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Carl DeMaio Says He Wants To Clean Up City Hall

KPBS Special Series: The Race For San Diego Mayor

San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio has maintained a high profile ever since he was first elected to office in 2008. He’s currently vying to be San Diego’s next mayor. But that would mean he’d be leading the very employees he often rails against.

— It’s a Sunday morning and City Councilman and mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio is walking the neighborhoods of Rancho Bernardo, trying to connect with potential voters. He heads out alone, no staff members hovering nearby. During his walk DeMaio says hello to people on the street and makes chit chat with those who open their doors.

The Race For San Diego Mayor

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The 37-year-old DeMaio said spending his weekends walking the city doesn’t seem like a big deal to him, it’s just part of his nature. The Orange County native moved to San Diego from the Washington D.C. area in 2001. For the last three years he’s been in a committed relationship with publisher Johnathan Hale. In 2008, he sold his companies, which provided management training to government, non-profit and private sector employees. He made millions from the sale. DeMaio said he wanted to, in his words, focus on fixing San Diego’s financial problems. DeMaio maintains he has no political ambitions beyond becoming the city’s mayor.

"If we can fix the city of San Diego government, the sky’s the limit for San Diego. And that’s what I’m really excited about," he said. "So I think it’s a no-brainer. San Diego offers just the best quality of life and has the greatest potential if we can get the city government to match the other strengths that our community has."

But DeMaio’s friendlier, earnest side is different from the persona he often presents at San Diego City Council meetings, where his aggressive questioning can often be seen. At a meeting in November, 2010 DeMaio sparred with former development official Fred Maas. They had a heated back and forth about how San Diego officials handled legislation to lift financial regulations on the Centre City Development Corporation, the city's downtown redevelopment arm.

“It’s a simple question, who in the office did you speak with?” DeMaio said.

“I think you should ask the office of the mayor, they’re here,” Maas replied.

“I’m asking you, it’s a simple question!” DeMaio exclaimed. “You said you had nothing to hide here today. I’m asking a simple question, who in the office of the mayor did you speak to?”

“I have nothing to hide here at all,” Maas said.

“Then answer the question!”

“The answer is I’m not going to answer the question,” Maas said.

“I’m not sure that’s sufficient!” DeMaio replied.

DeMaio’s relationship with city labor unions is also tense. They’ve clashed repeatedly. City workers fiercely oppose DeMaio’s desire to put some city services out to bid, though DeMaio points out voters approved the idea back in 2006. But likely their biggest battle is going on right now. DeMaio largely led the charge to get a pension reform measure on the June ballot. It would freeze current city worker’s pay for five years and would eliminate pensions for most new hires, replacing them with 401(k)s. DeMaio said he won’t apologize to the unions or other city hall insiders who don’t like his tactics. And he said he’ll continue to use them if elected mayor.

"If I can’t get the council to stand up to the labor unions and do the right thing, then I will turn to the public and I will entrust in their hands the fiscal reform agenda that our city needs to implement through ballot initiatives," he said.

Yet he bristles at being called a polarizing figure.

"Let’s really define what people are talking about," he said. "When I opposed the sales tax increase, they said it was polarizing. But 62 percent of San Diegans agreed with me that raising taxes in a bad economy without reform of city finances was an awful idea."

He points to the pension reform as another example. While his critics called him polarizing, DeMaio said polls show over 70 percent of city residents support the measure and said his coalition broke records in collecting signatures to qualify the initiative.

Still, DeMaio insists he’s not out to hurt the futures of city employees. He just thinks current labor contracts are extravagant. And despite his already contentious relationship with the unions, DeMaio said his business experience will allow him to lead city employees effectively.

"I know they’re not going to like the labor contract that I impose on them to trim the salaries and benefits down in line with the local labor market," he said. "But my secret hope is, that after a year of me being mayor they will recognize, and privately admit, that they are being given the best management, the best training, the best support in decades in city service."

Seeking to broaden his appeal, DeMaio is also putting out plans to create more jobs in San Diego, promote volunteerism and fix the roads, always a popular subject with voters. DeMaio said he’s ready to take office with a plan to fix San Diego. It’s a plan he’ll work to sell to voters, even if it’s one house at a time.

Full interview below:

Video by Nicholas McVicker

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