After city officials attacked his math as faulty, his ideas as unrealistic and his personal style as abrasive, the Performance Institute's Carl DeMaio sifted through the more than 200 recommendations he says could save the city millions of dollars, pulling "the diamonds from the coal" and polishing them into his 10-point San Diego Citizens' Budget Plan. Now, with the city's financial crisis the pre-election hot topic, he's bringing his flashy ideas for fiscal reform to the voters in an attempt to force the politicians to reconsider. Call it DeMaio's way of grabbing them-by the jewels.
On Monday, San Diego Citizens for Accountable Government-a general-purpose political committee established by DeMaio in August and registered with the IRS as a "527"-launched a high-profile effort to inform the voting public about where candidates for city offices stand on those 10 points. And although local election laws don't prohibit him from endorsing or denouncing candidates, DeMaio says he's not going to bother, focusing instead on pinning the candidates down on issues of fiscal reform in hopes of holding those positions over their heads if they get elected.
"We could[n't] care less who becomes mayor," he says. "We could[n't] care less who wins in the City Council. What we want to do is force the people who are running to take a position on the financial issues, so we are going to keep hammering them and force them to finally 'fess up to what is their plan to solve the city's financial crisis."
And with an enviable war chest of approximately $200,000 to burn and less than a month to go until Election Day, DeMaio-who says he personally contributed half that sum from his own savings (documents detailing where the money's coming from were due at press time)-is carrying a very big hammer. His goal: "to bring accountability, transparency and efficiency to city government." His weapon of choice this time around: mass media.
"We announced we would be doing this back in August when we said we are going to make financial mismanagement the No. 1 issue in this campaign," he says. "The way we are going to do it is by informing the voter of what is happening in City Hall. We are going to have non-stop media, non-stop political advertisements and non-stop mailings...."
While San Diego Citizens for Accountable Government is taking a firm stance on local propositions-opposing both a Prop. J increase of the hotel tax and a Prop. H reconfiguration of the city's retirement board-DeMaio's no-endorsement policy has been called into question. Like other 527s recently in the news, Citizens for Accountable Government's campaign seems to speak volumes, none of which are favorable to Mayor Dick Murphy.
A brochure mailed to thousands of likely voters this week charts where candidates for mayor, the District 1 City Council seat and city attorney stand on the Performance Institute's 10 reforms. (Donna Frye was not included-she announced her candidacy after the materials were printed.)
On one page, a column of 10 red Xs, each accompanied by the phrase "refused to answer," appears below an unflattering photo of Murphy. A footnote states that the survey was delivered to the mayor's office by certified mail and that two other separate attempts to solicit his participation were rebuffed.
The mayor's office also did not respond to CityBeat's repeated requests for comment, which is par for the course.
But some of DeMaio's critics have pointed out that the flyer seems, at least at first glance, to endorse county Supervisor Ron Roberts, whose shiny, grinning face appears in the adjacent column above 10 blue checkmarks indicating his support for all of DeMaio's recommendations. They also note that Murphy was the only politician mentioned by name in both radio ads released last week by the San Diego Citizens for Accountable Government.
Although selling voters on the need for fiscal reform is key to DeMaio's efforts and shouldn't prove too difficult, it seems another, more understated idea is resonating with politicians.
Councilman Michael Zucchet, who was critical of DeMaio's factual accuracy and rhetoric during city budget hearings, says he saw the mailer last week when DeMaio handed it out at a City Council meeting.
"I think he is trying to strike fear in the hearts of people who will be running for election in the future," Zucchet says. "He is putting them on notice that he will spend money, in a campaign sense, if he is not listened to, basically."
DeMaio's not exactly denying that but insists he also plans to heap praise on officials who take steps to enact his proposed reforms. Indeed, last Wednesday, the Performance Institute issued a press release applauding Murphy's announcement that he'll seek a two-year salary freeze for city workers while also urging him to take additional action.
With four more mailers set to go out in coming weeks and more radio ads possibly in the works, Wednesday's move alone probably won't be enough to loosen DeMaio's grip.