“Big egos are big shields for lots of empty space.” —Diana Black
On Wednesday, Jan. 25, before a sold-out, well-heeled crowd of Downtown faithful, Mayor Jerry Sanders is scheduled to “let loose”—to pontificate, as it were, “unplugged.” Spokesperson Rachel Laing said the speech would be “jovial and roast-like. He'll take some playful jabs at public figures—all in fun, nothing mean-spirited or particularly juicy.”
But even as the lame duck lets feathers fly—presumably on anyone standing in his legacy-building way as his tenure wanes—Sanders will be hard-pressed to ignore his surroundings for the Downtown San Diego Partnership dinner, seeing that he'll be at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. In the Manchester Ballroom.
Yes, the Sanders media machine was on full defensive alert this past weekend, when hotel mogul Papa Doug Manchester used his latest purchase—the town's major daily, recently renamed U-T San Diego—to encourage readers to “Think big” about San Diego's future. And by that he apparently means particularly in areas where his land holdings are most precious.
Let's be clear: In a battle of egos, no one touches the Papa. Sanders can get all Eminem and AC/DC on the populace and blow off legal advice for what he perceives as the greater community good, but he'll never get that crazy-eye, I'm-gonna-sue-you-till-your-toes-bleed glare that Manchester pulls off with self-fulfilling perfection.
It's why you can't just swat away Manchester's mere fly of an idea to turn the underused Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal into some sort of beachfront, money-making, wet-dream paradise for sports junkies.
But take warning, young ones. This dude's a freakin' bear! When he sinks his developer-honed claws into an idea, good luck convincing him to let go before he's extracted his pound of flesh. No, he'll be around for a while, since he's made it pretty clear he's nowhere near done tinkering with San Diego.
Sanders, on the other hand, has an expiration date clearly stamped on his forehead, so his patience with those who would hinder the pace on his to-do list—Downtown Chargers stadium, expanded convention center, revamped Balboa Park—has clearly thinned if not run out altogether.
Although portrayed from the get-go as a smiling fatherly figure for a city enduring teen angst, Sanders has demonstrated his bite on occasion, saving the raunchiest for his detractors. (Few will forget, for example, the “Fuck you, Steve” encounter with Steve Francis in 2008 when the wealthy challenger tried to shake the incumbent's hand.)
But now, the term clock is ticking down, and some City Hall observers wonder privately if San Diego will be witnessing an increasingly more-frustrated Sanders.
“It's a dictatorship around here,” one council staffer told Spin Cycle recently. “He's become the ‘Fuck You Mayor,' like he's saying, ‘I'm looking in the mirror, and all I see is my reflection.'”
A longtime city lobbyist and City Hall ex-pat said that when he saw Sanders at a recent breakfast event, he was shocked by how tired he looked. “He just struck me as a guy who's ready to check out,” he said. “Sometimes at the end of political careers, you reach what's called the ‘fuckit stage,' where the mindset becomes, Don't like what I'm doing? Sue me!”
Maybe that's what struck Spin Cycle about the mayor's final State of the City address a few weeks back. The bravado was certainly expected—queue the intro video—but the callousness toward less-fortunate neighborhoods that many San Diegans call home, that seemed below the belt of an inclusive leader.
The irony was not lost on City Councilmember David Alvarez when children of color were shown running from the decaying streets he represents to the glitz and glam of a sparkling Downtown, where the mayor's interest seems squarely focused now.
“It's almost the exact same route I take on my bike to work every day,” Alvarez said. “Good people live there. But you wouldn't know it from that video.”
To say there's friction among the branches of government would be a wholesale understatement. The City Council and mayor? Not on good terms. The mayor and City attorney Jan Goldsmith? Icy, by some descriptions, over competing roles in labor negotiations.
The latter relationship shouldn't surprise when legal advice is given—and rejected. Such is the case with the ongoing Snapdragon scandal, a temporary name-change for Qualcomm Stadium the mayor agreed to without the legally required sign-offs from Goldsmith and the City Council.
Many observers saw this as the price the mayor was willing to pay to assuage Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, who's so critically linked by gravitas and money to the Sanders legacy vision.
But others observed a strong mayor who simply cares little about the rules. “He blatantly violated the law,” said former Councilmember Donna Frye, who's had her share of Sanders run-ins. “It's one thing if someone didn't know they did something wrong, but to know in advance that it was wrong, do it and then basically say, ‘I don't care. It was in the best interest of the public,' well, that's not a good message coming from a former police chief.”
Goldsmith's office was contacted for this column, but a statement a spokesperson said would be forthcoming never materialized. While his office hints at a much anticipated “Plan B” for dealing with an illegal contract that has since expired, the City Council has shown no interest in, as the council staffer put it, “cleaning up the mayor's mess.”
Don't tell Frye this is trivial. “This issue of public process is not a small matter. It's how society functions. This was completely avoidable. Instead, the mayor decided to flip off the public, the city attorney and council. This was an abuse of power. I wouldn't call for his resignation, but there should be acceptable consequences.”
Alvarez agrees. “We've got rules in place for a reason, because over the course of history in government, there are people who take advantage of the system.”
So, by all means, cut loose tonight, Mr. Mayor. For tomorrow, the rules of the political road still apply. And Papa Doug's still breathing down your legacy.