinance (Editor’s note: Alvarez sponsored this law to create a registry of foreclosed homes in the city in an attempt to limit blight). Complete resistance from the very beginning. For no other reason, I don’t think he ever really understood what it did because he never asked me. But because the interest groups that opposed it, big banks and I believe at the end of the day, the realtors opposed it, were telling him that it wasn’t a good idea. That was a lot of resistance. It took me over a year to get that thing approved. It was such an easy thing to do and it’s been done other places. I think those are the two really clear examples.

I think day to day when you do things at the city, you’re trying to get questions answered, they wait to the last minute or they don’t get back to you. Little petty things that inhibit our ability to govern effectively.

If I recall correctly, you were the only person to be critical of that video that Sanders did at the last State of the City. Can you talk me through what was going through your head when you were sitting there watching it?

The one thing that I thought was: Do we really think that building big buildings in downtown solve all the problems in all of our neighborhoods? Because that’s what the video was trying to portray. You take a kid, there were officers in the background, this young kid from Memorial, my middle school, who basically doesn’t have a shot at being anything in life unless he goes downtown and goes to the brand new “X building” whatever, library, Chargers stadium, Convention Center.

I think that was very telling of how the Sanders administration viewed themselves and their goal. To build big projects in downtown and everything else will take care of itself. The same thing we heard when we built Petco Park. You build Petco Park and you have a whole bunch of money coming in to pay for all the neighborhood services. We paid, what, $11 million a year in debt for Petco Park? The Convention Center expansion, you build the (previous) expansion, we’ll have all this money coming in and we’ll be able to pay for all these things in the communities. We’re annually about $3 million in debt. And then $3 (million) for the new [expansion] on top of that. We get sold this idea that you build downtown big projects and somehow we’re all going to benefit. I think it’s the wrong approach to economic development in a city that has some urban core centers that need to be rebuilt and we need to grow our economy from there into the center of the city.

I always found it interesting too when he would sit in the audience at council meetings …

He never spoke unless I asked him a question.

Right. And you were the only one to do that.

I think he felt offended by that. Rolling his eyes or like, “Gosh, why do I have to be here?” Why are you there? You are the one advocating for this program, you should be expected to be asked questions.

I think he felt he was above all that. I feel very differently about that. I think it needs to be a collaborative relationship with the council. Not just on your big issue agendas, but on everyday problems that council members try to resolve. Like missing lights or missing signs or potholes or the basics that people want to take care of in their neighborhoods. I think council members are on the ground level and they can be really helpful in trying to fix our city. His view, I think, was very different.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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...

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