“I always get nervous when people start talking about legacies.”
Last week in the bowels of Balboa Park’s San Diego History Center, one member of the local Mayoral Resignation Club attempted a joke at the expense of its most recent inductee.
Regaling an intimate gathering of 18 friends, former coworkers and a handful of curious historical gawkers, the man introduced as “Judge” Dick Murphy was running through his checklist of 10 Goals and hit upon the establishment of the city’s Ethics Commission.
“And the Ethics Commission set up a code of ethics. We set up an organization to enforce that code,” Murphy said straight-faced before a smirk appeared.
“Unfortunately, when we did the ethics code, um, we didn’t include prohibiting groping by the mayor. But other than that, we covered almost everything else.”
Light laughter emanated from the Thornton Theatre, and Spin Cycle immediately began imagining if former mayor Bob Filner, instead of home confinement, had been sentenced to one bigass, citywide roast in which anyone with a one-liner could get up and fling away. Talk about a healing experience!
Within these pages and beyond a decade ago, Murphy was described as many things as he lumbered toward eventual resignation—out of touch, insular, a bust at crisis management, excuse-oriented and blind to red-flag warnings, financial and otherwise. Never funny and introspective.
The small gathering—including many silver-haired veterans of political battles waged a generation ago—was treated to an ever-so-slight peek into the obviously sharp mind (Harvard MBA, Stanford law degree, people!) and Midwest-influenced banter of San Diego’s 33rd mayor, who was there ostensibly to hawk the small-run memoir he released in 2011, San Diego’s Judge Mayor: How Murphy’s Law Blindsided Leadership with 2020 Vision. Proceeds from the night’s modest book sales went to the History Center.
His reasons for donating those proceeds? After praising the importance of the History Center and touting his autobiography as “really a documentary on my time as mayor,” he ended with perhaps his greatest motivation: “To make my wife happy.”
Explained Murphy: “See, we printed 1,000 books… and I still have a couple hundred left, and my wife does not want 200 books in the garage for the rest of her life.”
He described himself as a “goody two shoes” compared to “goofy” Peter Q. Davis (later a behemoth during the Downtown redevelopment boom) when they worked together eons ago at Bank of America. When he ran as an underdog for mayor in 2000, he and Davis yukked it up.
“He and I would sit together, and we would joke,” Murphy recalled. “I didn’t really think I’d win anyway, so I was having a good time at all the debates…. We were the best of friends.”
They would later work together to turn what Murphy called “a hole in the ground” into Petco Park, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. (Murphy didn’t mention if he attended the festivities.) The former mayor said he even “insisted” that Davis’ name be included on the commemoratory plaque at the ballpark.
But Murphy’s tone shifted while he recalled running for reelection in 2004, when Davis decided to challenge him—or, as the former Superior Court judge put it, “sort of a longtime friend turning on me.”
It was at that point that Murphy emphasized his central theme of the night: that his resignation was an “act of sacrifice” to get the city moving forward again under the auspices of a new strong-mayor form of government, which he backed.
Murphy argued that under the previous city-manager form of governance, the City Council— led by the mayor—was precluded from delving too deeply into employee finances. “You know, I’m pursuing my 10 goals,” he said. “All the internal operations at the city were left to the city manager. The charter said we’re supposed to do that. We’re not supposed to interfere with personnel decisions.
“So when he comes in and says, ‘I suggest that we do this,’ I wouldn’t say we just rubber-stamped it, but we kind of deferred to his recommendation…. We didn’t understand that we were underfunding [the pension system], and so should we have understood it? Well, maybe if we had given it some thought, maybe we should have understood that…. And it turns out to be, in 20/20 hindsight, a mistake.”
He said his difference with Davis boiled down to management style: “He didn’t approve of the way I did things. He didn’t like my quiet, behind-the-scenes efforts.”
Spin Cycle mentions Murphy’s rant on Davis because it came burbling forth after Spin read a Davis quote from a 2011 U-T San Diego story about the memoir, in which the retired banker opined, “Blaming it on Murphy’s Law and the (wildfires) and stuff like that I think is revisionary history. He just didn’t understand the finances and wouldn’t listen to people. He was pretty headstrong.”
The Murphy administration was no fan of Spin Cycle, nor of CityBeat, for that matter. Murphy inspired a host of nicknames— Mayor 10Goals (honoring his major focus while Rome burned), Mayor 1Goal (when winning reelection seemed paramount, a decision he now calls his greatest regret), the wildfire-inspired Dancing Dick and the Yellow Jackets, and Mayor Flippy-Flop.
The latter came rushing back to the memory banks when Spin noticed the wine-and-cracker spread prior to Murphy’s talk, particularly a bottle of California red labeled “flipflop.”
“There were several people who said, ‘Gosh, what a great label for an evening with a politician,’” joked History Center Executive Director Charlotte Cagan in her opening remarks. (She asked an underling if that was purposeful, and the reply was, “No, it really wasn’t!”)
Murphy was kind toward this publication (“CityBeat wasn’t really the problem here”), but admonished the U-T, which had endorsed him twice (“They sort of turned on me”), and arch-nemesis / then-City Attorney Mike Aguirre (“He was only interested in his own headlines”).
The lesson in the end for Murphy? As he put it: “You can delegate authority, but you can’t delegate responsibility.”