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When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced it endorsed incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, his rival, Carl DeMaio, easily could have shrugged it off. Candidates across the country are trying to tie their opponents to D.C.
Here was one of Washington’s biggest interest groups embracing DeMaio’s opponent.
But DeMaio has a tic. His instinct in situations like this is to fight and insult a group or person that spurns him.
So he did. He attacked the Chamber’s credibility. His team pushed the story that Qualcomm somehow nefariously influenced the group, as though it was a shock that member businesses impact who the Chamber chooses to endorse.
DeMaio kept the story alive, provoking arguably a more damaging response from the Chamber than its original endorsement. Its political director responded by pointing out DeMaio sought the group’s endorsement and not one company weighed in for him. That led to another round of national stories about the row.
DeMaio’s instinct is to fight. He can’t help it. And yet, his message has been that he can end the “dysfunction” and “divisiveness” in Congress.
It’s a curious campaign and it’s simply not the case for electing DeMaio.
The case for him is better understood when you look back at his impact in San Diego.
Ten years ago, I wrote a piece trying to understand why business and conservative groups had split with Carl DeMaio, then a fiery young newcomer who was trying to disrupt San Diego’s political conversation and lead a new reform movement.
After embracing DeMaio’s movement, the Taxpayers Association, the Chamber and even the Lincoln Club were having trouble with him. It wasn’t necessarily the ideas and proposals he presented, they told me.
It was him.
“Maybe it’s the right message but the wrong messenger,” said Chris Niemeyer, then the executive director of the Lincoln Club of San Diego County.
DeMaio had been unwilling to acknowledge some mistakes in his analysis of city budget issues. He was generally intolerant of those who disagreed with him. He would seek out partners. If they ended up not agreeing with him, however, they weren’t just wrong. He would say they were bought off or merely cowardly members of a nefarious insider establishment.
More powerfully, if you didn’t go along with his ideas, he would put them forth to voters with his own wealth and fundraising prowess.
It’s hard to argue with the results. In that decade since, DeMaio has already won and finished a term on the City Council. The Taxpayers Association became a major ally of DeMaio as he ascended to become the Republican standard bearer in San Diego. Now, DeMaio’s former campaign manager runs the Lincoln Club.
The consultant who was the architect of DeMaio’s mayoral bid is now the chief of staff to Mayor Kevin Faulconer. DeMaio is in one of the hottest congressional races in the country with a very real chance of throwing out an incumbent.
DeMaio’s approach forced the former mayor and the current mayor to get on board with his version of a major pension reform initiative that is now a model in the state. Even Democratic politicians find themselves obligated to say they support it. It’s largely seen as his success, not anyone else’s.
Over the last decade, who has had more impact on the city’s politics than DeMaio?
He didn’t make that impact with collaboration. Over and over throughout his decade of experience in San Diego he bullied, pressed ultimatums and demeaned rivals.
And yet his message now is just how much of a peacemaker he is.
Here’s how a recent invitation to a fundraising reception for DeMaio read:
“Our nation faces major problems, and members of both political parties seem more interested in fighting over issues for political gain rather than resolving them for the public good. Just as he did in San Diego, Carl can be an important voice to change the broken system in Congress.”
It must be killing him inside.
The case for DeMaio is not that he’s peacemaker with experience quelling divisiveness and dysfunction. Watching his 10-year ascent to the top of San Diego’s conservative coalition has offered up too much evidence to the contrary. He’s confrontational. He has stressed to me, personally, many times, the folly of compromise.
It’s no secret.
Erik Bruvold, the head of the National University System Institute for Public Policy, agreed. There’s no way DeMaio will lead the federal government toward more collaboration or “kumbaya moments.” But he said that a substantial majority of Congress, in both parties, supports fiscal conservatism, and an efficient and innovative government.
As a gay man who could influence the messaging on social issues like same-sex marriage and access to contraception, DeMaio could change the GOP, Bruvold said. Things that divide some Democrats and Republicans might erode if it’s all reframed.
“Carl has an opportunity to disrupt and unsettle those coalitions and it would be interesting to see what emerges,” Bruvold told me.
In San Diego, we seem to have gotten past the idea that the Republicans can be gay too. But this is still a provocative concept around the country. His rise could be a big move for the GOP to get past social obsessions that cripple its chances with more socially liberal young people.
Couple that with DeMaio’s preternatural ability to brand his own causes and initiatives, his endless store of energy and his media savvy, he has the chance to be on TV every day and to cause a stir across the country on a regular basis.
All of it would be in the service of what really drives him: re-inventing government. He has been desperate to get into a job where he can re-organize all the ways government delivers its services.
He never particularly cared about land use in San Diego City Hall. And he won’t particularly care about foreign policy in the federal government. But he loves budgets and he thinks he can show how we can get far more services from government agencies than we do without increasing taxes.
He just wants a chance. Chris Reed, an editorialist for U-T San Diego, calls DeMaio a libertarian, “a Reason-blessed true believer.”
Were he to succeed in winning the election for San Diego mayor in 2012, DeMaio would have set up San Diego as “Ground Zero for government experimentation – of a sort many will call radical but that libertarians will call long-overdue,” Reed wrote.
He lost that year. But that’s the real DeMaio.
He’s a fighter. His success has come not from collaborating with people who have different political interests but from packaging his ideas so powerfully and deriding his rivals so skillfully that he creates a new reality in a political culture.
As he told the Lions Club: Look at U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. One person can make a difference in Congress.
“And it’s a question of whether you’re willing to stand your ground,” DeMaio said.
Standing his ground is what DeMaio does best. The case for him is not that he will assuage conflict or heal wounds.
The case for him is that he’ll catalyze the Republicans in Congress the way Cruz has. His values, however, will be more attractive to young people.
In fact, the decision to force DeMaio to prove he’s somehow a better collaborator than his rival seems like a sabotage – an attempt to force him into a game he can’t win.