May 16 2012 09:57 AM

What motivates the sons of our fathers?

DeMaio's mailer

    “It is a wise father that knows his own child.”

    —William Shakespeare

    If you've followed Spin Cycle long enough, you've likely noticed a greater interest in what motivates our local leaders and those who support and oppose them versus the mind-numbing calculus that can dominate the conversation about San Diego's most pressing problems.

    But it's always about the money, you might argue, and you wouldn't be entirely incorrect. People with money do curry more attention from our political leaders, but it still comes down to people.

    Spin got to thinking about this one on two accounts: 1) Mother Spin, a fine woman of 92 years and the English major who spawned yours truly, passed away a few weeks ago after a lengthy battle with diabetes and dementia. (If you appreciate this column for nothing but its grammatical superiority, you have my mom and her thick red pen to thank!) And 2) mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio's decision to play up his troubled childhood in print and in campaign mailers.

    As recounted in U-T San Diego as part of a recent series that focused on the turning points in the four major mayoral candidates' lives, the DeMaio story opens with Carl, his brother and older sister surrounding the hospital bed of their mother, who's dying after a long battle with cancer. The story makes vague references to an abusive father who had “just abandoned the family,” but it also mentions that the father had been served with a restraining order to stay away from the family.

    Told in the daily newspaper that later endorsed him and in a campaign mailer that urged recipients to head to his campaign website to read the full U-T story—noting in bold letters “A person's true character is revealed as they face challenges in life”—the story was horrifying, but it was in no way unique.

    To the cynic, the story more likely appeared to be about a candidate trying to soften the public perception of a man prone to bullying tactics and informational misdirection—what former City Councilmember Donna Frye has come to label the “political sociopath” side of DeMaio.

    Try talking about the psychological makeup of political candidates. It's a topic most candidates would prefer ignoring, perhaps out of fear that the tables will be turned on their own flaws and shortcomings.

    But when candidates talk about family, it's frankly pretty easy to determine who's being authentic and who isn't. And for Spin, this DeMaio story—as horrific as it's portrayed—just seems to raise more questions than it answers.

    Spin tracked down DeMaio's father, Carl J. DeMaio, who appears to lead a normal life with a new wife in a neatly landscaped home in Davenport, Iowa, the state where son Carl was born in 1974. He and his wife appear active in church activities—he, a former union-dues-paying public-school teacher, serves on the board of education for his Catholic parish.

    When reached by phone, the elder DeMaio initially sounded somewhat jovial—until the discussion turned to his son's efforts to become the mayor of a large U.S. city.

    “I don't know a thing about it,” he snapped. “And I don't want to chat with anybody about anything. Thank you. Alright?” And with that, he hung up.

    Subsequent emails failed to elicit further response, and candidate DeMaio similarly did not respond to an interview request.

    Court documents from that chaotic time in Orange County for the DeMaio family paint a disturbing portrait of a family disintegrating while a loving and fearful mother slowly succumbs to an aggressive cancer. In seeking a restraining order against her husband, Diane DeMaio, also a schoolteacher, noted that he “has had 3 child abuse reports filed against him. I have terminal cancer. He could not cope and on July 2, 1990 he left. He verbally and physically has been abusing me and the children for a long time.”

    She goes on to recount an incident when her husband “drove off with the boy”—which child is uncertain—“on the car at 40 mph, almost killing him. He used his car to ram my son's bike into him. A stranger came to the rescue and made my husband stop.”

    When DeMaio's older sister, Susan, sought temporary custody of Carl and his younger brother, Christopher, Carl said poignantly in his legal declaration in support of guardianship, “I saw my mother die and I saw what my father did to her. I pleaded with my mother to forgive him for all the physical and verbal abuse, for her sake.”

    Carl and his brother would eventually become the responsibility of their maternal grandparents back in Iowa. But, curiously, Carl J. DeMaio is never ordered to pay child support. In fact, he argued that the two boys were “financially independent by virtue of a trust” and from death benefits received from Social Security. A judge agreed.

    So, what, you may ask, is the point of this exercise? For Spin, it is this tremulous line between authenticity and storytelling for political gain. It's about what truly motivates a leader to do the best for the most people. And it's about what lessons we learn from life's challenges.

    For DeMaio, this is confounding to pinpoint. Perhaps it explains his love of numbers and his general distrust of anyone who questions his motives, elevated even to rumors that he maintains an “enemies list.” When he tells people that he has no social agenda and if voters are looking for a candidate with one they should look elsewhere, is that a cause to celebrate or a reason for concern?

    To be fair, I asked Bob Filner a similar question. Spin said he'd never heard stories about his parents. Filner said he's begun to tell stories on the campaign trail (his father, because he spoke Yiddish, volunteered during World War II to help liberate the concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald. He also later helped raise funds in the early days for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

    Filner's is a life arc that makes sense—learning from your parents the importance of fighting injustice wherever you find it, which he's done throughout his career. DeMaio's story and what he learned from his troubled past? It just seems like one more political ploy devoid of genuine compassion for people who face challenges every day.

    Got a tip? Send it to or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.


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