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— Speculation about the ultimate fate of the San Diego Union-Tribune is once again raging though the U-T newsroom, Mission Valley watering holes, and all other traditional haunts of old and new hands who've worked at the once-proud newspaper. The latest round of what has become an age-old guessing game among San Diego media watchers kicked off last month when it was said that U-T scion David Copley had been rushed to an unidentified local hospital for heart surgery and had not returned to the office after weeks of recuperation, prompting suggestions he had taken a turn for the worse and might require a heart transplant.

There has long been an unspoken but widespread concern about the health of 52-year-old Copley, who back in 2001 took over from his mother Helen as U-T publisher. Some 10 years ago he underwent quadruple bypass surgery, and his three driving-under-the-influence convictions in the past 16 years -- the most recent in April 2002 -- provided fodder for those who were convinced he was drinking too much for his own good.

Even before Copley ascended to the publisher's spot, the Copley chain had been in a contraction mode. In March 1998, it shuttered the Santa Monica Outlook, a conservative daily purchased by the company with fanfare a decade earlier. A few years before that, the Copleys had folded their feisty Evening Tribune into the staid Union and convinced a slim majority of its workers to kick out the Newspaper Guild, a labor union that had represented the paper's employees for a large part of the 20th Century.

While all this was going on, Copley himself, who had been made president and chief executive officer of his mother's Copley Newspapers in 1997, stayed largely out of public view. National trade papers and business magazines were not unaware of what they saw as the many strange eccentricities of Copley culture. In May 1997, News, Inc. wrote about Copley's "notably incommunicative CEOs" and quoted Copley V.P. Hal Fuson: " 'No one is close to the company,' he said with some pride."

David Copley's biggest splash has been in the worlds of art and antiques. He has reportedly lavished many dollars on the La Jolla-based San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art and spent even more as a backer of Broadway shows. He's also invested millions buying up at least five houses on a block of La Jolla's Virginia Way and consolidating them into a sprawling residential complex, where he has hosted famously lavish parties, written up by the paper's own Burl Stiff. An early incarnation of Copley's self-described bachelor pad -- called Fox Hole in homage to Fox Hill, his mother's mansion up the hill on Country Club Drive -- featured a neon-decorated patio dubbed the Carmen Veranda. Copley drew unwelcome national attention in 2001 when Vanity Fair author Maureen Orth wrote about his purported social ties to Andrew Cunanan, the onetime Hillcrest resident who murdered Gianni Versace.

Meantime, although the Copley chain is keeping mum, David's mother Helen is also believed to be seriously ailing. Now 81, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native ended up controlling the Copley empire after working for and then in 1965 marrying Jim Copley, who had inherited the papers from his father, Colonel Ira Copley, a onetime gasworks owner and publishing mogul. After their marriage, Jim adopted Helen's son David, then 13, whom she had as a result of a brief affair with an Iowa coworker. After Jim died in 1973, Helen fought a drawn-out legal battle with Jim's adopted children by his previous marriage, ultimately reaching an undisclosed settlement. According to the Union-Tribune website, Helen is currently "trustee of the family trusts that control the company stock." But what happens next in the Union-Tribune saga is still a matter of conjecture. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s when she was still healthy, Copley swore she would never sell the paper, and the company repeatedly denied persistent rumors that the Chicago-based Tribune Company had a silent deal to ultimately take over the operation. Since then the Tribune Company has been on a buying binge, gobbling up the Chandler family newspaper empire, including the Los Angeles Times as well as San Diego TV station KSWB, which might make the Tribune's ultimate acquisition of the Copley properties a better fit than ever.

Electrical milk of politics San Diego mayor Dick Murphy is picking up big-time support for his reelection campaign from a number of out-of-town executives employed by San Diego Gas & Electric, including V.P. Terry Fleskes and V.P. of customer service major markets Richard Morrow, both of San Clemente, as well as president and CFO Debra Reed of Laguna Niguel and Anne Shen-Smith, V.P. of customer services, who lives in Rolling Hills Estates. Vicki Zeiger, V.P. of human resources, of Rancho Santa Fe, also kicked in the maximum $250 ... Ex-Howard Dean campaign consultant Joe Trippi got some sweet revenge at last week's Digital Democracy Teach-In downtown. The day after he blasted the L.A. Times for reporting that his firm got $7 million from the Dean campaign while failing to report that most of the cash had been used to buy TV spots, the Times ran a clarification.

-- Matt Potter

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