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San Diego dethrones itself as 'finest city'

Monday, December 5, 2005

SAN DIEGO -- America's Finest City? Not any more. One of its congressmen admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes, the FBI has investigated City Hall, the mayor resigned, a $1.37 billion pension shortfall damaged the city's credit rating and fueled talk of bankruptcy, and two councilmen were convicted of taking bribes from a strip club owner. Faced with all that ill repute, the city has quietly dethroned itself and dropped the self-proclaimed title "America's Finest City" from its official Web site. "We couldn't stake that claim anymore," said Gina Lew, the city's director of public and media affairs. "We were taking too many hits." The San Diego Union-Tribune recently asked readers to coin a new slogan, saying "America's Finest" had turned "creaky." Among the nearly 500 responses: "Scandalicious," "An Eruption of Corruption," "All Major Unmarked Bills Accepted Here," and "Bunglers by the Bay."

Headline writers have weighed in with "Enron-by-the-Sea" (The New York Times) and "Paradise Insolvent" (Governing Magazine).

Lew said the title was erased from the Web site in August -- leaving a blank blue space next to a photo of the downtown skyline -- in response to the federal investigation of the city's troubled finances.

The investigation led to the resignation of Mayor Dick Murphy in April, followed days later by the councilmen's conviction for taking bribes in exchange for efforts to allow touching at nude bars.

And just one week ago, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to pocketing bribes that helped pay for a Rolls-Royce, a yacht named the "Duke-Stir" and antique furniture.

San Diego dubbed itself "America's Finest City" in 1972 -- ironically, to get through another rough patch.

The Republican Party had moved its national convention from San Diego to Miami Beach with less than three months notice. There were allegations that the Justice Department dropped an antitrust suit against International Telephone & Telegraph Co. after it pledged $400,000 to the convention.

Then-mayor Pete Wilson ordered an "America's Finest City" week of festivals during the Miami convention, complete with boat races and concerts. The festival lasted several years and the slogan survived even longer.

"One scandal gave rise to the slogan and another, even deeper scandal has erased it," said Carl Luna, a political scientist at San Diego's Mesa College.

Other branding efforts -- "The First Great City of the 21st Century" -- never caught fire.

Wilson, who later served as a U.S. senator and California governor, said dropping the title was "too defensive" and "very shortsighted." San Diego, he said, should fix itself and "get on with living."

Most San Diegans agree. A KPBS/Competitive Edge poll last year found 57 percent of residents believed the city was still the country's finest. But that was mostly because of the postcard-perfect beaches and nearly endless string of sunny, 72-degree days.

"America's Finest City" still remains popular among weather forecasters and talk radio hosts. But others say it only makes San Diego the butt of jokes.

"Even the Chamber of Commerce shies away from it," said Steve Erie, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego. "This is a city that has run away from its slogan."


On the Net:

City of San Diego: http://www.sandiego.gov/


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