Jan. 21 2004 12:00 AM

The story of ‘recovering politician' and rightwing talk jock

"The environment's burned. It's gone. So what environmental concerns do we have now?" demanded Roger Hedgecock of a sacrificial State Parks official in a recent broadcast. "Now that the environmental policies of the environmentalists, and the state, and the park, have resulted in the whole damn thing burning down, what are we protecting now?"

Assigning blame for the recent devastating fires is just one of the crusades that he's leading. KOGO's "Roger Hedgecock Show" has just marked its 18th anniversary, and Hedgecock has been champion of the local talk format almost since the beginning. He's held his turf with an incendiary mix of rightwing commentary, news bytes, political bear-baiting and cheerleading calculated to appeal to San Diego's conservative radio audience.

Recently, he was in the vanguard of the mob that called for Gray Davis' ouster. He's filled in for ultra-rightwinger Rush Limbaugh and been quoted by papers across the country on such issues as affirmative action and border control. (He's against the former and wants more of the latter.)

But as successful as he is, radio was not Hedgecock's first career choice. He came to broadcasting from the looking-glass land of local politics, having been the youngest person ever elected to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. After almost seven years with the county, Hedgecock ran for the mayoral post left vacant in 1983 when Pete Wilson moved to the U.S. Senate.

Positioned as a progressive Republican, Hedgecock stormed into office and started rattling windows at City Hall. But he became snared in a campaign-finance imbroglio, and by the end of 1985 Hedgecock was down and out. He was out of the 11th floor mayor's office and down at the courthouse with his lawyers, arranging for an appeal of 13 felony convictions related to his campaign finances.

So how did Roger Hedgecock go from being a convicted felon to "Southern California's Radio Mayor," leading the charge of the right wing, with a clean record?

Through both his wife and his producer, Hedgecock declined to be interviewed for this story.

The elder of two boys, Hedgecock and his family moved to Loma Portal from Compton, in South Central Los Angeles, when he was 10 years old. He attended St. Agnes Elementary and St. Augustine High. One observer thinks the moral training handed out with the geography assignments has shaped Hedgecock's story. Another thinks that sibling rivalry, exacerbated by the contrast between Roger's complexion problems and his younger brother's physical beauty, has been a big influence.

About the time they moved to San Diego, Roger's father fell very ill, and things got pretty tough for the Hedgecock family. His mother opened a small electrolysis shop, and Roger went to work, too, starting with a paper route for the San Diego Union. Hedgecock's father eventually returned to work, but that episode made a lasting impression on young Roger. He told the San Diego Reader in 1988:

"I didn't wanna be poor when I was older. My folks had been poor. My grandparents had been very poor. My dad had polio when I was a kid, we were on welfare for a while-every dime meant something. And I wanted to be a person that could lose a few dimes, I could give a few dimes away, I could-not that I ever wanted to be rich for riches sake, but I wanted to have enough money that I never had to worry like that anymore."

Once he started working, Roger never stopped. He held a variety of jobs as a teenager, including building surfboards, selling summer hats and shelving books at the city library. A desire to sing rock 'n' roll led him to manage a band called Marsha and the Esquires, a money-making proposition. Jim Pagni, a former concert promoter who worked with him, recalled that Hedgecock was aggressive and ambitious even then.

Before he finished high school, Hedgecock was suspended several times for fighting. He had also decided that he wanted to become a lawyer. "I thought the law was and is, unlike its present-day reputation, a noble profession where you could make society evolve and face new realities and challenges," he told the L.A. Times.

He saved money throughout high school and took the first big step in his quest for wealth at the age of 17. The year was 1964, and Hedgecock put $1,200 down on a rental house in Ocean Beach.

That same year marked the awakening of his political ambitions. He attended the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, and volunteered for the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign.

Hedgecock enrolled as a political science major at San Diego State University in the fall, then transferred to UC Santa Barbara in his junior year. His appointment as the head of social programs for the Associated Students gave his rock 'n' roll career a boost. He was able to spin the position into a very successful concert promotion business. By the time he enrolled in law school at San Francisco's Hastings College in 1968, Hedgecock had working relationships with about 85 colleges.

The country was in turmoil over the Vietnam War and many of America's youth were becoming activists. So did Roger, but spurred by the infamous 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, he focused his energy on saving the environment. Hedgecock helped organize an environmental law curriculum at Hastings and began working with the Sierra Club.

He told the L.A. Times in a Feb. 21, 1983 story. "Some of the [anti-war] protesters were pretty high-profile guys and I didn't want to get drafted." Hedgecock became eligible for the draft after graduation from UCSB, but was later classified 4-F because of his severe acne problems. He told the Reader that he was originally 1-Y but got the 4-F classification after being recalled to the draft board. In his final year at Hastings, as class president, he helped organize a peaceful one-day strike against the bombing of Cambodia.

Roger returned to San Diego in 1972, and seemed to have had a pretty clear career plan. He joined the San Diego law firm Higgs, Fletcher & Mack, where he handled environmentally related cases. The San Diego Union said, "As an advocate, he gained a reputation for cut-and-slash rhetoric; opponents were not merely wrong, they were dangerous and had to be stopped at all costs."

Hired by the predecessor of the San Diego Association of Governments, Hedgecock wrote the county's growth-management plan. He also participated in the local drive to create the California Coastal Commission.

These activities brought him to the attention of the Del Mar City Council, which hired him to be the city attorney in 1974. Two council members, Nancy Hoover and Tom Shepard, were to play pivotal roles in Hedgecock's subsequent political career. The following year, he married Cynthia Coverdale and they soon started a family.

In 1976, with a wife and a track record, it was time for Roger to seek public office. He unseated county Supervisor Lou Conde by telling voters the incumbent was a tool of greedy developers.

The race was marked by acrimony, and just the slightest hint of impropriety. In the middle of the campaign, District Attorney Ed Miller filed a misdemeanor charge against Hedgecock for violating campaign-finance law. Hedgecock pleaded no-contest and the conviction was "set aside" after a probationary period.

Once on the Board of Supervisors, Roger proved true to the Republicans. He drew a hard line with striking employees and pushed for a "workfare" program that put welfare recipients to work. Hedgecock also voted to cut costs and trim county staff, though he did vote to raise his own salary. One of his 1983 campaign flyers claimed that he had "lowered the county budget by over $5 million in the year before Proposition 13."

At the same time, he championed the environment, espousing the need to find alternate water supplies and preserve open space. The young politician made a very good impression on Robert Meadow. With a doctorate in political science, Meadow is a principal in the Decision Research polling firm. They first met in 1980, and Meadow later worked on Hedgecock's mayoral campaigns.

"He had a vision of what he wanted, not only for himself but also for San Diego," Meadow told CityBeat. "People were concerned about the "˜Los Angelization' of San Diego and growth development. And I think Roger thought that there was a way to grow in a smart way that wouldn't undermine the reasons why people were in San Diego to begin with."

Thomas K. Arnold used to report on local government for the Reader, and later became friends with Hedgecock. He described Roger as narcissistic, but hastened to add that he means it in the best sense of the word. "You know, that doesn't mean that you only think about yourself," he told CityBeat. "You also think about a lot of other things. However, you believe that whatever you think happens to be right. So the most fervent activists are narcissists because they believe that they have the answer."

That belief seemingly led Hedgecock to take on all comers at the County Administration building. He told an L.A. Times reporter in 1983, "Hey I love a fight. I love when I can flip down my helmet, lower the lance, kick the horse's side and charge in there to do battle." According to the account, Hedgecock went on to say, "Compromise is often nothing more than a dilution of leadership. It can obscure the fact that there's a right and a wrong."

So he fought with the other supervisors, county employees, the county Republican committee and the press. He also skirmished repeatedly with District Attorney Miller. They fought over Miller's budget, Hedgecock's plans for fundraising in advance of a campaign and Miller's desire to organize a formal review of election laws.

Hedgecock's self-confidence and aura of destiny drew a lot of supporters. A former staffer is convinced that he was headed for the White House. But his merciless rhetoric left enemies nursing resentment along with their wounds.

Political jousting didn't occupy all of his attention. He continued to engage in a modest amount of real estate speculation, mostly in older, established areas of the city.

According to published reports, his 1982 holdings included two houses, five condominiums and a 2.5-acre parcel of land on Artesia Road in North County. A complicated series of financial deals left him heavily in debt, vulnerable both to allegations of wrong-doing and to temptation.

In 1983, Pete Wilson vacated the mayor's office and Hedgecock went after it. Shepard, who had quit his job as Hedgecock's chief of staff to open a political consulting firm, ran the campaign.

The campaign highlighted Hedgecock's fiscal and environmental accomplishments. It also positioned him as tough on crime, and according to one campaign letter, "he required criminals to pay back the cost of their trial and imprisonment."

On the advice of his campaign staff, Hedgecock took his cause to the people, and tagged his strongest opponent as a member of the moneyed elite. The San Diego Tribune remarked on May 5, 1983, "The Hedgecock coalition was generally regarded as one of the most impressive elements of his campaign, and it clearly had much to do with his closer-than-expected victory over Port Commissioner Maureen O'Connor."

Speaking wistfully about how changed the Hedgecock of today seems, Robert Meadow said, "This was a guy who reached out to the gay and lesbian community. This was a guy who worked with the service employees. There were whites, blacks, Latinos in the coalition. There were Democrats, independents. I mean it was a very exciting and energizing time when we were working on the campaign."

"How smart is that?" asked Gayle Falkenthal, who produced Hedgecock's radio show for several years. "You are a member of a community that has no representation. Somebody offers you some, and then listens to you. That's a pretty great thing."

A Hedgecock campaign insider added, "He was never a liberal but did see the importance of inclusiveness."

The first months in City Hall were heady. One staffer remembers feeling that the best and brightest were in charge, and they were going to go on to greater things. Hedgecock was popular with the public, and he rewarded his supporters. The history section of the website for the San Diego Democratic Club, a predominantly gay political organization, says, "A major advance came in 1983 when Roger Hedgecock sought lesbian and gay support in his effort to become mayor of San Diego. He won, providing new clout to a minority group struggling for attention."

Like Hedgecock's earlier political battles, this one left a field of smoldering resentment shrouded by a pall of acrimony. "He made powerful political enemies," said Robert Meadow. "I think that developers, builders, some of the folks that had been running San Diego-the old-boy network that really characterized it-the Union-Tribune, the Neil Morgans of the world, all these other people-they didn't like him. I think that they thought he was young and brash and was going to change their world. And in fact he was prepared to do that. He had a pretty strong following that cut across party lines. He wasn't the usual person they had in office."

But the 1983 campaign had been the most expensive mayoral battle to date, and Hedgecock, who had spent around $600,000 to get the job, had to immediately start a campaign to keep it.

This is where Nancy Hoover re-entered the picture. After her term on the Del Mar City Council, she had become romantically and professionally allied with J. David Dominelli, head of the J. David Company. The pair was later convicted of defrauding investors of about $80 million. The scandal started to break in early 1984 and Hedgecock was connected to it through Hoover.

It turned out Hoover was a silent partner in Tom Shepard Associates, Hedgecock's campaign consultant, and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the company. She also arranged a controversial remodeling loan for Hedgecock's State Street house. Whether it was intended as a loan or an outright gift has been the subject of much debate.

Hoover's support, and her ties to Dominelli, gave Hedgecock's foes a perfect weapon to use in their drive to get him out of city hall. City law prohibited corporate campaign donations and limited individual contributions to $250 per campaign.

The ensuing battle over City Hall was truly a clash of the titans, fought in several arenas.

In the legal arena, the opening salvo was a Grand Jury investigation of Hedgecock's 1983 campaign, mounted in the spring of 1984. Retaliating, Hedgecock accused District Attorney Miller and two members of the Grand Jury of waging a vendetta, and demanded they remove themselves from the investigation. They refused.

There was also a battle with the press. In April, the San Diego Union, whose publisher had supported Maureen O'Connor, reported a story about testimony before the Grand Jury. Hedgecock claimed the information, leaked from a secret proceeding, was false and demanded a retraction.

When the Union printed only a partial retraction of the Grand Jury story, Hedgecock filed a $3.5-million libel suit. This convinced the paper to print a full, front-page retraction. Hedgecock dropped his suit.

Meanwhile, the Grand Jury adjourned before it was able to finish the investigation. So Miller filed a civil suit in May, accusing Hedgecock of failing to report more than $350,000 in illegal donations from Hoover, Dominelli and the J. David Company. The Grand Jury reconvened and in September 1984, after hearing 84 witnesses, indicted Hedgecock on 13 felony counts.

Hedgecock's response to the indictment was defiant. "Finally, I'm going to get a jury trial where both sides will be heard equally," he said in a Sept. 20, 1984 Union story. "So far, all we've had is secret sessions, lots of leaks from the grand jury, lots of trial in the press with only one side coming out." He immediately fired legal salvos of his own, drawing from a large arsenal of motions and pleadings.

Bloodied but unbowed, Hedgecock took another hit in October when the state's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) filed a $1.2-million suit against Hedgecock, Shepard, Dominelli, Hoover and businessman Roque de la Fuente Jr. De la Fuente owned several car dealerships around the county and held a large tract of land in Otay Mesa. Coincidentally or not, Otay Mesa was one of the areas that Hedgecock had targeted for development under his vision of managed growth.

Hedgecock's foes gloated. Lou Conde, still smarting from Hedgecock's treatment eight years earlier, hired a biplane to fly the sneering message "Roger-It's Miller Time!" over the stadium packed with 60,000 Chargers fans. Neil Morgan, who had duly reported the incident, also reminded San Diego Union readers that back in 1975, Del Mar City Councilmember Nancy Hoover had voted to adopt the campaign-spending ordinance, drafted by Hedgecock, limiting individual contributions to a mere $15.

The campaign itself was almost the least of the battles. In spite of it all, Hedgecock beat Richard Carlson, the standard bearer for the "old guard," with 58 percent of the vote. The people he had empowered remained loyal to him. Doug Case, a longtime member of the Democratic Club, remembers that the group gave Roger a standing ovation shortly after his indictment. Hedgecock had won the political battle, but the fighting still raged on the other fronts.

He got another break when the jury in his trial deadlocked 11-1 in favor of a guilty verdict. After some more maneuvering, a second trial began in July of 1985, this time with Oscar Goodman, known for defending mobsters, running the defense.

On Oct. 9, 1985 the jury returned convictions on 13 felony counts, 12 for perjury and one for conspiracy. But two days later, reports of jury tampering surfaced and Hedgecock asked for a new trial. His request was denied and on Dec. 10, Hedgecock was sentenced to a year in county jail and three years of probation. As legally required, he resigned his post as mayor.

Most would have called it a day-not Roger Hedgecock, whose father had "willed himself to walk" after contracting polio. The public was surprised when, four days later, KSDO radio announced it had hired him as a talk-show host. This stirred up yet another controversy, prompting the San Diego Business Journal to lead a Jan. 13, 1986 story with: "Some say "˜The Roger Hedgecock Show' that debuts on KSDO-AM 1130 radio next week should be renamed "˜Hello, Big Felon.'"

Hedgecock also began a siege of the court system that lasted until 1991. In 1990, the state Supreme Court threw out 12 of the convictions and Hedgecock settled with Miller on the last one, in a deal that wound up leaving his record clean. As part of that deal, Hedgecock paid a fine of $5,000. He settled the FPPC lawsuit with a $30,000 payment in 1991. Ironically, prosecuting the fiscal conservative who "required criminals to pay back the cost of their trial and imprisonment" cost the taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars.

Ultimately, Hedgecock could claim victory because his record was clean, and his law license was reinstated. But the other side got what it wanted, too. He was out of office and his political career was put on hold-probably forever.

But the controversy that surrounded his radio gig kick-started his ratings, and Hedgecock proved to be good at his new job. "As a producer, it was really a pleasure to work with someone who was that quick of a study," said Gayle Falkenthal, who worked with him for about eight years. "I could throw him something at the last minute and he would sound like he had been absorbing it for a week." The show quickly dominated its timeslot, and a few years later moved to sister station KOGO to take advantage of its larger coverage pattern.

As his radio ratings climbed, so did Roger's pay scale, and the man who made about $50,000 a year as mayor is acknowledged as the highest-paid radio performer in town. In 1996, the U-T reported that his salary was "believed" to be at $300,000. Whether this figure included his percentage of the travel packages that he spends so much of the program promoting isn't clear.

Unfettered by the rules governing politicians, Hedgecock has also pursued several other paths to wealth. These included work as a government lobbyist and consultant for one-time campaign contributor, developer Roque de la Fuente. Hedgecock's written books and spoken at seminars. With a group, he opened a restaurant in 1999, though he sold his interest in it relatively quickly. He's also bounced all over the television dial, doing everything from short commentaries to hour-long programs, and appearing most recently on Fox Channel 6.

And he still has real estate holdings. In 1995, the house on State Street, which figured so prominently in his political demise, was in the news again. This time the neighbors were all riled up because Hedgecock's tenant, Sandy Carter-who happens to run the travel service Hedgecock regularly promotes on the radio-was operating it as a venue for parties without a permit. Carter was fined $3,500 in civil penalties for the transgression.

Hedgecock has repeatedly characterized his radio show as a public service, a platform from which he can teach people about issues and stimulate them to act on their own behalf. Robert Meadow has a different view of it. "Mostly it's sort of railing against whatever the issue of the day might be in San Diego, whether it's Charger ticket guarantees or whatever. Just finding something that'll touch the conservative base and have them rant and scream about how San Diego and the world are all going to hell because of liberal influences."

At its core, the show's a mix of Roger's spin on current events, comments from listeners and visits with organizations and public officials flogging their causes. "Team Hedgecock" regularly takes the show on the road, broadcasting from places as nearby as Julian in the aftermath of the recent fires, and as far away as New York on the first anniversary of 9/11.

Former Reader writer Thomas K. Arnold points to Hedgecock's on-air fundraising for the homeless, military families and fire victims as evidence of his public spirit. "He doesn't have to support any of these charity causes," said Arnold. "You know, you don't hear about any other conservative talk-show host really getting behind any real charities that help people, but Roger does."

"This Ain't Just Talk Radio," Hedgecock's website proclaims. "We do not just whine and complain we Take Action." And over the years he has picketed local gas stations to protest high fuel prices, and held rallies supporting the Mt. Soledad Cross and opposing federal tax hikes.

Falkenthal cited Hedgecock's vociferous role in the recall effort saying, "I personally think Roger has accomplished more in the community-whatever you think of his accomplishments-he has accomplished more for the community in real terms than he probably would have if he'd stayed in office."

"The purpose of this program," intoned Hedgecock to enthusiastic applause from an audience of Julian fire victims, "is the highest purpose of the media and that is to hold accountable government agencies for the performance of their duty at the highest possible level." This was in response to a caller who suggested the motive for Hedgecock's frenzied finger-pointing after the fire was less than noble.

"Holding their Feet to the Fire" is how Hedgecock characterizes junkets to lobby lawmakers about the budget, immigration and other conservative causes. Supported by a group of his listeners, Hedgecock has just taken his ninth such trip since 1987. Now that's activism. But it's also capitalism if Hedgecock gets a cut from each person's travel and lodging. In that case, it's at least a little hypocritical.

Hedgecock a hypocrite? Let's review: The guy who didn't want to serve in Vietnam now wraps himself in the flag every chance he gets.

In 1981, the Union quoted a speech he made at Pt. Loma High: "I think it's time that this country accept with open arms the kind of strength and determination of the Mexican people who make great sacrifices to reach the United States." But in a recent broadcast, he referred to the American Friends Service Committee, an organization dedicated to helping migrants, as "The Friends of Criminals."

The ardent environmentalist now blames his old colleagues for everything from sewage spills to timber shortages.

The guy the gay community helped put into the mayor's office later blamed them, in a Aug. 12, 1987 Union-Tribune story, for "a situation which has led to the worst plague that we have had in Western culture since the Black Death in the 16th century."

One observer attributed the change in Hedgecock to anger: "His life was politics. The political ambush broke him and made him bitter." The observer charged that, bereft of the vision that used to drive him, Hedgecock now squanders his considerable skills denouncing the local establishment.

Citing his theory of narcissism, Arnold suggests that Hedgecock believes whatever he says. "Probably for the moment he does. I do believe he's got his convictions, and he's probably speaking closer to his heart now than maybe he was as mayor. Then again, we all get more conservative as we get older."

Another observer said, "His job is to get the most listeners possible for his employer. And make no mistake, that's his only job. He knows exactly who his audience is. I think he spends great time and care in determining what that customer wants," and then he gives it to them.

The FCC's abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine coincided with the national explosion in talk radio-just about the time Hedgecock hit the airwaves. The ever-more strident positions taken by commentators were like siren song to their core conservative audience, and unbearable noise to those with more moderate views, who tuned out.

"One shortcoming in this kind of populist politics it is that it's frequently drawn in black and white. It is frequently the audio equivalent of an editorial cartoon. It's shorthand because there isn't much gray," said Falkenthal, who believes radio demands that kind of brevity.

Meadow pointed out that Hedgecock's 153,000 listeners are a small fraction of the county's 2.9 million residents. "For any radio person like that, there's a myth of their influence which extends far beyond what their actual influence is, because in the scale of things, nobody's listening."

Meadow concedes, however, that those listening are not just the conservative choir to whom Hedgecock preaches. Hedgecock's audience also includes politicians, wary of his potential influence and hungry for public exposure. Journalists also tune in to Hedgecock's show, Meadow said, so "it affects the dialogue a little bit."

Doug Case, the gay-rights activist, added, "He's very astute politically, has the ability to motivate people and has a great deal of influence. Certainly, in the recall election I think he was very influential in the way San Diego went-in motivating people to get signatures and so forth. So he has had an impact."

"I think it says a lot more about the people who live here than it does about Roger or any of his colleagues, former colleagues in politics or current colleagues in politics," said Falkenthal. "Does it mean that the citizens demand to be entertained before they will act?

"We have a governor who's an actor now," she said. "And one thing that was important to me as a producer, and I think Roger understood very, very well is people won't stick with you if you aren't entertaining. You've got to be entertaining first. People get exactly the media they deserve. They do. You vote every time you turn on the TV, turn on the radio, or buy a publication. You just voted for something.

"Roger always knew how to count votes, and he still does."


See all events on Wednesday, Oct 26