During a break in his radio talk show, San Diego Councilmember Ralphie Inzunza had two questions for his bespectacled guest that summed up a sentiment raging through City Hall these days:
Who are you, Carl DeMaio, and where are you coming from?
There are plenty of opinions out there about this 29-year-old Iowa-born, self-proclaimed “government budget geek,” but for political observers who like their personalities neatly compartmentalized for easy digestion, DeMaio doesn't seem to fit any obvious mold.
Politicians run from him, he said, because “as Ralph Inzunza said, ‘We can't tag you.' ... Most groups, when they come before council, they want to save a library or they want to develop some hotel downtown. We don't have something for them to gore. We've basically said we're not here to win friends. We're willing to take the shit.”
That “we” is the Performance Institute, a government-reform think tank headquartered in a nondescript business park in Kearny Mesa that DeMaio says he started with credit cards and is now the largest of its kind.
From his corner office window, DeMaio has a pretty nice view of Cowles Mountain in the distance, one factor that led to his organization's move there. The other reason was to stay removed from the downtown echo chamber, where politicos and business folk seem to live in an incestuously wacky world all their own.
There seems to be no shortage of assessments of DeMaio, who first made headlines locally earlier this year when his organization released a financial analysis claiming that the city was grossly underestimating its projected budget deficit for the coming 2004-05 fiscal year. While the city was predicting that the deficit would hover around $27 million for next year, DeMaio's number-crunchers at the Performance Institute estimated that figure to be more like $80 million to $100 million.
“The city of San Diego does not just have a budget deficit,” DeMaio said at the time, “it has efficiency, transparency and accountability deficits.... We seek big change in the way city government operates, not only by offering cost savings ideas but by facilitating a public process to build political will for government reform.”
That pronouncement certainly didn't sit well with city leaders. City Manager Lamont Ewell, during City Council meetings, has frequently cautioned council members from taking DeMaio's financial analyses at face value. Councilmember Michael Zucchet can always be counted on to attempt precision strikes against him.
In a statement, Zucchet's office responded: “In recent council meetings, Councilmember Zucchet has raised questions about the financial numbers presented by Carl DeMaio as fact. The city of San Diego is facing severe budget challenges, and I think that the council welcomes innovative ways to solve them.
“When someone appears at a City Council meeting to criticize the budget proposals using inaccurate data and criticizes councilmembers as incompetent, however, Councilmember Zucchet sees it as his responsibility to challenge the questionable information. To summarize, Councilmember Zucchet's problems are with Mr. DeMaio's inaccurate statements to City Council, not necessarily with the man himself.”
An example of DeMaio's alleged miscalculations, Zucchet spokesperson Katie Keach said, was a suggestion that a promotional campaign within the city library system, known as “The Library-Check It Out,” could be cut, saving the city $85,000. Keach said the library director, however, reported that the program had been eliminated three years ago.
But at Tuesday's council meeting, DeMaio was quick to point to the city's own proposed budget, which included a line about the library program. Councilmember Brian Maienschein, clearly miffed, demanded that the city manager get to the bottom of what DeMaio called the “phantom” program.
“Carl is certainly shaking things up,” said political consultant Scott Barnett.
What people in political circles want to know, however, is what motivates him. If you stick around this city long enough, you'll probably discover that paranoia and egotism are the driving forces in many a political career. But just ask folks what they think of this fairly new kid on the political scene, and hold on to your hat.
“An Ivy League charlatan,” said one political insider. Mike Aguirre, who wants to replace Casey Gwinn as city attorney, continually referred to DeMaio's past associations with Newt Gingrich and the ultra-conservative Reason Foundation, which is listed as a “sponsor” of the Performance Institute, along with the San Diego Taxpayers Association and the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce.
In the cacophony of suggestions DeMaio and his troops of young MPAs (masters of public administration) have rolled out for each segment of budget hearings, one option particularly peeved Aguirre-taking misdemeanor cases away from the city attorney's office and shifting them to the District Attorney. Aguirre said such a move would tie his hands even before getting into office, eliminating his ability to go after political criminals and consumer fraud practitioners.
DeMaio, who spent his formative years in Jesuit school (his mother died when he was 13, and his father was abusive) before graduating from Georgetown University, hears the jeers all the time. But, he says, he also has heard from members of the public and many city employees who hunger for institutional change.
DeMaio said he met Gingrich, the controversial former speaker of the house, as a college freshman and soon began working at his Congressional Institute. “Yes, I am a registered Republican,” he admits, suggesting that people often wonder how he juggles conservativism with his current calls for radical government change.
He said he left Capitol Hill “because I got so frustrated with looking at programs that have good intentions but aren't producing the results.” His goal now, he said, is to “insert performance and accountability and transparency into what is inherently a political process. And if you shine some light on it, then maybe the public can start putting pressure on the politicians to make better decisions.”
Hooking up with the chamber and taxpayers association late last summer, DeMaio said he told them he wanted “to do real budget analysis,” not the “hide-the-ball” antics that he said City Hall is known to do. He called it the San Diego Citizens' Budget Project, and immediately the political salamanders gathered.
While planning a budget-reform forum for early 2004, DeMaio said he got a call from Mayor Dick Murphy's cantankerous chief of staff, John Kern. “We don't want you to do your forum before the March primary,” DeMaio recalled Kern saying.
After some debate, DeMaio said he agreed to put it off until the week after the primary, but he also asked that the city manager be asked to cooperate with providing needed budget data. Murphy even made a statement supporting the idea of seeking new innovations in governing.
After the primary, DeMaio said he got calls from the chamber and the taxpayers group expressing concern about the coming forum and DeMaio's admittedly provocative style. “I'm in Washington, having a screaming match with Mitch Mitchell [the chamber's public-policy VP], and I basically say, ‘If you're going to chicken out on this, that's fine. We will go forward. The facts cannot be ignored.'”
What worried them? According to DeMaio, Kern was “very upset” that the Performance Institute had sent an e-mail to all city employees seeking their ideas to cut costs and improve efficiencies at City Hall.
What came back were dozens of e-mails describing scores of instances where city funds were not being used as efficiently as possible.
Here's just a sampling of the comments:
* “Recently, instead of selling their horses/horse equipment, the Police Department just gave them away to interested officers. Definitely a misuse of city funds.”
* “I frequently hear stories from [San Diego Data Processing Corp.] employees where they often have as many as six managers asking them for ‘status reports' which then don't get read, or it generates too many questions because the managers don't understand the business and can't understand the reports.”
* “I think past and present city politicians are nothing less than criminals for reckless financial endangerment of our city. I thought Mexico was corrupt.”
* “Since there has been a hiring freeze for the past 18 months, the Personnel Department staff have little to do.”
* “We do have employees who get paid for doing nothing. We have individuals who have the knack in getting rid of nearly all of their job duties by making excuses like ‘I forgot the assignment,' ‘I didn't know that was my responsibility.' There are many such excuses.... They have become users of the system.”
The complaints go on and on. And despite the criticism, so will DeMaio.
Write to spincycle@SDcitybeat.com.