The room was packed full with cameras far before the morning’s star entered. In a box sat a stack of 80-page books. Reporters and City Hall staff members reached for copies.

This was what leadership finally looked like for San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio. Five years ago, he appeared as an outsider to praise and then savage the city’s financial management — after it became clear the city’s financial management wasn’t praiseworthy. Two years ago, he was elected to City Council and became its most conservative Republican. Less than a week ago, Proposition D, a financial recovery plan promoted by Mayor Jerry Sanders, City Council, business and labor leaders, failed spectacularly at the ballot box.

Now it’s DeMaio’s turn. He was Prop. D’s leading opponent and City Council’s most consistent contrarian. Friday morning, with his own financial recovery plan in tow, he claimed a mandate for his pension-slashing, union-busting version of budget reform.

“They said during the campaign you can’t balance the budget without a massive tax increase or major cuts in police and fire,” DeMaio said. “The cost savings in this plan were only the tip of the iceberg. They were wrong.”

A plan it is. Laminated and bound. Charts, graphs and presented with an actuary on hand to discuss the finer points. A path to eliminate the city’s $70 million-plus deficit now and forever. It even has a fancy name: “A Roadmap to Recovery.”

Where Sanders’ stated alternative to Prop. D’s loss has been fewer park, library and pool hours and layoffs of police officers and firefighters, DeMaio’s plan says you don’t need to do any of those things.

Instead, he wants to keep some employees around, just cut their pay and benefits. Others could be gone through vigorous competitive bidding.

DeMaio’s proposal has more nuance than that. He wants to save $21.5 million a year by eliminating retiree health care for current employees, but offer them a 401(k)-style replacement. He focuses less on salaries than eliminating extra pay like the $4.8 million received by firefighters for having emergency medical certifications. Employees could even receive bonuses if DeMaio’s plan saves enough money. And DeMaio wants to restore $3 million to public safety services.

But DeMaio can’t deny the black and white. His plan relies on cutting firefighter compensation by at least 8.5 percent, white-collar workers by more than 2 percent and ending significant entitlements for all employees.

Pay cuts in the private sector have been larger, DeMaio said. These were “modest.”

“That’s what we call economic reality,” he said. “The city of San Diego has not confronted economic reality.”

In many ways, the plan itself is the simple part. DeMaio now needs to gain support of the city’s other elected leaders, make sure his math is sound and keep the public engaged.

In a word, he needs to lead. And leading isn’t easy.

Sanders and City Councilwoman Donna Frye cobbled together backers for Prop. D from a diverse and hard fought coalition of labor and business institutions. It still lost huge.

Now comes DeMaio’s turn to build a coalition. He needs at least five votes on the City Council and the support of the mayor to make his plan more than 80 glossy pages.

His coalition likely won’t come from labor unions. No matter how much leverage DeMaio might claim he has after Prop. D’s defeat, labor has vowed lawsuits against such a dramatic cut to their health care.

It will be difficult with the mayor and council. DeMaio attacked Sanders and the council’s credibility throughout the Prop. D campaign. Friday morning, he briefed the mayor on his ideas.

“He absorbed the ideas,” DeMaio said of Sanders. “I can’t ask for anything more.”

(Sanders’ office released a statement after DeMaio’s press conference, saying the mayor welcomes budget cutting ideas and that some of DeMaio’s suggestions “are interesting and should be examined.”)

Councilman Tony Young, head of the city’s budget and finance committee, invited DeMaio to present his proposal at a committee meeting Wednesday.

But Frye, who is leaving the council next month, already is skeptical. She said the city shouldn’t ask its police officers, firefighters and lifeguards to work without giving them health care when they retire.

“I’m not sure that kicking someone’s head to the curb is the best way to achieve a successful, long-term plan that’s going to solve the city’s problems,” Frye said.

Aside from pay and benefit cuts, DeMaio’s plan depends on the city saving $11.7 million next year by competitively bidding 11 services and averaging a 15 percent savings from the process.

But as recently as September, DeMaio criticized the city’s competitive bidding method as “a rigged system,” and that it protects labor union “monopolies.”

Asked about that disparity Friday, DeMaio said the city could privatize services directly if competitive bidding doesn’t work.

“I think now that Prop. D doesn’t give a half a billion dollars more money that there’s going to be renewed commitment to getting serious reform,” he said.

Just as significant, DeMaio has to keep the public on his side. Gone are the campaign days where he can get away with just outraging folks with billboards and keeping a plan under wraps until after Election Day.

As DeMaio’s press conference neared the 30 minute mark, his actuary began presenting pension charts with green, red and blue bar graphs. On the one hand, leaders have to present actuaries with pension charts and green, red and blue bar graphs. On the other, the crowd had noticeably thinned by that point. Many that had crowded the room at the beginning had checked out.

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at or 619.550.5663 and follow him on Twitter:

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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