Former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders still kind of sounds like San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.
He says mayoral-like things, such as he wants to help create good-paying jobs in San Diego.
He wants to attract innovative new businesses.
He wants to expand the San Diego Convention Center.
But wait! Hold on for one sec. … (Let me check my notes.) No, he did not once mention anything about fixing potholes, so maybe that’s a sign that he has moved on.
Well, he has and he hasn’t. Sanders did not ride off into the sunset after completing his second term of office. He’s running the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and promoting many of the same things he did as mayor.
“Now I’m an advocate,” the former mayor said. “I’m an educator. I’m in a different role and I love it.”
Here’s no big secret: Sanders didn’t really enjoy being mayor. He didn’t like all the slogging it took to get things done. He didn’t enjoy the petty battling.
“It wasn’t a fun job,” he said. “But I didn’t get into it thinking it was going to be fun. I wanted to fix the city’s financial mess. And we had to make a lot of tough decisions.”
Sanders is credited with bringing San Diego back from the brink of fiscal ruin by instituting pension reform, cutting the city’s work force and implementing other fiscally minded changes that took much political will. It was a long two terms — particularly when you throw in one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history to add to the fun of fixing a crippled city.
Now Sanders looks relaxed and calm. He sits in his 10th-floor office of the Westin San Diego building downtown. Ironically, the digs are much sweeter than the ones he had at City Hall, which is so dilapidated that Sanders tried to get a new complex built.
Bringing that up in the interview almost made him wince. He has called the failure of that project the most regrettable part of his tenure. He envisioned the complex — which he maintains made financial sense because the city leases so much office space — to spur more development in that part of downtown.
The project was going to be on the 2010 ballot, but Sanders helped replace it with a proposed one-half cent sales tax that Sanders and then City Council member Donna Frye supported. They felt it was more pressing and was needed to help ease the city’s financial crisis.
It got smoked.
But Sanders doubts the new City Hall would have been approved by an electorate, stung by the recession, either.
“Nobody had an appetite for it,” he said.
Yeah, good times. You can see he really misses his old job.
The new one?
That actually perks him up. When mayor, he did enjoy visiting different businesses to see how they operated, seeing how different products were manufactured.
“I just found all of that fascinating.”
In his new role, he sees himself as being more than just a cheerleader for San Diego’s business community. He wants to protect business owners, particularly small-business owners, from onerous regulation and high taxes.
And that starts with educating state and federal legislators on understanding the impacts that certain laws and taxes can have.
“We keep piling things on,” he said.
Thanks to University of California San Diego, San Diego State and other universities, San Diego has brainpower and an entrepreneurial spirit. And thanks to having great weather and attractions, San Diego is a thriving tourist destination. But that’s creating an economy that is close to having only two tiers. The people with the brains make a lot of money. The people in the service economy do not.
He wants to enhance and protect the manufacturing base because it provides the “middle layer.”
“We don’t want to lose that,” he said.
So Sanders, a former San Diego street cop who rose through the ranks to be police chief, wants to walk the beat and protect jobs. But he also wants to take his experience and clout as former mayor and promote San Diego to a larger audience.
He recently returned from a trip to Mexico City, along with other dignitaries, such as current San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, to promote the San Diego-Tijuana region as being a model of collaboration for U.S. and Mexican business success.
Flat-screen TVs, medical devices and aerospace parts are just some of the products being manufactured in Tijuana. It only makes sense for American businesses to look to Mexico for labor, Sanders and other local leaders say. Its workforce is growing more sophisticated and it is a lot closer than China. Manufacturers save on shipping expenses and can turn around products much quicker.
So Sanders feels as if he’s in a good spot even if critics say he’s not really in a much different spot, at least philosophically. They have said he used much of his power as mayor to help downtown and business interests while seeking cuts in neighborhood services, such as library and recreation center hours.
Sanders argues that developing downtown has helped the city’s bottom line tremendously. Before gentrification, downtown was an economic drain, costing the city millions in services. Now, downtown generates $45 million in tax revenue, which is used to help other neighborhoods, he said.
But he doesn’t care about shaping or forming his legacy, he said. While being mayor had enormous challenges, even in the worst days of his administration, he knew one thing:
No day could compare to July 18, 1984. That’s when a gunman opened fire and killed 21 people at a San Ysidro McDonald’s. Sanders was in charge of the city police SWAT team at the time.
It saddens and shocks him that such shootings, such as the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that saw 20 children and six teachers shot to death, continue. He supports “reasonable gun control,” such as background checks.
“As mayor, I had perspective,” he said, of the San Ysidro shooting. “It was the worst day that ever was. Every day is better.”