The Mayor Speaks Up: Q and A at City Hall


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By most observations, it’s been a rocky second term for San Diego Mayor Susan Golding. She was elected in a landslide back in 1992. But since winning a second term, she has: dropped out of the U.S. Senate race; been severely chastised for cutting a bad deal with the Chargers on the team’s stadium lease; been sharply criticized for dropping the ball on a new downtown library; been accused of flip-flopping on issues pertaining to a new ballpark for the Padres; and gained a noticeable amount of weight.

Mayor Golding has accomplished some goals she set out to achieve during her tenure. She’s proud of the groundbreaking Multiple Species Conservation Plan, which created the nation’s largest “urban habitat” and took five years to get state and federal approval. She also takes credit for attracting the 1996 Republican National Convention, overseeing drastic drops in the local crime rate and creating a Safe Schools Task Force.

Quick to claim credit, loath to admit mistakes and prone to micromanaging, Golding suffers through a love/hate relationship with the media. She dismisses negative reports aimed at her as a media-created perception not based in reality. In an unusually candid interview with San Diego Magazine’s Ron Donoho, Golding talks about plans for the remainder of her term, dealing with naysayers like Bruce Henderson, and some personal aspects of her life—such as motherhood and her physical appearance.

San Diego Magazine: When you took a three-week vacation in April to visit your daughter, Vanessa, in Indonesia, did you experience any of the political turmoil going on there?

Mayor Susan Golding: Oh, sure. There were some demonstrations—not where I was —while I was there. The attitudes of people are somewhat changed. I’ve been to Indonesia many times, and the people are wonderful. But you see the strain and the tension, not the friendliness there usually is. There were some anti-foreigner feelings, which you wouldn’t have known if you didn’t speak Indonesian. But since my daughter is fluent, she hears the comments. You could tell things were starting to break down. I stayed at a hotel that I’ve always stayed at in Bali. I ordered a piña colada, and they didn’t have any coconut. My daughter said, “How can they not have any coconut? There are coconut trees all around here.”

SDM: You did get to spend three weeks with your daughter. Tell me a little bit about your relationship with her.

SG: It couldn’t be better. We are extremely close. We are mother and daughter definitely. We love traveling together, and we would spend a lot of time together... I know she would say the same thing. We are very good friends in addition to everything else. It’s fun for me because she is 22 now. People say they don’t want their children to grow up... I think it’s great.

SDM: Looking back on your senate campaign, do you have any regrets, either about getting in the race or getting out of it?

SG: No regrets at all about getting into it. I enjoyed it. Before you make the decision to file, you have to make a whole variety of assessments. I made the decision that it was not the right time for a whole host of reasons. But no regrets.

SDM: Shifting to San Diego politics: Do you feel like the messages that you want to get out to the public actually get out to the public? Is there a communication problem here?

SG: Well, it’s hard for a couple of reasons. I can’t determine what messages the public receives. And there used to be a time —until the political reform acts—when you could communicate more directly. I mean, you could have a newsletter. But you can’t do that anymore. I couldn’t even write a letter to more than 199 people per month, because that is the law. So when you have an issue that clearly has become of great public interest or great public concern, the only way I have of communicating is through the free media. Normally, it’s not a bad way to communicate. But you don’t communicate directly, and people don’t hear from you directly. So I want to do more talk shows and more direct live TV appearances.

I think a lot of the problem is that we only have one newspaper. I think it’s a problem from the standpoint of the Union-Tribune because there is no competition. Competition always makes everybody better. The Union became smaller, too. When I was on the city council, I think there were three city hall reporters. There was always someone here, covering what went on. There is one city hall reporter now—and he does a good job—but it’s not enough to really know what is going on here. And holding a press conference and attacking something will always get more coverage.

SDM: That’s the next question: Why does Bruce Henderson’s message always seem to come out loud and clear?

SG: Because someone makes the decision that he is newsworthy and therefore he should be covered. It was very frustrating sometimes during the [Qualcomm] stadium debate. I’d hear “Why didn’t the mayor get out front?” “Why didn’t the mayor explain?” I did! But I don’t control how it is covered. It is very difficult when you are dealing with something like a contract with the stadium, or the convention center. There are a lot of details that certainly took the attorneys, the negotiators, the council and the mayor a long time to develop. You can’t explain it in 30 seconds, but you can distort it in 30 seconds.

SDM: Is there a distortion in the reporting that your relationship with city councilmembers has become chilly, to say the least?

SG: It’s not chilly at all. There may be occasions when one councilmember isn’t happy with the position I took. Or the council wasn’t happy when I said we should give up the city box [at Qualcomm Stadium]. But those differences of opinion are going to happen. I think we have had a remarkably good relationship. People have short memories of what it was like before I was elected. People were embarrassed to watch the council meetings and embarrassed by the city council.

It takes a lot of work and effort to keep the lines of communication open. And if we always agreed, then something would be wrong. My job is to represent the whole city. A councilmember’s job is to represent a single district, and that is going to lead to some differences of opinion.

SDM: Are you going to personally take the lead in promotion for a new downtown ballpark for the Padres?

SG: I think the mayor is always the lead—has to be the lead.

SDM: The author of a book about the building of Baltimore’s downtown ballpark says if there aren’t vocal leaders pushing for something like this, then “common sense prevails” and these don’t get built.

SG (laughs): Common sense prevails. Well, it is always easier not to do something than to do something. I would rather do something. I didn’t propose the ballpark. It is a proposal of the Padres. It’s my job as mayor to determine if we should do it. And if we should do it, what is the best way to do it that is good for the city. Keeping the Padres here is important for the city. But making sure that this ballpark is done without sacrificing other essential services and other projects is also important.

SDM: Didn’t the Richard Chase proposal to build the ballpark on Port property just act as a distraction to the process?

SG: To the contrary. When the chairman of the Port District [David Malcolm] brought that to me, he asked if I would support looking at it. I said, “Of course.” We were still working on putting this financial package together for the Centre City East site. Because of our short timeline, I think it’s important to look at alternatives. I don’t have any doubts that the one in Centre City is better for redevelopment, better for the downtown area. Could the Port do it on its land? It could. But I said I would support looking at it as long as it did not delay the process. I said this very clearly. I said as long as it wasn’t a distraction, we should look at it.

SDM: But it angered some members of your task force who chose Centre City East, then heard you say other sites were being considered.

SG: Well, that isn’t quite accurate. First of all, the task force would be involved if any changes were being made. But I’m the mayor of this city. And when someone comes to me from another jurisdiction and asks “Would you support our looking at it?” the answer is yes. I don’t see any harm in getting information. That was all that was desired. I didn’t say I supported it. In fact, the city council had not taken a vote on a specific site yet—contrary to what people believed. The Padres have hired a developer, who has decided where he thinks the best site is. But the city had not made that decision yet, and I made it clear I want whatever decision the council makes to go back to the task force to get opinions.

SDM: However the media carries your message about a downtown ballpark, will you stand up on a soapbox and say “This is what we’ve got to do” and just take the flag and lead the charge?

SG: If we are able to come to an agreement and a financial package that I believe works for the people of this city, you bet I will support it. I think it will be a great stimulus for downtown and would help us redevelop the other part of downtown.

SDM: You were quoted as saying the Padres owners believe that they are in competition with the downtown library proposal. Can you expand on that?

SG: I think they do believe that. I think it is false. I think it’s a sad day in San Diego if we get to the point where we have to choose between a ballpark and a library. I think that is insane. Since when? Libraries are one of those essential government services that we must provide; ballparks are not an essential service. I think both can be done—that doesn’t mean easily, and it doesn’t mean overnight. I do believe the Padres view a main library as competitive with their ballpark, and I just don’t agree. I feel very strongly about it.

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