This is a series of 12 stories you should pay attention to in 2012. Here was No. 12: the Chargers; No. 11: the Convention Center; No. 10: The city of San Diego’s financial problems; No. 9: the San Diego Police Department; No. 8: affordable housing; and No. 7: the future of Balboa Park.
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis launched her campaign for mayor much more quietly than her rivals. She, along with City Councilman Carl DeMaio, refused to participate in early debates. Unlike DeMaio, the district attorney kept a low profile.
So it surprised many when one of her first major policy initiatives that she would enact as mayor was … to expand the school board.
The proposal came with a host of other reforms but it was about San Diego Unified School District.
Insiders jumped all over her. Schools trustee Scott Barnett mocked her and joked he was going to propose financial reforms for the city. (I reminded him that he had done that many times.)
I thought it was odd as well but then I reflected on it a bit: Why is it odd? Yes, reforming the school district is not part of the mayor’s job currently. Does that mean it should not be?
Had she presented a plan for a new football stadium, nobody would have accused her of venturing out of her league. Why is that? Why is the competitiveness of our professional football team — the reason we’re supposed to want a new stadium — more of a priority for the candidates than education?
What she was doing was framing a debate. If she successfully got other candidates to either oppose or endorse her ideas, then they would be buying into her assumption: that the new mayor should do something about schools.
It’s like getting people to argue whether they should get a white or a stainless steel refrigerator. If they do that, they’ve already decided to buy the refrigerator.
Contrast what she did to Nathan Fletcher, the assemblyman who is arguably her chief rival right now. He had similarly been dabbling in education discussions. But he had failed to draw out a bold idea and frame the discussion.
This year’s mayor’s race will be about framing. I mean, for me it will be. I’m no good at predicting elections. But these candidates are going to leap over themselves to frame the issues in this race. Is it about schools? Streets and infrastructure? Veterans? Jobs? The Navy Broadway project?
If things like money and gaffes and momentum didn’t matter so much in politics, it would be all up to who framed the issues best and then proved they could work on those issues best.
Let’s discuss each candidate and what they’ll frame:
• Bonnie Dumanis
She’s more comfortable exerting power privately than she is trying to inspire people with grandiloquence. It’s how she’s been so powerful until now, triangulating support for candidates of her choosing and exerting pressure strategically. And she was at her most compelling when she, commenters chided me that it was way too early to expect specifics on a plan like that.
It’s now February and we’re still waiting. His biggest endorsement came from former mayoral candidate and council member Donna Frye. She’s panned what few details he has hinted at about the plan.
What He’ll Frame: He’s kind of all over the map. He just said he’d hire a one-time fixture in the mayor’s race, environmentalist Jim Bell, to be his “energy czar.” Maybe he’d take us off San Diego Gas & Electric’s grid altogether. He says his economic plan is dependent on a vast expansion of the port. Will any of those frames fit?
Main Challenge: Himself. Filner made a remarkable admission the other day. He and his supporters have long assumed that, because he was the only major Democrat in the race, he’d have a ticket to the general election.
But now he seems well aware of the fact that he has no guaranteed ticket to move on.
• Nathan Fletcher
His main pitch to voters is himself. There’s a saying that goes something like this: You just need the right bus. You need to fill it with the right people and get the right driver and you’ll get where you want to go.
He wants to be the driver. He wants you to buy into him and his ability to bring people together to solve problems. He’s like a whiter, more conservative and Marine veteran version of Barack Obama circa 2007.
What He’ll Frame: The future. He wants this to be a question about who will be able to do the biggest things and get the most people together at the same table. If he frames it that way, he thinks he wins. He’s reaching out to bicyclists, environmentalists and intellectuals. Labor groups are hinting he might be acceptable if not preferable. But he’s tethered to the Republican Party and he’s not cutting that.
Main Challenge: His name. It’s not well known. His team is quick to spin unflattering results from the random polling that makes it into the public discussion. And he has been most successful fundraiser in terms of the number of people who have stepped up to help him. But he continues to struggle to solidify himself as the trusted alternative to the left and right wings of the rivalry.
• Carl DeMaio
DeMaio is betting on anger. Years of problems at the city and a conspicuous decline in city services have caused ample frustration. To Carl, the culprit is unambiguous: The city compensates its employees irrationally and too well. All the angry people will need to face down those managers and organized labor until he declares it’s been fixed.
What He’ll Frame: What won’t he? That’s the better question. He’s a master at this. If even a fraction of the issues he tries to frame emerge as dominant, he’ll win. The city is broken and he has a million ideas to fix it. No politician, in fact, has a more encyclopedic knowledge of city policy. His basic assumption is that the city is not the best at doing what the city should do for residents. He promises a much more productive city government by being able to reward employee performance or contract with the private sector. Where that ends, he’s going to focus on philanthropy and volunteerism.
Main Challenge: Politics and land use. He’s being drawn into rote politics. For instance, he’s been virulently opposed to building a new City Hall. Shiny new government headquarters do not fit well into the vision of someone who longs for a decentralized entity. Yet, he’s gone out of his way, regularly, to passionately champion the Navy’s controversial dreams for a headquarters on the waterfront.
That’s politics. Same goes for taxes. He looks for even the hint of a tax increase and is expert at screaming about it until you can hear him as far away as Europe.
But then he bizarrely supports a major hike to the city’s hotel-room tax even though voters twice rejected similar increases in 2004. It’s for a new Convention Center and that’s a popular project among influential folks.
The fact is, he hasn’t proven particularly deft at juggling competing principles.
We’ll have to see how he handles it if one of them really falls.
I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of voiceofsandiego.org. Please contact me if you’d like at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):
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This article relates to: Election, Government, Mayor 2012, News, Opinion, Scott Lewis on Politics
Tags: Bob Filner, Bonnie Dumanis, Carl Demaio, City Services, Donna Frye, Fundraiser, General Election, Jerry Sanders, Jim Bell, Mayor's Race, Nathan Fletcher, Republican Party, San Diego City Hall, San Diego Unified School District, Scott Barnett