When you’re a mayoral front-runner and the prime mover behind a big-ticket ballot measure, you’re going to get challenged. That’s what happened twice to City Councilman Carl DeMaio in the space of 12 hours Monday night and this morning.

DeMaio’s response provides a good window into how the councilman is handling direct confrontation. What we’ve learned: DeMaio can dodge.

Last night at a debate sponsored by the San Diego Young Republicans, Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher went right at DeMaio. The councilman has disparaged Fletcher for his city police union endorsement. Fletcher’s campaign has countered that DeMaio has received endorsements and campaign cash from developers and contractors who frequently do business before the city. It all blew up during the debate and U-T San Diego had a good account of their exchange:

Fletcher repeatedly asked DeMaio to tell the audience about his dealings with his backers in the business community.

“My question is have you ever met behind closed doors with any of those lobbyists, developers or City Hall insiders that have given you money and discussed city business?” Fletcher said.

Let’s cut in here for a quick scene setter. The candidates were sitting on three stools in the backroom of a restaurant in Mission Valley. DeMaio sat on one side, Fletcher on the other and the third major Republican running, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, was in the middle. They were all sharing one microphone.

When Fletcher asked DeMaio his question, it was one of the more awkward microphone-passing situations I’ve ever seen. Fletcher paused for a moment, and then handed it to Dumanis. She didn’t look at DeMaio, but grinned while passing it to him. The crowd chuckled.

Back to the U-T:

DeMaio sidestepped the question by noting that the mayor’s negotiations with labor unions are far different than those with developers which is why the public should be concerned about candidates with labor ties like Fletcher.

“When you negotiate with labor unions, it’s the only process that occurs behind closed doors,” he said. “The mayor and council go behind closed doors with the labor union bosses and you, the taxpayer, don’t know the deal until after it is too late.”

Fletcher also threw this haymaker during the debate: “Carl, you say you can’t take support (from labor) because you’d be beholden to somebody, but you are the king of special interest money. You’ve taken more money from lobbyists and City Hall insiders and developers than anyone on this stage and so you will as mayor negotiate with those folks.”

DeMaio never engaged Fletcher’s question. Instead, he stuck to the line about the distinctiveness of union negotiations. After the debate, he explained he wasn’t going to get into personal attacks.

“I’m not going to respond to an ad hominem remark,” he said.

This morning, DeMaio sat in the same room with labor leader Lorena Gonzalez on CW6 television to debate the pension reform ballot initiative. Most prominently, the initiative would replace guaranteed pensions with 401(k)s for most new city hires. It’s good TV even if you can’t tell pensions from pogo sticks. You can watch it here.

Here again, DeMaio’s response to a challenge was a dodge — and a denial. Gonzalez repeatedly criticized DeMaio for not cutting his salary even though rank-and-file city workers did and for giving his staff members’ raises. DeMaio called her take “patently false.” But her facts are correct.

Then he pivoted by noting that he’s saved money by not entering the city’s pension system and cutting his overall office budget. His points also are correct.

For another recent example of DeMaio responding to push back in a similar way, check out my exchange with him over the Convention Center expansion.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. 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 liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org 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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