San Diegans, you might have heard, will elect a new mayor in 2012.

They have four distinct choices: a conservative idea man, an experienced district attorney, a congressional liberal lion and an assemblyman Marine.

All four have a path to the Mayor’s Office next November. Here are four big questions, one for each candidate, that I’ll be tracking before this June’s primary.

What’s Carl DeMaio’s Ceiling?

At a speech in November, Councilman Carl DeMaio detailed the strategy that’s led him to success in city politics.

“There’s a pattern at City Hall,” said DeMaio, a Republican. “We lay out an idea. The unions say no. The mayor says no. The council says no. We then take our case to you, the shareholders. Because ultimately you are in control of our government despite what others may think. And we educate.”

DeMaio often bypasses traditional City Hall power centers to go directly to the public. It can work. He cited in his speech the elimination of a Water Department bonus program after he drummed up resident protest. He’s planned citizen initiatives to implement his pension reform and street repair proposals.

But it’s unclear how far unabashed populism will take DeMaio. His brand of dyed-in-the-wool fiscal conservatism goes beyond anything else now in mainstream city politics. DeMaio’s abrasive style and propensity to overreach not only has left him with few political allies, but also big-name members of his own party even actively trying to bring about his defeat.

Political observers agree that DeMaio has locked down a set of disaffected voters who are angry at City Hall. That’s his base. They also believe there’s a defined limit to the support DeMaio can attract. That’s his ceiling. How much distance DeMaio can create between that base and ceiling will determine how close he’ll come to the Mayor’s Office.

What Does Bonnie Dumanis Believe In?

One quotation sums up District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ mayoral campaign to this point.

“We cannot afford to close schools and we cannot afford to tax people and we cannot afford a state takeover,” Dumanis told the Clairemont Town Council during a candidate forum in November.

Notice that in the span of a single sentence, Dumanis came out against three unpopular ideas to address the budget crisis in San Diego schools without providing an idea of her own.

This is a theme.

So far, Dumanis has taken far-from-bold positions in support of Proposition 13 and outsourcing city services. She’s refused to say how she voted on one of the most significant decisions facing voters in recent memory: 2010’s failed sales tax increase. Dumanis, a Republican, also flip-flopped on a polarizing pension reform initiative.

In the first six months of the campaign, all three of Dumanis’ opponents have defined themselves and their plans for the city much clearer than she has. It doesn’t have to be this way. Dumanis has many high-profile supporters from both political parties, most notably current Mayor Jerry Sanders. She can draw on her decades of experience in local politics and status as the only major candidate to hold executive office.

But for now, it remains unclear what Dumanis wants to do when she’s elected and what she would want San Diego to look like at the end of her mayoral term.

How Important Is the ‘D’ Next to Bob Filner’s Name?

Bob Filner hasn’t been shy about his chances to advance to November’s general election.

“In a way, I’ve already won the primary,” Filner said in August.

Filner, you see, is a Democrat. And the three other major candidates running against him are Republicans. So Filner believes his party affiliation alone will get him through.

It’s a fair enough theory. But there could be some pitfalls. Technically, the mayor’s race is nonpartisan, meaning there won’t actually be a “D” next to Filner’s name on the ballot. Without Democratic primaries for president, governor or senate, no top-of-the-ticket race will draw Democrats to the polls. Filner, who’s known for his general cantankerousness, also hasn’t united the region’s Democratic establishment behind him.

If Filner has to do more than be a Democrat, he has some work ahead of him. He’s outlined a broad vision based on increased neighborhood services and waterfront commerce. But his plans lack any sort of details. Most notably, he’s six months late on a promise to deliver an alternative to a pension reform ballot measure.

Does Anyone Care About Nathan Fletcher?

The most unknown candidate heading into the mayor’s race, Republican Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher has passed just about every test so far. He raised a ton of money. He’s shown he can make unlikely alliances, walking the tightrope between support for a pension reform initiative and the endorsement of the city’s police union. He’s rolled out policy proposals and endorsements at a consistent pace.

Yet every public poll has put Fletcher in fourth place. Political observers have Fletcher in the cellar, too.

Yes, there’s still five months before the primary. But at some point Fletcher’s work is going to have to translate into results.

If he does start climbing, expect more scrutiny from his opponents. Right now, his strategy appears to be to show he knows just enough about city issues to be credible. Instead of details, he sells himself as someone who can get things done. This stance could turn into a liability with someone like DeMaio in the race.

And Fletcher hasn’t always countered well when pushed. Fletcher took major flak as the key actor in a late-night state law to eliminate limits on downtown redevelopment. In response, he held a weird, non-apology press conference conceding there should have been more public debate.

Why the Candidates Were Bugging You for Donations Last Week

Candidates had until the end of the year to raise money before the latest financial reporting deadline. We’ll know how much cash they collected from June through December by the Jan. 31 disclosure date.

And let’s have fun this year. It’s going to be a fascinating one for city politics.

Correction: We incorrectly wrote that there were still six months before the mayoral primary election. There are actually five. We regret the error.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

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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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