When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced it endorsed incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, his rival, Carl DeMaio, easily could have shrugged it off.  Candidates across the country are trying to tie their opponents to D.C.

Here was one of Washington’s biggest interest groups embracing DeMaio’s opponent.

Scott Lewis on Politics LogoBut DeMaio has a tic. His instinct in situations like this is to fight and insult a group or person that spurns him.

So he did. He attacked the Chamber’s credibility. His team pushed the story that Qualcomm somehow nefariously influenced the group, as though it was a shock that member businesses impact who the Chamber chooses to endorse.

DeMaio kept the story alive, provoking arguably a more damaging response from the Chamber than its original endorsement. Its political director responded by pointing out DeMaio sought the group’s endorsement and not one company weighed in for him. That led to another round of national stories about the row.

DeMaio’s instinct is to fight. He can’t help it. And yet, his message has been that he can end the “dysfunction” and “divisiveness” in Congress.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

It’s a curious campaign and it’s simply not the case for electing DeMaio.

The case for him is better understood when you look back at his impact in San Diego.

Ten years ago, I wrote a piece trying to understand why business and conservative groups had split with Carl DeMaio, then a fiery young newcomer who was trying to disrupt San Diego’s political conversation and lead a new reform movement.

After embracing DeMaio’s movement, the Taxpayers Association, the Chamber and even the Lincoln Club were having trouble with him. It wasn’t necessarily the ideas and proposals he presented, they told me.

It was him.

“Maybe it’s the right message but the wrong messenger,” said Chris Niemeyer, then the executive director of the Lincoln Club of San Diego County.

DeMaio had been unwilling to acknowledge some mistakes in his analysis of city budget issues. He was generally intolerant of those who disagreed with him. He would seek out partners. If they ended up not agreeing with him, however, they weren’t just wrong. He would say they were bought off or merely cowardly members of a nefarious insider establishment.

More powerfully, if you didn’t go along with his ideas, he would put them forth to voters with his own wealth and fundraising prowess.

It’s hard to argue with the results. In that decade since, DeMaio has already won and finished a term on the City Council. The Taxpayers Association became a major ally of DeMaio as he ascended to become the Republican standard bearer in San Diego. Now, DeMaio’s former campaign manager runs the Lincoln Club.

The consultant who was the architect of DeMaio’s mayoral bid is now the chief of staff to Mayor Kevin Faulconer. DeMaio is in one of the hottest congressional races in the country with a very real chance of throwing out an incumbent.

DeMaio’s approach forced the former mayor and the current mayor to get on board with his version of a major pension reform initiative that is now a model in the state. Even Democratic politicians find themselves obligated to say they support it. It’s largely seen as his success, not anyone else’s.

Over the last decade, who has had more impact on the city’s politics than DeMaio?

He didn’t make that impact with collaboration. Over and over throughout his decade of experience in San Diego he bullied, pressed ultimatums and demeaned rivals.

And yet his message now is just how much of a peacemaker he is.

Here’s how a recent invitation to a fundraising reception for DeMaio read:

“Our nation faces major problems, and members of both political parties seem more interested in fighting over issues for political gain rather than resolving them for the public good. Just as he did in San Diego, Carl can be an important voice to change the broken system in Congress.”

This message is coming in myriad forms. It’s the theme of this commercial. He’s painting an image of his term on the City Council as a bipartisan leader.

It must be killing him inside.

The case for DeMaio is not that he’s peacemaker with experience quelling divisiveness and dysfunction. Watching his 10-year ascent to the top of San Diego’s conservative coalition has offered up too much evidence to the contrary. He’s confrontational. He has stressed to me, personally, many times, the folly of compromise.

It’s no secret.

Erik Bruvold, the head of the National University System Institute for Public Policy, agreed. There’s no way DeMaio will lead the federal government toward more collaboration or “kumbaya moments.” But he said that a substantial majority of Congress, in both parties, supports fiscal conservatism, and an efficient and innovative government.

As a gay man who could influence the messaging on social issues like same-sex marriage and access to contraception, DeMaio could change the GOP, Bruvold said. Things that divide some Democrats and Republicans might erode if it’s all reframed.

“Carl has an opportunity to disrupt and unsettle those coalitions and it would be interesting to see what emerges,” Bruvold told me.

In San Diego, we seem to have gotten past the idea that the Republicans can be gay too. But this is still a provocative concept around the country. His rise could be a big move for the GOP to get past social obsessions that cripple its chances with more socially liberal young people.

Couple that with DeMaio’s preternatural ability to brand his own causes and initiatives, his endless store of energy and his media savvy, he has the chance to be on TV every day and to cause a stir across the country on a regular basis.

All of it would be in the service of what really drives him: re-inventing government. He has been desperate to get into a job where he can re-organize all the ways government delivers its services.

He never particularly cared about land use in San Diego City Hall. And he won’t particularly care about foreign policy in the federal government. But he loves budgets and he thinks he can show how we can get far more services from government agencies than we do without increasing taxes.

He just wants a chance. Chris Reed, an editorialist for U-T San Diego, calls DeMaio a libertarian, “a Reason-blessed true believer.”

Were he to succeed in winning the election for San Diego mayor in 2012, DeMaio would have set up San Diego as “Ground Zero for government experimentation – of a sort many will call radical but that libertarians will call long-overdue,” Reed wrote.

He lost that year. But that’s the real DeMaio.

He’s a fighter. His success has come not from collaborating with people who have different political interests but from packaging his ideas so powerfully and deriding his rivals so skillfully that he creates a new reality in a political culture.

As he told the Lions Club: Look at U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. One person can make a difference in Congress.

“And it’s a question of whether you’re willing to stand your ground,” DeMaio said.

Standing his ground is what DeMaio does best. The case for him is not that he will assuage conflict or heal wounds.

The case for him is that he’ll catalyze the Republicans in Congress the way Cruz has. His values, however, will be more attractive to young people.

In fact, the decision to force DeMaio to prove he’s somehow a better collaborator than his rival seems like a sabotage – an attempt to force him into a game he can’t win.

    This article relates to: 52nd Congressional District Race, Carl DeMaio, News, Politics, Scott Lewis on Politics, Share

    Written by Scott Lewis

    Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently breaks news and goes back and forth with local political figures. Contact Scott at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527, and follow him on Twitter at @vosdscott.

    HalSlater subscriber

    DeMaio's opinions and ideas really do not matter. Any GOP rep will either be a stooge for the corporate welfare agenda (Citizen's United, military spending, fossil fuel subsidies, etc.) or be denied support and attract a Koch Bros. funded primary challenge. The fact that the GOP has resorted to voter-suppression is clear evidence that they are in their death-throes. 

    Wanna-be Republicans who now call themselves "Independents" need to re-think their commitment to ideology and start recognizing that businesses are profit-creators not job-creators and it is the role of government to make sure that the benefits and opportunities of our community are shared. 

    Why a gay man would want to be a part of a group that thinks about him what they do indicates a problem. It seems to me it would be a lot easier to change Democrats fiscal policies that to change GOP social prejudices.

    Olin Hyde
    Olin Hyde subscribermember

    Excellent piece. The differences between Peters and DeMaio are so vast that it is impressive @vosdscott could summarize in such a short article. 

    DeMaio was an entrepreneur. He learned his first political lessons inside the beltway and saw how broken DC can be. Peters was a lawyer. He learned his political lessons in San Diego where his decisions on pensions, unions and policies led to near bankruptcy. 

    I was a Democrat, now an independent. It will be give me great joy to see a milktoast party insider (Peters) replaced by a bellicose gay Republican who agrees with neither his party or the culture of Congress. 

    We need change. DeMaio is the clear answer. 

    Steven Croft
    Steven Croft subscriber

    @Olin Hyde I thought that DeMaio made his money from government contracts and therefore has a huge stake in contracting out government projects. He always comes out against others earning this or others getting that while he seems to profit handsomely himself kind of a hypocrite. I never see mention or consideration of what is reasonable pay or a reasonable retirement for others on DeMaio's part only that everyone else is compensated to much.  His crusade to take away city workers pay, pensions and other benefits while he lives a good life himself he comes across as a spoiled kid to me.  His outlook on things is often uninformed and biased with his own agenda with no intention of bettering everyone he would supposedly represent.

    Olin Hyde
    Olin Hyde subscribermember

    @Steven Croft @Olin Hyde It is true DeMaio's business revolved around the Federal contracting business. Then again, so does more than 30% of the San Diego economy. Yes, he favors contracting jobs away from government towards the private sector. This is not hypocrisy. His point is that city workers get outsized pay, pensions and other benefits when compared to private sector employees. Regarding spoiled kids... Peters' background really wins on that count. Neither candidate is perfect. But at least Carl knows what it is like to sell and produce services. 

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    It is a frustrating race.  It is getting harder and harder to know who to vote for.  I'm leaning toward NOTA at the moment.  Carl is definitely a fighter which is good in my mind, but the excessive whining about Scott said that or Scott released another negative commercial today caused me to unsubscribe from his mailing list.  Additionally, his grandstanding on non-realistic things such as the no pay for no budget act is simply idiotic.  Something like that can never pass; ever!  The other issue which will probably cost Carl the election is his insistence that the republican party has to become more progressive to win.  I don't buy it, but we'll see what happens.  If republicans admit that they need to become progressive to win, then they have already lost!  Even if they win, we the taxpayers still lose because then there is nobody going to congress that actually believes in limited government.


    @alexroth3 not really. I wrote that's what he'll do -- that's the congressman he'll be. So be clear: you should want that if you want him.

    Rachel Laing
    Rachel Laing subscribermember

    Can ANYONE think of a situation in which Mr. DeMaio actually undertook an initiative and attempted to work with his council colleagues to get it through? Has he ever been successful at bringing his colleagues along on anything? He has always gone the route of the demagogue -- straight to the voters with slogans and half-truths. He has never been capable of sharing credit and has always been quick to throw those with whom he had a modicum of a relationship under the bus the minute he had a chance to advance one of his gimmicky proposals. 

    To my knowledge, you can't put all your ideas on the ballot in Congress; thus, we need someone who can work with others, deal with the Congressional power structure and engage with constituents and fellow members to get things done. 

    DeMaio thinks he's going to go and "shake things up" in Congress? Please. He'd do a lot of media gimmicks while being shunned by the very people he needs to accomplish anything at all because it's so clear he's not worthy of trust and, while he's a great showman, not such a great policy mind. His appropriation (and in some cases, theft) of the work of others, repackaged to make it seem like the idea (or data) were his own, make him a great marketer. But that gets nothing done for the people of San Diego. 

    The "peace maker" thing polls well in a country disgusted by divisiveness in Congress, and DeMaio thinks he can just tack it on to his abysmal record on collaboration and it'll stick. He thinks San Diegans are dumb. 

    We've already put in the CA-52 office someone who works hard and uses his policy smarts and genuine ability to work with others to serve his constituents. Now we just need to get to the voting booth/mailbox and make sure Congressman Peters gets re-elected.


    @voiceofsandiego you lost me at Ted Cruz. Oh boy. Not only does he like to fight, but he has his partner's "news" org do it on his behalf.

    SJS subscriber

    @Meridith_Coady @voiceofsandiego I know first hand "his partners" business tactics and behavior.  "Those who can do and those who can't bully". We have no room for it - period. To put on a "peacemaker face" to win votes is more of what we already have and don't need anymore. It's what will and is running our country into the ground--- politics.  We tweet about it, Facebook about it, we post all kinds of things about how our country  is corrupt with politics and self serving - then we vote for it, again. I am a registered Republican and I don't know what that means anymore. 

    michael-leonard subscriber

    Kudos to Scott Lewis for a great analysis. I had not thought of ANY reasons to be in favor of DeMaio until now. And I actually agree with him regarding compromise, which I always defined as "when nobody gets what they want."

    David Cohen
    David Cohen subscriber

    Carl De-Me-me-me-o is nothing but a street-fighter demagogue.  I almost hope he wins so we can get him out of town.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    As the only DeMaio supporter so far who has taken time to comment, I think this is a, pardon the expression, “fair and balanced” assessment of the guy.  If you want a man who will go along with the status quo in Washington, vote Peters a second term, after which he’ll probably be unbeatable, given his personal wealth, and he’ll relax into a beltway career of 30 years or so, during which he’ll become an elder statesman, his unpardonable vote on the pension plan in 2002 long forgotten. 

    I think it’s fair to call DeMaio a disrupter, and lord knows he’s often wrong about details and doesn’t tend to apologize, but which politician does?  Carl’s milieu is in the nuts and bolts of government, and he sees what I see, unbelievable waste and inertia in almost every government agency at every level.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

    Last night I attended my local town council meeting and a staffer for my council member proudly announced a quantum jump in efficiency the city was achieving in handling pothole repair.  He claimed that they had now begun to consolidate pothole repairs by location, so that crews were saving a bundle on travel time.  It seems that, according to this council rep, they had simply repaired them on a “first reported, first fixed” basis, and now they were bunching them by location and the time gains were substantial.  I don’t know if this story is even true, but it’s illustrative of the lack of common sense most of us see when we look at the details of how government bureaucrats do business.

    Personally, I think we need a few more disrupters in congress, people who won’t just follow the party line.  Carl is in tough because of his antipathy toward public employee unions, and he’s now being reviled as a, gasp, “tea partier” in Peters ads, but he’s got a shot and I’m writing another check as I type this.          

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    There's a reason Congress is dysfunctional. A substantial number of voters like "disruptors." Thinking outside the box is good, but only effective if you can convince others to pursue the agenda you propose.


    @vosdscott At its core I think that's a pretty glowing review of @carldemaio, but he can't use it 'cause it exposes his campaign as a fraud.


    @drolland @carldemaio interesting take. But yes, his messaging about ending divisiveness with bipartisan collaboration is pretty funny.


    @vosdscott this, btw, is the best proxy discussion I've seen for @carldemaio's persistent habit of threatening/freezing out media orgs.

    Sara_K subscribermember

    It's easier to make peace in a monarchy than democracy, it seems. Carl wants to be king.

    Karen Grube
    Karen Grube subscriber

    @harryjharryj @vosdscott Are you kidding me?  DeMaio brought social issues and his own personal agenda front and center into this campaign by deciding to run solely as a gay activist.  Beginning with the ad where he's holding hands with this partner, through his going all over the country campaigning ONLY for openly gay candidates, to his pitiful complaining on Bill O'Reilly and Dana Perino that he was under attack from every side for being what he laughingly calls a "gay conservative," to his finally making clear his support for abortion, to trying to blame his office break-in on an anti-gay hate crime, to his unsuccessful attempts to get the gay community to support him . . . How has he NOT been running on social issues this ENTIRE campaign?  Yeah, he's seen what a huge mistake that was and he's been trying to fix it the last couple of weeks, but trust me, it's way too late.  Thankfully, the voters of the 52nd CD now see him without the duplicitous mask he hid behind for so long that he was just "a fiscal conservative who happened to be gay." 

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Ms. Grube highlights the pickle Mr. DeMaio is in. Social conservatives rallied around his Republican primary opponent, hoping against hope that DeMaio would not be the Peters opponent in the runoff. In doing so, they demonized DeMaio and thereby inflamed the socially conservative base against Mr. DeMaio to the point that many will stay home, unable to pull the lever for DeMaio or Peters. If you carve off that highly motivated voter block in a tight race, you have one very tough road ahead as a Republican. Mr. DeMaio is trying to make up for that in his new and seemingly desperate approaches. He can't unring the bell so he is going all in.


    @vosdscott not afraid to admit I've never seen "preternatural" in a sentence before today. Looked it up. Might use it again. Thanks!