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San Diego mayoral candidates draw lines in the mud

Bob Filner and Carl DeMaio are diametrically opposite — except in their vitriol. As the election nears, the campaign has left many voters undecided.

October 28, 2012|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • San Diego mayoral candidates Carl DeMaio, left, and Bob Filner.
San Diego mayoral candidates Carl DeMaio, left, and Bob Filner. (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

SAN DIEGO — After a campaign filled with negative TV commercials and name-calling, San Diego voters will choose between two philosophically opposed candidates to succeed termed-out Mayor Jerry Sanders, a moderate Republican.

Rep. Bob Filner, a liberal Democrat, and Councilman Carl DeMaio, a conservative Republican, disagree sharply on key issues but share one characteristic: Both have assertive, some say abrasive, personalities, unlike the low-key, consensus-minded Sanders.

As a debate moderator, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, said of them last week: "Both of you have reputations for not playing well with others."

Filner, 70, has been a fixture in San Diego politics for more than three decades, serving on the school board, City Council and in Congress for 10 terms. His verbal combativeness is well known.

"Yes, I have passion, but I have leadership," he says.

DeMaio, 38, arrived in San Diego a decade ago, determined to break into local politics. First as a City Hall gadfly, then as a council member representing a suburban district, he has prodded the council to play hardball with labor unions, hold the line on taxes and outsource as many city jobs as possible.

Take last week's tough talk: Filner called on U.S. Atty. Laura Duffy to resign because she criticized his demeanor at a forum she helped organize; DeMaio, at an education forum, said he is "willing to take on the teachers' union to get real reform done."

DeMaio says Filner "has a pattern of not being able to respect others and control his emotions," to which Filner says, "I don't need a lecture from a one-term council member."

The Filner campaign has aired a television commercial in which DeMaio is seen on a grainy video telling "tea party" members that he wants San Diego "to be a model." Another accuses him of opposing benefits for the widows and children of police officers killed in the line of duty, which DeMaio denies.

Pro-DeMaio forces have been airing two commercials about a 2007 confrontation between Filner and a baggage clerk at a Washington airport. Filner pleaded the equivalent of no contest to trespassing and paid a $100 fine in exchange for an assault charge being dropped.

If the Filner-DeMaio spat weren't enough alpha-male drama, hovering over the campaign looms the outsized persona of the new owner of the San Diego newspaper: hotelier and land developer Douglas Manchester, who prefers to be known as Papa Doug.

Manchester's newspaper, which he renamed U-T San Diego, has published front-page endorsements of DeMaio, followed by editorials blasting Filner's politics and personality. Public records show Manchester contributing to groups that gave to DeMaio's campaign.

Filner alleges that Manchester, in effect, is trying to buy the mayor's office so he will have DeMaio's support for land-use projects that benefit him financially, including a waterfront football stadium. Filner prefers that the land be used to expand cargo shipping, which he says will add more jobs.

"What deals have been made with Mr. Manchester?" Filner demanded at a debate last week. DeMaio denies that any deals have been made and maintains that he opposes Manchester's idea for a football stadium on Port District property.

DeMaio sponsored a voter-approved measure to end pensions for new city workers and cap pensions for current ones. Filner opposed the measure as a "fraud" and an abusive way to treat hard-working employees.

DeMaio supports the convention center expansion plan and a project to remove cars from Balboa Park. Filner says the two ideas are sellouts to private interests over the public good.

Filner would retain the police chief; DeMaio says he'll have to think it over.

Filner explains that he learned his political style of challenging authority from Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, his congressional website includes his 1961 booking photograph from his arrest in Jackson, Miss., as a Freedom Rider.

DeMaio's style comes from his experience as a consultant in Washington looking for ways to streamline government and make it more efficient. He says it is unfair for city workers to enjoy better salaries and pensions than those of private sector workers.

Despite months of heavy campaigning and media coverage, polls show a large number of undecided voters.

"It seems like he who slings the most mud last might just be the winner," said Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College. "Which, of course, leaves us with a muddy mess of politics with a divided community after the election."

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