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As civic woes pile up, San Diego loses its usual cool

Budget cuts, lawsuits, and worsening services are fraying tempers in the run-up to mayoral elections.

A view of downtown San Diego, CA from Harbor Drive.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor

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SAN DIEGO - East Coast transplants like to complain that laid-back San Diegans are eternally unruffled. But at City Hall, at least, this stereotype is no longer operative.

A few weeks ago, the mayor hurled a two-word epithet at his chief rival in a private moment at a debate. The embattled city attorney ordered a reporter to seek counseling. And a city spokesman's obscenity-laced e-mail about labor unions spawned a lawsuit from an employee who says he was fired for reporting the foul language.

The reason for all the hostility? After flirting with bankruptcy and having to slash municipal services, the nation's eighth largest city faces a blizzard of legal and financial challenges. On top of all this, it's still recovering from 2007's devastating wildfires and landslides.

The challenge now lies in finding common ground. "There's this general sense of disgust with City Hall," says Republican strategist Cynthia Vicknair. "Most people understand that the city's in trouble, but they really don't know what to do about it."

Nearly the entire city leadership is up for grabs during the June primary election, but neither the politicians nor the public are talking much about a unified purpose. Instead, anger seems to be the common currency.

Legal problems, including numerous indictments, dog the city, as does a pension-fund deficit estimated as high as $2 billion. The current mayor and former police chief, Jerry Sanders, won in 2005 amid a flurry of corruption scandals.

The only major rival facing Sanders now is another Republican, millionaire businessman Steve Francis.

The politics of the mayoral race notwithstanding, San Diego is no longer the Republican bastion that made it a favorite of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Immigration has transformed the city, which now has more Democrats than Republicans.

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