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Pete Wilson: San Diego’s first strong mayor? Part 1

Jerry Sanders has been mayor under the strong mayor system for just over a month, and tonight, Full Focus takes a look at another San Diego mayor. Pete Wilson is often thought of as San Diego's first real strong mayor, but his tenure took place 30 years before the council-manager system was discarded. Pat Finn tells us how he overcame the system's built-in obstacles to become the real leader of the city for more than a decade.

In January, 2006, San Diego voters gave the mayor the authority to set policy, provide direction and basically run the place. Jerry Sanders is now the city's official strong mayor, but he is not the first. Thirty years ago, a newly elected mayor, a relative newcomer to San Diego, challenged the council-manager system and beat it. He made the city council an extension of himself and saw most of his policies and initiatives enacted. He literally changed the face of San Diego. His name was Pete Wilson. And he was definitely not your grandfather's politician.

Hal Sadler, Tucker, Sadler and Assoc. President: "He was quite young. He was amazing, almost looked like a schoolboy as he came down. Even today he doesn't look too old."

Donna Alm, Mayor's Assistant 1972-1977: "I was struck by his youth, for one thing, his approach to working with people."

Glenn Sparrow, SDSU Prof. Emeritus: "He's a person who people underestimated because of the way he looked, the way he dressed, the way he acted and so forth. He was a very focused and a very hard person with a soft exterior."

Like so many San Diegans, Pete Wilson came here from somewhere else. Born in Illinois, raised in Missouri, he arrived in San Diego in 1963 with a law degree from UC Berkeley.

Pete Wilson, San Diego Mayor 1971-1982: "When I graduated from law school, there were several places that I looked, but I had a strong feeling that San Diego might be the most compatible. Everybody there whom I knew seemed bullish about the future of the city. The lawyers there seemed to be doing well. That was a concern of mine, obviously. And it was not only a beautiful place who wouldn't want to live there but it seemed to offer a compatible political climate and I'd already determined that it would probably be a significant avocation in my life."

San Diego lawyers may have been doing well, but Pete Wilson was much more interested in politics. He left his law firm, and at age 33, won a seat in the California Assembly. But the Legislature, with its endless committee meetings, was not for him. He lasted just two terms before deciding to run for mayor of San Diego.

Sparrow: "I advised him against it. I said it's crazy. It's a dead-end job. That was in the late 60s, early 70s and cities were going up in flames, and we were talking about the urban crisis, and you know mayors were being driven out of politics and embarrassed and everything, and I said it's a dead-end job; stay away from it Pete."

Glenn Sparrow might as well have been talking to himself. Wilson wanted to be mayor of San Diego, even though his salary in the Assembly was nearly three times the mayor's salary.

Wilson: "I presented myself as, if not a new face, though relatively so because I'd been in the assembly, but new to municipal politics. And I came in without encumbrances, with some definite ideas about what the city needed."

Mike Madigan: " He and Ed Butler had a lot of debates. They really went around the town and they debated a lot and they produced actual position papers on things and they described what it is that they would be doing and how they would be implementing things."

Wilson: "And so what I said repeatedly throughout the campaign was San Diego is too attractive not to grow. Growth is inevitable, but how we grow is by no means inevitable. We can choose either to shape our growth to make it as much as possible an asset and minimize its liabilities or we can simply suffer growth."

And the voters agreed. Pete Wilson became Mayor of San Diego in January, 1971. At 38, he was ready to lead a major California city of 700,000 citizens, but he didn't really have the authority to lead.

Sparrow: "He took over a city that had a semi-weak mayor, a strong city manager and a moderate council. So he came in and he realized rather rapidly that he was a weak mayor and didn't have the power."

The problems Pete Wilson wanted to wrestle with included growth, campaign financing, and the city's small and underpaid police force. Sound familiar? But he didn't have the executive authority to do anything about any of them. How he found ways around the cumbersome council-manager system to make the next 10 years the Pete Wilson era in San Diego is the stuff of municipal legend.

Sadler: "His great attribute was assembling great staff that he could work with, with Mike Madigan, Otto Bos and others that were brought in."

Alm: "Young, energetic people who saw on the horizon a better San Diego and they decided that Pete Wilson was the one who was going to make it better and so they wanted to work for him."

Madigan: "What I really realized about Pete was that he was just utterly bulldog tenacious about things. God, once he got a hold of something, he was just not about to be deterred."

In 1971, Pete Wilson's youth was obvious. His honesty and his eye for talent would quickly become apparent.

Sparrow: "So, he started building a coalition on the city council. He started getting his people elected to city council."

But he would need more than a good staff, determination and straight talk if he were really going to run the city. But should he? The council-manager system had worked well since 1931, or so it seemed. Why did San Diego need a strong mayor?

Madigan: "As cities grow, it is my feeling that they become more diverse, there are more cleavages in the system, there are more factions and so forth. The management of the city becomes a political function rather than a management function. And at that point, I believe that cities need mayors who are elected rather than managers who are hired because the running of the city becomes that job of a politician to create coalitions and to develop consensus, rather than just getting the streets cleaned and putting out fires and that sort of thing."

Wilson: "I can recall that we debated whether the city should approve the purchase of some street cleaning brushes. The fact is we were wasting an enormous amount of time and having these endless council meetings instead of focusing on real policy issues, like how should the city grow?"

Time-wasting was an integral part of the council-manager system which San Diego inaugurated in 1931. A lot of American cities in the nineteen thirties responded to corruption by taking power away from the mayor and handing it to a hired manager.

Wilson: "The public really didn't know who the city manager was and the city manager was accountable only to the city council. That's who elected him. Not my idea of the way it should be."

But that's the way it was. The unelected city manager implemented and even decided policy. Wilson's problem was figuring a way around the system. He began with what seemed like a small thing the City Council agenda.

Sparrow: "If you control the agenda, you control everything that comes before the council. You control the policy flow. You control what issues the council is going to deal with."

Wilson then looked for a way to make that agenda more substantial. Borrowing an idea from the legislature, he formed three council standing committees: " land use, facilities, and health and public safety. Another committee, the Rules committee, determined what the standing committees would tackle. And who was the chair of the Rules Committee? You guessed it, the mayor. The committee system, which sounds like a bureaucratic salad, in fact allowed the mayor to load the council agenda with his priorities. Next, he turned to the budget.

Sparrow: "The most important policy decisions that are made in a year in the city or the nation or anywhere is the budget. The budget didn't go from the manager to the council, the budget went from the manager to the mayor's office and Pete had his own budget analyst, a professional up there to work with him on the budget. The budget carried many of Pete's priorities and ideas and policies in it and then it went to the council, which Pete controlled the votes of. Pete Wilson was presiding over a council for which he developed the agenda, for which he had gotten a number of them elected, he had appointed them to committees, he had helped them along in their political lives, so he was setting the political agenda for the city and he was getting the votes."

The agenda, the budget, the votes of council members - on Wilson's list, there was one more item to check off - he needed a city manager who understood his point of view, and he eventually found one in the late Ray Blair. He could now shape the city to fit his vision with very little opposition.

On next week's Full Focus we'll look at the city Pete Wilson left us and his impact on campaign finance reform.

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