San Diego Mayoral Candidates Fighting to Appeal to Undecided Voters

City Councilman Carl DeMaio (R) and Congressman Bob Filner (D) are facing off in the San Diego mayor's race.  Credit: DeMaio and Filner Campaigns

Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio (left) and Democratic Congressman Bob Filner (right) are facing off in the San Diego mayor's race. (Images: DeMaio and Filner campaigns)

On a sunny day this fall, Republican city councilman Carl DeMaio and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders walked through a local, bayside park to a podium surrounded by a barrage of news cameras and reporters.

It was a good day for DeMaio. The mayor, a fellow Republican, was endorsing him — despite the two being long time political foes.

“Only one candidate has demonstrated the detailed knowledge of our city that will be required from his first day on the job.” Sanders intoned. “Only one candidate has the focus and the energy that will sustain him through difficult times. That candidate is Carl DeMaio.”

Sanders’ endorsement was followed a few days later by the announcement that Democratic philanthropist Irwin Jacobs was also supporting DeMaio.

But it hasn’t been a bad season for Democratic Congressman Bob Filner either. He’s consistently led in the mayoral polls. Still, as the election draws closer, the outcome is becoming harder to predict. Different polls yield different results. In mid-October one poll gave Filner a seven point lead, while another put DeMaio ten points ahead.

The politically charged atmosphere around the mayor’s race is unusual for San Diego. Carl Luna, professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College, says that’s because San Diego voters are used to having two moderate Republicans facing off — not a race between two people from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Luna says the way the power players in the city are lining up reminds him of a popular book turned movie.

“It’s kind of like that movie, Hunger Games, where you get the city center and the districts,” Luna says. “You’ve got a downtown, more business, pro-Republican element. That group went strongly for Carl DeMaio. The labor unions are all going for Bob Filner.”

To political observers the divide isn’t surprising. Despite attempts to move to the middle, both candidates are seen as being firmly within the bounds of their political parties. Filner is viewed as a classic Democrat who often touts Civil Rights era arrest and two-month stint in jail for taking part in a Freedom Ride.

At a debate hosted by the San Diego Police Officers Association and the local taxpayers association, Filner scoffed at DeMaio’s suggestion that he turn down his pension if elected.

“Every working person deserves a pension. Every working person deserves that security that 30 years of work … are going to give that person,” Filner said. “So, I ain’t gonna turn it down. I earned that!”

DeMaio, in turn, has staked his reputation on being a fiscal conservative. He champions outsourcing some city services. He led the effort to eliminate pensions for most new city employees in San Diego.

At the debate DeMaio blasted Filner saying that Filner misrepresents how he would spend taxpayer dollars.

“But they would have gone to your special interest masters, the government employee labor union bosses, to continue unsustainable pension payouts rather than restore the services that are important to our working families,” DeMaio said.

But politics is all about getting votes, and there are plenty up for grabs in San Diego. The latest polls show 13 to 18 percent of likely voters are still undecided. In an attempt to capture those voters, Filner and DeMaio have been working to bring out their softer sides. DeMaio made his case at a debate sponsored by KPBS.

“My coalition represents Democrats, Republicans, Independents. From all around our city and all walks of life. We all love San Diego and that is a tie that unites,” DeMaio said.

Filner says he’s made his way up from the local school board to Congress because he can work with people.

“You’re elected because you’re a leader,” Filner said, “because you can bring those people together and get things done. That’s the hallmark of my career.”

Whichever man is elected, he’ll have plenty to tackle right out of the gate. City infrastructure, civic projects and, of course, San Diego’s financial recovery will all be waiting for the new mayor on day one.