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  • Writer's pictureKip Barton

Meet ‘Mr. San Diego’ 2022: Jerry Sanders

The following article is a reprint of the San Diego Union-Tribune article by Diane Bell on August 23, 2022 about Brother Jerry Sanders (CA-Theta '60)

Former mayor and police chief, and now S.D. Chamber of Commerce head Jerry Sanders is being named “Mr. San Diego” 2022.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

It seems that Jerry Sanders has done it all. He took over as mayor of San Diego when the city was reeling from a pension scandal. He served as chief of the city’s police force and CEO of United Way.

For the past decade, he has headed the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and has no plans to retire any time soon.

But yet another title is headed his way. Next month, Sanders will be named the 2022 “Mr. San Diego.”

The selection of a city namesake began in 1952, two years after Sanders entered life in San Pedro.

The “Mr. San Diego” (or “Mrs.” or “Ms. San Diego”) honoree was selected during the first 22 years by civic leaders belonging to the now-defunct Grant Club. In 1975, selection duties were handed off to past presidents of the San Diego Rotary Club, one of the largest, and 33rd oldest, Rotary chapters in the world.

Rotary Clubs are all about civic and social service, so it comes naturally to train the spotlight on someone who has made improvements to the San Diego community in numerous ways over time.

“I was shocked,” admits Sanders after getting a call from businesswoman Patti Roscoe, who co-chairs the selection committee with attorney John Morrell. “I looked at the past list of Mr. San Diego’s, and I was incredibly proud,” Sanders says. “They were special people.”

In 2013, Sanders spoke at the ceremony honoring Stephen Cushman as “Mr. San Diego.” Now it’s Sanders’ turn in the spotlight as others speak about his impact on the region during a Sept. 15 celebration luncheon hosted by S.D. Rotary at the Liberty Station Conference Center at 2600 Laning Road. . Jordan Leigh Maharaj, executive director of the San Diego Rotary Club, notes that honorees must have made outstanding contributions to the betterment of our region in a variety of ways over a long time. “Jerry was selected because he fits the mold perfectly of the qualifications of what this award represents,” Maharaj says.

In his ever-changing career, Sanders is most proud of having instituted community policing when he was police chief from 1993-’99. It was a cooperative effort that united line officers, sergeants and the public.

The San Diego model was adopted by law enforcement agencies nationwide. National media reported on President Bill Clinton when he visited SDPD headquarters at that time in recognition of San Diego’s program.

During his three years at United Way, Sanders concentrated on boosting fundraising.

He also chaired the board of the local American Red Cross, where he stepped in to help recruit retired Navy Rear Adm. Ronne Froman as leader when the executive director was let go amid controversy following the devastating Alpine wildfire in 2005.

Running for mayor was not in Sanders’ playbook until the city was rocked by a pension scandal, and Mayor Dick Murphy stepped down.

So far-reaching was the negative publicity that The New York Times alluded to our city as “Enron by the Sea,” a reference to the energy giant’s accounting scandal that shocked America.

After winning a special election, Sanders says he discovered 1,800 employees on the municipal payroll whose salaries weren’t identifiable in the budget. Many had been hired as temporary workers or under grants, but after the grants expired, the hirees weren’t terminated. “The city was on the verge of bankruptcy,” he recalls.

Sanders found stepping in as mayor a huge challenge. “I went in there as a nonpolitician. I had never paid attention to politics before.”

The job was eye opening.

“When I became mayor, I realized it was a full-contact sport. ... I was used to a paramilitary structure where you achieve consensus with a team and move forward. In politics, you can reach consensus in private, but when you go in public (or in front of constituents), a lot of politicians pretend they never had a conversation with you.”

By streamlining operations, trimming staff, making pension and accountability reforms, he navigated through the financial crisis and solidified a reputation as a turnaround executive.

Roscoe alluded to the many job titles that Sanders has assumed over the years. “These are all jobs with great responsibility and time commitment, reflective of a true community and public servant,” she says.

All of the “Mr. San Diego” candidates were worthy of the honor, she adds, but notes Sanders stood out because of his vast public service.

The selection committee is comprised of all Rotary past presidents. They nominate candidates from throughout the region, review them and vote by secret ballot.

Sanders lives in Kensington with his wife, Rana Sampson, who recently retired as community relations ambassador for Union Bank.

Despite turning 72 last month, he says he is making no retirement plans. On the contrary, “I need to get out of the house,” he chuckles. He praises his Chamber staff: “They do all the work and make me look good.”

Each year, the “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Ms. San Diego” titleholder is invited to focus on a pet cause or charity. Sanders’ heart lies with students who are the first in their families to attend college. “That will start to make a difference in the cycle of poverty in neighborhoods.”

One of his regrets was never having finished his degree from San Diego State University. He had a good reason. Two months before graduation, word came that SDPD was hiring. Since Sanders always had dreamed of following in the footsteps of his father, an L.A. cop, he dropped everything and answered the call.

Despite later trying to finish his remaining courses, ever-changing cop shifts made it difficult, so he completed his college degree at National University. As fate had it, he needn’t have fretted. SDSU and the California State Board of Trustees awarded him an honorary degree in 2013 as a tribute his life of leadership.

Sanders attributes his can-do attitude to his dad, who told him that once you start something, you owe the people you work for 100 percent commitment, and you never quit. His reputation of arriving early for appointments and meetings also dates back to his father, who advised: “Always leave early enough so, if you have a flat tire on freeway, you can change it and still be on time.”

“Mr. San Diego” 2022 has one item left on his bucket list: “I want to be a great grandpa.”

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