By Pat Sherman
La Jolla was the site of two recent mayoral debates — the first hosted by the Rotary Club of La Jolla and the second by La Jolla Country Day School, in collaboration with the Preuss School, City Club of San Diego and the National Conflict Resolution Center.
Candidates Carl DeMaio, a Republican city councilman serving San Diego’s fifth district, and Bob Filner, a Democratic congressman serving California’s 51st district, squared off Sept. 4 during the Rotary club’s weekly luncheon at La Valencia Hotel.
Noting that the DeMaio- backed and voter-approved Proposition B — which would replace pensions with 401(k)-style retirement plans for most new city hires and freeze pensionable pay for five years — could be tied up in the courts for some time, moderator Pat Stouffer asked what the candidates would do in the meantime to solve the city’s fiscal crisis.
Filner said if the measure was still in legal limbo when he is mayor he would put a cap on six-figure pensions for city management.
“I invited Carl to join me in supporting that; he’s never favored it or not,” Filner said, adding that the only cost-saving aspect of Prop. B is the five-year pensionable pay freeze.
“I’m the only one who can implement that immediately; I’ve already talked to the employee groups,” Filner said. “If Carl goes into any negotiations with the people he has said are the enemy of San Diego, he goes into these negotiations as the declared enemy.”
Before answering the question, DeMaio took the opportunity to wish Filner a “happy 70th birthday,” evoking some gasps from those in attendance, to which Filner later responded, “I appreciate the birthday wishes, but like my favorite president, Ronald Reagan, said when he ran against Walter Mondale, ‘I will not use the youth and inexperience of my opponent as an issue in this campaign.’”
Speaking to the issue of Prop. B, DeMaio said, “Our pension payment went from $48 million in the year 2000 to a whopping $238 million this year. ... We have to reform pensions, which is why I didn’t wait to be in the mayor’s office to tackle this important issue. I helped to create Proposition B, and worked with a bipartisan coalition to get things done.
“Prop. B is not tied up in the courts,” DeMaio maintained. “The unions have filed a number of frivolous lawsuits and they have not succeeded in getting any judge to say that we cannot implement it.
“And I have not called the employee unions the enemy,” DeMaio added. “Mr. Filner, you need to stop trying to misrepresent my positions in a very divisive way.”
Asked how the candidates would determine funding for quality-of-life issues such as the arts, DeMaio said his “fiscal reform agenda” would create money to revive programs that have been cut, such as library and park and recreation center hours, code compliance programs and water quality management.
“As we increase our hotel tax revenues over the next eight years, which we expect to double, we will also double the funding for arts, culture and science programs,” DeMaio said.
Filner countered that DeMaio has repeatedly voted against funding arts and after-school programs.
“When you talk about quality of life in the neighborhoods of our city — including La Jolla — you have to say, ‘Why don’t we have this infrastructure? Why don’t we have the beach maintenance, why do we have the traffic congestion? You know why? Because there are special interests that are governing city hall, and Mr. DeMaio is the candidate of those special interests,” Filner said. “That’s where all his contributions come from; that’s where all his support comes from.”
Stouffer prefaced another question by stating that each candidate represented his party’s “extremes.”
“How will you then build consensus and operate in a centrist political arena?” Stouffer asked.
“This is kind of funny, this question being posed to a gay, pro-choice environmentalist, who takes on the downtown establishment time and time again,” DeMaio said.
“People can try to apply labels, but at the end of the day what I’m fighting for are the issues that unite, rather than divide,” DeMaio said, touting his bipartisan support for efforts to save the city money by putting public services out to bid, and his successful effort to defeat a half-cent sales tax increase he said “would have hit our working poor the hardest.”
Noting his experience working collaboratively with others as a school board president, deputy mayor and 10-term congressman, Filner said, “I guess to know where somebody is going, you’ve got to know where they’ve been. ... The person who has stressed division and chaos and who has thrived on it is Carl DeMaio. ... I can bring people together and get things done. I think that’s what you want in a mayor.”
During the Sept. 7 debate at La Jolla Country Day School, the candidates fielded questions from a panel of professional journalists and students, including, Country Day’s Alexander Garcia and the Preuss School’s Joshua Piedra.
Noting that DeMaio recently returned from a “jobs tour” of Mexico, during which he met with business leaders to forge a stronger relationship between San Diego and the Baja region, Garcia asked what policy changes DeMaio would put into effect to assure “San Diego’s unique tie to the Mexican economy grows and benefits all San Diegans.”
“We have to start acting as a region, a better region, working on the strengths that both sides have,” DeMaio said. “We have come out with a number of economic strategies that both sides can benefit from to bring investment to both sides of our region. It will be one of the cornerstones of my economic strategy as mayor.”
Filner touted his role representing the border region for 20 years while serving on the city council and in Congress, and in one, instance, advising President Clinton on Baja issues aboard Air Force One.
The candidates were next asked by NBC Channel 7 reporter Gene Cubbison how much faith they have regarding the amount of money and jobs the proposed convention center expansion would generate — numbers the city auditor and independent budget analyst claim are overstated.
Filner said the convention center is “an economic engine” and its expansion should be supported, along with the expansion of San Diego’s port.
Expansion of the port has “the biggest single potential for (increasing) middle class jobs in this nation," Filner said. "We’re talking about thousands of jobs — jobs that pay a livable wage. That has an impact on the whole economy, and whether tourists come.”
DeMaio began by piquing students’ interest in the convention center with a reference to Comic-Con — San Diego’s largest annual convention.
“It’s covered across the world by media,” DeMaio said. “People see San Diego and our beautiful environment, they learn about our city. If we don’t expand the convention center, Comic-Con will probably end up leaving our city. ... With an expanded convention center we will bring additional Comic-Con-sized events, perhaps not with the types of costumes that they bring, but equally important for the jobs that those conventions and conferences represent to San Diegans.”
DeMaio said his opponent has opposed the convention center expansion “every step of the way.” While he agreed that expanding San Diego’s port is important, DeMaio asked, “Why did the congressman oppose President Clinton on NAFTA and oppose free trade? If you don’t have free trade, congressman, we’re not going to have a whole lot of cargo and commerce at the port.”
Los Angeles Times
reporter Tony Perry what credentials the candidates possessed to oversee law enforcement as mayor, Filner included in his answer that he believes officers should not be allowed to ask about immigration status during routine stops.
“We should not have racial profiling in our city,” he said, stating that DeMaio had supported Arizona’s SB 1070, a tough anti-immigration measure that is viewed by detractors as a legal means of racial profiling.
Though DeMaio countered that he did not support the 2010 measure, Filner noted that DeMaio declined to support a subsequent San Diego City Council resolution condemning it.
Perry asked DeMaio if officers should be prevented from asking a person’s immigration status.
“If someone is detained and immigration status can get them off the street because they have committed a crime, I believe it should be an arrow in the quiver,” DeMaio said. “I think it should be part of our arsenal.”
Following the debate, senior Julia Julima said she felt the debate was “more eruptive than a volcano.”
“But I can see they were trying to be civil,” said Julima, 18. “I can see that DeMaio had really big goals and plans. He said he really wanted to help change education and public schools, but he really doesn’t have that much that he can do, so I wonder how he plans on being that change.
“Mr. Filner definitely had a lot of experience, but that’s all I kept hearing about,” Julima added. “He didn’t have any meat, any substance, besides saying that he had a lot of experience. I have to do my homework and see what kind of policies he’d make.”
Associated student body president Josh Church said he didn’t know much about the candidates heading into the debate, but was pretty sure he would vote for DeMaio in November.
“I felt like Filner was talking about his experiences a lot, and too repetitive with that,” said Church, 18. “I just had a better vibe with DeMaio.”