It’s nice to be in first place.

While your opponents all have to scramble for the right to face you in November, you can frame the general election.

At a Thursday morning press conference in front of his favorite dilapidated street in San Diego, front-running mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio did just that.

He proposed a November ballot measure that would implement his plan to repair the San Diego’s roads. The proposal would require the city to devote all new tax revenues to street, storm drain, building and other infrastructure repairs for the next five years.

Right now, the city doesn’t spend enough money to keep its infrastructure from deteriorating further each year. DeMaio, a city councilman, contends his approach would generate up to $500 million, which would stop the bleeding and begin addressing an $898 million repair backlog.

This is DeMaio’s political playbook. He finds a problem people care about. He sets the terms of the debate by releasing a plan to fix it before anyone else. And he uses the threat of a ballot measure to force others to embrace his solution.

For June’s mayoral primary, his strategy looks to have worked perfectly. He put out his own, and later co-opted current Mayor Jerry Sanders’, plan to replace pensions with 401(k)s for most new city workers. The resulting initiative, Proposition B, has become synonymous with DeMaio’s mayoral campaign.

Two of DeMaio’s three opponents endorsed the initiative and the other was forced to talk about pensions all the time anyway. Prop. B is expected to pass and DeMaio is expected to be one of the top two finishers in the June 5 mayoral primary.

For November’s general election, DeMaio’s issue will be roads. He says it himself.

“You’re going to hear a lot about it,” DeMaio said at the Thursday press conference. “Pensions to potholes. Pensions to potholes. Because I think after we get pension reform done, we need to pivot and put the savings into our road repairs first.”

And why not roads? In a recent city survey, San Diegans said no service needed more improvement than street repair. The region’s roads rank eighth-worst in the country.

Even with all the cheery financial news coming out of the Mayor’s Office these days, the city remains way behind on infrastructure repairs. Sanders’ budget plan for next year remains $29.9 million short of the money needed to keep the San Diego’s streets, storm drains and buildings from getting worse. The current infrastructure funding proposal doesn’t anticipate spending enough to stop annual deterioration until after 2017.

DeMaio has telegraphed this pensions-to-potholes move for a long time. He mentioned a potential streets ballot measure when he first announced his road repair plans in September. In discussing his proposal on the campaign trail, he’s addressed some of the most pressing questions about it.

Recent San Diego mayors have tried similar funding schemes for their pet projects.

Susan Golding wanted to devote future tax revenues to public safety. Dick Murphy wanted to do the same for libraries. It didn’t work in either case because they ignored that the cost of other services grow over time, too. Based on that history, political scientist Vlad Kogan dismissed DeMaio’s plan as “a shell game.”

But DeMaio has said a ballot measure will solve that problem. Unlike Golding and Murphy, DeMaio will lock his plan into place with a voter mandate.

And asked previously about the often unintended consequences of ballot-box budgeting, he replied: “Hey, any time you can use the ballot box to limit spending by politicians, you bet it’s OK.”

At the Thursday press conference, DeMaio outlined two additional parts of his ballot measure. One establishes a review panel to recommend selling city property to pay for infrastructure fixes. The second will allow the mayor to bypass the city’s managed competition process and directly outsource anything related to road repair and maintenance.

DeMaio said he hopes the City Council will put his measure on the November ballot. There’s a good chance this won’t happen. Other council members may balk at tying their hands come budget time, aggressively outsourcing or helping DeMaio’s mayoral campaign.

If the council rejects his advances, DeMaio said he’d collect the signatures himself to make it happen.

As DeMaio’s own experience shows, getting initiatives qualified for the ballot, let alone passing them, is very expensive and far from certain. But after Thursday it is certain that we’ll hear DeMaio talk about road repairs well into the fall.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. 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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