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Sales Tax Proposal Creates Unusual Political Partnership

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Aired 8/13/10

The debate over whether or not to raise San Diego’s sales tax may be dividing the city, but it’s bringing two prominent politicians together.

Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilwoman Donna Frye announce mandatory water conservation for the City of San Diego at City Hall on May 5, 2009.
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Above: Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilwoman Donna Frye announce mandatory water conservation for the City of San Diego at City Hall on May 5, 2009.

— The debate over whether or not to raise San Diego’s sales tax may be dividing the city, but it’s bringing two prominent politicians together.

On a recent sunny day in Point Loma, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilwoman Donna Frye stood in front of a shining fire truck to promote an increase to the city sales tax, which supporters say will help restore service cuts to public safety.

Sanders took to the microphone first to explain why he’s supporting the measure. He then called Frye to the podium. Before she spoke the two shared a long hug. Sanders later commented on their exchange.

“Now, as you notice Councilmember Frye and I are still working out our relationship,” Sanders joked. “This is going to be a great campaign. It’ll be like adding another wife to the one I have at home.”

“With no benefits,” Frye chimed in.

It was a light moment between the two politicians who not too long ago were fierce rivals in a battle to become San Diego’s Mayor.

In 2005 Sanders and Frye faced each other in a run-off election. In a debate at UCSD during that race the two traded barbs.

“Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, what can I say?” Frye asked.

Later in the debate Sanders said Councilmember Frye had been a part of the problem for years at the City Council.

“She’s avoided offering a real plan to fix the city’s problems,” Sanders said.

Sanders went on to win the election.

San Diego Mesa College Political Science Professor Carl Luna said one word can sum up the relationship between the mayor and councilwoman since then, frosty.

“It has not been one of warm camaraderie between them. They were great rivals. Donna Frye was the biggest obstacle to Jerry Sanders being elected the first time and being re-elected,” he said.

But Luna said Frye doesn’t appear to hold political grudges and is willing to work with the mayor to get something passed. Frye and Sanders have been on opposite sides on several issues since the mayor was elected, a fact Frye pointed out at the Point Loam news conference.

“He is a Republican, I am a Democrat. He likes the strong mayor because he is one, me not so much. But that’s OK, we can deal with that, too,” Frye said.

In the 2005 race they had conflicting views on whether a sales tax increase was the answer for San Diego’s financial problems. In the UCSD debate, Sanders made his position clear.

“I’m not for raising taxes. I’m for living within our means,” Sanders said.

Frye had run on a platform of comprehensive reform including raising the sales tax. She emphasized that she would only support a sales tax increase if it were part of such a comprehensive package. Luna said it’s something Sanders jumped on her for.

In “2005 it was, no way would we ever raise taxes. And Donna Frye lost that election in no small part for admitting the obvious; at some point you were going to have to raise taxes. Five years later the mayor’s rolled back on it,” Luna said.

Both Sanders and Frye say they’re supporting a sales tax increase now because it’s linked to financial reforms. Earlier this summer Frye killed a proposal that increased the sales tax without requiring such reforms. Luna said Frye and Sanders need each other if the tax has any chance of passing.

“When you talk about strange bedfellows, this is one of the stranger San Diego bedfellows you have to have if you’re going to get the council and the mayor to face the realities of the problems that you have,” he said.

If approved by voters, the half-cent sales tax hike would generate more than $100 million a year for San Diego, but it can’t be implemented until the city makes a series of financial reforms.

Critics of the proposal say most of the revenue would get sucked into the city’s increasing pension payment. But supporters, like Sanders and Frye, say the tax would provide a quick infusion of cash and the incentive San Diego needs to finally make some tough reforms.

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