Let's give Mayor Dick "Gimme More Time" Murphy credit. This week's State of the City address didn't fall flat on its face like last year's attempt at humor during a time of crisis. Is it possible to forget the image of furry beasts from Hollywood's Monsters Inc. as an analogy to the city's "scary" budget predicament? Spin Cycle can't.
No, the humor was long gone for 2004, and for good reason. Not only is Murphy facing a re-election bid of epic (albeit redundant) proportions, but he is also attempting to lead a city that struggles with its own internal demons. What's really important to the people of San Diego? (A clean, friendly and crime-free environment, thank you.) Can we build our way out of this affordable-housing crisis? (Probably not.) Do we give a crap if the bottom-feeding Chargers stay or take a powder to richer climes? (Depends on the draft.) Do we want a less flammable county or do we squeal over tougher building codes? (Ignore the squealing.)
Tough challenges, indeed. Unfortunately, Murphy's 50-minute speech seemed stymied in some defensive limbo. At certain points, the mayor appeared ready to fly toward the vision that he constantly claims to own, only to falter back to earth with veiled smacks at his mayoral challengers-and for that matter, at anyone who doesn't share his narrow view of San Diego and its people.
But as it's been said over and over, Murphy couldn't generate excitement if he dropped dead in a room full of undertakers. He's acknowledged that public speaking, for him, is tantamount to a firing squad, and as pleasant as a colon exam.
It is, however, part of the job description, so he plods on with this monkey on his back. One political observer equated Murphy's droning delivery with that of a history lecture-a dry rehash of past accomplishments and vague hints at a future devoid of any flourishes of imagination.
"Let us never forget that we are America's Finest City," Murphy said as his head ping-ponged between two teleprompters. "Those who would say otherwise are either ignorant or dishonest."
To prove his point, he noted that the National Policy Research Council recently ranked San Diego "the second best City in America, using criteria such as quality of life." Well then, not to get too technical, but doesn't that mean San Diego is America's Second-Finest City? Denver, by the way, came in first-maybe we should let them know we have a city slogan available at a low, low price.
This will be the dilemma of the upcoming mayoral primary. Will voters settle for slick slogans and chest-pounding rhetoric about a need to return to a public-safety-at-all-cost agenda while ignoring what have seemingly become the little things that make a city truly great, like art and culture and the embrace of diversity?
But the lip service continues. "We face some tough problems," Murphy acknowledged. "They will take a lot of time and effort to solve. But I will solve them with the same steady, consistent leadership that has proven to be effective during the past three years."
His suggestion for the impasse with the Chargers? "No deal is better than another bad deal."
Affordable housing? "While the city needs to provide its share of housing, all jurisdictions in San Diego County must share this responsibility."
Fiscal crisis? "We must continue to press the governor and the state Legislature to stop further state raids on local government treasuries." Press, pull or push, it's not working so far.
The deliberately underfunded city pension system? "[I]mplement the recommendations of the Pension Reform Committee." Too bad the committee hasn't made any recommendations yet.
Bottom line? Lots of goals, but very few specifics.
Murphy's prime challengers, a reunion of 2000 contenders county Supervisor Ron Roberts and port commissioner Peter Q. Davis, attended the speech and immediately pounced on the mayor's vision, alleging that it's near-sighted and that it clearly missed signals of San Diego's declining public-safety apparatus leading up to October's horrific wildfires.
The mayor clearly made public safety his top priority for the coming year, although he noted that what happens budget-wise in Sacramento will play a significant role in what he called his effort "to ensure that the San Diego Fire Rescue Department is one of the best in the country."
He did say he would push for a police academy this year-contrary to 2003-to deal with the police department's declining ranks.
In the end, Murphy left it to the late Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw to sum up his vision of a legacy: "This then is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one," he intoned. "My life belongs to the whole community, and it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a splendid torch which I hold for the moment. I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."
Shaw also once wrote: "Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will." About politics, he said: "Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve."
Message? Do not shy away from the tough questions, for they will set you free.
What are the tough questions: spincycle @SDcitybeat.com.