When ol' Dick Murphy announced he would step off San Diego's throne, there was no mass celebration, no rush of humanity into the streets to slaughter goats and dance around a giant bonfire chanting, "Ding dong, the witch is dead." If anything, people seem relieved, thankful that finally something is happening with city government that doesn't involve titty bars and federal investigations.
Now, more than ever, it's clear that few people think Murphy is really a bad guy. He was just in over his head. He never displayed much zest for the job, which he clearly thought involved little more than a few ceremonial lunches and an occasional ribbon cutting.
Murphy was always a reluctant candidate, a retired judge who never shied away from expressing his ambivalence toward the job. He made it clear that he didn't want to run for reelection and only was talked into it by his downtown cronies, who were eager to flip the bird to Supervisor Ron Roberts, who so desperately wanted to be mayor.
Murphy saw himself as a caretaker, the genial uncle who would walk from office to office patting the city workers on the back and stamping his name on the city's annual Christmas card. He was never caught catching an afternoon nap, but neither was he stomping into City Council meetings holding aloft bloody scalps, demanding that the city do better or else.
As the city disintegrated around him, his plan was to remain calm, to "project confidence and stability." He smiled and said, "Shucks, all is under control," even when it became clear that city staffers may be criminally culpable for the city's financial mess. And when evidence mounted that, at the very least, he should have seen the train wreck coming, he still relentlessly refused to fight for righteousness.
Ultimately, it was much easier to take one for the team, to step down and do the right thing. Murphy eagerly fell on his sword, knowing he could quit and still get to oversee the occasional church picnic.
Now that there has been time to digest the move, Murphy's departure is clearly seen as an honorable, if belated, move, and no one is eager to kick at his carcass. He left with a shred of dignity, unlike, say, the notorious, gay-bashing Republican mayor of Spokane, who recently took a "leave of absence" after he was allegedly caught trolling for boys in gay chat rooms.
If little else, Murphy's slow walk into the sunset frees the city to focus on the future, find some sort of fresh start and, maybe, a mayor with a wee bit of passion for the job. Whoever wins the special election, there is no doubt that the job requires a different beast than Murphy, who seemed philosophically opposed to taking firm action on anything more controversial than deciding the flavor of donuts and bagels at City Council retreats.
So far, City Councilmember Donna Frye and former San Diego Police Chief Jerry Sanders are the top contenders, and that bodes well for the city. Both have actual real-world credentials, instead of the usual professional political toadies who tend to grovel for City Council jobs. Both are smart and fairly likeable people, a nice change of pace from the smirking snots who typically run for office, spouting the same tired clichés.
Sanders, the new face, should be a formidable candidate, a guy able to unite business wonks with right-wing law-and-order types who are scared shitless at the idea of Mayor Frye. He brings no obvious baggage to the race, and he should be able to position himself as a middle-of-the-road administrator. He also won't mind walking districts in Logan Heights, which could balance out Frye's strong coastal constituency.
Another likely candidate is businessman Steven Francis, who has the one key ingredient necessary for a political hopeful-big bucks to spend. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Francis, who runs a healthcare company, has already slapped down $500,000 and put together a who's-who of Republican political operatives to work his campaign.
Francis has the name recognition of a rare French toad, but big bucks can change that quickly enough. At a time when everybody is talking budgets, a businessman pushed by the old-guard powers will be a dangerous opponent, especially if he can squeak into a runoff.
Faced with strong contenders, Roberts wisely decided to bow out of this one. At a time when dramatic change is clearly needed, he represents the old world, the same ol' boring, white bread-luvin' Rotarians who have been running the city for years.
The city clearly needs a different kind of politician, a leader willing to take a stand, to acknowledge the problem and say, "Cut the crap-this is how we're going to handle it." Few doubt the city's mess can be resolved if the mayor presents a plan and displays a willingness to bitch slap the opposition.
In many ways, the new mayor will be in a no-lose situation. For one, the city's image can't get much worse. And whatever happens, the mayor will be able to simply blame those bastards who ran the city into the ground before him or her, a convenient and easily believable excuse.
To win the love of the people, the new mayor will simply have to proclaim that it is no longer business as usual. San Diegans want a change, no matter who fills the job. Murphy may have been a nice guy, but no one wants another Dick.
Write to MsBeak1@aol.com and editor@SDcitybeat.com.