EVERY ELECTION CYCLE a simplistic wish invades the chasms of my mind: to take a composite of the offerings and create a singularly perfect candidate. Imagine a cross-pollinated mayor with the connectivity of Donna Frye, the business savvy of Steve Francis, the fix-it résumé of Jerry Sanders, the ecological mindset of Jim Bell and the legal acumen of Pat Shea. (Myke Shelby’s bitchin’ bike would just be icing on the cake.) Stemcell research repercussions be damned—this metamorphed individual would create the nicest, richest, best-run, cleanest, most lawsuit-free city in the nation.

There are 11 candidates running in a special, July 26 mayoral election. The post is being abandoned this month by Dick Murphy, who was months into his second term when a billion-dollar pension-fund debacle blew up his credibility. Pithy taxpayer activist Richard Rider is now in the race. He and colorful Harley-Davidson dealership owner "New York" Myke Shelby will both get some free publicity—and 3 to 5 percent of the vote, tops—via their also-ran campaigns.

San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye is the frontrunner. Her story became national news when a write-in candidacy nearly landed her in the mayor’s office in November. She liked being called a "surfer activist" on the network morning shows and in national newspapers. But "surfer chick" is where she draws the line. "I’m not a barnyard animal," she says. "Should we call men in political races roosters?"

Former police chief Sanders and AMN Healthcare top executive Francis are really in a race for second place. If Frye doesn’t get 50 percent of the vote (no ballot bubbling necessary this time), she and Sanders or Francis will compete in a runoff.

That’s the reality. Lawyer Shea, who was instrumental in Orange County’s bankruptcy proceedings, probably should be higher in the mix. It’s likely correct that San Diego needs to enter, as he says, a "structured reorganization." But "We Give Up!" is hardly a winning slogan in any elective campaign.

Frye says she won’t ever rely on polls. Yet she believes she’s the woman—indeed, the only woman in the race—to beat. "Given the results from the last mayoral race, yes, you’d have to say I’m the frontrunner," she says, speaking from a home telephone. She pauses to give some attention to her dog, who has apparently wandered by. Okay, she’s back. "Yes, but I’ll never underestimate anybody in the race—it’d be the same way people underestimated me. Steve Francis and Jerry Sanders are there, but Pat Shea and Myke Shelby are in it, too."

True. But imagine this announcement at the next Padres home game: "Ladies and gentlemen! Throwing out the first pitch today, the new mayor of San Diego— ‘New York’ Myke!" What’s next, "Frisco" Bobby Johnson is elected mayor of Los Angeles?

All the candidates share a view that fixing the pension underfunding is job one. Frye, Sanders and Francis would dismiss pension board members who won’t waive attorney-client privilege—a bone of contention that’s holding up the city’s audits from the last three years, and is the first domino that has to fall to get the city’s finances back on track.

And all three frontrunners have—or at least express—varied levels of admiration for earth-scorching city attorney Mike Aguirre. Here are three quotes about him. Try to match each to a mayoral candidate (hint—it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong):

1. "I don’t always agree with his style, but this city has veered in a very wrong direction. Righting the city is a thankless task."

2. "He has guts to take the system on. We’re seeing how he’s vilified for it. But my style will be different."

3. "Mike wants to be part of a team that achieves solutions. He’ll admit he can be abrasive. We won’t agree on everything. But I can work with him."

I ASK FRANCIS AND SANDERS why the business community gets knee wobbles when the words "Mayor Donna Frye" are tossed around.

Sanders, who helped repair the local Red Cross and United Way after both charities hit the skids, speaks in a low but commanding voice. He doesn’t sound much like a former cop. "The business community hasn’t seen Donna Frye do anything except vote ‘no’ on everything," he says. "In my campaign, we’ve put out a lot of plans. I’d like to see what plans she has other than voting no on every council vote."

Francis, who started a business from scratch and grew it to a $629 million healthcare company, sounds more like the cop. He’s guardedly affable, but there’s a Ross Perot volatility just under the surface. "The business community is afraid of Donna Frye because labor has taken over City Hall, and she’s a candidate [labor] generally supports," he says.

"She is a very intelligent woman," Francis adds. "But I know a lot of physicians who are very smart, and can’t run a business . . . Business and management skills are two very different things. And besides that, the next mayor shouldn’t be a polarizing component."

To round out the assessments, Francis says he would be a better mayor than Sanders because he has more Wall Street experience, particularly with credit-rating agencies. "We need a CEO mayor, and that’s me," says Francis.

Sanders on Francis: "I think you’ll see me as the ‘velvet hammer’ as mayor. I’m very persuasive. And I can make tough decisions. I’m a leader, not just a mechanic. If being mayor were solely based on having business experience, well, I guess Pete Wilson never would have been mayor of San Diego."

Frye gets the last word on both opponents.

"Jerry Sanders’ campaign sounds very familiar to me," she says. "It’s my campaign. Particularly on open government— and that’s a good thing. But I’m the one that has worked to open government here."

Frye says Francis is running a "free lunch" campaign. "He thinks we don’t need to worry, that there’ll be no pain and no suffering in fixing the pension situation. He says there’ll be no new taxes, period. He claims to be anti-government, but he’s going to spend half a million dollars of his own money to get involved in something he abhors?

"I think he’s a ‘canned-ham’ candidate. His consultants will give him a message, and he’ll go into debates and say the same thing over and over. It’s a standard, packaged campaign. Canned ham."

THE OTHER ISSUE on this special July ballot concerns the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial. The site holds a giant cross. Proponents of keeping the cross at the memorial—who include conservative radio commentators and politicians—believe designating the land there as a national park will allow the cross to be saved.

"The war memorial is a part of San Diego, and I support keeping it the way it is," says Sanders, as succinct an interview subject as there is.

Francis is more verbose in his similar view. "I support keeping the cross—not because it’s a cross, but because it’s a war memorial. It’s an emotional thing for some people. The cross is important to people who have lost family members. We need to be tolerant, not intolerant."

Francis reaches into his wallet and pulls out a $5 bill (no Benjamins come into view). "Look what it says on our money . . . ‘In God We Trust.’ Why don’t the atheists go after this instead of the cross?" During a short tirade, he calls the idea to take down the cross "ludicrous" and "asinine."

Whether or not voters pass the federal land-transfer plan, Frye—she voted against putting the issue on the ballot— says the decades-old issue will ultimately just end up in court again.

"The unintended consequence [of passage of the bill] is that the Mount Soledad Memorial Association could wind up not being the caretakers anymore," says Frye, as the courts may ultimately decide a religious symbol can’t stand on a national site, either. "I’m most sympathetic to the memorial association people. This is really a wedge issue that gets people emotionally charged. It bothers me that people could be led to believe this will definitely save the cross."

Heaven help us all.

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