TCS Daily

The San Diego Zoo

By Michael Rosen - August 2, 2005 12:00 AM

It gives me no great pleasure to point out my town's shortcomings, but I'm only stating the obvious: San Diego is a royal mess.

In 2005, the Southern Californian paradise that calls itself America's Finest City has absorbed much more than its share of political, economic and legal troubles.

Leaving aside an overvalued housing market, the torrential downpours and dangerous landslides that marked the winter, a heartbreaking football playoff loss by the Chargers, and the ever-present fear of earthquakes, the city -- America's seventh-largest -- has endured tremors of another kind.

Where to begin? For starters, on Tuesday, San Diegans went to the polls in a special election to choose a successor to Mayor Dick Murphy who resigned in April amid a crisis over mismanagement of the city employees' pension fund. The retirement kitty has been horribly underfunded -- to the tune of nearly $2 billion -- and several bureaucrats have been indicted in connection with it.

The election resulted in a run-off between the top two vote-getters: Donna Frye, a Democratic City Councilwoman (and former surf-shop owner; this stuff truly writes itself!), and Republican Jerry Sanders, a former police chief.

Frye is no stranger to mayoral politics. In last year's mayoral run-off between Murphy and another candidate, Frye rode a popular wave (sorry, I couldn't resist) to a write-in candidacy, despite a prohibition on write-ins in the City Charter. Astoundingly, slightly more people appeared to vote for her than for Murphy; alas, thousands of Frye's supporters neglected to fill in the bubble next to the write-in slot and that margin put Murphy over the top. Instead of hanging chads, we had tiny (empty) bubbles.

But the mayoral election and the pension crisis - which has utterly shattered San Diego's credit rating -- aren't the municipal government's only problems.

On July 18, after an 11-week federal trial, two city councilmen were convicted of conspiracy, extortion, and fraud in connection with a bribery scheme designed to get the council to relax the "no-touch" rule in San Diego's strip-clubs. The two councilmen, both Democrats, resigned while sentencing and appeals are pending. One of the resignations -- that of Councilman Michael Zucchet - posed a particular problem because he had been serving as acting mayor in Murphy's stead. Another special election will be held to replace them.

Just days earlier, still another local political scandal had ended the congressional career of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, an eight-term Republican and Navy pilot. Cunningham announced he would not seek re-election as a federal investigation swirled around his dealings with a military contractor and friend who allegedly overpaid the Duke when he bought his house. Like the resignation of the mayor and the councilmen, Cunningham's denouement has set off a scramble among both parties for his seat -- a fairly safe Republican one - in '06.

Financial woes? Check. Political upheaval? Roger. How about some good old-fashioned conspiracy theorizing?

Well, the county's Democratic Party provided plenty of that in a resolution that its Central Committee passed in mid-July calling for the impeachment of President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld because they lied to the American people and went to war in Iraq on false pretenses.

The basis for these allegations? The so-called Downing Street Memorandum, a document purportedly written by a clerk in the British Foreign Office and allegedly stating that the Bush administration cooked intelligence on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction in order to justify war. The specific phrase was "intelligence and data were being fixed around the policy" (emphasis added), which sounds much like "rigged" to the American ear, but which more likely means the much less sinister "attached", "supporting", or "affixed" in British usage. (Of course, why so much attention has been paid to a single word in the summary notes of a Foreign Office staffer is beyond me).

In any event, the importance of the memo has been thoroughly and elegantly debunked by Christopher Hitchens, neither a neo-con loyalist nor a Bush fan. Not only President Bush but President Clinton and the Congress before him expressed the American desire to overthrow Saddam's regime as long ago as 1998; the administration put forward multiple justifications -- not just WMD -- in the run-up to the war; and Saddam was in open defiance of the U.N. Security Council.

Even so, the San Diego Democrats have urged the statewide party to take up its impeachment petition. Meanwhile, local Republicans refuse to waste their breath denouncing the resolution. It appears that they're too busy trying to restore fiscal and political sanity to the city, a process that most analysts believe will take years.

But why has this perfect storm of crises afflicted San Diego all at once? Is it some kind of divine retribution visited upon decadent, sun-soaked, beach-loving, Sea World-visiting evildoers? Perhaps a certain inattention to, even a vague apathy about, political issues has come back to bite us? Does America's Finest City's reputation for being "laid-back" have anything to do with it?

I'll let you know -- just as soon as I get back from the Zoo.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributing writer, is an attorney in San Diego.


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