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The Tragic and Fascinating Life of Carl DeMaio

The mayoral candidate reveals little about himself on the campaign trail. He’s all business — resolute, rehearsed and relentless. But his approach also has come at a cost.

 

Carl DeMaio’s favorite color is blue. He usually eats dessert before his dinner. He’s afraid of heights, loves zombie movies and one time, when he was a high school freshman, he caught his tie in a newspaper vending machine. DeMaio freed himself from the machine by surrendering his neckwear. He still remembers how the tie looked hanging from the box when he walked away.

“Like a tongue,” DeMaio says.

You won’t hear DeMaio, a 37-year-old city councilman and mayoral candidate, tell these stories during his ubiquitous local media appearances. When he’s on stage, DeMaio is all about his plans to save city finances. Not personal anecdotes.

For this kind of talk, you have to go to an unusual source. DeMaio has created a virtual reality version of himself on his campaign website. He appears inside a whole virtual office. There’s a fireplace, an American flag and a window with a view of the San Diego skyline. Type a question and DeMaio animates.

Like the real DeMaio does on television, his virtual self can talk about his detailed proposals to balance the city budget, repair streets and create jobs. But the real attraction comes when the virtual DeMaio lively regales personal anecdotes. DeMaio has pre-recorded answers to 40 personal questions, everything from his exercise schedule (“I used to work out a lot more than I am today”) to his television habits (history documentaries). Other candidates relate these humanizing details freely in conversation. DeMaio leaves it to the robot version of himself.

DeMaio, both real and virtual, will tell you he’s an intensely private person. For someone omnipresent in the public eye, DeMaio has told the public little about how he came to be who he is. That’s by design. Talking about his background makes him uncomfortable. The facts of DeMaio’s life, though, are both tragic and fascinating. He was essentially orphaned as a teenager. He’s a drown-government-in-the-bathtub Republican leading a push against the party’s more moderate side. He’s in a committed relationship with the publisher of a prominent gay newspaper.

His reluctance to reveal his personal side hasn’t affected his remarkable ability to capture voters’ emotional mistrust of City Hall. In less than a decade, DeMaio’s resolute, rehearsed and relentless focus on the city’s financial problems has turned him from an obscure government consultant with no San Diego ties into a leading candidate to run the nation’s eighth-largest city. DeMaio contends voters want to know about his plans to deal with pensions, potholes and prosperity. There’s no room in that list for puppies.

DeMaio has admitted the public would want to know more about his life before they decide if they want him to be mayor. He also has realized that his opponents would redouble their efforts to dig into his background and try to unearth embarrassing details. These thoughts made him so uncomfortable that he hesitated before committing to run for mayor.

“I think it probably is to some extent a product of my childhood that you keep your emotions in a box,” DeMaio said. “Because it is so scary. It is so painful.”

The personal side of DeMaio’s politics, though, goes deeper than the protection of his privacy. He’s lost supporters and inflamed adversaries because he’s engendered distrust.

This is a core tension in DeMaio’s life as a politician. He’s shown himself able to harness your anger. He’s got work to do to show he can feel your pain.

♦♦♦

About a week before his mayoral campaign kickoff last June, DeMaio was still wrestling with the decision of who would introduce him. He considered local personalities, elected officials, community leaders. The kinds of people who are always with him at his innumerable press conferences and rallies.

Instead, DeMaio chose his older sister, Susan Mills-DeMaio. He said his sister could capture him in a singular way, even though most of his supporters likely had never heard of her before.

As if to underscore that point, Mills-DeMaio opened her speech by telling the audience at a street fair in Rancho Bernardo they were about to learn about a side of her brother most didn’t know. The crowd heard a fragment of DeMaio’s childhood.

“Our entire family structure crumbled while our mother had to battle cancer for six years,” Mills-DeMaio told the crowd. “We were separated as children when our mother died two weeks after our father moved out.”

Carl DeMaio was 15 years old when this happened. His father, who was abusive, left the family. His mother succumbed to cancer two weeks later. Her death threw the lives of DeMaio and his siblings into panic.

DeMaio remembers in the aftermath cobbling together a yard sale to try to make a payment on their Orange County home.

“When my mom passed away, we had nothing,” he said. “The accounts were frozen. My father sued. He wasn’t going to support us. Literally, we knew we had a couple weeks. We were wards of the court.”

DeMaio’s sister, then 19, quickly was granted temporary custody of Carl and his younger brother, Chris. Soon after, his maternal grandparents living in Iowa, where DeMaio was born, took in the two boys.

By that point, DeMaio had found Catholic education, something he’s credited with helping him cope. He had attended a Catholic military school in Anaheim and received a scholarship to Georgetown Prep, a prestigious Jesuit high school in the Washington D.C. suburbs. (DeMaio went on to Georgetown University where he graduated in three years with an international politics and business degree.)

DeMaio recalls one of his high school teachers describing him as “14 going on 40” because of the businesslike way he had approached life in the wake of his mother’s illness. He’s carried that with him.

“We didn’t have time to slow down and see the emotions,” he said. “I brought a similar approach to how I tackle problems. I’m always Mr. Serious and No Nonsense. But I guess people also want to see kind of more of the context and the history of folks that they would like to evaluate if they’re running for mayor.”

DeMaio made these comments in June, the day after he announced his candidacy. For this story, DeMaio and his campaign declined interview requests. All of DeMaio’s quotations come from his campaign website and that June interview.

In the nine months since then, DeMaio hasn’t revealed much more of his personal side.

Last week, KPBS allowed each of the four major mayoral candidates to pick a hobby for a profile piece. DeMaio’s opponents decided to have the cameras film them doing something light: exercising, dog walking, piano playing.

DeMaio chose knocking on doors in Rancho Bernardo. He told the station spending his weekends walking for votes was just part of his nature.

♦♦♦

DeMaio’s background always was going to attract attention.

He simply appeared one day on the political scene of a city where he had no history. People were going to ask questions. And since the solutions he peddled threaten to upset much of San Diego’s political power structure, the scrutiny intensified.

He emerged largely unscathed in his fights with organized labor and the city’s legacy business organizations. But his decision to run for mayor meant he’d be dealing with a whole new level of public display. DeMaio knew it. The fear of losing his privacy and facing intense personal attacks made him think twice before committing to the campaign.

“Ten percent of me was still not in it,” he said in the June interview. “Because I was weighing, Do I really need to put up with this shit? The shit that the labor unions are going to hurl? Remember this is a system that they control. They benefit from. Instead of offering ideas, they get nasty, negative and they will go to great lengths to control and to keep that system. … I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t tell you I didn’t have to go through that process and weigh that.”

In DeMaio’s first appearance in San Diego politics a decade ago, he praised the City Hall system he now wants to demolish. He gave former Mayor Dick Murphy an award for financial efficiency. At the time, DeMaio was affiliated with a libertarian think tank and ran a lucrative government consulting business.

Soon after he gave out the award, DeMaio did an about-face. He became a loud critic of the city’s financial management. He forced himself into the conversation about the city’s pension and fiscal woes through sheer will, showing up at City Council meetings, community and Republican Party events and writing op-ed after op-ed.

He mastered the art of pithy, easy-to-digest sound bites. San Diego’s pension fund was a “Ponzi scheme.” Its budget was a “shell game.” He called reporters on deadline to see if they wanted his take on big stories.

As San Diego’s government cratered, DeMaio’s profile soared. The New York Times quoted him in its infamous 2004 “Enron-by-the-Sea” article on the city’s deteriorating finances. True to form, DeMaio provided fodder to the headline writer by comparing the city’s accounting to Enron’s.

DeMaio’s solutions then to San Diego’s problems — sweeping pension, outsourcing and tax reforms — remain the same ones he’s promoting now. Supporters say he embodies a consistency, seriousness and determination the city needs. If he’s all business, then so what?

“His attention is 100 percent on getting the city back on track on its fiscal issues,” said April Boling, a longtime ally and his campaign treasurer. “It doesn’t surprise me to hear that, rather than playing the piano, he’s walking precincts.”

But even if DeMaio remains reticent to make his personality and background part of the campaign, others have been less squeamish. Since he announced his candidacy, opposition to DeMaio’s campaign has become increasingly creative and personal, much more than you could imagine against any other candidate.

The city’s largest labor organization just debuted a mobile app that basically encourages people to find DeMaio in public and videotape themselves asking him questions. Already, there are shaky cell phone videos of DeMaio on his way to breakfast, in the City Hall lobby and at the San Diego Lions Club.

A downtown business leader and prominent Republican, who has publicly sparred with DeMaio, plans to finance an investigative documentary about DeMaio’s life.

DeMaio also has been the subject of a nasty battle in the LGBT press. DeMaio is in a committed relationship with Johnathan Hale, the publisher of the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News. Hale’s paper fought week by week with a rival publication, San Diego LGBT Weekly, about DeMaio’s credibility in the gay community. An LGBT Weekly columnist intensified the clash by purporting to reveal intimate details of DeMaio and Hale’s personal life.

In late January, Hale’s paper announced it was no longer covering the mayor’s race because of his relationship with DeMaio.

♦♦♦

More than 4,000 people attended the funeral of San Diego police officer Christopher Wilson on a Thursday morning in November 2010. Wilson was shot and killed in the city’s Skyline neighborhood during the attempted arrest of an assault suspect the week prior.

DeMaio was at Wilson’s funeral. His presence caused a stir. According to observers, DeMaio arrived late, left early and while he was there, couldn’t keep his fingers off his cell phone.

Hank Turner, head of the county’s deputy sheriff’s association, detailed the scene in his union’s newsletter. He called DeMaio’s behavior shocking and embarrassing.

“My advice to him and any politician that attends a solemn event is as follows: don’t be disrespectful,” Turner wrote. “If you don’t really care about the man and are there merely for political reasons then don’t show up. The cops don’t care if you come.”

This incident highlights how DeMaio can show a personal blind spot. He can come across as being aloof, unconcerned or, worse, concerned only with his own advancement.

In 2003, DeMaio aimed to reassess city finances and residents’ priorities through something he called the San Diego Citizens’ Budget Project. When he began, he counted the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and San Diego County Taxpayers Association among his supporters. But both groups pulled out after before it was finished. At the time, they said they weren’t sure if the project was about the budget or about DeMaio’s political future.

“He says he’s not running for anything and he’s doing this for the good of the people, and yet the presentation would seem to indicate otherwise,” Lisa Briggs, then the president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, told the Union-Tribune.

Perhaps DeMaio’s most notable falling-out has come with former City Councilwoman Donna Frye. They were allies even before DeMaio first was elected to the council in 2008. They’re from opposite sides of the political spectrum. But they shared a maverick take on city government and together pushed for greater government transparency and pension reforms. San Diego Magazine satirized their bond with a cartoon of them in bed together.

By the end of Frye’s council tenure in 2010, she had soured on him. She came to believe that DeMaio didn’t actually support the open government policies the two had championed. Frye, who backs Democrat Bob Filner for mayor, said she watched DeMaio show up to public meetings late, walk out of them early or not attend them at all. When he was there, she said, he was busy working on campaigns on his laptop.

“What I found is it’s not so much that Carl wants to hear what the public has to say,” Frye said. “It’s Carl wants the public to hear what he has to say.”

Shortly after Frye left office, she had lunch with DeMaio. She told him about how upset she was at a recent vote on the city’s winter homeless shelter. She believed DeMaio had put politics above finding a shelter site. The shelter’s opening was delayed, keeping the homeless on the streets longer than Frye believed they needed to be.

DeMaio responded by telling her something she had never heard from him before. He talked about his childhood. That he was poor. That the Jesuits took him in after his family fell apart. That his upbringing made him understand the plight of the less fortunate.

But his story felt hollow to her.

“For me I would like to see the words and the actions match,” she said. “When they don’t, it’s very, very disturbing.”

♦♦♦

Type this question into the Q&A on DeMaio’s website: Are you a private person?

DeMaio appears, raises his eyebrows and jumps right into the answer. Yes, he is. It might come as a surprise, DeMaio says, because he’s a public official who’s out in the public all the time. But it’s true. He even took a personality test that proves it.

“It shows that I’m an introvert,” DeMaio will tell you.

If you spend enough time with DeMaio’s virtual version, you can come to that conclusion yourself. He likes to walk along Lake Hodges near his home to clear his mind.

At the end of the day, he likes to be by himself and collect his thoughts.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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