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A Mayor for the New Millenium


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There is an endearing nerdiness about San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy. Could it be the blue oxford shirts? The metal glasses? Maybe it’s the way he raises his hand like a prep schoolboy in class during a recent Metropolitan Transit Development Board meeting. Maybe it’s his absurd love of attending such meetings. Put it this way: If Sledgehammer Theatre were casting a stage version of Happy Days, nobody would suggest Murphy play the uber-cool greaser Fonzie. Perfect typecasting would be the straight-arrow part of Richie Cunningham.

In a world where image is everything, theoretically, Murphy would be nonexistent. Somehow, though, the one-time city councilman (1981-85) finished second in the 2000 mayoral primary, making the runoff by a mere 168-vote margin. In the general election, he beat County Supervisor Ron Roberts, despite being outspent 2 to 1. Heeeeeeey, it’s Roberts who could wear the Fonz’s leather jacket. So woe to us all if Hollywood gets wind of Mayor Murphy’s political ascent and steals his story for Revenge of the Nerds V.

Of course, a man’s coolness quotient has nothing to do with his ability to govern. In fact, it could be argued there’s an inverse relationship between the two. This much is certain: Although it’s only been a few months since Murphy took office, he has shown signs of wanting to be a good mayor—not just look like a good mayor.

He was both praised and panned for withdrawing his support of retired La Jolla businessman John Carlson to fill a San Diego Unified Port Commission vacancy. Carlson was a prominent Murphy backer—he hosted Murphy’s first major mayoral fund-raiser. When allegations of Carlson’s drinking and improper sexual conversations with women reached Murphy, he rescinded his recommendation. Carlson denied the allegations. But what politician ever severs ties with financial heavyweights? And Murphy’s new choice for port commissioner was Peter Janopaul, a developer and prominent member of the gay community—a voter bloc not exactly enamored of Murphy.

Throwing an olive branch to the gay community with the new recommendation? It doesn’t appear so. Asked if such a move was the act of a populist mayor—as some call him—Murphy pauses. “I appointed Peter Janopaul because I thought the Port needed a real-estate person on its board,” Murphy says, slowly. “It wasn’t pleasant to withdraw the nomination of John Carlson. But I had to look myself in the mirror and decide what I would feel best about. Call that a populist act if you want.”

San Diego’s nascent populist (who holds a decidedly unpopulist Harvard MBA and a law degree from Stanford) unlocked the doors—literally—that separate his office from those of city councilmembers a floor away. It was a symbolic act that spoke volumes of his desire to open lines of communication.

“I want to hear from everyone,” he says. “And I do try to be out in the public. I also do two radio talk shows every month—and I put myself in a vulnerable position when I take questions in that format. I meet with different planning groups every month. And I meet with my advisory groups once a quarter. I want to hear what everybody has to say.”
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