June 22 2012 12:00 AM

And how Peters will defend himself

Rep. Brian Bilbray (left) and challenger Scott Peters (right)

A week and a half ago, we interviewed Rep. Brian Bilbray, the Republican incumbent in Congressional District 52. It was a bit awkward to ask him about the general election, because the primary votes hadn't been fully tallied and we didn't know whom he'd face in the general election. So, we had to ask him hypothetically about both Democratic candidates: former Assemblymember Lori Saldaña and Port Commissioner Scott Peters. 

By the time we hit deadline, it was clear that Peters would make the run-off, so we interviewed him, too, asking him to respond to the tack Bilbray said he would take in attacking him. We didn't have room for it in this week's story, which breaks down Bilbray's very-recent voting record, but here's the transcript: 

First, the Bilbster. ---

CityBeat: What do you think is Peters' great weakness? 

Brian Bilbray: It's obvious that the people of the city of San Diego-what was the percentage that they voted for Prop. B? It was a huge number. That was an indictment of a system that he said he had fixed. Obviously if 66 percent of the people in the city of San Diego disagreed with him about how he handled the pension program, that's a big deal. In fact it's a big deal that people heard about across the country. Tuesday night everybody was talking about Wisconsin, but Monday morning they were all talking about San Diego and San Jose. 

So if I was to summarize: Peters' weakness is that he has a lot of pension baggage? 

And Scott's use of his personal wealth I think causes a lot of resentment with people who really are tired of what we call 'checkbook candidacy,' you know when the mega-million guys are literally just writing themselves blank checks. I think that resentment runs very deep among independents and Democrats and I think more and more Republicans in there. 

And here's Scotty: 

CityBeat: I asked Bilbray what tack he would be taking and he had two things. One is your relationship to San Diego pension issues. How are you going to defend against that?

Scott Peters: If anyone would look at the record, I think it would be fine. He wants to talk about San Diego in 2002 so that you won't think about Washington in 2012. The pension underfunding started in the 1980s, 20 years before I was even elected. After 20 years of bad habits, I continued those bad habits with one vote, which I regret, but it's also fair to be judged on what we did to fix it. 

Among those things is, one, we were the council that ended under-funding. We made it illegal. We made our employees pay a higher percentage of the cost of benefits. We saved a bunch of money. We ended DROP and 13th Check and other controversial benefits for new employees. I negotiated personally a new pension system for new employees that would end up saving the city $23 million a year. We were hailed by the [Security and Exchange Commissions]'s monitor, after all these reforms we made, as a city that was a model for other cities to follow. I think the record, on balance, is a terrific record. It's way ahead of other cities and states who are just now starting to recognize this and way ahead of Congress that's still arguing about the debt ceiling, which is a fight over whether to pay our bills. If he wants to compare San Diego in 2008 or 2012 to Washington, D.C., under him, I like my chances. 

I had a huge box of your pension files here, so I understand it. I'm literate on city policy. But it seems to me it's going to be a huge challenge for you to actually get across these nuances to the voting public. He's going to say you were involved in the pension fiasco.

He says I'm the father of the pension crisis. 

That's going to be a catchy phrase. 

It's preposterous. No one's going to buy that. 

People seem to buy Carl DeMaio's stuff. Surely it's not going to be easy to educate people on this. 

I didn't say I never made a mistake or that all the work was done. I'm just saying we're the council that started to turn it around and you're starting to see the benefits of that today. I don't think anyone is naïve enough to believe that. If you look at the cost to the pension deficit of the vote we took in 2002 that everyone's making such an issue out of, it is 3 percent. Three percent of the pension deficit. Now, I wish we didn't add that 3 percent, but that's all it is. If that's the battle he wants to fight, the amount of reform we've done in San Diego so far exceeds what's happened in Washington, D.C. The fact that he wants to talk about it shows he doesn't really understand it. 

The other thing he's going to go after is the self-financing of your campaign. There seems to be a general trend that people don't really like it, but people don't necessarily mind it as well. Carl DeMaio's the frontrunner in the mayor's race and Carl's a big self-financer. Mitt Romney's a big self-financer. But Bilbray is still going to go after you over it. How are you going to face that down? 

All money buys you is advertising, right? There are tons of candidates who self-finance and haven't been successful.

Well, yeah. Meg Whitman wasn't successful.

But I'm running on my record of achievement at the city council, at the port and as a community volunteer. I'm running on the endorsements I got for all that, from across the political spectrum. Those are earned. And I think people will understand that. I think voters are smart enough to sort that out. 

The other thing they'll understand is that Brian Bilbray and the Karl Rove machine that's standing behind him, socking away millions of dollars of corporate special-interest PAC money, that's where Brian's money is. He's got a million dollars in the bank raised from PACs. He wants to raise this issue so you won't look at his backyard. 

I raised more money than any other challenger in this primary and I'm committed to the race. It's hard running against an incumbent. The money is useful in getting the message out, but voters are smart enough to sort that out and I think they'll also look at where Brian's financing comes from and that's going to certainly raise some eyebrows.

Who do you think makes the stronger case? 


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