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.
"The report also failed to disclose that by 11 October 2001 the audit staff of the City had determined that the investment portfolio of the City's pension plan had dropped significantly," Aguirre charged. "Finally, the possible triggering of the City's duty to make a sizeable balloon payment to the plan was not mentioned.... [This] failure...raises serious questions of misconduct by City officials."
With rumors of federal indictments making the rounds, the Murphy bubble was about to burst.
On Friday, April 15, Aguirre called for the mayor to quit, blaming him for the city pension board's failure to waive its attorney-client privilege and aid the investigation into the pension scandal. Then, in an issue released Sunday, April 17, Time magazine named Murphy one of the three worst mayors in America.
Murphy called a Sunday news conference in the driveway of his home to denounce the Time story, and he vowed to fight on.
Furious Murphy insiders privately blamed the media-savvy Aguirre for setting up the mayor by shopping the story to the magazine. A small number of pundits came to the mayor's defense. Los Angeles Times correspondent Tony Perry made light of "the tizzy that this set San Diego in" and argued that the Time hit on Murphy was little more than a publisher's gimmick. "The mass magazines, as you know, love lists," Perry told a KPBS radio audience. "The five best schools. The ten best doctors. Five things your wife wishes you knew about the bedroom and won't tell you.... It's not really serious journalism."
But Perry was in the minority, and the media drumbeat grew louder.
On Monday, April 18, a U-T story included a quote from chamber of commerce vice president Mitch Mitchell saying that the Time piece would "fuel the call for him to step down."
On Tuesday, April 19, the U-T published an editorial ostensibly aimed at Mike Aguirre and his call for Murphy's resignation. The paper said Aguirre "should pipe down -- for his own sake, and for the sake of the city." But it also lambasted the mayor. "Who cares what Time magazine says? Wall Street, for one. The banking industry for another. And, of course, there's the private sector, specifically all those businesses who normally might have been extremely receptive to a pitch that they set up shop here but which may now think twice. Orlando, here we come."
By Wednesday, April 20, there were rumors in the U-T newsroom that the paper, which rarely does political polling, had commissioned Directions in Research, a Kearny Mesa firm, to gauge Murphy's standing and that the mayor had fared badly. (The paper later revealed that the poll had been conducted between April 18 and April 22.)
Reports began circulating that the newspaper wanted Murphy out and had sent him the unfavorable poll results to make its point. All the while, the poll remained unpublished.
On Sunday, April 24, the U-T turned the screws ever tighter. "Recall whispers grow louder," said the headline on a front-page story written by the paper's crack political reporter, Philip LaVelle. "Will the growing legion of Murphy critics have the nerve to roll the dice in a high-stakes political gamble, one in which the outcome would be far from clear?" the article asked. "If so, will Murphy go the way of former Gov. Gray Davis, recalled in 2003 after presiding over California's energy crisis and huge budget deficits?"
Then LaVelle got to the point. "There's also this Machiavellian possibility, according to several sources: Business leaders who have lost faith in Murphy might use the threat of a recall to force the mayor, whose approval ratings are anemic, to resign."
The story provided the name of only one possible "business leader" interested in toppling the mayor, bayside hotel magnate Doug Manchester, who didn't return the paper's calls. Others with "means to write six-figure checks," the story said, were "keeping low profiles." There was still no mention of the poll, completed two days earlier.
The next day, Monday, April 25, at 10:15 in the morning, Murphy emerged from his 11th-floor inner sanctum to announce he was quitting. "When I ran for reelection, I had hoped that my second term would be as productive as the first term. But that now seems unlikely," he said in a quavering voice. "It's clear to me that the city needs a fresh start."
Padres owner John Moores, the principal beneficiary of the $300 million public subsidy for the downtown ballpark championed by Murphy, did not defend the mayor. "I don't really have a whole lot to say on this one." Neither Murphy nor his aides offered an explanation of what had transpired since his defiant pledge to serve out his term made just a week earlier.
The next morning, Tuesday, April 26, the U-T rendered its verdict. "In resigning only four months after being sworn in for a second term, Murphy has served the city's long-term interests. He deserves credit for reaching the agonizing personal decision that he was not the right mayor to steer San Diego through the turbulent waters that lie ahead. His resignation took courage."
And what about that U-T poll? It finally appeared in the newspaper on Wednesday, April 27, under the headline, "Poll shows public has little faith in City Hall." Sixty-one percent of respondents said Murphy was doing a bad job, with just 28 percent approving and 11 percent with no opinion. Fifty-eight percent thought the mayor had "breached public trust." The story went on to say that as poll results "were being tabulated last weekend, Murphy was meeting with his family and political advisers to chart his future."
The mayor was dead. Long live the mayor. That would be Jerry Sanders. Two thousand five was the year he was created. Not Sanders the ex-police chief, former public-charity administrator, ever-ready tuxedo-clad socialite who appears often in Burl Stiff's Union-Tribune La Jolla party notes (ten mentions and counting, according to Nexis). That Jerry Sanders has been around for 55 years. Actually, it seems longer.
Mayor Sanders. Reformer, savior of the city's image on Wall Street, defender against Democratic incursions into the city's conventional Republican base.
Mayor Sanders was launched on May 3, 2005, at a news conference held a week after Murphy the politician died. The body wasn't even cold, but the fixing had already begun. There had been fleeting talk that others might run, like Democrat Dede Alpert, the former state senator whose husband Mike, a semiretired corporate securities lawyer from the influential L.A. law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, was on the board of Jack in the Box.
But Mike had traveled with his wife using her campaign funds, and she was a member of the Padres' board of directors, both political embarrassments that seemed to rule out her candidacy almost as soon as talk of it surfaced.
Others suggested ex-state senator Steve Peace, another Democrat, who had authored the state's disastrous electrical utility deregulation bill, or Juan Vargas, a termed-out Democratic assemblyman and mentor of indicted city councilman Ralph Inzunza.
In the end, neither Peace nor Vargas stepped forward. (Peace, as would later come to light, was already working as a lobbyist for Padres owner and downtown real estate mogul John Moores, who former state senator James Mills maintained was attempting to disband the Port District to further a backstage grab of public land by Moores and his company, JMI Realty. Vargas chose to run against fellow Democrat Bob Filner for Congress.)
Thus, Murphy's tarnished baton went to Sanders. To many old-timers, the city's shadowy kingmakers, including the Union-Tribune; Moores and his partner, land titan and yachtsman Malin Burnham; and their corporate friends at the chamber of commerce, including utility giants Sempra Energy and Cox Communications, had carried the day. All would contribute to Sanders. The only person who stood between the powers that be and their perfect, bloodless coup-to-be was Donna Frye.
Before he got to Frye, Sanders easily bested Steve Francis, a fellow Republican and Rancho Santa Fe denizen who had made a pile of new money building a rent-a-nurse business. A favorite of political maverick Doug Manchester, who is outside the charmed circle of power and desperate to become an inside player, Francis proved to be the ultimate political naïf, spending more than a million dollars of his own money on a bloated campaign run by ex-Pete Wilson political guru George Gorton. He placed third and slinked back to his golf games with Manchester. Now the race was Jerry's to lose.
Seemingly handpicked by the city's pro-business power brokers, Sanders talked a good game, said he'd balance the budget without new taxes, liked the idea of keeping the Chargers from moving to L.A., would create new jobs and be good for business, which in 2005 was enough, especially when his opponent was Frye.
Like a modern-day Joan of Arc, Frye embarked on her crusade without sufficient cash or sage political advice, doomed to political martyrdom. Though she came in first and Sanders second in the June primary, Frye soon discovered that he had locked up his base of conservative Republican blue hairs. She forgot her own base: pro-environmental types like surfers, college professors, tree huggers, and left-of-center La Jolla coupon clippers.
They all tried to like her, but she preferred to dwell on the city's financial mess, a complicated matter that most voters didn't seem to understand or care that much about. In an October interview, Frye couldn't remember the name of the city's planning director. She refused to put sufficient effort into raising campaign cash. Sanders, assisted by ace political consultant Tom Shepard, the once-disgraced campaign intimate of Roger Hedgecock, had by early November outraised her almost three to one -- $1.2 million to $484,000 -- not counting the hundreds of thousands of dollars in "independent" mailings the GOP sent out.
Frye's endlessly repeated pledge to hike the city's sales tax by a half-cent as a way to balance the city budget -- hearkening back to Walter Mondale's disastrous 1984 presidential campaign against Ronald Reagan in which Mondale said, "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you, I just did" -- struck even her most stalwart backers as hubris. Jumping on the issue, Sanders began pulling away and never looked back.
If her own gaffes weren't bad enough, Frye also had to deal with the Union-Tribune, which, though its circulation fell precipitously during 2005, still remains a power during the city's political seasons.
Not only could the paper run editorial after editorial bashing the councilwoman and repeating antitax themes that seemed custom designed by Shepard, it skewed its coverage by omitting details of Sanders's spotty financial ventures and his business association with a white-collar criminal.
"Her leadership has been mostly confined to opposing any and every initiative to come before the council. She has not been a positive voice for the broad solutions that San Diego so desperately needs," proclaimed the U-T in its July 25 editorial endorsing Sanders. The worst was yet to come.
In October, the paper leapt on Frye's pro-tax pledge, devoting an editorial to calling the proposal a "non-starter."
A week later, it hammered home the same message: "Frye is hardly being honest when she attempts to gain approval of her sales tax hike with a simple majority vote." A week after that, the Thursday before the election, the paper ran another editorial, headlined "Heck no; Frye pension plan heavy on taxes, short on solutions." The next day it opined, "Jerry Sanders' strong emphasis on reducing pension costs stands in sharp contrast to Donna Frye's call for a $1.1 billion tax increase to help pay those very costs."
Frye shrank before the U-T onslaught. The famous Frye who had once dunked an effigy of then-GOP congressman Brian Bilbray into a toilet to protest alleged transgressions against mother earth had, it seemed, run out of gas. She had turned into the nice Donna.
Frye would go on to lose even her own city council district by six points. After appearing for more than a year to be a threat to the downtown Republican status quo, she would soon be out of the game.
Sanders was like Murphy, only different. Both were Republican, white, middle-aged. Both were creatures of government, enjoyed generous public pensions, and had something to do with the law. Murphy was an ex-judge, Sanders an ex-cop. Murphy went to Harvard; Sanders dropped out of San Diego State and graduated later from National University, a fancy degree mill.
Murphy was prissy, prickly, easy to anger, and reminded some of an old lady from the Women's Christian Temperance Union; Sanders was a hale fellow well met, backslapping and beer drinking. Murphy was thin, Sanders fat. Each was well-tailored, with silk ties for every occasion. Neither was known as a deep intellect or policy wonk.
The difference that counted the most: Sanders, to all outward appearances, was clean, with no political record. Murphy, now mistrusted by virtually all, was dirty.
Sanders grew up in Long Beach, where his father was a motorcycle policeman. He got an AA degree from Long Beach City College, then drifted down the coast to San Diego State, where friend and onetime roommate Tom Stickel remembered him as a champion member of the fraternity party circuit. In the early 1970s, Stickel said, he and Sanders shared an apartment in south Mission Beach. His friends from the era say booze and women were standard lifestyle accessories.
Sanders dropped out of State and got a job as a San Diego cop, where by all accounts he mixed well with the good-old-boy culture. In 1978 the 28-year-old Sanders was bucking for a promotion from patrol officer to police agent. A September 6 memo from San Diego police captain P.H. Rose to Captain M.C. Guaderrama gave him a ringing endorsement.
"Jerry has completed in excess of 150 college credits majoring in English. He possesses an A.A. Degree, Intermediate P.O.S.T. Certificate, E.M.T. Certificate, and California Teaching Credential (Limited)," said Rose.
"Jerry has a very pleasing personality. He is usually soft spoken and congenial during public contacts, unless the situation dictates otherwise. He communicates very well with his peers and with all supervisors.
"While a member of S.W.A.T., he instructed in the use of chemical agents and rifle training and assisted in scheduling and coordinating for the S.W.A.T. Academy and training.
"Jerry's appearance is excellent. He maintains his uniforms and equipment, and obviously takes pride in his appearance. He has no mannerisms which could be considered detrimental.
"Jerry is a good report writer. He has the education to be able to express his thoughts logically. His reports are always clear and concise as to the circumstances of an incident."
There was only one black mark on Sanders's record, Rose reported, a February 21, 1976, "Reprimand" for driving while intoxicated that earned him a ten-day suspension from duty. After the incident was first reported on these pages during the 2005 mayoral campaign, Sanders admitted to Union-Tribune writer Phil LaVelle that he had led the California Highway Patrol on a chase in his Porsche 914 but "was not charged."
Sanders had other secrets, not all of them reported by the U-T. The files of his 1993 divorce from his first wife Kerrill had been sealed by a superior court judge. A campaign operative for Frye, speaking off the record, claimed that details of the case reflected badly on Sanders's character, though the operative could produce no evidence. Kerrill, a preschool teacher in La Mesa, insisted that wasn't true.
"It was a very amicable parting," Kerrill said in a June interview. "The case was sealed under advice of our attorneys to preserve our privacy. People change, that's all. We have two kids, and everybody gets along fine. He's a great father, and he'll make a great mayor." The U-T never mentioned Kerrill, much less that she was the mother of his grown daughters, Jamie and Lisa.
Sanders had become police chief in 1993. Six years later, in January 1999, after almost 26 years on the force, he resigned from the police department to become president and chief executive officer of the United Way of San Diego County. To many, it seemed a strange career move, and word circulated that Sanders was having difficulty dealing with the stress of being top cop.
But none of that appeared in local newspapers. They gushed over the transition, playing up the angle about Sanders needing "more time" to spend with his family. "I want to see my daughters grow up," the Union-Tribune quoted him as saying. "I've missed a big part of that."
By then Sanders had remarried. His second wife, Rana, would make the ideal mayoral spouse: a slim, attractive ex-cop who had been appointed "director of public safety" at the University of San Diego, a Catholic school that is a bastion of the local monied establishment; its big-time donors range from Republicans Doug Manchester and the late Helen Copley to the late Joan Kroc, the billionaire McDonald's heiress and liberal Democrat. The school is a nexus for the city's rich and powerful and often involves itself in local politics, including playing a major role in San Diego school superintendent Alan Bersin's controversial reform efforts.
Rana, who turned 47 in January 2005, was very different from the low-key Kerrill. A Democrat from Brooklyn, the intellectually high-powered brunette boasted a law degree from Harvard and a bachelor's degree from Barnard College, Columbia University, and in 1992 had been a White House fellow during the last year of the first Bush administration.
According to her bio, she'd been a patrol officer, undercover narcotics officer, and patrol sergeant with the New York City Police Department from 1982 to 1988 and later become a management consultant for police departments. She said she'd met Sanders in 1991 at a policing conference and married him two years later after his divorce became final. Following her gig at USD, she went back to consulting.
In July 2002, Sanders, who had left his United Way job earlier that year, joined the board of the local Red Cross, which had been the subject of a small 2001 scandal involving its response to an Alpine fire. In April 2003, Sanders was credited with recruiting Ronne Froman, the ex-admiral who had abruptly left her job as Alan Bersin's chief financial officer at the school district under mysterious circumstances only months before. She would serve as executive director of the Red Cross for two years and later follow Sanders to city hall.
According to his campaign biography, the three years of Sanders's life between his departure from the United Way in 2002 and his mayoral bid in 2005 had been spent in public service to the Red Cross and in private entrepreneurship, but the story turned out to be more complicated.
His personal financial disclosure form, filed with the city when he became a candidate in May 2005, revealed that Sanders had been involved in a money-losing company, Virtual Capital of California, with his Mission Beach roommate from college days, Tom Stickel.
But it was another old Sanders pal involved in the venture who was to draw the most interest.
Stickel, a controversial financier and onetime banker with close ties to the local GOP, related that he had set up Virtual Capital in 2002 and recruited Sanders to become its president shortly after he had left his job at the United Way. According to Sanders's 2005 financial filing, his Virtual Capital stake was worth between $10,000 and $100,000, and he had received less than $500 from the venture during the previous year.
Two months after Sanders became president, William "Bob" Bradley, a former tow-truck-company owner who had been friendly with Sanders since his days on the police force, invested in Virtual by putting up what Stickel said was a $2.2 million piece of Las Vegas real estate. "I looked at the property; it was a great piece of property," said Stickel. He said he tried to borrow against the land and later ended up selling it for $1.8 million.
As it turned out, Virtual Capital was a bust for its investors. The idea had been for the firm to license inventions from public institutions like universities and federal agencies and attempt to commercialize them. But by the summer of 2005, Stickel said, Virtual Capital was down to just one unrealized idea, an electronic device installed on a truck that could be driven over a bridge and, "like an X-ray, tell if there are structural problems."
Without customers for the inventions it was trying to license, there was no money to be made; investors like Bradley, said Stickel, were left high and dry. "I've heard through the grapevine that Bob isn't happy with the investment."
But that wasn't Bradley's only problem. During his towing-company days, he had teamed up with two other friends -- Mike Ellis, an ex-National City cop, and Mike Blevins -- to form Metabolife. Ellis was president, Blevins vice president, and Bradley chief executive officer. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Metabolife's business of selling ephedrine-packed diet pills exploded. The company became a sponsor of the San Diego Padres and had an endorsement deal with sportscaster Ted Leitner, who regaled his radio talk show audience with stories of his miraculous weight loss.
In 1999 it came to light that Ellis and Blevins were federal felons, convicted of operating a meth lab in Rancho Santa Fe in 1988. Blevins had an even longer rap sheet, including involvement with Chicago mobster Sam Sarcinelli. Ellis got probation; Blevins served hard time. The information had been ferreted out by a Boston television station that was doing a story on a cascade of lawsuits filed against Metabolife. The lawsuits alleged that the company's pills were responsible for a rash of deaths caused by ephedrine, an ingredient said by the federal Food and Drug Administration to be "an amphetamine-like stimulant."
Though Metabolife would last another five years, making untold millions for its founders, liability lawsuits mounted, federal regulators barred future use of ephedrine, and the IRS raided Metabolife's headquarters, searching for evidence of money laundering. The company finally tumbled into bankruptcy in July 2005. In October, Bradley pled guilty to two counts of federal tax evasion. He is scheduled to be sentenced this April.
When news of Sanders's role in Virtual Capital and of Bradley's investment in the company were first reported on these pages last June, Sanders declined repeated requests for comment about their relationship. Stickel had said that Sanders and Bradley were close friends. But a week before the election, in a lengthy October 23 profile of Sanders, the Union-Tribune carried a short two-sentence account of Bradley's ties to Sanders, paraphrasing Sanders as saying that "he had little contact with Bradley in the Virtual Capital venture." It was the only time the U-T mentioned the connection.
Nine days before that story appeared, on October 14, Bradley gave a $10,000 check to the Lincoln Club, a group of well-heeled GOP business types who waged a so-called independent campaign on behalf of Sanders.
But that was only the beginning of the deluge. The same donors who had so mightily contributed to Murphy's "legal defense" fund against Frye's challenge of the November 2004 election results were back in larger force for Sanders. Checks poured in from developers like Intracorp Companies, Burnham Real Estate, and Barone Galasso. Lobbyists, including Al Ziegaus, Leslie Wade, Mac Strobl, Mike McDade, and Jeff Marston, anted up more.
The lobbyists and developers didn't much care about the ugly details of fixing the city's broken pension fund or whether the city's budget was balanced, topics that dominated the mayoral campaign. They had their own economic interests at heart: rezonings, redevelopment schemes, a pro-growth general plan, city subsidies for a new football stadium. Those issues were largely ignored during the ruckus over Frye's tax proposal, but they would be the key to the city's future and quality of life after the election was over. Development and financial shenanigans have always been the lifeblood of San Diego's corruption, and that wasn't about to change.
On October 14, all five members of the board of supervisors, every one of them a Republican, sponsored a fund-raiser: "Salute to San Diego County's Republican Elected Officials." The hoopla surrounding the event highlighted the fact that the city's ostensible restrictions on campaign contributions have become a joke.
Under the city's regulations, donations to a given candidate are limited to $300 per individual; corporate contributions are barred entirely. But a loophole in state law -- opened when voters passed a campaign "reform" initiative some years ago -- allows political parties to collect and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as use of the funds is restricted to "member communications."
In essence, it meant that corporations could fuel a last-minute blitzkrieg of anti-Frye mailers to households with at least one registered Republican voter, reaching thousands of Democratic and independent voters in the process.
"Because this event benefits the Republican Party of San Diego County and its ongoing programs and campaigns to elect and re-elect local Republican candidates, corporate and personal contributions are allowed without limit," the party's invitation said. Those who gave $20,000 to attend were designated "Platinum" sponsors, entitled to "two Chairman's Pinnacle memberships for a year, listing on all announcements, prime signage, special event acknowledgement and 30 VIP reception tickets." Those in attendance said the Old Town event kept valet parkers busy late into the evening ferrying a stream of Mercedes, Porsches, Cadillac Escalades, and a yellow Lamborghini to and from the festivities. Big money, which has run San Diego for decades, wasn't about to let Frye take over.
On October 28, the GOP reported spending $108,000 on behalf of Sanders. Two weeks before, the party had spent $172,000 on mailers and polling for its candidate.
Frye was buried in the dust. Much of her traditional labor base had gone south over her advocacy of reforming the city's pension system. After months of whispered speculation that the unions would come to her rescue with a mammoth mailing and television buy late in the campaign, the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council finally spent $100,000 on anti-Sanders television spots. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees TIP Educational Fund, based in Washington, D.C., put up $123,474 for mailers. It was far from enough to match the investment that business had made in Sanders.
In the final stages of the campaign, Frye seemed virtually paralyzed, unable or unwilling or both to shift the debate away from her dead-on-arrival tax hike to issues such as growth, traffic, and redevelopment, which have traditionally concerned many voters. Sanders, ever reluctant to talk about his secretive financial dealings with Bradley and Stickel, even hijacked her "open government" mantra by pledging to make city government more "transparent." Some said Frye acted as though she didn't want to be mayor. Immediately after Sanders was sworn into office in early December, the touchy-feely Frye walked over and gave him a big hug.