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Mayoral Race: Who Do Voters Trust?

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Aired 4/19/09

Tuesday’s primary election will pit incumbent San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders against  well-heeled businessman Steve Francis. With three other candidates in the race, there’s a good chance neither frontrunner will win more than 50 percent, so a run-off is likely.

For voters, weary of years of quagmire at city hall, it is a question of whom do you trust? KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

Both the leading mayoral candidates are white Republican men, but they appear to represent very different choices.

Scott Alvey, spokesman for the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, says Jerry Sanders has followed though on his campaign promises of three years ago.

Alvey : What he said he was going to do is get us back on course, and I think he has gotten us back on course. We’ve got three audits on the books, we’re able to be bonded again, but he’s still trying to get an affordable government under his belt. 

But where Alvey sees a city government that’s turning the corner, others see a government that is still spinning its wheels.

UCSD political science professor Steve Erie says Sanders is simply maintaining the status quo, with little positive vision for the future of the city.

Erie : I know with Jerry we’re going to get nothing. I’m willing to take a chance with Steve Francis.   Listen, I’ve had long conversations with Francis, I’m willing to entertain that he may be something different and he may actually try.

Those who endorse Francis often talk about taking a chance. As a candidate, he has completely changed his agenda since he ran for mayor three years ago, abandoning his support of privatizing government services and pro-business policies, and instead wooing labor unions and environmentalists.

He has spent more than $4 million of his own money on TV ads, attacking the mayor and laying out an ambitious agenda of his own.  

Carolyn Chase, long-time environmental activist and former city planning commissioner says the Sierra Club agreed to endorse Francis’ candidacy, even though he showed little sympathy for environmental causes when he was a Nevada legislator 20 years ago. Chase says the Club believes Francis has genuinely changed his mind and his values.

Chase : We really grill them, get answers to lots of questions and then we debate amongst ourselves before we do anything. It’s the result of quite an informed process.

Chase admits it is a gamble to trust that Francis isn’t simply pretending to reverse course to appeal to voters dissatisfied with Sanders.

Chase : I think he wants a next great challenge after building a business and making his fortune -- that’s my sense of the man -- and I’m willing to give him a chance at the City of San Diego, we couldn’t do much worse than the predicament we find ourselves in right now.

Chase says, under Sanders, neighborhood activists have found City Hall doors closed to them, and requests for information denied. She says there’s a culture of controlling information from the top at City Hall that has left her frustrated and angry. 

But supporters of Mayor Sanders are angry at Francis for what they see as an attempt to buy the election.  

Tony Krvaric, chair of the San Diego Republican party, says Francis gave the party $25,000 but that was before the party endorsed Sanders.

Krvaric : After we endorsed Mayor Sanders, he asked for his money back -- huh.

It certainly gives the impression that there was something expected for the contribution.

Krvaric is skeptical of Francis’ about-face on the issues and his claims that because he is funding his own campaign, he is independent of special interests. 

Krvaric : This time, instead of standing up to the labor unions, he’s kissing up to the labor unions. He’s talking about special interests, and the labor unions are the ultimate special interest, so it just sounds a little bit hollow. 

The city’s unions have chosen to stay away from any endorsement so far. But some members say they are being quietly encouraged to vote for Francis and several non-city unions have openly endorsed him.

Scott Alvey of the Chamber says Francis’ change of heart is obviously politically motivated and not to be trusted. 

Alvey : Certainly Francis seems to be accepting the support of the same groups that, frankly, just a couple of years ago he was against.  I think most people should sit back and give the mayor the chance to finish the job he’s done to get to this point, making the city a better place to do business.

Carolyn Chase admits endorsing Francis but says she’s not about to sit out the race.

Chase : A lot of people who don’t want to chose between two male republicans, they say, “I’m just not going to vote,” and I think that that’s just so wrong.

Next Tuesday’s results will reveal whether San Diego voters are sitting this one out, or if they are ready to decide whom to trust.  

Alison St John, KPBS News.

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