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Sanders took to governing as homework. He did only what he was asked.
Jerry Sanders entered the Mayor’s Office for the first time and made a startling statement. It’s one he continues to make as he exits the office.
Things were much worse at City Hall than he ever expected.
You have to wonder if the mayor read much news back in 2005. Or heard his opponent on the campaign trail. Or, for that matter, whether he had even heard himself.
By the time Sanders volunteered to seek the job, the city was a national laughingstock. FBI investigators combed City Hall. Reports forecasted massive deficits at the hands of pension and health care costs.
A bunch of New York City bigwigs were being paid tens of millions of dollars to clean up the mess. The previous mayor, Dick Murphy, had resigned in disgrace. The campaign to replace him, which Sanders obviously participated heavily in, was all about how horrible things were.
I could keep going. But you get the point. The place was a disaster.
I find it hard to imagine anyone being unprepared to find anything but a big stinking mess.
A few years later, the Mayor’s Office acted like it had already solved the city’s budget problems, what government-types call a structural budget deficit. Any new problems were simply the fault of the economy.
Not too long afterward, the mayor was back to pledging to solve that stubborn structural budget deficit. Eventually, the mayor boldly declared the city’s financial deficits a thing of the past. A couple of months later, they were a thing of the present again.
There was a certain incoherence throughout the Sanders years.
One day things were great. The next they were horrible. One day they were the fault of his predecessors. The next they were the economy’s fault. One day, the problems were solved. The next they weren’t.
Often, things were just plain hard to do, don’t you understand?
Before we get too deep into this look at Sanders’ legacy, I want to make something clear: He’s a good guy. He continued a life of public service by offering to help at a time of crisis. He didn’t sell his soul or sell our city out. He’s a fun guy to have a beer with. His wife, Rana Sampson, is a wonderful person and is quite accomplished herself.
Let’s separate the man from the administration and the record. He entered City Hall and calmed a hysteria. City finances are in better shape than they were when he took office. The next mayor can start thinking again about what city we want to be.
But Sanders had the last seven years to have moved us along considerably in that conversation. The incoherence allowed financial issues to drag on and consume the entirety of his tenure. When he did move to shape the city beyond, he chose a largely reactive approach — pursuing the projects that were requested of him rather than pursuing his own larger vision.
In the end, I trace that back to one thing: Sanders never really liked the job. And it showed.
Originally, candidate Sanders declared himself open to taxes. You can’t take any option off the table, he said. Then one of his opponents strong-armed him into one of those classic campaign trail no-tax promises. So he took that option off the table.
He stood resolute in that pledge.
And he tried to do what his predecessors had done: not ask residents for any sacrifice, tell them everything was going to be fine and find ways to do big projects without anyone having to pay for them.
When Sanders eventually decided he did need taxes, he’d waited too long. The economy cratered. He tried to rush to get something on the ballot in the last second. His efforts failed. Then, he stood in the background as someone else cobbled together an emergency plan after a toddler’s choking death highlighted emergency response times. The rushed proposition was the closest thing we got to some sort of universal compromise. But it ended up being built on toothless reform promises and a regressive tax, and it failed.
Sanders had missed his window of opportunity. As a former police chief riding in behind a disgraced administration, he had little to lose from being blunt with San Diegans. He had a window to clearly explain the current problems, level with people over what it would take to fix them, put together a comprehensive package of reforms and revenues and give them a chance to decide what kind of government they were willing to pay for. After all, he had no political ambitions beyond this office.
I don’t know that raising taxes was the answer. But instead of a thoughtful conversation with San Diegans about what kind of government they wanted, we were left with a hysterical your-kids-might-die-if-you-don’t-pass-this campaign from the mayor. In the end, it failed. And the deep police safety cuts that were promised never came.
Another time, he asked a group of very busy business leaders to meet regularly, study city finances and offer recommendations. When those recommendations were harsh, he trashed the group.
This was one of the great curiosities of the Sanders administration. For a man with no further political ambitions, he governed with the caution of a career politician. One perfect example: He refused to take a stand on the Miramar airport initiative, a huge issue for the city at the beginning of his tenure.
He carefully built up two terms’ worth of political capital but decided to take it to his political grave. He spent a nickel on the last-second tax increase and a dime on the tepid endorsement of pal Bonnie Dumanis, who came in fourth out of four in the primary race to replace him.
And yet, I don’t believe his tenure was a failure.
He became a national figure for leading on the civil rights issue of our day, marriage equality.
Sanders’ greatest accomplishment: calming down an utterly dysfunctional City Hall. That’s no small feat. San Diego politics had spiraled out of control. He stepped into a void and showed he was in charge. And yes, there’s no doubt city finances are much improved after seven years. He brought stability.
I’d argue that we should expect more than just stability in seven years.
My most lasting impression of Sanders will be of a man who never really wanted the job. He didn’t have any great vision to enact. He didn’t get excited by the idea of what a city should and could be. He wasn’t a policy wonk or ideologue. Did he even really have a pet issue? He abhorred the politics of it all, something his foul mouth often betrayed.
That’s fine. Maybe even honorable. Except that this was a job he signed up for. Twice.
Instead, Sanders took to governing as homework. He did what he was asked.
The political handlers said you can’t talk about taxes. The hoteliers said time for a Convention Center expansion. Library boosters needed their central library done. A company wanted to do bike-sharing.
And, like an unenthusiastic high school student, he did the assignment. Sanders recited the numbers and made the case.
That dispassion came with a cost. The clearest victims of this approach have been San Diego’s neighborhoods. They didn’t have that powerful voice to scold the mayor for not doing their assignments. They’ve taken a backseat to his downtown priorities.
There was no greater display of this than during Sanders’ final State of the City address in January.
He started his speech of with a staged video of a black kid seeing decay and crime in his neighborhood. His option? Flee, running, to a sparkly new downtown with a new library, new Convention Center and new Chargers stadium. His neighborhood sucked. At least he had someone else’s downtown to which he could make an escape.
At the very least they could’ve shown the kid getting on a new, improved transit line or something.
Sanders’ successor, Bob Filner, takes the reins with a big promise to return focus to those neighborhoods and away from downtown. If Sanders is the dispassionate high schooler student, then during the campaign Filner was the arrogant athlete in the weeks before graduation. The rules of accountability and fact didn’t apply to him. He was the star athlete with a scholarship waiting for him, and no one could mess with him.
Unlike Sanders, Filner will never be accused of lacking passion. Coherence could be a problem.
City finances are still delicate and need attention. Neighborhoods feel ignored. A maturing movement of residents across the city are interested in simple big-city issues like quality-of-life, walkability, transit and infrastructure.
Here’s to hoping Filner takes the new assignment seriously.
I’m a Voice of San Diego contributing editor and a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University working on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership in journalism. I served as VOSD’s editor from 2005 to 2012. You can reach me at email@example.com.
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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.