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The Game (Show) of Politics


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THE REAWAKENING of the mayoral race in San Diego brings to mind a short scene from the movie Bambi. Thumper, that intrepid rabbit, happens upon a snoozing skunk. The harebrained bunny inquires, “Whatcha doin’, hibernating?” Fortunately, nobody gets sprayed—but you have to careful when rousing a sleeping skunk.

County Supervisor Ron Roberts and Judge Dick Murphy seemed to have disappeared after the March primary. Both have been busy fund-raising—and not making many headlines. Until now. Both are back with their tails—and tales—up.

Coming out of hibernation, Murphy says Roberts shares responsibility for the region’s traffic woes and lacks contract negotiation skills. A reawakened Roberts says Murphy lacks the necessary practical experience to be mayor and is not reporting the names of all his campaign contributors.

If their race inspires local interest, standard televised candidate debates may actually attract a viewership. And that’s good. But if nobody cares to hear Murphy repeat for the umpteenth time how he has a “20/20 vision for the future,” ratings could sag. To keep folks following along at home, maybe the candidates could consider alternative ways to grab the public’s attention. Two suggestions:

* Play Who Wants To Be a Mayor. Answer the most questions posed by dapper host Regis Philbin in this TV game show and get to run the city. Probable outcome: Roberts can’t decide which of his numerous endorsing organizations to use as a phone-a-friend lifeline, and exits early. Coolly, Murphy answers every question, winning the mayor’s seat by correctly naming the year Harvard created the Hasty Pudding Club.
* Camp out on Mayoral Survivor island. Roberts and Murphy are dropped off with scant living supplies on one of the Coronado islands. Their every move is videotaped for a two-hour special. They compete in made-for-TV physical challenges, like a walking-the-district marathon. Probable outcome: Roberts, a former collegiate wrestler, impresses viewers with his drive and fortitude, and is picked to be mayor—right after he takes a shower. Okay, maybe not.

But even if we use the more democratic—if ratings-impaired—electoral process, it’s easy to project Roberts as the favorite. He collected nearly 26 percent of the vote in the March primary. It took a week to count absentee ballots before Murphy squeaked past banker Peter Q. Davis to win the other runoff spot, with a little more than 15 percent of the vote.

Roberts also has assembled the most experienced staff. His stable includes preeminent consultants Larry Remer and Tom Shepard (who helped get Mayor Susan Golding elected), top Republican fund-raiser Carolyn Dorsey and chief of staff Steve Danon.

“The way I see it, though,” says Murphy, “nearly 75 percent of the people who voted didn’t vote for Ron Roberts, despite the $750,000 he raised and his high name ID. In my opinion, all those people in that 75 percent group are up for grabs.”

Wishful thinking, perhaps. Murphy has collected endorsements from a few prominent individuals—including Davis—and will presumably get a sizable chunk of Davis’ 15 percent of the primary vote. But it’s Roberts who has won the backing of local Fortune 500 CEOs and major trade groups. Among those in Roberts’ camp: the CEOs of Qualcomm, Gateway and SAIC, and local associations including firefighters, police officers, deputy sheriffs, deputy district attorneys, the building industry, real estate agents, general contractors and labor unions.

Roberts has the money and the manpower, so it seems odd when he paints himself as the outsider. In a guest appearance on former Mayor Roger Hedgecock’s KOGO radio talk show, Roberts makes the point that “most of my experience comes from being in the private sector.” From 1969 to 1987, Roberts was a partner in SGPA, an architectural firm. But since 1987, he’s been a city councilman (through 1995) and a county supervisor (’95-present).

“Ron Roberts spent the last 13 years as a career politician,” says Murphy, in a separate interview with San Diego Magazine. “If you count his childhood, then yes, he spent the majority of his life outside politics. But it’s ‘What have you done for me lately,’ and he’s a politician... The problems—like traffic—that we have in San Diego are the responsibility of every elected official in office for the last decade. And that includes Ron Roberts.” Murphy spent the past 15 years as a Superior Court judge and is on unpaid leave from the bench.

Counters Roberts, “I bring a business background and a professional perspective as an architect and a planner. When you go into a bank and put your house up as collateral, and you’re trying to make a company’s payroll, you learn things no business school can teach you. It’s a lot different than sitting in a courtroom for 15 years.”

On a roll, he adds, “The mayor of San Diego has to bring together a lot of groups that are in conflict—not just be the referee.” Shifting from his outsider stance, Roberts says the mayoral race is about political experience. “Let’s say you put two people in a room who look pretty much alike. Say they’re both 57-year-old white guys. Okay? They’ve both got pilot hats on. But one is a pilot, and the other is a student learning to fly a plane. You’ve got to look at these two guys and determine who is the most qualified to fly you and your family. And that’s what this race is about. You have to figure out that I have the experience to fly this thing called city hall.”
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