For the past few months, San Diego mayoral candidates Carl DeMaio and Bob Filner have taken great pains to present moderate images of themselves.

But a detailed look at their backgrounds show these stances are more exception than rule. Both have a history of hard-charging activism on behalf of causes they believe in. They’ve both been successful, but antagonized many along the way.

We came to these conclusions after speaking to dozens of people about DeMaio and Filner’s careers for four in-depth profiles. When the campaign started last June, we wanted to pick the most important, unexplored areas in biographies to examine.

By chance, we happened to focus on the same issues for the two of them: their personalities and Washington D.C. records. Both forged the bulk of their political resumes in the nation’s capital and they often find their biggest political enemy is themselves.

Here are some key things we’ve learned about each of them:

They Had Formative Experiences As Teenagers

• Tragedy fills DeMaio’s personal life. His mother died when he was a teenager and his abusive father left the family. He said he had to think hard about running for mayor because he knew it would expose his personal life.

“I think it probably is to some extent a product of my childhood that you keep your emotions in a box,” DeMaio said in our March profile of his personality. “Because it is so scary. It is so painful.”

As the campaign has developed, it appears he’s become more comfortable with the idea. He highlighted his troubled upbringing in his first television ad of the general election campaign.

• When Filner was 18, he rode a bus from his Ivy League university to Mississippi to help integrate the South. His personal role in the civil rights movement helped him develop a philosophy that favored nonviolent confrontation to fight injustice.

“People don’t change unless there’s tension,” Filner told us for our July profile. “Status quo. Nobody thinks about anything, right, if you don’t create the tension. But if you don’t do it creatively, then they hit you or they shoot you. You gotta make them think about it.”

They’ve Upset Allies and Antagonized Enemies

• DeMaio has often displayed what we called a “personal blind spot” in turning off potential friends and making potential foes dislike him more. Notable examples include falling outs with the former head of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and former City Councilwoman Donna Frye. DeMaio’s dysfunctional relationship with city workers took a hit after he was seen fiddling with his cell phone during a police officer’s funeral two years ago.

As we put it in our March profile:

This is a core tension in DeMaio’s life as a politician. He’s shown himself able to harness your anger. He’s got work to do to show he can feel your pain. …

He can come across as being aloof, unconcerned or, worse, concerned only with his own advancement.

• Filner has fought two of the longest feuds in San Diego’s recent political history and at times goes out of his way to provoke potential friends from his own party. They tell stories of Filner’s political vindictiveness and selfishness. Our July profile talked about the many colorful descriptions Filner has acquired during his three decades in local politics:

Bob Filner stabs you in the front. And he stabs you in the back. He’s abrasive, aggressive, impolitic, caustic, truculent, brash and, according to one memorable formulation, “the Grand Canyon of assholes.”

Filner knows that his methods often upset people. But, he says, the enmity stems from his trying to force change as an underdog. He says he will change if he’s elected mayor.

They Succeeded In Washington D.C., But Also Turned People Off

• DeMaio became a millionaire by starting two companies in the nation’s capital. His idea for them came after discovering a little-known federal law on government performance measures. His companies taught the principles that the law embodied to public and private entities, but he also has overstated his companies’ reputations.

Most interestingly, our May profile revealed that the way DeMaio earned his money in Washington D.C. mirrored his political rise in San Diego.

• Filner did two things particularly well in his two decades as a congressman: He delivered for veterans and took care of his constituents. One thing he didn’t do as well was build relationships with colleagues, which affected his performance. One issue, Filner’s fight for Filipino veterans’ benefits, epitomizes his tenure in Washington.

From our August profile:

He was successful: In 2009, he helped secure $198 million for their benefits. He took care of his constituents: His district has one of the country’s largest Filipino populations. And he fomented conflict: According to a veterans advocate, Filner’s relationships with the Clinton administration suffered because of his forceful activism.

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

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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