"This is a great city, but it's definitely white bread," says J. Stephen O'Laughlin, from atop a bar stool at one of Mission Beach's better dive bars. With a pint of Stone Brewing Co.'s Arrogant Bastard Ale and his copy of John Stewart's America within arm's reach, O'Laughlin, a 32-year-old California Pizza Kitchen waiter, is explaining his plan to trade in his marinara-stained apron for the mayor's gavel when San Diego voters return to the polls July 26.
While O'Laughlin knows he's at a disadvantage against mayoral frontrunners like City Councilmember Donna Frye and former San Diego Police Chief Jerry Sanders-who boast considerable name recognition and financial support-he's hoping to capitalize on his personality and unorthodox plans to resuscitate a fiscally failing city.
"I think the key is to get one or two cool people to go along with the campaign and everyone else will follow," he says. "Most people are sheep."
Although the city is facing unprecedented problems, O'Laughlin admits he lacks expertise in local politics, local history, finance, deep thinking, problem solving and crisis resolution-but he's not concerned.
"I think those things are more spur-of-the-moment things that you have to figure out as you become immersed in them," he says. "The people who have been trained in them are our current city leaders, and look where it has gotten them. I think it's time for a change to somebody who doesn't know the answers.
O'Laughlin says San Diego needs a bold leader with bold ideas. "Like FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Truman before me, I think my plan, the Brilliant Deal, is going to be the one that helps us out."
O'Laughlin's "Brilliant Deal" consists of tenets that will simultaneously alleviate the financial crisis, aid the homeless and make things more sanitary for exotic dancers and their patrons:
* Free parking-"You shouldn't be punished for driving somewhere to spend your money.... Free parking equals more business equals more sales-tax revenue."
* Free kittens for the homeless-"A unique opportunity to solve our stray problem and bring a bit of happiness to the downtrodden."
* Revamped libraries-Likening forcing patrons to read without coffee to Nazism, O'Laughlin suggests leasing library space to Starbucks.
* An ablution law-O'Laughlin proposes abolishing the city's no-touching-the-strippers ordinance in favor of one forcing patrons to wash their hands in warm soapy water for 30 seconds after groping a stripper to prevent the spread of germs.
* Street auction-Pick up where lazy urban planners left off and sell the naming rights of A through J streets downtown to the highest bidder.
Additionally, O'Laughlin is working on a solution to the city's floundering pension fund ("They should probably hire younger workers and fire them at an earlier age"), is opposed to the Chargers request for a new stadium ("Honestly dude, suck it up. Your stadium is fine. You should see my room. It's pretty trashy"), and thinks he has a solution to the ongoing controversy over the fate of the Mount Soledad cross ("We should let Jesus decide").
Despite his out-of-the-box thinking, O'Laughlin expects to be taken as seriously as any other candidate and be given equal opportunity to make his message heard.
"I would assume this is a democracy," he says. "I represent a unique view that offers fresh ideas to this race.... I don't necessarily expect to win, but I expect my ideas to win.
"I'll be at the [candidate] debates," he says. "Whether or not they let me in will be another story."
But when CityBeat asked veteran political consultant Tom Shepard about O'Laughlin's chances of becoming mayor, he asked the question that every political insider wants to know. "Who is J. Stephen O'Laughlin?"
The eldest child of a former Catholic priest and nun, Joel Stephen O'Laughlin was born in 1972 in Kansas City, Mo. His mother died when he was 8, forever altering his sense of humor.
"I try to stay away from the dead-mom jokes," he says.
After a seven-year stint at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, O'Laughlin graduated with an undergraduate degree in psychology and in 1997 landed a job with Emanuel Cleaver II, Kansas City's mayor, who now serves as a U.S. congressman.
As Cleaver's administrative assistant, O'Laughlin said his knowledge of proper grammar and spelling made him "a Rhodes Scholar" compared to his city-hall colleagues and O'Laughlin learned a lot about the dark arts of politics.
"I mastered the art of ambiguity in terms of replying to somebody and not saying anything and at the same time making it seem like you said something, which is a great political skill to have," he says.
Three years later, while working at Waldo Pizza, O'Laughlin made his first electoral bid, running for Kansas City's Waiter of the Year. Although his campaign was stymied by 9/11, O'Laughlin ran again in 2002 and-according to his résumé-won.
However, a CityBeat investigation found that O'Laughlin actually lost. Confronted during an interview about the inconsistencies between his résumé and reality, O'Laughlin became visibly upset, insisting he would have won, but the election was fixed. After several minutes of ranting and foot stomping, he calmed down and apologized, explaining that he's confident one "white lie" won't hurt his chances of becoming mayor.
"I have Waiter of the Year on my résumé because résumés are meant to spin the truth," he says. "Everybody knows that."
Shortly after his second failed attempt for Waiter of the Year, O'Laughlin changed his name to J. Stephen O'Laughlin, which he says sounds more arrogant, and moved to Los Angeles where he took a job at a California Pizza Kitchen. There, he claims, he broke the color barrier by becoming Los Angeles's first Caucasian busboy.
"I was kind of like the Jackie Robinson of the table bussers," he said, adding that his experience working as a minority in Los Angeles is evidence of his ability to communicate and work well with the entire community, especially San Diego's Hispanic population.
O'Laughlin moved to San Diego in March just as the political tension at City Hall was reaching a boiling point. When Mayor Dick Murphy announced his resignation, O'Laughlin says he saw an opportunity that was too good to pass up.
"Politically speaking, there is really nothing to lose," he says. "If things go to hell, you're not going to be blamed for it because the blame has already been affixed, so all you can really get is credit for either saving the city or you are just the last person to [captain] the boat that everybody already knows is going down."
With nothing to lose, O'Laughlin doesn't plan on working too hard, opting instead to saddle interns with the bulk of his responsibilities while running the city from the beach.
"Honestly, the city pretty much runs itself," he says. "All you have to do is set the course, but the bureaucracy is going to work at the same pace it always has no matter who's in charge."
To follow J. Stephen O'Laughlin's bid for mayoral glory, visit www.saintdiego.com