Nine months ago, in a conversation with me, City Councilman Carl DeMaio did a rare thing: He opened up about his background.

It was the day after he announced his mayoral candidacy in June at a street fair in Rancho Bernardo. I started off the conversation asking DeMaio why he had his sister, Susan DeMaio-Mills, introduce him. His sister gave the crowd a glimpse into his personal life. DeMaio’s mother died from cancer when he was 15 years old, two weeks after his father, who was abusive, left the family. You can read her speech, which his campaign sent as a fundraising solicitation. We discussed his background for the first six minutes of the interview.

I didn’t use the interview at the time, but relied on it heavily for my story about DeMaio’s background because his campaign didn’t speak with me. Here’s the full exchange from June:

One thing I wanted to start out with that struck me when I took a look at your speech and some of the notes that you sent out is that you started talking a little bit about your background and your growing up and things like that. That’s not something that we’ve heard from you before. And I’m just wondering why that’s something that you want to start discussing now.

When I was trying to weigh who would introduce me, I hadn’t even thought about it until probably about five or six days ago. I was like, oh. People on my team were like, Who do you want to introduce you? I said, well I’ll just get up there and I’ll start. Laughs

I kind of racked my brain. And we thought of local officials and local personalities and community leaders and I said, “How can I choose this community leader versus that one?” So it just kind of came to me and I said, you know, my sister has seen me in so many different roles. Brother. She’s seen me in the business world and now she sees me trying to tackle these issues in city government. I think she was able to capture who I am in a way that people probably don’t know.

I’m Mr. No Nonsense. Mr. Serious. These are serious times. I’m always focusing on the plan or the reform. That’s who I am. I’m intensely private.

I’ve got to say, as I stood there and my sister gave the introduction, I was obviously very proud of her. She is not a natural public speaker. In fact, she has stage fright. But she made it through with flying colors. I was very proud of her. Very happy that she was there.

But it does kind of bring back some of the things we went through as kids. And how difficult it was. And how scary it was for us. It was really nice to have her there as I’m taking this next step.

Carl, I’ve never heard you say anything like this before in all of the times that we’ve spoken. It’s just very interesting.

I think it probably is to some extent a product of my childhood that you keep your emotions in a box because it is so scary. It is so painful. When I went to Georgetown Prep (a high school in Maryland), I remember one of my teachers describing me as 14 going on 40. Because when my mom got sick, I’m the one that had to go to the bank. I’m the one that had to do some of the things that usually what a father figure would do in the family.

I remember when we lost our house. I was trying to figure out how we could pull together enough money to make one payment. We had a little yard sale to see if we could come up with some money ’cause when my mom passed away we had nothing. The accounts were frozen. My father sued. He wasn’t going to support us. Literally, we knew we had a couple weeks. We were wards of the court. There were certain things we had to do.

To me it was, let’s just focus on getting things done. We didn’t have to time to slow down and see the emotions. I brought a similar approach to how I tackle problems. I’m always Mr. Serious and No Nonsense. But I guess people also want to see kind of more of the context and the history of folks they would like to evaluate if they’re running for mayor.

Are you comfortable with that? You said you’re intensely private.

No. I’m not comfortable with that. I’ll be candid. I’m not. People thought I’d already decided to run for mayor six months ago, three months ago. No. Ten percent of me was still not in it. Because I was weighing, Do I really need to put up with this shit? The shit that the labor unions are going to hurl? Remember this is a system that they control. They benefit from. Instead of offering ideas, they get nasty, negative, and they will go to great lengths to control and to keep that system. I had to weigh, did I really want to deal with that? Or did I want to go back into the business world?

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t tell you that I didn’t have to go through that process and weigh that. That was the thing that I continued to weigh. It was very clear that the public is wanting change. The public is very interested in the reforms that we’ve put forward. They see them as common sense. They’re ready to be part of the solution. None of the issues regarding our plan, whether the public is ready, whether the reforms are right, none of those issues have been in doubt for me. It’s been, yeah this is going to be a very nasty campaign because labor will do everything in their power to keep control of city government.

There’s attacks against you already.

I had to weigh that. I think that ultimately I decided that I found it offensive that you would have a situation where organized labor might push out good people from serving in government, trying to change the system.

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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