Wednesday, June 11, 2008 | A lot of people have reacted with surprise recently at the news that City Councilwoman Donna Frye and Councilman-elect Carl DeMaio have instantly joined together as some sort of reform force in the city.
This shouldn’t be surprising, however, to those who watched DeMaio burst onto the scene in 2004.
DeMaio had come to San Diego first with the hope of either becoming a part of, or, rather arrogantly, leading the city’s business elite: the Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.
But then he decided to pull away. By the end of 2004, he was collaborating with hotelier Doug Manchester to push a so-called reform agenda on the ballot. Manchester may be a Republican. He may be a developer. But he had a way of angering his colleagues in the area. The campaign mailers the two put out — meant to “educate voters” and nothing more — were unquestionably critical of then-Mayor Dick Murphy.
DeMaio is a numbers guy. His arguments do not work without them. They are at the heart of his movement. But when he was blasting City Hall in that first year, he smudged a few of them. They may not have been horrible mistakes — his themes were not crippled — but they gave his newfound enemies an opening. The Taxpayers Association and Chamber seized on the opportunity to ditch him. As fast as he had come on the scene, an effort had grown to push him off it.
He loved it. It was almost like that was part of the plan — to be seen as an outsider. He did what he could to stick his face in front of cameras and hound reporters and City Council members with the theme that City Hall was in trouble and that he was part of — or leading — the group trying to hold it accountable. (Sound familiar?) His efforts attracted many who had long been trying to point out the same thing. When you battle with City Hall, it’s almost a requirement to take up the cause of open government and “increased accountability.”
And what’s the phrase? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”
Donna Frye and Carl DeMaio have found common cause for years with these unifying principles. DeMaio is the grand marshal of his own perpetual parade and Frye has often enjoyed the procession.
He proclaimed his iconoclast status every chance he could. To CityBeat magazine he trumpeted his willingness to step on toes: “We’ve basically said we’re not here to win friends. We’re willing to take the shit.”
And give it. Republican dreamers in this town — people like Bob Kittle, the editorial page editor of the Union-Tribune — are excited to paint this story with DeMaio holding hands with the mayor and his Republican colleagues as they skip through the beautiful fields of reform. Kittle is either ignorant of DeMaio’s bomb-throwing past or just as naively hopeful of the new councilman’s abilities to mesh with his team as he was of Mike Aguirre’s.
Kittle laid out a dream version of the City Council and its so-called reform team — which he said would be opposed by Frye, the “guerrilla chieftain” of the opposition to this reform.
This is simplistic. DeMaio’s ostensible ally in this reform dreamland is April Boling, who is running for City Council in District 7. But those two have less of a history of working together than DeMaio and Frye do. Boling once called DeMaio’s work on the city budget a “disaster.” She was head of the Taxpayers Association when DeMaio burst onto the scene and worked to distance him from legitimacy.
Though DeMaio was willing to “take the shit” he also fought back. Boling was head of the city’s Pension Reform Commission and as that committee finished up its work in 2004, the pension scandal had made headlines nationwide. There were reporters from all around the country covering the pension report’s unveiling.
DeMaio printed out flyers calling Boling “a City Hall insider … not a taxpayer advocate!” It was meant to get the attention of the reporters in attendance.
It is easy to marvel at the supposed oddity of Frye and DeMaio launching this effort together. Ooo a Democrat and a Republican working together.
But Frye and DeMaio working together is in many ways less surprising to me than any kind of pairing between DeMaio and Boling would be. The mayor’s people are undoubtedly aware of the potential for flare-ups that exist between him and DeMaio as well.
That’s not to say he will form an unceasing bond with Frye.
The two will undoubtedly find themselves on opposite sides of a heated debate. I would venture that the first fire will ignite over land use.
After all, Frye is one of the most fiscally conservative members of the City Council. It’s easy for her to line up with small-government conservatives on numerous issues. She votes against pay raises and supports a new pension plan. She steadfastly campaigned against Proposition C, the reformation of the auditor’s role in city government. She had DeMaio by her side.
Frye worked for years to convince the city it could look to the Centre City Development Corp. for revenue. She had DeMaio by her side. If you don’t like Frye because of her stances on these issues, you probably aren’t going to like DeMaio.
The two will have trouble coming to a consensus when the debate shifts to the living-wage ordinance or the privatization of some city services. I would not, however, be surprised to see them agree on compromises in these points.
Their biggest arguments though, will undoubtedly concern land use. The decisions about whether or not to approve certain developments, certain densities and certain transportation proposals consume the bulk of City Council business. And they clearly bore the fiscal hawk DeMaio. Frye will defer to environmental concerns on those issues, DeMaio will defer to different priorities — they will be the decisions that his backers will most easily be able to influence. His heart is elsewhere.
So what happens when Frye and DeMaio disagree? A few people have told me they think of this little marriage as some kind of parallel to the joyful partnership that City Attorney Mike Aguirre and Mayor Jerry Sanders tried to maintain for about a year and a half.
This is different, however. With Sanders and Aguirre (the latter in particular) it was an all or nothing alliance. There was no mutual understanding that, at times, they might disagree, even vehemently. No, once they broke up, it was over. Once they disagreed, they both tried to completely destroy each other politically.
I don’t see the same thing happening with Frye and DeMaio. They should know from the outset that certain things just aren’t going to work for them both.
If they maintain the respect they have for each other even after those fights, this city should steel itself. They could be a powerful couple.