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By one count, Carl DeMaio has met Bob Filner for a mayoral debate 29 times since the June primary. They averaged more than one a week. Most of those were packed into the stretch after Labor Day.
As time wore on, the debates became less about the candidates’ diverse visions for San Diego’s future and more a joyless recitation of talking points and arguments about how much of a jerk the other guy is.
How did we have so many debates?
The answer’s pretty simple. Filner wanted to; DeMaio needed to. So when the neighborhood and interest groups came calling, both candidates readily agreed. And agreed. And agreed.
Filner prides himself on showing up at neighborhood and community events. If a group asked him to debate a tree stump, he’d be there. Filner did the same thing during the primary, and oftentimes mayoral candidate forums were just him and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who wound up finishing third. The pair became friends, and were together so much that Filner joked they could finish each other’s sentences.
DeMaio skipped many debates in the primary. That’s when he was favored to make it through to the general election. That changed.
DeMaio, a Republican, is trying to win in a city where the Democratic Party holds a registration advantage of about 13 percentage points. He faces even stiffer headwinds because Democratic President Barack Obama should assure a solid Democratic turnout. DeMaio had to rebrand himself as less of a fire-breathing, conservative budget-buster and more of a moderate, CEO-style leader.
You can make that case by spending boatloads on television ads, which DeMaio and his allies have done, and for free during debates.
Here are three more takeaways from the debates:
1. Neighborhoods Got Something Out of Them
These are a smattering of the groups and neighborhoods that held debates since June: San Diego Chapter of Financial Executives International, American Institute of Architects, San Ysidro, Little Italy and the Asian Business Association.
These organizations wanted their own debate because they wanted the candidates to speak to them directly. And they typically wanted something else.
Anne MacMillan Eichman, president of the Little Italy Residents Association, was thrilled that both candidates pledged at a debate in Little Italy last week to oppose a bus lot and a rapid transit proposal plan for downtown. Sandag, the region’s transit planners, had proposed them.
“This election is probably going to be won by a thousand or so votes,” Eichman said. “We have thousands of residents who feel they’re being held hostage by Sandag.”
At a debate earlier this month in Kensington, both candidates pledged to do something about the power line undergrounding issues that fire up residents there and in nearby Talmadge.
Dale Larabee, who organized the debate, said the candidates in private conversations had told the community they would address the issue. But saying it in an open forum in front of more than 100 residents makes a difference.
“The advantage was getting them to commit publicly,” Larabee said.
Both Eichman and Larabee said they’ve watched or attended more debates than their own. And they said much of what Filner and DeMaio say at the debates is repetitive. But neither believed they would have received such strong commitments on their neighborhood issues without a local debate.
2. DeMaio Got Time to Make His Transformation; Filner Got Time to Make Digressions
Let’s examine The Transformation of Carl DeMaio through his relationship with one person: Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs.
In the primary, DeMaio was hot and cold about Jacobs’ signature project, a redo of Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama. After Jacobs’ favored candidates, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Fletcher, didn’t survive the primary, DeMaio became a big booster of Jacobs’ plan.
In late September, Jacobs, a prolific national Democratic donor, endorsed DeMaio. The endorsement gave DeMaio the Democratic backing he needed to claim support from across the political spectrum.
The frequent debates allowed DeMaio to repeat that message over and over. And when Filner tried to attack DeMaio over his ties to U-T San Diego publisher Doug Manchester, DeMaio often responded by bringing up Jacobs’ support.
DeMaio’s message wasn’t the only thing he re-worked throughout the debates; his style evolved, too.
DeMaio used to be San Diego’s most dramatic political actor. At the beginning of the mayoral campaign, for instance, he brought his Bengal cat Ace to a press conference to oppose a proposed new pet vaccination fee. Those days are over.
DeMaio channeled a calm and controlled persona in the debates and rarely lost his cool. He’s tried to emulate the tenor of current Mayor Jerry Sanders.
DeMaio’s debate style stands in stark contrast with Filner’s. The congressman tends to go on tangents when making his points, has struggled with facts and details and has made real or perceived gaffes that DeMaio has used to his advantage.
There was a silly flap over the result of a coin toss and a dust-up that led to a private email critical of Filner from U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy, which DeMaio’s campaign promptly leaked. DeMaio used those incidents to boost his narrative that Filner lacks the temperament to be mayor.
At the outset of the general election campaign, DeMaio’s personality was seen as just as much of a liability as Filner’s. DeMaio has used the debates to turn that issue against Filner.
3. More Is Not Necessarily Better
Undoubtedly, neighborhoods and interest groups benefitted from having the mayoral candidates come speak to them.
But it’s difficult to argue that nearly 30 mayoral debates over five months served the city as a whole. The debates often turned into the same superficial policy arguments — No public money for the Chargers! — and rote digs from each candidate about the other’s “special interest” supporters.
“I had a hard time watching the debates, any of them,” said Larabee, who helped organize the debate in Kensington. “It was a very uncomfortable interaction a lot of the time and I don’t like that. And it got very repetitious.”
A hybrid between the presidential debates and what happened during this campaign could provide a better model. The three presidential debates were thematic and televised, which could be a good format for future mayoral campaigns to address citywide issues. Then the candidates could add a few more debates in neighborhoods to address strictly neighborhood concerns.
For those with debate fatigue, the light at the end of the tunnel has finally emerged. The last scheduled debate was Wednesday morning on Fox 5 San Diego.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663.
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