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Thursday, April 24, 2008 | On its face, the race for San Diego’s District 5 City Council seat seems to pit two candidates ideally suited for their platforms: a retired fire chief running on improving public safety, and a streamlining government guru running on a message of fiscal reform.
Yet both candidates have vulnerabilities with the potential to overshadow their strengths in the June 3 primary election.
For the better part of a year, Carl DeMaio has banged the reform drum loudly, claiming to have knocked on 14,000 doors in the district, which includes Mira Mesa, Sorrento Mesa, Rancho Bernardo, Scripps Ranch and Carmel Mountain.
And for the past five years, the well-funded Republican has been one of City Hall’s loudest and harshest critics. He touts years of study and experience in the arcane details of government budgeting, and in 2004 his for-profit think tank produced a comprehensive analysis of the city budget.
But the 33-year-old DeMaio has lived in District 5 for less than two years, and built a multi-million-dollar company partly from contracts doled out by the Bush Administration — not the usual credentials of a grass-roots reformer.
Democrat George George, on the other hand, has lived in Rancho Bernardo for about as long as Rancho Bernardo has been Rancho Bernardo. And with four decades of service in the San Diego and Solana Beach fire departments, he embodies public safety in a district ravaged by last year’s wildfires.
However, the 67-year-old George entered the race at the last minute after Scripps Ranch resident Bob Ilko chose not to run. He has the support of labor leaders who want almost anyone but DeMaio, but does not have an established base of supporters in the district. And he doesn’t have much money.
“[DeMaio] is running on a city-wide platform — I will root out corruption, etcetera, etcetera … will that resonate in District 5?” said John Kern, who as former chief of staff for Mayor Dick Murphy was often the target of DeMaio’s scorn.
“For George George, the question is ‘does he have the money?’”
In recent decades, the heavily Republican district has favored long-time residents who fight for infrastructure and public safety improvements, and against increased development. The district’s demographics along with the ever-present fire danger help George’s chances, say political insiders.
But 2008 is shaping up as another year of the reformer in San Diego, with candidates from the city attorney’s race on down tapping into voter angst over the city government’s halting efforts to recover from enormous financial burdens left by current and former city leaders.
“Voters know something is wrong, they just are not clear on what it is,” said Christopher Crotty, a Democratic campaign consultant. “When you say ‘I’m going to fix the mess at City Hall,’ it is effective — and that is what [DeMaio] is doing.”
Curiously, DeMaio’s first public utterances about business at San Diego City Hall were kudos, not criticisms. In February 2002, DeMaio and an official from the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation presented the City Council with an award for running the most efficient city government in California.
DeMaio acknowledges the irony, but says he now looks at the undeserved award as an impetus for the activist campaign he is running today.
“The silver lining was that it helped generate information,” DeMaio said. “I was more motivated to really ferret out and showcase what was going on.”
He had appeared on the San Diego political scene seemingly out of nowhere that year as the founder and CEO of the Performance Institute. The private, for-profit operation, which has reaped up to $10 million in annual revenues, operates as both a think tank and a trainer of government bureaucrats on how to reduce wasteful spending and increase transparency.
Late last year, he sold the Performance Institute and two other related companies to Tampa-based Thompson Publishing for an amount he refused to disclose. DeMaio said he will sever all ties to them if he is elected to City Council in November.
San Diego’s fiscal demise provided the ideal platform for DeMaio and his institute, which he founded in 2000, not long after graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He moved from the D.C. area to Clairemont in 2002, and two years later was making headlines with the San Diego Citizens’ Budget Project, a reform blueprint produced by the institute.
The project drew scorn from unions and some council members, most notably Ralph Inzunza, who saw it as an attempt by DeMaio to push a right-wing agenda and kill union jobs. It was initially hailed by Murphy as well as the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, but all three later withdrew their support, citing errors in the report and DeMaio’s aggressive approach.
Mitch Mitchell, who at the time was the chamber’s vice president of public policy, said recently that DeMaio’s research was solid, but his strategy for implementing reform was worrisome to the business establishment.
“His analysis of the city’s situation was excellent,” said Mitchell, who is now vice president for external affairs for San Diego Gas and Electric. “We just had a disagreement over the best way to voice our concerns.”
If DeMaio was fazed, he didn’t show it. And it was during this period that he first began to talk openly to people in San Diego about his ambition for public office, although indications are that he had been thinking about it, even planning it, for a long time. He was 14, and attending St. Catherine’s Military Academy in Anaheim, when he told an Orange County Register reporter working on a story about the school that he wanted a career in politics.
DeMaio and George share Iowa as a birthplace — DeMaio in Dubuque, George in Fort Dodge — but their stories diverge sharply from there.
Growing up on the family farm, George dreamed of being an astronaut, or engineer, and ended up being a firefighter. The idea of running for office didn’t surface until three months ago, after, as he puts it, “looking around and seeing that we are no more prepared for a major fire or earthquake than we were four months ago.”
George says he knows this through experience, which is the core message of his campaign. He moved to Rancho Bernardo in 1962, just after signing on with the San Diego Fire Department.
George spent 30 years in the department, the last few as an assistant chief. He retired from the SDFD in 1992, then in 1995 became chief of the Solana Beach Fire Department. He retired from Solana Beach in 2003.
“In Solana Beach, I had 18 firefighters for four square miles,” George said. “Extrapolate that for 340 square miles — you would need 1,500 firefighters in San Diego. We have 980.”
These sentiments help provide a clear contrast for voters in District 5. DeMaio too puts fire protection as a top priority, but the idea of adding 500 more bodies to the city payroll is an anathema to him. Central to his plans for streamlining government is cutting labor costs.
“I will be focusing on the cost of government and holding the line on the size of the city workforce,” DeMaio said. “We need to enact a 10 to 15 percent cut in labor costs.”
Statements like this have put DeMaio in the crosshairs of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, which has focused intensely on District 5 despite it being home to fewer union households than any other district up for grabs this year, save perhaps District 1.
The unions have gone so far as to produce a website that calls into question DeMaio’s resident status in the city of San Diego, his finances and whether he has paid his taxes. The site highlights the millions of dollars in federal contracts DeMaio’s Performance Institute has garnered during the Bush years.
“He talks about taxpayers,” said Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the labor council. “This is someone who has made a lot of money from taxpayer dollars.”
The federal government awarded nearly $2.5 million in contracts to Performance Institute between 2001 and 2007, according to fedspending.org, a Web site that tracks federal contracts. And a good number of these contracts, doled out by a range of agencies from the Department of Labor to the Army, were awarded without competitive bidding, according to fedspending.org.
DeMaio makes no apologies for his government work, but disputes that they were no-bid contracts. He says the vast majority of payments Performance Institute received from government agencies were in the form of registration and tuition payments for conferences and training paid on behalf of government workers.
The unions also call DeMaio a “carpetbagger,” saying he actually lived in Arlington, Virginia during periods when he claims to have lived in San Diego. And they point to his short time in District 5, he didn’t move to the district until May of 2006 when he bought a home overlooking Lake Hodges.
For the most part, DeMaio refuses to comment on the claims make by the unions, saying “I can run around and correct lies from the labor council or fight for reform at City Council. I choose the latter.”
The sale of Performance Institute made it easier for DeMaio to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to his own campaign, which now has more money in the bank than any other candidate running for City Council. As of mid March, DeMaio had raised $391,431, with half coming from his own checkbook.
“I have made a commitment to match every contribution dollar for dollar because I am my own man — I will not be beholden to any donors,” DeMaio said.
This considerable war chest is the main reason why race watchers are making DeMaio the prohibitive favorite in the race. Since entering the race at the filing deadline, George has raised roughly $6,000, with $3,000 coming from his own pocket.
Such a fundraising disadvantage makes for a difficult road for George, even with his record of public service and endorsements from the city’s police and fire unions. Also working against George is his relatively small base of support despite his long tenure in the district, say political insiders.
“He is a firefighter, and in a community recently devastated by fire they have God-like status,” Crotty said.
“[But] if you look at previous elected officials from District 5, they were long term residents with a big circle of friends in the district. George has lived there forever, but he has a small circle of friends and worked somewhere else.”
Please contact David Washburn directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.