Color it blue...
... with a streak of yellow
Yellow can mean different things to different people, triggering reactions that run the gamut from sunshine and happiness to cowardice and deceit. A room painted Bright Banana, color experts say, is an attention getter alright, but it's also an environment where people will more easily lose their temper "" and babies are more likely to cry.
Looking back on San Diego's political landscape in 2003, similar reactions come to mind. This was a year like few others in recent memory, a time that began with new-found hope for intelligent debate that devolved into a disappointingly bleak palette of criminal indictments, debilitating natural disasters, opportunistic ambition and unbridled indecision.
Even the normally dour Union-Tribune, which tends to see only good in the intentions of San Diego's Republican-dominated leadership core, has begun to turn up the juice on the hot seats of the San Diego City Council. Just this week, the conservative daily ran an op-ed column that portends a rough ride for city politicos: "Ultimately, the clouds of 2003 may well usher in a 2004 electoral storm that sweeps one or more of our elected officials from office."
Local Democrats, particularly labor interests, had reason to be hopeful at the outset. With a majority of young, hungry social progressives on the dais, the City Council appeared to be on the verge of historic change-from a group of big-business toadies to a more thoughtful panel impressed more by good ideas than political expediency.
Only a few short years ago, the City Council bent over willingly to the whims of local powerhouses like the San Diego Chargers. Not so last January, when several councilmembers fired verbal salvos across the fortified bows of team owner Alex Spanos and his principal mouthpiece, former Clinton adviser Mark Fabiani.
Mayor Dick Murphy stood in his usual place-on the sidelines-although he did think it unfortunate that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, here for Super Bowl XXXVII in January, expressed doubt that the Big Game would return to San Diego unless it agreed to build a shiny new stadium. Meanwhile, Councilmember Donna Frye got off the best one-liners on the matter when she said the city shouldn't "cast our pearls before swine" and that Tagliabue had clearly flunked charm school.
Murphy didn't help himself during his "State of the City" address, regarded by many observers as one of his worst, with weird references to Hollywood movies and only scant mention of problems facing the city beyond his trademark 10 goals. He did acknowledge a housing crisis, but most council colleagues seemed ready to hit the snooze button.
The council did manage a few yellow-sunshine decisions early in the year that hinted at a progressive philosophical shift. In January, it was a pilot needle-exchange program that, despite some groaning from some local residents, appears to be succeeding in ridding the streets of dirty syringes. In February, the regulation of medical-marijuana use took center stage, with six councilmembers lining up to approve guidelines for police that to took up the cause of a voter-approved state law but ran counter to the mayor's tastes and federal law.
Some City Hall staffers rejoiced at the beginning, thinking that such a compassionate start to the year might be a bellwether of things to come. But when the council-with members Frye and Toni Atkins opposed-agreed to let the owners of the Maryland Hotel downtown sweep out its low-income tenants to make way for a "boutique" hotel, doubts resurfaced. The mayor's comments that the city did all it could legally didn't help the matter and were seen as disingenuous by advocates of the downtrodden.
Councilmember Ralph Inzunza, meanwhile, seemed more interested in continuing his personal policy of accepting as many free lunches as possible and pushing for rules to assure that, while a task force made up of well-heeled citizens recommended in late February that the city lease the 166-acre Qualcomm Stadium site to the Chargers, despite team sentiment that a land sale would be better.
But City Hall's relationship with the Chargers took a sharp nosedive in early March when the team chose to pull the so-called trigger to renegotiate its contract with the city. Steam was seen coming even from the ears of Murphy, who called the move outrageous and a "slap in the face" of the task force, the council and the public.
Perhaps buoyed by this newfound emotion, Murphy also announced in March his intent to seek re-election in 2004, but then unexpectedly dropped out of the race, and then got back in again when local business leaders, pushed by Councilmember Jim Madaffer, stood below his office window like a bunch of Romeos and begged him to reconsider. The in-out-in-again debacle seemed to trigger concern that maybe Murphy had gone yellow and wasn't up to the task of leading this city.
But just when some councilmembers seemed ready to claim the leadership mantle while the mayor wobbled, along came the feds. In May, the FBI-after two years of surveillance-swarmed the City Hall offices of Inzunza, Michael Zucchet and Charles Lewis, searching for links to a slimy Las Vegas strip-club family the feds allege tried to bribe its way to more lenient regulations, particularly the city's so-called "no-touch" law.
The media whirlwind the raid created drowned out any talk of a leadership shift on the council, while Murphy ingratiated himself to no one when he self-servingly announced shortly after the sweep that he was not a target of the feds' investigation. The media frenzy would continue for months as a host of characters allegedly linked to the investigation were paraded before a federal grand jury.
From there, most council debates took on a more ominous tone. Councilmembers struggled with a $30 million budget deficit. The marriage to the Chargers seemed headed for divorce court as the team pushed hard for a new venue in Mission Valley-or some other town. Rumors of a move to unseat City Manager Michael Uberuaga swirled. Dark and foreboding stuff.
Then the real firestorm. In October, thousands of homes were destroyed-hundreds within city limits-as a record-smashing fire swept through the backcountry and headed west. Mayor Murphy and a few cohorts donned yellow jackets and feigned control over the situation, but it was Fire Chief Jeff Bowman in interviews following the fires who took the reigns, saying City Hall had fallen short over too many years in funding public safety. The city's new police chief, Bill Lansdowne, chimed in, too, and suddenly San Diego seemed truly rudderless.
Soon, two familiar names had been thrown into the 2004 election for mayor. Creating a 2000 rematch, port Commissioner Peter Q. Davis and county Supervisor Ron Roberts jumped into the race and, subsequently, all over Murphy's leadership skills.
In the meantime, the City Council faces serious legal challenges on recent decisions, not only involving the Chargers but much poorer opponents like the mobile-home residents at De Anza who have filed a class-action suit against the city.
With 2003 in the rear-view mirror, the council may find itself facing even greater challenges in 2004, including even deeper budget cuts during an election cycle in which the mayor and three of four council colleagues seeking re-election will face significant challengers.
It certainly won't be a year where acting yellow will gain officials any brownie points. Watch out for those banana peels!