San Diego On a clear November morning, Judge Dick Murphy can see most of San Diego from the corner of his backyard. On a hillside in the saint-named streets behind St. Therese Catholic Church in San Carlos, the mayoral candidate's home has the comfortable, slightly empty feel of a house where children have grown up and moved on. Family portraits and graduation pictures perch on bookshelves and end tables and fill one family-room wall. Sitting at the kitchen table with the morning paper folded beside him, Murphy talked recently about his introduction to local politics and San Diego's former and current governments.
"I first became interested in local politics in 1971," Murphy said. "I had recently moved to San Diego, and I was attracted by Pete Wilson's candidacy for mayor. I liked his growth-management platform. I liked what he stood for personally: Marine veteran, law-school graduate, person of integrity. This was after I'd gotten out of the military but before I went to law school. I was working as the regional marketing director for Bank of America in San Diego. I got involved in Pete's campaign as a precinct worker, volunteer, nothing significant. I got to know the candidate."
The year after Wilson's election, Murphy went to Stanford Law School. After graduation, he clerked for federal judge Howard Turrentine in 1975, then went to work for Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, one of San Diego's oldest law firms.
"As the '70s wore on," Murphy recalled, "I continued my friendship with Pete Wilson. In 1978, he appointed me to the city's Park and Recreation Board. I was coaching my son's baseball team. I was interested in playing fields for children. Eventually, Pete appointed me to be the chair of the Park and Recreation Board. So I had sort of a close relationship with his mayoral office in the late '70s as a community volunteer.
"In 1980, Larry Sterling, who was the city councilperson from the seventh council district -- which includes Tierrasanta, San Carlos, Del Cerro, Allied Gardens, State College, and Rolando -- got elected to the State Assembly. Pete Wilson called and asked me if I would apply to fill the balance of Larry Sterling's term. I agonized a lot about leaving Luce Forward, which was more like a fraternity or sorority in the late '70s than a hard-nosed business place. But it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when the mayor basically offers you a position on the city council. So I accepted, and Pete championed my appointment. The understanding was that if I were appointed, I would run for a four-year term in 1981. Pete didn't want just an interim appointment. He wanted someone who would be his friend and ally on the council for a while. So I ran for reelection in 1981. It wasn't an easy race, but I certainly had the advantage of the incumbency."
At the end of Murphy's elected term in 1985, he considered running for mayor. "Then-mayor Roger Hedgecock was under indictment," Murphy said. "People were encouraging me to stand by and run for mayor if he got convicted." Instead, Governor George Deukmejian appointed Murphy to the bench. Murphy sat as a Municipal Court judge until he was elevated to the Superior Court in 1989. In April of this year, Murphy took an unpaid leave of absence to run for mayor.
Looking back at the mayors who have served San Diego since Murphy became aware of local politics in 1971, Murphy easily chose his favorite. "I think the best mayor clearly was Pete Wilson," Murphy said. "He had a clear agenda for the city -- where it was going and how to get there. He implemented a growth-management strategy to discourage urban sprawl and to pay for public facilities. His plan hasn't been a perfect success, but it's certainly better than random growth. Secondly, he had a vision for the revitalization of downtown San Diego that began with the building of Horton Plaza shopping center. And he was a fiscally conservative person who had balanced city budgets and had the courage and self-discipline to say no to various interest groups who wanted more funding."
Murphy wouldn't say who he considered to be San Diego's worst mayor. "Let's just say that none of them were as good as Pete," Murphy laughed. "Roger Hedgecock was a very talented person who was never able to realize his potential because of his indictment, conviction, and removal from office. Maureen O'Connor was mayor at a time when I quite frankly wasn't paying much attention to local politics. Susan Golding did a good job her first term, but ever since she allowed the Charger-ticket guarantee, she's been criticized.
"Golding's strength is that she is a very intelligent person who is willing to work very hard," Murphy elaborated. "Her weaknesses are twofold. One: she has attracted talented people to work for her but is then unable to keep them. So she hasn't had the talented staff around her that other mayors have had. And secondly, especially in the second term, she's been somewhat inaccessible to people who would like to suggest things to her.
"You know, there's an interesting issue here," Murphy paused. "I really know all of these people very well. Roger Hedgecock and I were on the San Diego Junior Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee in the late 1970s. We used to have lunch together once a month for several years. I served for several years on the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, the builder of the trolley, with Maureen O'Connor. She and I were on the executive committee. She was the chair of the board. I was the chair of the board. And I know Susan Golding really well. We served on the San Diego City Council together. She was appointed just like I was. I was one of the five votes that got her her appointment. She and I worked side by side as spear-carriers for Pete Wilson. I know them all well. I like them all well. But they just never were as successful at being mayor as Pete Wilson."
When asked to name the best decision any past or present city council has made, Murphy said, "I think the decision to put an open-space bond issue on the ballot in either 1977 or 1978 had as much positive effect as anything that's been done." The bond issue created a $65 million fund to buy open space in the city. The city council used the money to acquire the land necessary to create both the Mission Trails Regional Park and the Peñasquitos Canyon Regional Park.
"At least a couple other decisions were good," Murphy continued. "I think the open-space plan that was adopted in the early '70s was good. The downtown redevelopment plan, which was started in the '70s but really didn't reach fruition until the approval of Horton Plaza, was good. And the decision to build the San Diego trolley system was good. All four of those decisions had long-term implications for the good of the city."
Murphy cited the deal with the San Diego Chargers on the expansion of Qualcomm Stadium as the worst decision a recent city council has made. "The idea of giving a sports franchise a guarantee sellout of all their games really flies in the face of common sense," Murphy said. "If you promise a sports franchise that you're going to buy every ticket they don't sell at $40 a ticket, they have no incentive to have a marketing plan, and they have really no incentive to put a quality product on the field. Although I think they are trying to do that, with limited success. This year alone, it's already cost the city $5 million, and the season's only half over. This was a very, very poor business decision."
How would Murphy have handled the decision differently? "I think the main difference is that I am an attorney," he said. "I would read the contract carefully. I would not rely on the advice of the city manager or the city attorney to make profound decisions that affect the future of the city. When Pete Wilson was mayor and I was on the council, we were both attorneys. When Roger Hedgecock was mayor and I was on the city council, we were both attorneys. We constantly challenged and second-guessed the city manager and the city attorney on their recommendations. We didn't follow their advice unless we were convinced it was good advice. And I'm not sure that the people who are running the city now have the legal knowledge to read contracts carefully and protect the taxpayers."