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San Diego Mayor’s Race A Powerful Draw


A lawyer, a congressman and a Marine enter a race. It sounds like the set-up for a cheesy joke. But it’s actually the set-up for San Diego’s mayoral election.

— It seems to be the hottest ticket in town. The race to be San Diego’s next mayor is attracting a wide field of candidates. Though it’s technically a non-partisan race, it’s drawing top contenders from both major political parties.

On the Republican side the major candidates include District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, City Councilman Carl DeMaio, and State Assemblyman, and former Marine, Nathan Fletcher. For the Democrats, Congressman Bob Filner is formally running and State Senator Christine Kehoe is dipping a toe in the race. It’s an especially crowded and qualified field this time around. But why are so many people deciding to take a shot at the job?

Vladimir Kogan is a political scientist and a PhD candidate at UC-San Diego. "The incumbent factor is certainly one key thing," he said. "One thing that we know about political candidates is that they’re incredibly strategic. So when there’s an incumbent running, that usually scares off most of the good candidates.

"So the only candidates you get are the candidates who are stupid or crazy enough to run, knowing that they’re probably going to lose."

Mayor Jerry Sanders is termed out, which leaves the job wide open. Another draw? The next mayor will have a lot of power.

In office, Sanders became the first strong mayor in many years, meaning he’s ultimately in charge of the city, rather than a city manager. And the mayor’s veto power is about to increase. Next year's election will also bring an additional council district to San Diego, and it will take six council votes to overturn any mayoral vetoes. That means the next mayor will have more of a say in what becomes law.

Political Scientist Glen Sparrow said that makes the job more attractive.

"The person who gets San Diego out of its current problems is going to have some national recognition," he said.

And that may be strong motivation for a candidate who would like to move up in the political world.

Pete Wilson is the poster boy for using the San Diego Mayor’s job as a launching pad for higher office. Wilson went on to become a United States senator, governor of California and also ran for president. Current candidates may wish to emulate his career. Still, none of the mayors since Wilson has matched his success. But Kogan said that’s not for lack of trying.

"I think one thing that’s clear is that the mayor’s office attracts candidates that, looking down the road, certainly have ambitions for higher office. Whether they succeed or not is a different matter," Kogan said.

But it may take more to make it as mayor than it has in the past. Former City Manager Jack McGrory said the strong mayor is much more than a figurehead. He or she will have to manage a large, complex organization. And he said past mayors haven’t been great at that.

"I don’t think, other than Pete, we have a strong tradition of electing those types of executive people," he said. "Pete and Jerry are the closest and there probably isn’t anybody in this race that I think has a strong executive background."

Rather, those running this time around could be counting on the mayor’s job to give them that executive experience. And the next mayor will likely get a lot of practice as San Diego deals with issues ranging from fixing finances, to dealing with a changing population, to building, or not building, major projects.

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