“I am a conservative, but I am not a zombie.”
National right-wing radio jock Roger Hedgecock once sported shoulder-length hair, promoted acid-rock bands from San Francisco, avoided the Vietnam War because of bad acne and courted the gay community when he ran successfully for mayor in the 1980s.
Perhaps you were in diapers 30 years ago and only know Hedgecock as San Diego’s “Radio Mayor,” the sharp-tongued, Barack Obama-stomping, Republican-talking-point maestro who boasts on his website that, before going national in 2009, he “served as the #1 guest host for Rush Limbaugh for almost 10 years.”
But Roger “Raging Radio Rhetoric” Hedgecock—who’s hitched his political wagon locally to mayoral wannabe Carl DeMaio’s Pension Reform or Bust tour—had his more moderate days.
Even Time magazine—when a county grand jury in 1984 handed down a 15-count felony indictment against him and three political cohorts in a campaign-money-laundering scheme involving Ponzi artist J. David Dominelli, the Bernie Madoff of his day— referred to Hedgecock as “San Diego’s dashing, telegenic liberal Republican mayor.”
In 1990, the late Fred Lewis, the smooth-voiced “Heart of San Diego” interviewer of many local notables, asked Hedgecock about the perception that he was more liberal while a county supervisor and mayor. “Well,” he chuckled, “anybody who doesn’t become more conservative after they have kids is kind of missing the point. You get very conservative about family, get very protective.”
Except, he had his kids well before the radio gig, even posed with them for campaign brochures during his two runs for mayor—in 1983, when Pete Wilson stepped out of the Mayor’s office and into the U.S. Senate, and the following year, when the clouds of scandal were darkest.
While poring over the paper trail of Hedgecock’s political past, Spin Cycle had a revelation: He was the Nathan Fletcher of his time!
Here was a guy who was not well-liked by the Republican establishment—unlike Councilmember and mayoral hopeful Bill Cleator, the late crusty politician known for bringing cruise ships to San Diego and violating royal protocol in 1983 by touching Queen Elizabeth’s back during a harbor visit here.
In the 1983 race to replace Wilson, Cleator had the local GOP endorsement, but Hedgecock ran as a “progressive” Republican. Meanwhile, the main daily, The San Diego Union, and its publisher, Helen Copley, were smitten with the idea of former Councilmember Maureen O’Connor, a Democrat, becoming San Diego’s first female mayor. (That would happen in 1985 after a second jury—the first one hung—convicted Hedgecock on one conspiracy and 12 perjury counts. Amid allegations of jury tampering, the state Supreme Court would later toss out the perjury convictions, and a deal with prosecutors reduced the one felony charge to a misdemeanor.)
But Hedgecock ran a campaign with the slogan “A mayor for all San Diego.” He created a broad-based coalition of supporters, including the gay community, which at the time was far from the respected political force that it would later become.
Hedgecock took big hits from Cleator and the GOP political machine, including attempts to link Hedgecock to the day’s radical activist team of Jane Fonda and husband Tom Hayden. Apparently, the only thing Hedgecock shared in common with Fonda and Hayden was support for district council elections over citywide.
Even the Union, no fan of Hedgecock for his growth-management and environmental views, ran an editorial chastising Cleator, who never recovered. Even his campaign consultant moved out of town.
“We are surprised and much disappointed at Bill Cleator’s indecent lapse, which demeans his otherwise commendable career in private and public life,” the paper lamented. “The challenge for the other mayoral candidates now is to capture the smear genie and cram it back in the bottle before it runs amok and really messes up this election.”
The difference with Fletcher, of course, is that Hedgecock won. Protecting open space became a rallying cry. So did expanding the burgeoning success of Downtown redevelopment that Wilson had started. The public vote supporting the construction of the bayfront San Diego Convention Center happened on his watch, as did expansion of the San Diego Trolley to the east. Even labor supported him.
Flash forward to 2012. When word came down that Hedgecock the radio jock would actively promote DeMaio as the next mayor, some in the LGBT community were horrified. They recalled when Hedgecock in 1994 petitioned to have a group he called the “Normal People” be allowed to march in the Pride Parade. When denied, he sued, claiming that his group had been discriminated against because they were heterosexuals.
But what’s telling, perhaps, is what Hedgecock sees in DeMaio, himself a gay man. They both are uncompromising, unapologetically so. Both are aggressive in tone and position. Both are whip smart—at one fundraiser last September, Hedgecock called DeMaio “the smartest man in the room.”
And both, you either love or hate. It’s quite the political duo, if you think about it: the fallen mayor who picked himself up with a successful national radio gig and the supremely ambitious young crusader with a national agenda.
As Hedgecock noted when he endorsed DeMaio, “Carl De- Maio’s race for mayor is no longer just a local race—this is a national race that will have major impacts across California and the nation…. With your help, Carl DeMaio will succeed in turning San Diego into a model of fiscal reform, and in doing so, light a fire that will travel this country, forcing change in so many more ways….”
Sounds like a dream a once up- and-coming political force of nature may have had for himself, if fate would’ve allowed it.
But the words that Herb Fredman, a longtime San Diego commentator, used to describe the “hubris of Roger Hedgecock” back in 1985 for The San Diego Tribune could well serve as a reminder about ambition.
“Above all, [Hedgecock] exults in power,” Fredman wrote. “He hungers for the stature to shape great affairs. He appears to believe, with the Athenians hundreds of years before the Christian era, that ‘the powerful exact what they will, and the weak grant what they must.’”