“It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
To hear people talk, you get the impression that San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders will complete his seven-year mayoral stint on vapors, ecstatic to see the finish line.
“He’s done, you can tell,” said one local mover who’s hung around Sanders enough to know. “This is a guy who is clearly counting down the days.”
Last week, the termed-out Sanders entered the 60-day final stretch of a tumultuous tenure that has witnessed its shares of highs and lows. But with the City Council’s recent help on big-ticket items, the mayor’s sounding pretty cocky about the job he’s done.
And that was no more apparent than last week before his veritable choir—a champagne-fueled, fawning cadre of elected officials, political players and pay-to-play members of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, host of the night’s main event at the posh U.S. Grant Hotel.
In his seventh and final “fireside chat” before a receptive crowd, Sanders seemed in full-throated legacy mode, talking up the accomplishments that he acknowledged came only because of the solidarity shown by the powerful in the audience.
“It’s been an incredible team effort,” Sanders told the smiling crowd. “Now, I know some people will say you’re insiders, but I like you anyway.”
And why not? The night began as a lengthy infomercial for sponsors, from troubled Bridgepoint Education (title sponsor), Walmart, Chase Bank and SDG&E to Jack in the Box, Qualcomm and Southwest Airlines.
After introductions, Sanders entered the stage set—floor lamp, end table, white wingback upholstered chair, roaring fire on a widescreen and flags in the background. Ruben Barrales, who just the week before had announced that he would step down as the chamber’s chief executive by year’s end, kicked it off with a playful video switcheroo.
“Actually, we have some late-breaking news here,” Barrales said to audience groans. “No! It’s all good!” As the chamber CEO boasted about recent TV coverage of San Diego’s business outlook, Barrales called out to roll video “just to show how proud we are of what this mayor has done to highlight San Diego.”
And with that, up popped the episode of Comedy Central’s South Park that aired in April featuring a cartoonish Sanders singing a masturbatory parody song about the city. After a few seconds, Barrales cut in with, “Oh wait! That was the wrong video.” Quickly, the recent segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart with President Bill Clinton extolling San Diego’s public-private business smarts appeared on double screens.
“Anybody here from San Diego?” Clinton says in the clip. When it was taped, no one in the studio audience responded. But that didn’t stop the chamber crowd from erupting in applause and woot-woots.
“Well, hell! I want a pay increase if a president said I did a good job here,” Sanders crowed after the clip ended, sending the audience into a laughing tizzy.
The mayor, looking fairly loose with his jacket draped over a chair wing, acknowledged that both his staff and wife fret over this event, traditionally billed as a kind of “Jerry Unplugged,” where the snarky, potty-mouthed side of Sanders emerges.
But the mayor warned that “I am not throwing the f-bombs tonight, no matter how much you want me to. Because I’ve changed.” The crowd laughed, apparently not buying it.
He’d later not disappoint when an attendee asked about progress on building a new Chargers stadium Downtown that Sanders turned into a rant on the state of redevelopment in California.
“Well, we have a great plan,” the mayor began. “Unfortunately—and you’ve heard me say this twice, so I just want to say it very carefully and very low-key—the governor stole our fuckin’ money!” The booming smack-down drew the biggest applause of the night, even a few whistles.
“We’ll pass that on to the next mayor, with a completed plan,” Sanders said of the stadium issue in a rare kick-the-can moment that night.
But this was a night for the friendlies to toast mayoral accomplishments, and Sanders was well-prepared to play chief cheerleader. He checked them off one by one: pension reform (“We’re pretty far ahead of everybody else”), retiree-healthcare savings (he thanked labor!), managed competition (“We need to continue”), new central library (“magnificent”), Plaza de Panama (“We took a right turn, as you would expect from me, instead of a left turn!”) and crossborder relations (“We could unclog some of this”).
Then he realized, “I think I forgot the Convention Center. … Damn!”
“I actually think this was a no-brainer; I’m sorry,” said Sanders, who needn’t apologize to this crowd. “We all see this as a win-win for San Diego, and we see this is something that will move us into the next decades in terms of tourism because it will put us on the map.”
Rana Sampson, the mayor’s wife, joined him on stage for the latter part, and the coo-fest elevated. “First of all, you guys are such a cute couple! It’s just like so, um, warm, I don’t know,” Councilmember Lorie Zapf tittered at one point.
When someone asked Sanders what he’s most proud of, he noted, “My relationship with my beautiful wife.” The audience let out a collective “Awwww.”
“He’s a Republican. I’m a Democrat,” Sampson poked. “It’s amazing we’ve managed to survive all this time.”
Not to be outdone on his night, Sanders playfully retracted his earlier statement. “She can tell when I’m being insincere,” he joked.
The mayor also mentioned his pride in supporting marriage equality. “It’s family,” he said, “and we did what we thought was right.”
Plans for the future? The couple giggled about their pending three-month trip to Italy. “When we come back,” Sampson hinted, “we both get new jobs, doing very reasonable and interesting and fun things.”
Sanders didn’t touch on a strange rumor that he’s been tapped to replace Barrales as the chamber’s CEO, a job that pays north of $300,000 a year but also requires an energy level and attentiveness to an expectant board for which the outgoing mayor may be ill-suited.
“Jerry’s close to a lot of folks on the chamber board,” said one insider. “But it’s a humbling role. When you’ve been mayor, to move to a role like that would be quite jarring.”