CityBeat: Are you enjoying yourself? Do you consider this a good time? Do you go home feeling fulfilled and satisfied?
Jerry Sanders: I feel like we've accomplished a lot. When you're trying to campaign, and you're trying to run a city, it's tough work; I mean, it's really long hours. Sometimes you get home, you're so tired—my wife will want to chat a little bit, and I'll say, “Honey, I'm so tired, I'm going to bed.” So, I do think it takes a little bit of a toll on the family life while this is going on. Sunday, I planned on taking my daughter and my wife over to Earth Day just so they could kind of enjoy it, and both of them had to go a separate way in.
You start feeling like you've got no time for anything. This is going to sound really strange, but I actually look forward to being able to squeeze a little time out on Saturday morning before I start my day's events to go to the supermarket. That's the fun I have in my life.
But, you know, there's an end in sight. You can do anything for 41 days, even if it's every night, even if it's every weekend.
What I don't want to do is I don't want to look back on June 3 and see that I lost by 100 votes and I could have done something on a Saturday; there was one more supermarket I could have gone to [to meet voters] or one more event. Last Saturday, it was three supermarkets; there must have been eight events on Saturday. I got home about 8:30 that night. And I don't want to look back and say, “I sure wish I'd have done one more of those, but I got lazy that day, so”—that's kind of the way I feel.
What about before you started campaigning?
I actually feel good about it. I feel good about it overall. Some really tough days. Some really tough decisions—tougher than I ever dreamed of. Politics is really different than... anything I've ever done, and it's been a real learning experience, and some of it's been a lot of fun to learn, and some of it's been very painful to learn. But overall I've had a good time doing it. I mean, I feel really privileged to have had this opportunity.
What's an example of a painful day?
Right now, labor negotiations. Those are really painful days. Those are really tough decisions that I'm having to make about people that I respect and admire and I think do a good job—and that's city employees. And I'm having to say that we don't have the money, and I'm having to say that not only do we not have the money, but we're going to start administering the healthcare because we can do it cheaper. And I'm saying not only do we not have any money and we're going to do the healthcare, but also there has to be a new pension system for employees, and you can see the pain in a lot of these workers' faces.
I held two town-hall meetings with employees on Monday to explain the budget and where we're at. The first one was out at Metro Wastewater, so it was basically blue-collar. They're angry. I mean, they're just pissed. And I can't say I blame them. With them, it's not only the three things I just said to you, but it's also, we're going to compete out the functions that [those workers] are in, and we're going to start doing that real quick. So, I imagine they're thinking, Why do I want to work here? You know, we're in a position where the sins of the past have caught up to us, and we've gotta fix 'em now. And I'm trying to do it the most humane way I can, but there's going to be pain, and that's just the way it is.
So, those are tough days. Those are really tough days.
We just published a photo of employees picketing right between you and the audience at the Balboa Park candidates forum.
I actually respect those people who were picketing. A lot of people can just sit back and yap at you. These people are actually committed enough, and they have enough nerve—they're going to do it right in front of me. I think that takes some balls, to be very honest with you, and I admire them for that. They're not sitting back letting other people do the talking. They're basically saying, “Hey, we're unhappy with you, and we're showing it, and we're not afraid to be out here and do it front of you and everybody else.” It's the same reason I admire [mayoral challengers] Eric Bidwell and Floyd Morrow and James Hart. I mean, at least they're up there doing it.
I want you to think about the city's recovery from scandal, dysfunction and financial chaos in terms of a one-year calendar. Jan. 1 is when you took office, and Dec. 31 is a return to normalcy. What day is today?
I think we're about June 30. My whole goal in being mayor is to turn over a city that's financially sustainable and is financially balanced. And I think that's going to take two more years of real discipline.
If you are reelected, will there be any noticeable changes in the way you run the city or the way you run the office?
I think there's always going to be changes in the second term. Some people sign on for a term. Some people sign on for two terms. Some people stay as long as you want them to. Others have said, “I'm exhausted.” So, yeah, I do think there will be some turnover, but I don't know to what magnitude. No one's come in and said, “I'm leaving the day after.”
That leads me to one of the criticisms of your administration. The perception is that your office is run by political consultant Tom Shepard and political advisor Kris Michell, with spokesperson Fred Sainz maybe a half-step down.
You know, that's interesting because Tom doesn't really have a role.
He doesn't have a role in any of the political decisions?
I won't say that I don't run some things by him from time to time, but he doesn't have a day-to-day role at all, and he doesn't have a role in 90 percent of what I do. If it's a difficult political decision, I might call him and say, “How do you think through this on both sides?” I know people have that impression; I don't really know why.
I think it's because everybody likes you—.
Oh, so, if I do something really bad, people think, That couldn't be him.
Right. I don't know anybody who doesn't like you personally. But I know a lot of people who really think low of some of the decisions your office makes, and I guess they just figure there's gotta be some—.
Well, they've got to give me more credit for making bad decisions at times. [Laughs.]
Sometimes your office makes decisions that sometimes seem mean-spirited, and you don't seem like a mean-spirited guy.
I'm not mean-spirited. But I take responsibility for every decision that comes out of it. Tone is sometimes [something] that I don't necessarily agree with, and I tone down a lot of stuff. That doesn't come from Tom Shepard, though.
Where does it come from?
Well, you are correct that Kris Michell gives me a lot of help. Kris is not mean-spirited. Fred gives a lot of advice. Fred's a little more direct. When we talk about policy issues, there's really a lot of people involved in that, and I tone down a lot of it. I don't try to be mean-spirited. I think that some people—I have to be careful about how I say this—I think that perhaps the unions have been better at positioning than we have, and I think sometimes it works out “Poor them, poor them.” I actually think that they participated in a lot of these decisions that created these problems, and now they don't want to have anything to do with it. It's basically: “That's not our fault that you said yes [to financially disastrous benefit deals].” I mean, I can't disagree with them, but I do think at some point you have to say, “We did kill the golden goose, and now we're going to have to participate in hatching a new one.” And I haven't seen a willingness to do that. So, some of the tone is me, too. That's one thing that does irritate me.
There's also the concern that politics—political considerations—trumps sound public-policy considerations.
I hear that all the time—especially from the Steve Francis campaign. So, let me tell you how that happened, at least in my estimation. We're not in the form of government we were before; we're not in a city-manager form of government. A strong mayor is basically a political system. There has been more scrutiny on me in six months than there was on the last mayor probably in however long he was there—five years?—and the mayors before that for their entire terms.
It's a very political world now, and I have to go to [the City] Council—and I think this is the fundamental difference: Before, the things that were controversial, that were unpleasant, that were tough, council said—and I'm not blaming any [particular] council; this is just how the system has worked for 70 years—council said, “City manager, don't bring that to us. You handle that behind the scenes. You find the money. You put the program in. You fix whatever problem there is. You negotiate the agreements with labor.” That's not the way it is anymore. I have to go in front of them on almost everything—or my staff does. So now, every decision that staff does in a bureaucracy of 11,000 [employees], people say, “Well, you screwed that one up.” I mean, I might not have known about the decision even.
Rarely a week goes by where someone like Donna Frye isn't saying that she can't get information from your office.
That is not true. That is simply not true. I want to be really clear about this one. Our staff goes up to brief any council member that wants it on every issue before it goes [to the council]. If it's a controversial issue, we take double care to re-brief. And almost all those questions are answered, and if they're not, they get answers back. I tell staff, “The sooner you get back [to] whatever questions come out of Donna, the better your life's going to be. Because your life is going to be really ugly when you go to council and you haven't given her those [answers].” But I'll guarantee you, a lot of times, she has already gotten all that; her staff's gotten all that. She's decided she didn't want a briefing. She'll frequently say, “I don't need a briefing on that,” and then in council, it's: “I didn't get the information.” And that's just disingenuous—on some cases. In some cases, she's right.
After that question about politics I had written down the names of former Assistant Chief Operating Officer Rick Reynolds and former Chief Operating Officer Ronne Froman, who both had said, in one way or another, that they believe they weren't political enough for your administration.
I want to break that into two pieces. Ronne Froman was not political enough, and she made it clear she didn't want to be political enough, and I knew that. I was naïve going into it thinking it wouldn't be so political. “Political” means you have to go and talk to the council members. You've got to go out and talk to other people. It means you don't sit in your office and just coordinate and do all of that.
Rick Reynolds, on the other hand, was very political, so what he says now is pretty self-serving because he's filed a lawsuit. He says whatever he wants; I really don't care.
In what way was he political?
Council members loved him. He went up and briefed them. He knew what all this was about. He was very good at moving all those levers. He was good at the politics. So, for him to say, “I'm not political,” that's baloney.
You and I might have a different idea about what's meant by “politics.” I'm wondering if political considerations trump public-policy considerations—for example, when the president makes a policy choice that makes the Democratic Party look bad but it might not be the best policy for the largest number of people.
I'm not going to say we don't have discussions about that—on which way to go on issues because of the way the public perceives them. But I've also told everybody that I'm not going to destroy a city to continue being mayor. I could have taken a hard line on the cops and a hard line on the firefighters. When we went out for those salary surveys, the cops and firefighters were absolutely convinced those were going to be doctored to show them right in the middle, and I presented them just as we got them. And I could have been probably just as popular with people by saying it shows we don't really have a problem: “We don't need to give them raises—we're holding the line.”
But the firefighters and the cops could have a field day because everybody loves them.
No they don't. I go to all these budget forums—you know what people say?: “How can city employees expect a raise when the city's doing as bad as it is?” On the water [and] wastewater [rate increases approved last year], you can imagine the counsel I got politically on that: “What the hell are you doing? Why would you even touch this thing? Let it go for a year or two.” I can't sit back and let a city have a judge walk in and take over stuff and say, “It's not my fault; that's the past council.” I felt very strongly about that. I went out to communities all over San Diego by myself—I didn't have any help from council members—and pushed that whole thing, even though I didn't create that mess.
So, I understand what you're saying, and I won't tell you that there's not a debate about those issues from time to time
The easiest thing in the world was for me to just stay away from [the controversial vote to raise the pay for City Council members]. Because I needed their votes [on several important items]. And I already had all the votes I needed. It would have been very easy for me to say, “Hey, I didn't vote for any of that [the council pay raise].” But I really felt strongly. I just announced the budget that day; we're cutting 127 employees, and then the council votes for that raise. I tried to stay out of the papers as much as I could. I happened to go to the [Union-Tribune] editorial board the next day to announce the budget. Do you think that the U-T wanted to talk about my budget? They were on the raise and all of that.
Here's another criticism: Sometimes it seems like you're in office to do the bidding of the tourism business and developers.
What is the tourism business and developers? That's what I always want to know. The tourism business is restaurants, hotels and convention centers. That's one of the fastest-growing parts of our economy.
But I don't know that it should be. They're low-paying jobs. I'd argue that the money is better spent on other economic-development campaigns.
I believe tourism is a vibrant, important part of San Diego. I think it provides a lot of jobs. Not everybody in San Diego is going to be a scientist out at Scripps.
Not everybody in San Diego is going to be an engineer. I also think that where we're promoting tourism, we're not going to be building smokestack industries down there; we're not going to be building manufacturing down there—it's not going to happen Downtown. We have protected the [industrial] areas, and I've been part of protecting the working-waterfront stuff, because those are good-paying jobs.
I think tourism, though, is going to continue to grow in San Diego, but I've spent just as much time on biotech, on high-tech, clean-tech. If you look at biotech, they don't normally endorse anybody, but they've endorsed me in this race, because of the fact that I've been there anytime they've needed me for any issue. I don't think I've done the bidding of the tourism industry at all. I think I've done what I think is the responsible job to create a good industry because I think that it's very important for the city.
What about the tourism district that was created last year and the capturing of hotel-tax money for marketing purposes—after tourism interests fought twice against ballot proposals to raise the tax for general-services purposes.
Let's just be clear about this. [Hotelier] Doug Manchester threw a shitload of money in at the last minute on both of those. The rest of the industry had agreed to push them. So, if you cannot get a transient-occupancy tax done for police and fire right after the Cedar fire, and that tax is [on] tourists, do you keep banging your head against the wall or do you finally say, “Let's figure out a different way to do this.”
We gave them [the Convention and Visitor's Bureau (Con-Vis) to fund]. We gave them the Holiday Bowl. We gave them 10 different things that drew money out of the city's TOT general fund. That relieved us from those obligations. It left them some more money to do more marketing, which I think benefits San Diego. We do so little compared to the major cities. If you look at what Las Vegas, Phoenix, L.A., San Francisco, New York do—huge amounts of money compared to our piddling amount that we spend with Con-Vis because it was always dependent on contributions, and it was completely dependent on the city putting in that $9 million, I think is what we put in.
Other people will say, “Well, why don't you just keep that [new revenue]?” Well, because you can't. That's what the tax thing was that lost twice within a year. If you can't get it done after the wildfires for police and fire, I mean, I have to tell ya, I'm at a loss on that one.
You also asked, “Who are the developers?” Let's talk about these evil developers.
I know, the evil developers. I guess—I live in a house. Everybody in San Diego lives in a house, lives in a condo, lives in an apartment. Unless you're homeless. So somebody built that stuff
We don't have enough housing for our children. The reason our housing is so expensive is that we don't have enough of it. I believe [in] infill. I believe [in] the “city of villages.” I think all those are very smart. I think Downtown is very smart. Downtown is relieving a lot of neighborhoods from having to take more density.I'll go to the Kensington [Terraces] issue, because everyone likes to make that my issue even though I stayed completely out it. I know some of our neighbors really disagreed with having that there, because they've been in Kensington a long time and they think it changes the character. Have you been up there lately? It's the ugliest gas station in the entire city. I mean, I love the gas station; I go there all the time. And it's two burned-out buildings. Now, I'm not sure what we've lost out on there. And maybe it's the scale; maybe it's fear of the unknown. But there's housing that's going to be built there. There are amenities for drawing people there, but there's no bogeyman in the background.
I listen to Steve Francis. Everything is: “Developers are doing this.” [Sighs.] I don't know what to say. That article in the U-T the other day about Baldwin [the development firm] donating $11,000 to a bunch of different races, and then [the U-T] saying he doesn't have anything in San Diego—but. You know, Francis is spending $4 [million] or $5 million. I'll probably raise about $750,000, $800,000. You've got several council raises [Baldwin] gave to [in which] they'll raise, probably combined another million, $2 million. So, $11,000 out of $8 million? What impact to people think that has?
There must be some expectation of a return, or they wouldn't donate it.
Well, you know what? Is there an expectation of a return when people in Kensington donate $320 to me? What expectation of a return do they have? Do you think it could be because they think, actually, one person would be a better politician for the city than another?
The thought never occurred to me.
I know. That's what makes me crazy! I don't feel like, when people give me 320 bucks, they're thinking, I'm gonna get a stop sign on my street next week. I think they actually care about their city, and not everyone can write a check for 5 million bucks.
There's a difference, though, between someone thinking you're the guy that's going to get that stop sign there—not because their $320 is going to buy it, but because they trust that you're the guy who cares about stop signs—and somebody who holds a fund-raiser and collects, I don't know, $50,000.
There are some people who are going to do it and say, “Lookit, I helped you raise 10 grand,” but you know what, I haven't had very many of those people. I had a neighbor who held a fund-raiser the other day.
And the fund-raiser will mark the envelopes to get credit for being responsible for that money.
Each person wants to show they raised the most. So, in my neighborhood, Don and Vicky held a fund-raiser at their house. They put their “D.V.” [on the envelopes], or whatever… because that's how they said, “We will raise our part for the mayor.”
They want credit.
Everybody wants credit. C'mon!
What if it's someone who has business before the city?
You know what, it isn't always that way, and that's the way with the Baldwins; they didn't have any business with the city. All they said was, “We care about the reputation of this region.” You know what I think people are buying in to, and it bothers me, because I think it's very dangerous, is that it's OK to write a check yourself for a huge amount of money, but it's not OK to accept checks from people that want to support you, and that's my biggest concern. I just think that's a very dangerous precedent.
In our forums, we've said Eric Bidwell and Floyd Morrow and the rest have to be there every time, or else we're not doing it. They shouldn't have to be able to write a check—you know, Floyd Morrow at least got endorsed by the Democratic Party. Steve Francis hasn't been endorsed by anybody, except Doug Manchester.
So, what makes him more important than Floyd?
Speaking of developers, do you think the Sunroad controversy hit at the right time for you—where there's been enough time between that and the election and everyone will forget about it?
No, nobody will forget about it. That was the biggest mistake I made. No one's going to forget about it. I don't blame them. I said I was sorry, made it right, the building's down. I learned a tremendous lesson. I really wanted [the] Development Services [Department] to speed up. I've since backed off, thinking, You know, maybe it's slow for a reason. So, I've learned a lot of lessons.”
What do you think of the City Council these days? The guy I'm thinking of is Tony Young, who's really taken up the mantle of fighting executive power with legislative power.
I don't watch the council meetings. I don't listen to them. I do get a report back—someone will come running in: “Did you hear what they just said about you?”
That's politics; I don't take that seriously. I talk to Tony Young fairly frequently. I think Tony's got good motives. I genuinely think that he thinks it should be a strong council and a weak mayor. That's just a style issue. That means I've got to be making sure that I've got five votes from people who think it should be a strong mayor. Tony just has a different belief on that. When we talk off to the side, Tony's very direct, but he's not antagonistic at all.
Are you watching the City Council races?
Of course I am, and that's all I'll say.
You're not endorsing, but the outcome will have a profound effect on your agenda for the next four years. Do you think voters are entitled to know what kind of council you want to be your legislative partner?
Yeah, but I don't think I've been shy about that. I want a council that's going to push forward rational spending, that's going to be disciplined. But what you're asking is, “Don't you think you should tell them who you want?”
No, I don't have people coming up to me every day saying, “Who do you want?” They do on city attorney, but they don't necessarily on council. I'm really involved in getting reelected. I don't think people understand how hard you work for election, if you're serious. I don't think they understand the emotional toll. I don't think they understand the thinking. I don't think they understand the organization. I don't think they understand the time—the time especially. I spend my waking hours, and much of the night, thinking about where I'm going to be, what I'm going to do, what my issues are, how I counter some things that are being done. I don't think, I gotta get out and politick for this person or endorse this person.
What's the downside?
The downside is I can alienate people by endorsing somebody they don't like. The downside is some people don't like to be told what to do. The downside is that some people can think I'm trying to do a power grab by endorsing certain people. I'm into being reelected so I can push the agenda forward that I think is important.
What if Donna Frye becomes the council president?
That's going to be an interesting time. That is going to be an interesting time.
If Sherri Lightner and Marti Emerald get elected, you've got a real left-leaning council on your hands.
I think we have a council then that's not apt to want to see much in terms of building, in terms of other things like that. Because Donna, while she used to be a friend of labor, they don't view her as a friend anymore. I can guarantee you police and fire, after her comments over the last few days, are not huge fans.
What do you think of Steve Francis?
I've been getting a little fired up lately on this one. I see somebody who wants to walk in, who wants to buy an election, who wants to advertise every night, who doesn't want to do the hard work to get elected, who wants to a poll-driven election, has hired outside folks from Washington, D.C., from L.A.—had 'em from New York—to find out what all his issues are, and I see somebody who's changed every position he's ever had in order to do this.
You don't think he's a liberal?
Laughs. Well maybe today he is, but he certainly wasn't a couple of weeks ago. I just don't have time for that. You know what, I went in, I said what I was going to do. I may not have fulfilled every single one, but I think people know who I was when I ran, and I think they know who I am now. And I don't think that's the same with Francis. I don't think people know who he was before, and now all of a sudden they're saying, “I don't remember quite that.” And I think it's going to be pretty pointed pretty soon.
You don't think he'd make a good mayor?
No, I don't. Because I don't think it's mayor that he wants to be. I think he wants to be the governor. And I think he's told a lot of people that.
So, what I'm getting from this conversation is that you think you're not the head of an evil empire.
No, I'm not. I'm no different than the guy in your neighborhood. I had a chance to step in, after I had left other things that I was doing, when the city was in trouble, and I felt compelled to do that, and I think that I'm making a difference.
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