Two thousand five was the year Dick Murphy died. Murphy the man is still alive, we hope. We think. We're almost certain. We haven't been able to talk to him. Not that we haven't tried. His house, his cell phone. His wife's phone. His daughter's house. Nobody wants to say where he is, what he's doing with his life. Murphy's not talking. Like ex-mayor Susan Golding before him, he's become a nonperson.
We know only that Murphy the politician and the public servant is dead. He was buried on April 25, 2005, the morning he announced he was running away from his job at San Diego city hall, the esteemed position to which he had been reelected just six months before. It was the end of a strange political odyssey for the lawyer, former city councilman, and former superior court judge. Nobody but a few insiders, like political consultant John Kern, a longtime intimate, ever really knew what he was up to.
Murphy had been mayor of San Diego for three years in March 2003 when he announced he would stand for reelection. He proclaimed, "Good government is not about flash. It's about substance. It's about hard work, focus, and persistence in achieving worthy goals and solving tough problems. That's what you'll get from me." Two weeks later, he dropped out of the race. "If I didn't have to run for reelection," he said, "I'd stay for four more years. I don't like campaigns. I don't feel I do them particularly well."
Less than two weeks later, on April 11, Murphy was running again: "I never said I didn't want to be mayor. I said I didn't want to campaign for mayor." An unholy alliance, including Ted Roth, a former chairman of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Judie Italiano, head of the Municipal Employees Association, had materialized, seemingly out of thin air, to "draft" the mercurial mayor. Craig Benedetto, a lobbyist for, among others, beer-brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, owner of SeaWorld, provided low-key logistical support.
Pete Wilson, the ultimate GOP insider, a former pro-business San Diego mayor and former U.S. senator who became governor and then mentor to Arnold Schwarzenegger, joined the Republican rejoicing over Murphy's bizarre reentry. "Quite unintentionally, he has benefited from the fact that he was going to leave the race rather than make one (and he) stimulated something very rare in politics and that's a genuine draft movement," Wilson told the Union-Tribune. Democrat Ralph Inzunza, indicted in the Cheetahs influence-peddling scandal, also signed on with the pro-Murphy pack.
A year and a half later, in November 2004, the self-proclaimed man of the people came in second behind write-in candidate Donna Frye in a three-way race between himself, the Democratic councilwoman, and county supervisor Ron Roberts. Murphy's lawyer rushed into court to make sure that the 5000 or so ballots cast by people who wrote in Frye's name but forgot to fill in the bubble would not be counted.
To pay for his legal battle with Frye, the mayor turned to almost every special interest that had business pending at city hall. Donors giving the maximum of $1250 to his five special "legal defense" funds included wealthy landowner Pauline Foster of Rancho Santa Fe, mother-in-law of city schools chief Alan Bersin; and Black Mountain Ranch developer Fred Maas, said to be a close friend of mayoral aide John Kern.
The most conspicuous cluster of donors worked for or were otherwise related to Corky McMillin, the salty developer who died last year on September 22. His crowning achievement was the controversial but handsomely profitable Liberty Station, built in Point Loma on the site of the old Naval Training Center. The city council had awarded him the contract for the mammoth housing development some years earlier.
Murphy's April financial disclosure showed that during the first three months of 2005, at least 23 McMillin family members and/or employees gave $12,900 to the mayor's legal cause, much of it on February 17. On March 15, council minutes show, Murphy voted to help advance plans for a 350-room McMillin hotel on the NTC grounds.
By May 2005, Murphy had collected a total of $204,155 to ward off Frye's increasingly futile attempts to have the courts award her the victory her inept voters had not. But by then, the mayor had changed his mind again.
The scent of Murphy's political demise was in the air during the third week of April. The stew had been brewing for years, since Murphy's predecessor, Susan Golding, had engineered a secret way to bankroll the city's multimillion-dollar contribution to the 1996 GOP convention. To make the city's books balance for that and other costly projects, such as an expansion of Qualcomm Stadium and a downtown ballpark, the city council began underfunding the city's pension fund.
A complicit city auditor went along with the scheme, and for years, no one, especially it seemed Dick Murphy, was the wiser. After he was sworn in as mayor in January 2001, Murphy appointed a Blue Ribbon Committee which concluded that the city's finances were "fundamentally sound."
Though one member of the committee, Richard Vortmann, president of National Steel and Shipbuilding Company and a member of the city's pension board, later wrote a letter that he claimed had warned the mayor about the growing problem with the pension fund, the committee's record was sketchy.
In February 2005, newly elected city attorney Mike Aguirre released a report alleging that Murphy's committee was rigged. "On 12 February 2002, Mr. Vortmann was notified that the pension plan funding ratio had dropped from 97.3% to 89.9%," Aguirre reported.
"Fifteen days later, on 27 February 2002, he presented the City Council Rules Committee with the Blue Ribbon Committee's report, which misrepresented the pension plan's funding ratio to be at 97.3%.
"Despite the fact that the Committee Report was partially revised on 14 February 2002, it was not changed to show that the plan's funding ratio had dropped to 89%." Noted Aguirre, "Mr. Vortmann has declined a request from the City Attorney to be interviewed about this matter.