The Copley papers were faithful editorial supporters of the mayor.
  • The Copley papers were faithful editorial supporters of the mayor.
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Plotting Pete

During his first campaign for mayor, in 1971, Pete Wilson sent a letter to voters exhorting them to compare each mayoral aspirant, “and with each candidate look past the rhetoric to his record. See whether what he’s saying now squares with what he said and how he voted two, three, or five years ago.” That seems like a good idea, now that San Diego’s favorite son is running for office once again.

Pete Wilson's lasting marks

The map on this page is a kind of unauthorized atlas of Pete Wilson’s tenure as mayor of San Diego, between 1971 and 1982. You won’t find many of his proud accomplishments on this map, for this is not a paid political advertisement. Rather, the map notes a few of San Diego’s primary features and how Wilson affected them.


The airport problem existed long before Wilson was elected mayor. But 11 years later, when he left the city for the U.S. Senate, it was an even bigger problem. In the 1970s, San Diego’s population grew 24 percent, and the town became the eighth largest city in the U.S.

For all Wilson’s talk about managing growth, relocating the airport to accommodate San Diego’s expansion was never a priority for him, though most political leaders believed that the early 1970s provided the best opportunity to move the airport. But Wilson, who initially was an advocate for building a new airport on Otay Mesa, became strangely passive and pessimistic on the subject once he realized the scope of the task.

Local pundits have asserted that Wilson decided not to waste political capital on a cause he couldn’t win. He was stiff-armed by the local business establishment, which preferred to keep the airport where it was; without the businessmen’s will to move the airport, Wilson would not attempt to generate the political will. At the time, no one knew that Wilson would be the most influential mayor San Diego would see for many years, perhaps decades. The airport problem is the legacy of a man who placed his political future above the long-term needs of the community.


The biggest naval hospital in the country sprawls across almost 40 acres of land in Balboa Park, atop an earthquake ifaifrt and beneath Lindbergh Field’s flight path. Pete Wilson’s role in allowing such a thing to happen will not become part of his career highlight film.

Shortly after Wilson became mayor, the Navy made plans to build its new hospital in Murphy Canyon, at the southern end of Tierrasanta. This idea was nixed by U.S. Congressman Bob Wilson, who preferred that the Navy stay in the park; and besides, -developers were casting hungry eyes on the Murphy Canyon acreage. Pete Wilson voiced no opposition to this change in plans and eventually became a supporter of the hospital’s being built in Balboa Park’s Florida Canyon. Even though the city charter stated that such a use of dedicated park land required the approval of two-thirds of the voters,

Wilson helped work out an agreement between the Navy and the city for a swap of 39 acres in Florida Canyon for the adjacent 39-acre site of the Navy’s old hospital on Park Boulevard. After a public outcry, the city council decided to rescind this agreement. Wilson was the one vote against the council’s decision to urge the Navy to consider other sites.

Eventually, a public vote was held on the land swap that would give the Navy its Florida Canyon site, and Wilson campaigned in favor of it. But the measure failed to garner the needed two-thirds of the vote. The Navy started condemnation proceedings anyway. Nine months later, in another election, voters overwhelmingly favored a newly proposed site on Helix Heights, at I-15 and highway 94. Wilson then became a supporter of that site, but it was too late. The momentum within Congress and the Navy was already rolling toward Florida Canyon.

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the decision about where to build the hospital fell to his administration, which presumably would have been friendlier to the Republican Wilson than the Carter Administration had been.

But the mayor took no leadership role in lobbying for a site outside the park and in effect stood by and watched as a large and undeveloped chunk of Balboa Park was grabbed by the federal government.


Another of the city’s dilemmas that is worse now because of Wilson’s approach to it is the question of sewage treatment. He ignored several warnings and allowed the sewer system around Mission Bay to deteriorate to the point that now tourists and residents must suffer constant quarantines on bay waters because of sewage overflows. And Wilson’s attempt to challenge federal government requirements on ocean dumping may have cost the city $1 billion.

Wilson had been a consistent critic of a section of the 1972 lederal Clean Water Act that requires cities dumping sewage into waterways to treat the sewage to secondary levels. He became convinced that this higher level of treatment was unnecessary for ocean dumping, and he led the city’s effort to obtain a waiver from this requirement. Part of his

argument was based on cost: in the mid-’70s, a secondary treatment system would have cost at least $250 million. But while the waiver was being pursued, Wilson failed to ensure that the city was taking steps to secure land and lay other plans for secondary treatment, just in case the waiver wasn’t granted. Although a tentative waiver was granted, the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew it in 1986 and ordered the city to upgrade to secondary treatment.

Wilson might have been right in questioning the need for secondary sewage treatment, but he tyas wrong in believing that the city would retain its exemption from federal clean-water laws. That misjudgment will be expensive. The cost of a secondary sewage system is now estimated to be close to $1.5 billion, before inflation.


In 1975 Mayor Wilson called the proposal to build some 14,000 homes in North City West “a big mistake.” He urged his council colleagues not to open the city’s northern reaches to development, arguing that such a move would exacerbate city budget deficits and would touch off runaway growth in heretofore undeveloped areas. He declared that allowing homes to be built in Carmel Valley, just east of Del Mar, would violate city growth policies, that the resultant traffic increase would be intolerable, and finally, the price of homes to be built there would be exceedingly high. He was right about all of that, it turns out. But before his dire predictions came true, Wilson did an about-face and became an ardent supporter of the project.

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