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Susan's Swan Song


One thing you will never hear from Susan Golding is a word of regret. After eight years as the mayor of San Diego and 20 years in public life, her dark eyes have the look of someone who dares you to argue her term in the mayor’s office wasn’t one of the most productive ever.

“This council did a lot. We have probably done more in the last eight years than in any eight years in city history. When you do that, you please some people and you don’t please others,” she says during what her press people call an “exit interview.”

Her staff put together a five-page summary of accomplishments that is, on reading, impressive. On the economy, on international trade relations, on habitat preservation, on after-school programs, on crime reduction and safe neighborhoods, on helping the homeless, on “changing the face of San Diego’s landscape.” Nowhere in all those single-spaced pages are the words “ballpark” or “downtown redevelopment” or “Chargers.”

Because those issues have so overshadowed anything else that’s gone on at City Hall the past few years, what’s the point? She knows as she sits down to talk to you that the subjects are unavoidable, and she’ll answer the questions again, for the millionth time. She will not even flinch, or roll her eyes, to suggest she’s fed up to here with taking the heat for the Chargers’ ticket guarantee. Or for the downtown ballpark and redevelopment project (which, as she left office in December, was still stalled by the FBI investigation into Councilwoman Valerie Stallings’ financial connection to Padres owner John Moores).

“The Chargers deal is almost impossible to talk about, because one of the things I’ve learned in public office is that there are some things people will never believe,” Golding says. “The Chargers say one thing; the city says another. Compared to other contracts for other big-city teams, it is still considered one of the better contracts in the country, but no one here will ever believe that.”

She suggests that because the contract originally was negotiated by city staff, elected officials are left holding a bag they don’t deserve. “When you negotiate a contract and you’re responsible for it—good. But when you didn’t—even if you did vote for it—you don’t know what the discussions were,” she says. This, she says, is not offered as a defense but as an argument that it is time for voters to seriously consider changing San Diego’s charter to give the mayor more clout.

“A lot of people in San Diego think the mayor has authority the mayor doesn’t have,” she says. “The mayor does have influence, but it’s not direct-line authority. I understand this [strong city manager] system, and you can be a very strong mayor within this system. But it takes longer, it’s more frustrating, and the manager still does control the bulk of the information.”

(A source inside the city manager’s office, who was privy to all the Charger negotiations, has considerably different recall than Golding. “The council had more detailed briefings on this contract than any other contract in 30 years,” the source says. “There were 57 closed [council] sessions, some of which went on for more than a couple of hours. And there were 32 public hearings on the Chargers contract and the Qualcomm Stadium improvements.” As for the mayor? “She was actually present at a number of the negotiating sessions. She read the contract and reread it in detail, and she made numerous edits to the contract herself over a period of months.”)

Golding does, on the other hand, take credit for negotiating the Padres ballpark contract. And she still thinks it’s a great deal for the city, with the Padres committing more money than most teams in other cities’ ballpark deals. Probably more than the Padres wanted to commit.

In spite of the delay on ballpark construction, Golding maintains the city is well-prepared to go ahead with what she says is the largest redevelopment in the nation, once the legal decks are cleared. “I’m not sure how it’s gotten out there, but I’ve gotten letters that say, ‘Oh, the city’s not in a financial position to do this.’ That’s not true. The city is absolutely ready to do this.” And it is going ahead with the East Village redevelopment outside the ballpark.

The tremendous amount of ink and airtime spent on the city’s relationships with its two pro sports franchises did, in fact, overshadow the more mundane, bread-and butter issues that keep cities functioning. Whether or not Golding was riding a national economic recovery, she shares credit with business for helping San Diego dig itself out of the recession of the early ’90s and toward a robust growth rate of 6.7 percent (up from 1.5 percent in 1992).

“The business community now knows this is a good place to do business,” she says as she points to her efforts to draw the new economy’s big information-based companies and their payrolls to town. “There were a lot of people who played a role in it. The mayor doesn’t go out and run the companies. What a mayor does is create a climate. When I got here [the mayor’s office], the bureaucracy just wasn’t providing a public-service atmosphere.”

By cutting business taxes, cutting permit application times, putting a moratorium on certain business regulations and establishing a one-stop permit center, Golding believes she’s helped change that atmosphere dramatically for the better. “The economy is strong, but it’s more than strong—it’s diversified,” she says. “I worked very hard to support the high-technology industry and trade because

I felt very strongly—eight years ago—that that was our future.”

Like mayors everywhere, Golding came into office promising to do something about crime. The crime rate dropped 52 percent in the city during her term, thanks in part to council approval of nearly 200 new police officers, full implementation of neighborhood policing, and a spate of new laws targeting juvenile crime and gangs. “Sure, crime has dropped all over California, but San Diego has done better than most other places,” she says.

Golding is especially proud of the “6-to-6 Extended School Day,” now in every elementary and middle school in the city, offering parents a place for their children to spend before- and after-school hours. She believes this program will be her longest-lasting legacy. “San Diego is the only place in the country that has it,” she brags. “It operates during the hours parents really work. By next year, there won’t be a latchkey kid in San Diego.”

Another legacy she believes she’s left: the Multiple Species Conservation Plan—a regionwide effort to permanently preserve 174,000 open-space acres across the county, 52,000 in the city. Golding credits a broad coalition of government agencies, environmentalists and builders with making it happen.

Along with 15 new neighborhood centers for residents to do their city business, nine new branch libraries and a serious effort to build a new central library, Golding feels she left office with most of her goals accomplished. That includes beefing up the budget for the city’s homeless services to $6 million dollars for the 2001 fiscal year, a 40 percent increase since 1992.

Another thing that isn’t mentioned in her staff’s lengthy “highlights” summary is Golding’s abortive run for the U.S. Senate. She dropped out before the filing deadline. She still says she was in a great position to win that race, had raised more money than her opponents and would have done it if she hadn’t decided ultimately that there were too many things on her plate at City Hall she just couldn’t walk away from. Again, no regrets, no admission it might have been a mistake.

What’s the politician Susan Golding. A touchier subject is the person Susan Golding. Ever since she took office, there was gossip about how fast her staff turned over, that she was a micromanager, that she bullied city staff to make things happen —her way. She disagrees with the assessments, of course. But she offers no elaboration—not even criticism of those who would criticize the way she did business.

“There are a lot of longtime civic people who won’t pick up the phone to answer questions about her interpersonal skills,” says Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times San Diego bureau chief. “But there is a certain amount of chauvinism on the part of some people. Men who are hard to work with are ‘forceful’ and ‘purposeful.’ For women, they still feel like they have to give it a different name. If she put people she knew on commissions, it was cronyism. When Pete Wilson did it, it was seen as genius.”

Golding says friends were few and far between during her political life. She looks forward to having some in her new life. “You can’t have friends in this job,” she says. She says she’s depended upon her children, Vanessa and Samuel, as she’s slogged through the last eight years of 20-hour days.

Will she miss politics? “No. I’m ready to do something else,” she says. “I have no plans to run for any other office anytime soon.” As she left office, she said she would work as a director on the boards of a couple of companies she would not name, and work with other companies, primarily in the technology industry, which she says is her passion.

Eight organizations—downtown business groups and labor, mostly—sponsored a good-bye tribute to Golding a week before she turned the gavel over to new Mayor Dick Murphy. The room was full of people who backed her at one time or another over the past 20 years—even if they were not necessarily her friends. The old Susan Golding didn’t seem to need any.

Meanwhile, there are those who believe that the dark clouds of the Chargers deal and the Padres deal may someday be blown out of the picture for a more positive assessment of how she did on the job—so she won’t have to be the one pointing it out. Perry is one of them. “It’s absolutely impossible to get an objective read right now,” he says. “In six months or six years, we’ll have different views of her, and she just may get ratcheted upward.”

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