Sept. 12 2012 11:34 AM

Not very effectively, say innovation-forum panelists

Bob Filner, Carl DeMaio
Photos by David Rolland

"People who make no mistakes lack boldness and the spirit of adventure. They are the brakes on the wheels of progress."

—Dale E. Turner

Last week, mayoral candidates Bob Filner and Carl DeMaio—within a flurry of scheduled debates—alighted on the stage of the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theater in Balboa Park's venerable Museum of Photographic Arts to talk about innovation and its role in San Diego's economic future.

To be fair, the format—three-minute opening statements, one-minute answers, 30-second rebuttals and one minute each to close—was not conducive for any groundbreaking discourse. But the candidates were provided the questions in advance, so it was hoped that some intellectual meat would be there for the gnawing.

Unfortunately, the candidates seemed to fall back on their typical go-to styles: DeMaio bringing most answers back to his fiscal-reform agenda and Filner entertaining with his "What if?" ad-libs.

The questioners that day are no slouches in the brain department: Mark Cafferty, president of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.; Joyce Gattas, dean of San Diego State University's College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts; and Tom Murphy, former Pittsburgh mayor and senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute.

Asked later how the candidates handled their pre-submitted queries, each of the panelists invited to participate in the forum sponsored by the San Diego Innovation Alliance and KPBS expressed varying degrees of disappointment.

Why, you may be asking, should anyone be surprised that politicians would come prepared to answer questions in such vague ways? (Heck, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have made an art of the frustrating technique!) Well, where San Diego's economic future goes from here is a pretty darn important topic, one that, after these oh-so-many months of campaigning, you'd assume the candidates would have grasped by now.

But judging by the panelists' thoughts, nothing of substance occurred on the way to this forum.

Gattas, whose list of community involvement stretches a country mile (including board seats on the Balboa Park Conservancy and the foundation that will determine the future of the charter high school that will be located in the new Downtown main library), told Spin Cycle, "At the end, I thought, OK, it's over. Did any of us come out more inspired, more clear, more knowledgeable? No, I don't think so. I left kind of feeling, Was this really a good use of any of our time?" 

Gattas asked repeatedly for the candidates' vision of Balboa Park beyond the 2015 centennial celebration. Prior to the forum, it was announced that the park had just been chosen by the National Science Foundation for a $2.65 million grant as the lead site to establish an "innovation incubator"— along with Chicago and Worcester, Mass.—that will study how the arts can be incorporated into the advancement of science, technology, engineering and math, a concept referred to as STEAM.

While DeMaio praised the news "in terms of the disciplines that we want to create and the environment we want to foster," he almost programmatically returned to his mantra that "we have to deal with it in a responsible and balanced way, which is why we do have to engage in our fiscal-reform agenda and finish that job" in order to "free up money for important investments."

Filner, meanwhile, zeroed in on DeMaio's obsession with fixing potholes and pension systems, arguing that for "a city to aspire to that is an aspiration to mediocrity." He then proceeded to rattle off his accomplishments when he sat on the City Council and the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education nearly three decades ago.

The Congress member also suggested that San Diego needs decent public art at its airport. When you land at airports in Minneapolis or San Francisco, "you know whether they support public arts," he said. "You land here, you don't have that." He also noted that he "saved" music programs when he served on the school board.

Murphy, the former Pittsburgh mayor who defied a 70-percent voter rejection of a sales-tax hike and found a way to get two new riverfront ballparks and a convention center built, wanted to know how the candidates would compete for venture capital against such heavyweights as Silicon Valley and Boston.

Both Filner and DeMaio made vague references to red-tape cutting. DeMaio kept referring to his "Pathway to Prosperity" outline while Filner emphasized some notion of a "comprehensive" approach and a need for a "metropolitan kind of sense."

"I'm not going to influence the banks and the venture capitalists directly in their investments," Filner added, but a mayor can "show that we are going to be a city which welcomes them."

As Murphy told Spin, "It was hard to just figure out what they would do to actually move San Diego forward. Your innovation economy has grown remarkably in the last 30 years, with partnerships between local government and your universities. I was looking to hear how they were going to continue that investment, but I didn't hear that from either candidate."

Cafferty, meanwhile, pushed for specifics on how the next mayor would draw local youth into the economy, a moment that at least brought some levity to the proceedings. DeMaio talked about hiring young people "to achieve efficiencies in the city government," to which Filner snarkily replied in headline style, "DeMaio comes out for child labor."

When Filner countered that youth could help achieve his goal of installing solar panels on all public buildings, DeMaio interrupted by saying, "Child electrocution."

Cafferty acknowledged that "I think both of them know and understand the importance of innovation in the region…. At the end of the day, we know that, in reality, one of these two guys is going to be mayor, and they're going to need to be engaged in a regional economic-development agenda. This is a war for talent, and if San Diego doesn't seem like the best place to come because you're going to struggle to find people, then we're really not going to grow that innovation economy that we spent so much time talking about."

Sage words. So, step it up, candidates.

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