Our first look at the 2012 election features the San Diego mayor's race, the pension reform initiative, open primaries and the 52nd Congressional District.
January 6, 2012 1 p.m.
Guests: David Rolland, editor, San Diego City Beat
Scott Lewis, CEO, Voiceofsandiego.org
Michael Smolens, Government and Politics Editor, U-T San Diego
ST. JOHN: This is KPBS Midday Edition Roundtable. This could be a really interesting election year in San Diego. City voters will choose new leadership for the city, and oversight to pension reform.
There's a couple of congressional races where voters may decide to send fresh faces to Washington. And for the first time this year, we'll have an open primary.
This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Alison St. John. This is Friday, January the 6th, 2012. Today on the Roundtable we have in studio three editors, and we're going to look ahead at the dig decisions we'll be making this election year. Scott Lewis, CEO of VoiceofSanDiego.org.
LEWIS: Thanks Alison.
ST. JOHN: And David Rolland, editor of San Diego City beat.
ROLLAND: Good to see you.
ST. JOHN: And Michael Smolens, who's politics and government editor of UT San Diego.
SMOLENS: Good to be here.
ST. JOHN: So, the mayor of San Diego is a vital role, not just for the City of San Diego, but for the whole region. Only the City of San Diego voters get to choose, but everyone can weigh in on the conversation about who would be best. The city is arguably coming to an end of a long period when the pension scandal was the main issue. Is it time for a new heard who can focus not just on how to get San Diego out of the hole but to lead the city and the region into the future? Scott, can you kick us off on the mayor's race? Who are the candidates?
LEWIS: Ooh okay. There's basically 2 generations in the mayor's race. Of the younger generation, which is Carl DeMaio, a City Council man, 30-something, and you know, has a wonky encyclopedic knowledge of the city's issues but is very polarizing in some ways. And so we'll see how much traction he gets. There's assemblyman Nathan Fletcher who two months younger than me.
ST. JOHN: Huh!
LEWIS: The first time I've seen a politician eclipsing that. He's a former marine, a veteran, and a championed by people like Pete Wilson, and military leaders in town. We have Bonnie Dumanis, the District Attorney, she's part of that older generation, and she has a more stately attitude toward the office. She wants to be the chief executive. And then Bob Filner, the token Democrat, I guess, in the race, and the liberal progressive who's leaving Congress to teach us all how to do it here.
ST. JOHN: Okay. Those were long sentence, but you just about fulfilled your mission.
LEWIS: That's a hard mandate for me.
ST. JOHN: Let's look at the issues. What are the main issues in the mayor's race?
SMOLENS: Well, if you take yesterday, it sounds like some of them are running for superintendent of education. Bonnie Dumanis had this whole education reform specifically targeting the school district, which has been one of the region whipping boys for candidates. A lot of people seem to think there's -- it's not dubious, but the city is not out of the woods. People do want to move forward, I think. Nathan Fletcher is doing the new generation thing, and rebuilding the city on the hill for the future. But both he and Dumanis have weighed into the school issue, which is peculiar, because there's the chargers stadium thing, still the pension issue.
ST. JOHN: We ain't out of the woods yet.
SMOLENS: And they're on the verge of trying to figure out what they're going to do about the Convention Center expansion. And they still have a deficit in their own budget. That's peculiar to some folks.
ST. JOHN: Do any of the others want to mention something about other issues?
LEWIS: Well, I'm uncomfortable with the premise that you have to be a certain person to weigh in on education issues. I don't like she's getting into you should leave that out. It would be one thing if she had a perfect, comprehensive plan for that the city should do, and therefore we'll have all this time to spend fixing the school district. The fact is she proposes a Department of Education. I don't know how we'd pay for that without dealing comprehensively with the pension issue or with the burdens that the city faces for infrastructure and healthcare and all kinds of things. And I admire people who are weighing in on education. There's no more important collective investment we all make. But it is kind of awkward, considering it's not like the city's perfect right now and can afford to free up some of its band width for that.
SMOLENS: Weighing in is one thing, but coming up with basically trying to take over the school district is -- that's a little different. Making suggestions or wanting to work collaboratively. But this is a huge, huge issue she's talking about.
LEWIS: Well, what she's interrupted is not that it's an extra thing but it's core to the city's effort that it fix education. Whether you agree with that or not --
SMOLENS: Viewer, yeah.
LEWIS: Thad be like saying she shouldn't we weigh in on the airport because the airports run by the airport authority. The fact is the mayor has effects on all of these agencies, and why not schools?
ST. JOHN: Isn't it interesting here we are starting the show talking about education? Whereas in the past we would have always started with pension. Do you think she's trying to throw in some fresh meat for people to talk about? Get off the old topics and create more energy around the debate?
ROLLAND: In normal economic times, people would be education and public safety are probably the top issues facing the country, and not just San Diego or any other region. And so she's got sort of the public safety thing going for her as the District Attorney. You can debate her record, and certainly people will. But then this is just throwing education -- you be, the other piece on top of that. For me, it's another reason why for me the most interesting dynamic in this race is Fletcher versus Dumanis. You have Carl DeMaio who has kind of staked out the grass roots, conservative tea party type constituency. You have Bob Filner the take no prisons, very progressive, one of the most progressive members of Congress, really staking out the grass root it is left end of the spectrum. And what you have sort of in the middle for lack of a better term, is Dumanis and Fletcher battling it out to see, really, what two of these four people are going to make the run-off. And at this point, I wouldn't be able to venture a guess on which two would make it. But to me, Fletcher and Dumanis for that reason is so interesting. And it was Nathan Fletcher who started the conversation about education with his sort of barn-storming education listening tour.
ST. JOHN: He's going around.
ROLLAND: So he's sort of appeared to have staked out that claim as education is being his issue. But he hasn't come out with a plan. Here comes Bonnie with a very, what will be a very controversial plan, because she's really -- if you could -- you could make the case that she is trying to take over the governance of the school district from the existing School Board. And getting in with some of these people, these parent groups that are kind of into the whole privatization of education kick. So she comes out with a bolder plan that --
ST. JOHN: Has Nathan Fletcher come out with a plan yet?
ROLLAND: Not yet. He says he's coming out with it soon. And it'll be interesting, his response to Dumanis's plan yesterday was to say hey, I welcome anybody who wants to talk about education. So he didn't criticize it on any kind of level. So that leads me to wonder if he's going to distance himself from these up for education parent groups and what not, because they seem -- Bonnie seems to have aligned herself with them.
ST. JOHN: It's interesting. We had council president Tony Young on the show yesterday, and he said he hadn't endorsed anybody yet. But that he would endorse whichever mayor really did come up with a good plan for education. So it does seem like politically that this is one of the issues that the candidate are going to have to come up with a good plan. Scott, do you think the plan Dumanis came up with yesterday is a good one? Some people say the school district is already doing many of the things she suggested.
LEWIS: The big proposal she has is to add four members to the five-member School Board that are appointed by the mayor. The motivation behind that is they claim to provide stability and expert ice to the board so there's not these vacillations between political interests controlling that small board. There's a uniform or uniformly accepted argument that the School Board is too small. Now, whether it should be bigger elected or what not, there's obviously that proposal to add members. And it's not odd. Antonio Villaraigosa, Rahm Emanuel, mayor Bloomberg, they all have interest in education in their cities, because they see it as the most important collectively investment the region has. The City of San Diego is a separate entity, but on the other hand, the city charter is what is the charter for San Diego unified school district. Now, the difference is that the San Diego unified school district doesn't actually cover all of the city. And she had her press conference in an area of the city that's not actually governed by the San Diego City school district, which I thought was interesting. But the point is that it's not a perfect overlapped city versus San Diego unified. But the point is, look, everybody is concerned, I'm a parent right now, I'm concerned about both the investment in education, and in the performance. And so why don't we talk about it? And whether it's the right issue or not, she's definitely trying to frame the issue, and I think it's been quite a week for her if you add also the prosecution of the Sweetwater school district that she embarked on. And she says I deal with these people who are failed by the system somehow, and they come through the justice department.
ST. JOHN: Let's see what the other candidate it is might see. We've got Bob Filner and Carl DeMaio. Bob Filner did start on the School Board way back in the beginning of his career. How about Carl DeMaio? Do you think they'll be able to come up with competing plans for education?
SMOLENS: I'll be interested to see. I don't know that DeMaio will really get into this issue. The pension thing is what he's riding the whole way. And the whole cleaning up the fiscal mess of the city, which is on its way, I don't know that he would try to get distracted on this. But then again, you know, it's early. If this takes off and becomes one of the key issues, you think it would be hard for any major candidate not to get involved in the discussion. I'm sure he will be talking about it. But when he comes up with a plan, that doesn't seem to be in his view of limited government a direction he'd go in.
ST. JOHN: Leadership skills, that's really a big question. Some people say that mayor Sanders has been focusing very much on pulling the city out of its financial morass. This is what I've heard some of the candidates say. But they would say that it's time now for more leadership, for a fresh vision into the future. Which do you think has got the leadership skills to really take the city in a new direction? Any takers? Scott?
LEWIS: I don't know that any of them have. I think that people work really hard for all of them. What is the definition of a leader? Somebody who makes a group of people do things that they otherwise wouldn't have been able to do, or maybe they want to do on their own, but they otherwise couldn't pull it off themselves. So I don't know. Who has demonstrated this out of that? I think Carl DeMaio has probably motivated it, and gotten a lot of things done with his own staffs that I think is pretty impressive. Bonnie will say, look, I've managed a major organization myself. I've gotten a lot of accolades for some of my recidivism efforts as far as prisons and such. Nathan Fletcher has been -- he's dealt with being shot at in war, and will say, look, nothing scares you when you're dealing with that. And Bob Filner was a civil rights warrior and turned into a dynamo in the Congress, but how many people has he rallied to get major things done? I'm not sure. So I don't know. I think it's a fascinating discussion. I will say one thing. Everybody is assuming that Carl DeMaio, the leader, will get into the final election with Bob Filner, the Democrat. I don't think the second place is guaranteed for Bob Filner. I think he's running kind of a disorganized campaign, and I'd like to see him get more organized before it is guaranteed.
ST. JOHN: That leads to the question of do either of you, Michael or David, think that Bob Filner who is the only Democrat in the race is bound to make it through the primaries?
SMOLENS: Well, Filner gives the impression that he thinks that. I haven't talked with him.
LEWIS: No, he knows that.
SMOLENS: He has said that specifically. He's the only Democrat, and I think he's taking certain things for granted. And some Democrats are worried he doesn't have his act together.
ST. JOHN: When you look at voter registration in the city.
ROLLAND: Yeah, if he were not No. 1 or No. 2 vote-getters in the primary, it will be seen as a colossal failure of just epic proportions if running against three Republicans in a majority Democrat registration city, it would just be a colossal failure on his part.
ST. JOHN: Isn't it true to say that the city has had a Republican mayor for a long time?
LEWIS: Yeah, and the Scott is -- a lot of people are saying he's bound to get in because Democrats aren't going to switch over to other people to vote instead of him. But he is going to have to communicate that he is the Democrat. And that comes through organization and through the party and through the networks. And I don't think he's been building the kind of grass-roots organizational system that's needed to make that communication a solid given. Does that leave second place up for Fletcher or Dumanis? I'm not sure.
MAUREEN ST. JOHN: Don is calling from Hillcrest. Thanks for joining the Roundtable. Go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: I just wanted to make a quick comment on the education debate. I'm thrilled that the subject of education in our city and the school district is it finally in the larger political debate. I think it's a sign of political maturity, it's essential to the future of the city, and as was pointed out by Scott Lewis there, a number of other. Expects of big cities, Chicago, New York, LA, and others, where this has been the case over the last five to ten years, and to a good effect in those cities. So I think it's great for San Diego that it's now entered the larger political debate.
ST. JOHN: Thanks for that perspective. And Chris from PB. Thanks for calling.
NEW SPEAKER: You're welcome. And I disagree with the earlier caller and respectfully disagree with Scott Lewis about this. I think that really what Dumanis is doing with this school issue she doesn't have any really good ideas for how to deal with the issues at hand in San Diego, apparently. The chargers issue, the convention center, fixing the streets or whatever. And the easiest thing to do is talk about the schools, which the mayor has no power over whatsoever. So it's a little bit like somebody running for the School Board saying I want to see the federal budget balanced, which I suppose many people do, but it has nothing to do with the School Board.
ST. JOHN: That's great. Thanks for that perspective. So Scott?
LEWIS: Think about it. Let's say that -- I mean the school system is in a crisis. Last year, it laid off hundreds of teachers. I don't think people grasp. It laid off hundreds of teachers. It's set to do something similar in the year to come. And maybe even cut the school year by two weeks or tree three weeks. Imagine if right now we were dealing with an airport that was going to shut down for two or three weeks. And just because the mayor has appointments but doesn't have control over that area, does that mean they just don't talk about it? Does that mean they're barred because they don't have full control over that issue? No, it's the single most important issue in the city right now. And that we have a good debate about it is as healthy as it can be.
SMOLENS: But you talk with the airport were to shut down, and the school district were to shut down. The whole insolvency debate is pretty much over with, I believe, that they have huge financial problems. The city has big financial problems. To suggest -- and everybody is concerned about education. And education need it is a lot of help. However, unified is not the only district that's in trouble or dysfunctional in some people's views throughout the state. But to suggest that to expand the powers of the city at a time when the city is in some people's view still in crisis I think is worth pointing out. Of course they can talk about it. But the caller did make a point that they have to go through many steps before they can do anything to affect unified school district, and a very powerful group, San Diegans for great schools, tried and failed, surprising. So it's going to take a lot of political capital and a lot of effort at a time where I think a lot of people, some people, everybody wants to improve education, but what about these other things?
ST. JOHN: A couple of seconds.
SMOLENS: As the first major issue to come up, I think we were all surprised.
LEWIS: Absolutely. It deserves to be criticized and argued about. Am but the argument that the chargers issue is more important than local schools is an indication of priorities.
ST. JOHN: Ah, ha.
ROLLAND: But it's a matter of who has governance over that particular issue.
LEWIS: Well, we have governance over the chargers issue because we chose to create that as a priority. I'm saying, look, we can talk about other priorities if we want.
ST. JOHN: Well, this is so interesting that we have discovered that really, the mayor's take on education is perhaps one of the most exciting sort of new areas of controversy in this race.
SMOLENS: Well, but as the caller said, there is that point of view that the chargers stadium is a sticky wicket. The pension is a tough one, and the Convention Center is a tough one. Coming out with a plan to improve education when you don't have any power to do that yet --
ST. JOHN: Although the mayor of no, I believe, took over the schools. So that's quite a bit of precedence of cities taking --
SMOLENS: There are, but everybody likes to point out the success stories that some experts that we've talked to, and I forget the cities they mentioned, but it's been a mixed bag.
ST. JOHN: I suspect nobody realizes how big this ball of wax is.
SMOLENS: I'm coming off like an opponent, and I don't really mean to. It's just interesting that there's this notion the city has moved on, and I would like the discussion to be that the city hasn't moved on.
ST. JOHN: Let us break here, and we'll talk about what is and has been for a long time, one of the most important issues, pension reform.
ST. JOHN: This is KPBS Midday Edition Roundtable with me, Alison St. John, and Scott Lewis of VoiceofSanDiego.org, David Rolland of San Diego City beat, and David SMOLENS of UT San Diego. And we're moving onto the pension reform which is at the heart of the city's problems. And Scott, why don't you kick us off by telling us how will this pension reform initiative which was crafted by Carl DeMaio and the mayor, how does it work?
LEWIS: The mayor will be very pleased that you included him on that.
ST. JOHN: Well, he sort of came around to it. He had his own version.
ROLLAND: His staff actually wrote the thing.
LEWIS: There's two big parts to this. One is that future employees will not have a guaranteed pension and will likely have the option to get into Social Security. Now employees already had a lowered pension by far. We had pensions that went up, up, up, now we got rid of them almost completely. Now we just want to get rid of them completely.
ST. JOHN: When you say get rid of pensions, they're going to give them a pension but a different kind, right?
LEWIS: No, a 401K, a retirement saves account. That's not a guaranteed pension.
ST. JOHN: Exactly.
LEWIS: That's something you build up over time. We have at Voice, you match part of it, hopefully when you retire, you'll have enough money. If you don't, you better figure something out. Now, the other part of the plan is a five-year proposed mandated freeze on pensionable pay, meaning we'll try to top salaries for the whole city where they're at for four years. The reason that saves money on the pension issue is because the pension system assumes that salary will inflate at the city over the five years. And they're saying we'll freeze it. You can't actually freeze salaries for five years without the employees agreeing to that. This is more of a mandate to the council that you negotiate that with employees. It could be gotten around with votes or what not. So the major savings of this proposal is in that part.
ST. JOHN: The freeze.
LEWIS: They've already knocked down new employees. This isn't -- the idea that the new employees were the problem is hysterical because they've already taken care of that. What they want to do is transfer the six or so% of those employees' pensions that is guaranteed from the city to Social Security. And then add a 3% four 0 one K.
ST. JOHN: Has anybody calculated how much the 401K will cost?
LEWIS: I think it's largely a wash, they say it's because we want to remove the risk of future pension problems at the city. Basically they're saying we don't ever want pensions to get bigger, we just want to close off the system. Except for police officers who are exempted from this.
ST. JOHN: OKAY, David?
ROLLAND: Carl DeMaio has successfully sort of taken the lead on this issue and sort of grabbed it as his own issue. And the way he and his -- and other backers of the ballot measure are presenting it is sort of based -- entirely based on a misleading set of circumstances. They say basically when they sell it to the public, they say why should public employees get a retirement have a pension that's different -- way, way, way better than anybody in the private sector? And they say this is going to save the city a ton of money. As Scott has just explained, those things are not -- those things aren't really related. So I think the perception is that switching to a 401K, which is not a good retirement plan. 401Ks were created as a supplement.
ST. JOHN: And the city already offers them to its employees, I understand. So that's not a new thing.
ROLLAND: Yeah, but I guess what I'm saying is that -- I sort of lost my train of thought there.
ST. JOHN: Well, the thing about this measure that I understand is a problem is that the laborer unions are saying this freeze is illegal.
ROLLAND: I remembered where I was going now. There are some legal problems that the unions will pursue.
ST. JOHN: Fight.
LEWIS: They get around this by saying it's not actually a freeze. It's a mandate to the council that you negotiate a freeze each year. Whether that is something they hold up or not throws into question the actual savings in the plan. The other interesting thing is that this is very popular, no matter how -- they're going to pass it, and we're gone wake up and that's still going to be a big pension problem it.
ST. JOHN: That's an interesting way of putting it.
LEWIS: The but the fact is, it's popular and probably going to pas. And what you'll see in the next few months is an alternative proposal for the ballot get placed because they realize the only way to kill this plan would be to confuse it with another one that the City Council put up.
ST. JOHN: Now, that came up at yesterday's discussion with council president Young as well. Who would put an alternative measure on, and how much time do they have?
SMOLENS: I was going to say, I think the -- one of the avenues is Bob Filner is hoping to convince the City Council democratic majority to get behind something that he may work on them with. I don't know what Mr. Young said on radio the other day. He just said that -- you know, he'll understandably look at the merits, and not if somebody seems to be in a more political aspect, he wouldn't get behind it. Of so he's keeping his options open.
ST. JOHN: So you'd have two mayoral candidates each with their own ballot.
SMOLENS: Regardless of whether the city does that, Filner has promised he would come out with a plan that would save a lot of money.
LEWIS: Hundreds of millions.
SMOLENS: I think we know the basic concept is to, you know, cap pensions at a certain amount and to spread out the deficit over a longer period of time, which he acknowledges just kicks the can down the road, but at least it allows you to use some money that otherwise would have had to go to pension payoffs over the short term.
ROLLAND: I lost my train of thought there, but I got it back. And I want to finish my point. And that is a lot of the heavy lifting on reducing the city's future pension liability has already been done. It's already been done. And that's what Carl DeMaio will never tell anybody out on the campaign trail, that about 15 years from now or so, it really -- the pension liability falls off a cliff. Upon it's going to be a lot more affordable, without doing anything.
ST. JOHN: Right.
ROLLAND: So he's selling this 401K thing as the thing that's going to save the city a ton of money, and it's just not true. I've talked to laborer people that aren't all that worked up about the 401K thing because of what's already been done because it's not that different, they believe, in the long run for the employees in terms of what they're going to get out of the system.
ST. JOHN: But do you think the general public is going to be able to understand the differences? Even if there is a second --
ROLLAND: No, that's why DeMaio is so successful because it's hard to understand, and he relies on these misleads platitudes.
LEWIS: It'll pass, definitely. But what will happen again is we'll wake up and still have a massive pension bill. And that's because the current employees still have very large, enhanced benefits. Now, that I think opens the door for Carl to continue a war with them. Like, what they've described was in 2008, a program called comprehensive pension reform that the mayor pushed that changed the future employees' pension benefits, again, that's been taken care of as Dave pointed out. What we're still going to have to pay is these promises we gave in 1996, and 2003, to the city employees. Because those pensions are still there, and they're still weighing like a wet blanket on the city budget that there's never been money set aside to handle.
ROLLAND: And in the short term, yes, there is a huge pension bill coming due. In the short term. What I'm talking about is long-term. But there's not much you can do about the short term. You can -- I'm perfectly happy to talk about this pay freeze as a way to save the city money. And if that were the only thing on this ballot measure, I'd feel better about it. But this whole 401K thing is a sham.
ST. JOHN: One question, and we'll move on here. But Scott, if there was a second initiative placed on the ballot, possibly one crafted by Filner and passed by the City Council, and they put it on the ballot, and they both passed, would there be confusion?
LEWIS: If there's a contradicting ballot measure on the ballot, the one with the most votes wins. If they're different and they do different things, they can both pass. I think that's the goal is to try it muddy it. And maybe kill them both. I'm not sure. I've always argued that the pay freeze, if they really wanted to affect current employees, they could negotiate with the unions a true freeze for the next five years, one that was guaranteed. Not just hoped for. And that Bob Filner could actually lead that. I don't think he's interested in that, though. And I don't think the unions are interested in actually freezing their pay for five years. So that's not going to work.
ST. JOHN: Well, we've got six months to talk about this and get a better understanding of it before we vote. So thanks for beginning that or at least touching on some of the issues that we are going to have to grapple. With.
ST. JOHN: Let's talk about a couple of change this is year that could mean voters are able to break the partisan deadlock that's able to break the stalemates that we're in. 2011 was a censusing year, and it changed the way political boundary lines are drawn to reflect the changing population. You may have noticed that for many years, the congressional races in San Diego have been very predictable. Voters could pick a candidate, but there was no suspense about which party would win. Michael, how has that changed this year? Are there any districts now in doubt?
SMOLENS: Well, there's some more competition. Not entirely because of redistricting, but the one district that the redistricting process did affect is Brian Bilbray's new district, which moved him from a North County, central based district to central San Diego. It till has a Republican favor in terms of the be registration. He's also got a couple pretty well known Democrats running against him in Lori SaldaÒa, and Scott Peters, and current chairman of the port district.
ST. JOHN: But is that the only district that has really changed? Become more open?
SMOLENS: Well, are in the county. The other really interesting one has to do with the one we haven't mentioned, which is the open primary which sends the top two candidates to the primary regardless of party.
ST. JOHN: Okay.
SMOLENS: That's Bob Filner's. It's a very heavy democratic district. We'll see this unique situation where they will battle it out in June, then go onto the same battle in November because they will be the top two vote getters, regardless of party. Under the current system, they would knock each other silly like Vargas did with Maria Salas?
ST. JOHN: That's right.
SMOLENS: In the state Senate district, and then waltz to an election in a heavily democratic district against a Republican. So that's kind of a unique situation. And I wonder if people really thought of that going down the line that we will have some repeat elections like that in more heavily democratic and Republican districts. What you have in San Diego is the result of those two changes, the redistricting, which was done by -- allegedly, or set up an independent citizens' panel rather than the politicians in Sacramento, and this open primary. So you'll see those effects potentially come to play in those two districts.
MAUREEN ST. JOHN: And for the voters who really aren't quite clear about the open primary and why it was passed and how it'll affect them, can you explain?
SMOLENS: Well, I don't know, that and redistricting are very confusing and tend to be things with long-term big conventions. There's always been this notion that an open primary allows people to crossover, and ultimately you get a more moderate candidate. In the scenario I mentioned when you have a Vargas and Ducheny, the Republicans, when those two are against each other in the runoff, that Republicans would have to choose between them rather than go to a very weak Republican candidate. And the one they deem more acceptable may be the more moderate of the we'll see what happens. That's the theory. The legislature and the California congressional delegation will be even more strongly democratic because of largely redistricting.
ROLLAND: The easiest way to explain it without going through a lot of --
ST. JOHN: Oh, good.
ROLLAND: Well, just that the candidates now will have to appeal to more moderate voters. I mean, and that's the bottom line. And so the hope is that it does ease some gridlock in Sacramento so you don't have the extremes where you have maybe people from all along the political spectrum in the state legislature or in Congress or whatever that you have to in the general election, if you have two Democrats going at, you also have to appeal to decline to more moderate voters or Republican voters.
ST. JOHN: And can anybody, whatever party they're registered as, vote for any candidate?
ROLLAND: Yes. You don't even have to identify. I don't believe you have to identify yourself through party affiliations.
ST. JOHN: So nobody can win, even if one gets 70%, and the other gets 20%, they still have to face-off?
SMOLENS: It's not like a City Council election where one wins in the June election, and it automatically goes to a runoff.
LEWIS: You have the situation where Brian Bilbray, the incumbent has a much different district. It stretches into the peninsula, and Point Loma and, on B, into the northern parts of the city. So you have a much more -- although I still think it's slightly Republican.
ROLLAND: 3%, I think.
LEWIS: But much less than it was before. So now you have Scott Peters and Lori Saldada, and she was just endorsed by Donna Frye. There's no love lost between Donna Frye and Scott Peters. But now you have Peters really hoping he gets that final election with Bilbray and forces a very interesting standoff. I think it'll be one of the most interesting political contests to watch.
ST. JOHN: Let's talk about that more after the break. It is definitely one of the more interesting, and one of the more uncertain races, because either a Republican or a Democrat could win.
ST. JOHN: You're listening to KPBS's Midday Edition Roundtable. I'm Alison St. John. And here at the Roundtable we have Michael Smolens, political and government editor at UT San Diego. David Rolland, editor of San Diego City beat, and Scott Lewis, CEO of VoiceofSanDiego.org. And we're talking about issues connected to the election year coming in. As a result of redistricting that happened last year, the congressional district boundaries have been redrawn, which means not all the districts are as certain as they used to be. A bit of an attack on gerrymandering. So let's start with you, David, and can you tell us where you think as a result of redistricting, any of the congressional districts will change? Will it change the balance of power of our congressional representation in Washington?
ROLLAND: Well, just as we've been talking when we were talking about the open primary, we touched on the Brian Bilbray district, and that one definitely is the one that's affected by the redistricting. The if you look at the five local congressional districts, three of them are not really in play. Dunk an hunter junior, Darryl Issa, Susan Davis, they're all safe. The two that are in play as Michael mentioned, Bob Filner is running for mayor. That leaves his district wide open. So there are a couple -- it will be a Democrat that's elected to that district.
ST. JOHN: So to that extent, it hasn't changed things?
ROLLAND: Right. So redistricting isn't what is putting that one in play.
ST. JOHN: Okay.
ROLLAND: That will be Juan Vargas versus Denise Ducheny, who is a former state legislator. The people I talk to think that Vargas, it'll still be a bit of a cakewalk for him. He has a better operation going in that district, he's better known, and can he probably -- unless something going terribly wrong, be elected. As Scott said, really the interesting race is Brian Bilbray's district. And as we've been mentions, it's because redistricting narrowed the registration gap. The Republicans had, I believe, about a 9% registration edge in that district. Now it's been cut to about 3%, I believe. So that one. And I don't know if Brian Bilbray in that district was really the had the strongest strangle hold on that district to begin with. So now he's got a real battle on his hands. And it's interesting because -- and as we've been talking about with the open primary, you've got two Democrats and Brian Bilbray, the Republican who are going to be on the June ballot. You've got Lori SaldaÒa, herself a former state legislator. And Scott Peters, former president of the City Council and current member of the port board of commissioners.
ST. JOHN: So do you think that Bilbray will change his political stripes now that he's up against two more well known Democrats? Michael?
SMOLENS: Well, one of the things -- he spoke to a tea party gathering and certainly gave no indication there. He was coming from the hard right on a number of issues, including immigration, which is of course is his signature issue. He also -- there are some other candidates, and there's one candidate that has sort of a tea party kind of flavor. At least he's trying to, you know, kind of bill himself as that. And his stances have drawn some appreciation from the tea party folks, who are not a unified block, and so forth. So Bilbray does have to keep an eye on his right.
ROLLAND: I believe his name is John stall.
SMOLENS: Thank you. And there's another physician, a Wayn Iverson who's talking about running as a Republican. But I think Brian Bilbray is largely coming from where he's come from, and figures that's the way certainly into the runoff election -- or the general election, I should say.
ST. JOHN: We've got Lori Saldada. Of what are her strengths as a candidate here?
SMOLENS: Well, I think you've got the potential, at least, at this stage, it's almost looking like you've got Bilbray, the Republican conservative, Saldada, more the liberal. She's sort of modeling a -- some of her discussion on the whole occupy, the 90% and 1%, and Scott Peters a little bit more of the establishment Democrat. He's the head of the port district, which is sort of always viewed as a very business-like operation. I don't know that it's an exact fit of he's the moderate, she's the left, he's the right. But there is that sort of that play in the dynamic.
ST. JOHN: Scott Peters, one of the reasons he was the council president was his ability to hear both ideas. Do you think that will be an advantage for him in this race?
ROLLAND: The last race he ran was for city attorney, and he got walloped. And what dogged him in that one was the City of San Diego's financial problems.
LEWIS: I think this cuts both ways with the congressional race in the sense that, yes, this is like toilet paper stuck to his shoe. He's going to have to get it off at some point. But does this race come down to fiduciary issues at a city like that? It possibly could because the nation is so focused on the deficit. And you could just get hammered. This guy doesn't care about fiscal balance, etc. On the other hand when you're running on Congress, there's so much red -- blue, it doesn't really matter. It's, like, I'd rather have this guy than the red guy. And that's just it. And regardless of his warts or whatever. So Lori SaldaÒa is a very free spirit, very 90% thing. So I don't know if she can gain traction or not. But Donna Frye endorsed her because of the frustration she had with Scott Peters of managing that crisis. So I don't know how big a deal it'll be, but it was a big deal in his last race.
ROLLAND: She is ready for it to come up. And I ask him about it in an interview I did with him, and his answer was, mistakes were made. Yes, we made mistakes. But mistakes were made way before I got there. And he said what I did, and what my colleagues did is we perpetuated those mistakes for a little while until blew up, and then we fixed the problem. That's what his response is going to be. But I think it's much larger than city finances, and voters will key in on that. I think that will be talked about. The city's finances will be talked about, and then I think they'll be disposed of. Because this really is the battle of the Republicans versus the Democrats in Washington. That's where this battle is. And this is a chance, you know, the Republicans control the house right now. Democrats want control of that house back. They see this as a vulnerable Republican district, and they're going to -- they're already bringing people in from Washington to help Scott Peters run this campaign. And so I really think it's going to come down to who has a better -- the first battle will be Peters versus Saldada. And I think --
ST. JOHN: But it's an open primary.
ROLLAND: Right, but yes.
ST. JOHN: But it's the top two of which party.
ROLLAND: You expect the incumbent to be the No.†1 or No.†2 vote getter. I believe it'll come down to Bilbray versus Peters, personally, because I think a lot of Democrats will reason that -- they'll see that Peters has a better shot at beating Bilbray than Saldada.
ST. JOHN: Michael, do you think the open primary business will help Peters? Being a moderate, there may be people in that district, possibly a lot of independents registered in San Diego who may decide, well, let's give him a chance?
SMOLENS: I think. But on a couple things, correct me if I'm wrong, independents can participate in the primary, they just have to ask for a Republican or democratic ballot. Do I have that right?
ST. JOHN: Well, currently. But under the new law, I don't think so.
SMOLENS: What I was getting at, at any rate, I think he would attract more independents than perhaps Lori SaldaÒa. Upon but the larger point is, despite the open primary, this district race has more the makings of a traditional race where you're going to end up with a Democrat and a Republican. And I don't see the openness of it having as great of an effect.
ST. JOHN: But do you think because it's an open primary, there'll be a lot more money floating around before the June primary because the people have to appeal to both sides?
SMOLENS: Oh, that's been all sorts of speculation on it. The two races were the open primary, and that's key, we mentioned Vargas and Ducheny, and there will be a lot of strategy, about there's the notion that those two are going to end up in November against each other, again, to what degree they're going to spend a lot of money, are they going to manage it in a different way they might normally? If it were under the current system, this is the win or take all.
ST. JOHN: Yes, they spend is it all before June.
SMOLENS: And in the Vargas Senate race, after he beat Salas, that was a low-key race. You mentioned earlier, what does this mean in terms of spending money? Both aspects of redistricting and the top two primary come into play, is the district in west LA and the valley, where Howard Berman got put in the same district as Brad Sherman, two heavy-weight members of Congress. They're going to be duke particular out from now till November. And people are expecting that to break all sorts of records. Not only did the redistricting force them in the same district, but also now that they have to face each other in more or less a runoff in November.
ST. JOHN: Scott, does this bother you that there's so much money likely to be swilling around this election year? It seems like the laws about who can contribute have gotten a good deal looser, right? And now we've got this open primary where people are going to have to spend more before that June†1st because if they want to run in November, they're going to have to win in June. Will we see an onslaught of ads we've never seen before before the June primary?
LEWIS: I think media people should always disclose that they benefit a lot from this system, often. They get a lot of this advertising money. I'm just saying, like, look, I don't know. I'm uncomfortable with how much money has been freed up in the process. And all of it they can pour into those packs and what not. On the other hand, look at Iowa. Rick Santorum almost won the Iowa caucus, and he had, I think, the lowest per vote total of the major candidates there, as far as money spent. I think there's still room for people to outdo that. And we'll see. I think that's actually a major issue in the lorry SaldaÒa versus Scott Peters case. Here's Peters with a lot of personal wealth. Will he be able to as I that and get a lot from Washington? Will she be able to get the grass-roots spot? I don't know.
ST. JOHN: Where is she going to get her support from if Scott Peters has more of the party support?
LEWIS: I don't know for a fact he does. I would assume they're looking at him as a more potentially --
ST. JOHN: So we don't know for sure yet where the democratic money is going to land.
LEWIS: Right. The thing is, I don't know how you control that. I really am -- finding the arguments about your ability to spend your money, how you'd like, pretty compelling. And I don't know how you stop people from spending money to support the candidates that they do. I think we need to be open and honest and transparent about where that money is coming from, but I don't know how you don't severely restrict personal freedoms when you try to control that. Maybe somebody can have an idea. Maybe you can publicly finance it, but it's a difficult issue.
ST. JOHN: 30 seconds.
SMOLENS: For the record, I checked my cheat sheet. Independents and ask for a part San ballot, but you have to ask. So independents could always vote for a Scott Peters or Lori SaldaÒa, but it will be easier now for them to do that.
ST. JOHN: Great. We've got a few months. I hope we can gather you three gentlemen together again. Of Scott Lewis of VoiceofSanDiego.org, thanks for being here. David Rolland, editor of San Diego City beat, great to have you here. And Michael Smolens, political and government editor of UT San Diego. Thank you.