When outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan decided, as a parting gesture, to spare all the inmates on death row, the savvy political analysis concluded he was "wacko," a free-roaming, coo-coo-for-Cocoa-Puffs, fulltime slobber junkie.
In fact, Ryan had done something so alien and foreign to the culture of politicians that he might as well have been caught with hookers and a pound of blow at the Lil' Sisters of the Holy PTA meeting.
Heck, the political world can forgive a little Friday afternoon coke party. However, they can't fathom for a second the idea of actually taking a strong and dramatic stand on a controversial issue.
It's hard to imagine Councilman Scott Peters, for example, one of San Diego's best and brightest, throwing down the latest John Grisham thriller mid-council meeting, rising to his feet and shouting, "Damn it, screw the Chargers-let's give $200 million to study the living patterns of kangaroo rats."
Ain't gonna happen, unless Peters suddenly finds a backbone in his morning Bran Flakes.
Just look at how Peters got on all fours and barked like a dog when he realized there was a hint of a negative thought in something he said to the Union-Tribune about Mayor Dick Murphy. His brain trust quickly gathered and crafted some artful boot-lickin', firing off a letter to the editor clarifying that Peters actually thinks, "Murphy's revolution of professionalism and competence at City Hall has brought remarkable progress."
For Peters and his cronies, taking a stand is not high on the list of priorities, ranking right after "learn to dance the tango." The typical San Diego politician calls 15 pollsters before deciding what color tie to wear to the Rotary Club.
Term limits were supposed to put an end to this, forcing politicians to go out and get real jobs. Instead it's created a new breed of ethically resilient professional politician, who scurries from job to job by religiously avoiding anything that might upset the political masters.
Look around River City at the elite squad of philosopher-poet-warriors that have risen to elected office. Almost all are professional political hacks who would be hard pressed to find a job as a bank teller, if they hadn't spent their lives sucking up to the local party wonks.
As a group, they seem physically unable to grasp any concept of ethics. Mention conflict of interest and they get this blank look on their faces, like an ethics discussion is some sort of strange language understood only by aborigines.
People in City Hall were just aghast-shocked, dammit-that somebody might find it inappropriate that a member of the Chargers Task Force, which is supposed to be an independent body, might take a job working on Chargers issues for the city.
Right now, San Diego politicians are scrambling because this new ethics commission requires each campaign to-get this-pay its bills. This is a shocking and revolutionary thought, and exactly the type of anarchy the politicians feared in the years they spent fighting the Ethics Commission.
Dick Murphy was considered some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth maverick when he actually supported the Ethics Commission, wacko in the same way as Ryan, that nut in Illinois. You're not supposed to take a stand on sticky issues, which is why Murphy's nine other goals are closer to "try to end world hunger."
It was certainly a shock to see San Diego City Councilman Ralph Inzunza, who spent years learning his trade as a toady to Juan Vargas, actually rousing himself up to take a stand, when he finally found an issue that he could get behind. The issue that boiled his blood was the horrible injustice caused by ethic rules on the new airport bureaucracy that prevented people from buying him lunch. So as one of his first official acts as a director of the new bureaucracy, he decided to fight the freebie guidelines.
"I've been in San Diego for 33 years. I have a lot of friends here," Inzunza said. "I just felt like I was being handcuffed."
While this is not the type of statement that would draw wails of anguish from guys working the night shift at Burger King, there was solemn agreement among his peers, who felt equally handcuffed and constrained.
So as one of their first acts, the airport board quickly changed the rules to allow their many friends to buy them lunch, which surprised the folks who originally crafted the rules.
Airport Authority board member Paul A. Peterson, a lawyer, told a reporter the no-gifts policy came about because "we were trying to set the highest possible standards.... It would appear that without knowing the permanent board we set the standards too high," Peterson said. The original ethics policy "was not realistic in view of the kind of board we have," he said.
Yeah, wise-up, Paul.
But it's a good thing the new airport group got the freebie-lunch issue out of the way. Next week they'll debate the benefits of adding a cappuccino machine to the conference room, right after deciding the location of the Airport Authority's Memorial Day barbecue, when Inzunza is expected to take a strong and dramatic stand against gas grills.