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Mayor-elect Filner rides Democratic wave into office

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Rep. Bob Filner has become San Diego’s first Democratic mayor in 20 years.

Looking at a 10,000-vote deficit, Councilman Carl DeMaio conceded the race, saying he wanted Mayor-elect Filner to have as much time as possible to put together a successful administration.

Filner accepted what he called DeMaio’s gracious concession, and echoed the councilman’s calls for their respective supporters to get past the divisiveness of the campaign.

“I also want to make clear that I don’t think the people who elected me elected a status quo administration,” Filner said. “They elected an administration that’s going to change things. We have a diversity in this city that has simply not been tapped by those who control power.”

DeMaio offered to help Filner’s transition team in any way possible, and Filner said he plans to take DeMaio up on the offer, particularly as relating to DeMaio’s expertise on budgetary issues.

Democratic enthusiasm

Filner rode to victory on a national wave of Democratic enthusiasm powered by historic voter turnout. More than 80 percent of San Diegans cast ballots in the election, a number DeMaio campaign advisers said was too much to overcome in a city with a plurality of Democratic voters.

Filner now begins the process of making good on his promise of a mayor’s office focused on improving quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods, and he’ll do so with the benefit of a Democratic majority City Council, following a landslide victory by Councilwoman Sherri Lightner in District 1.

Council President Tony Young said the two polar opposite candidates represented their polarized constituencies.

“I think it’s going to be my goal and the council’s goal to get all the partisans to come together and bring us back together and start working on the issues that are important to the city of San Diego,” Young said. “That’s going to be our challenge.”

But for Filner, despite a decisive win that sets him up to work with a cooperative City Council, things didn’t always come easy on the campaign trail.

His was a less engaged, less detailed campaign — perhaps by design — than that of his opponent, who drove the race’s narrative beginning in the primary with both paid advertising and earned media from his regular press conferences, appearances and endorsement announcements.

DeMaio’s was the better funded campaign, with $3.63 million raised, including $700,000 in donations from the candidate himself. Filner, by comparison, brought in only $990,000, and ended up relying on $2.1 million from primarily union-backed super PACs, compared to $1.5 million from outside groups for DeMaio, to help close the gap.

“Usually when you lose, you lose because of a mistake, and I can’t pinpoint a single mistake made by the DeMaio campaign,” said political consultant John Dadian.

Demographic dynamics

But from the beginning, Filner’s campaign relied on the demographic dynamics to give him an advantage over his better funded, more polished opponent.

By Election Day, his party had opened a registration advantage in the city — 272,600 Democrats compared to 183,800 Republicans and 186,700 with no party preference. The County Registrar accurately predicted voter turnout of up to 80 percent.

In the primary, Filner openly said he could run a minimal campaign and still likely advance to the fall runoff because he was the only Democrat on the ballot against two Republicans, DeMaio and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, and Republican-turned-independent Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher.

And once Filner was into the general election, the composition of an electorate fueled by the presence of President Barack Obama at the top of the ticket meant a decided advantage for the longtime congressman.

In the end, his calculations proved both accurate and impervious to campaign missteps.

“The city has changed dramatically in the last two decades,” Filner said Wednesday. “The political structure has to catch up.”

And as evidence of the favorable national trend and demographic advantages that swept him into the 11th floor of City Hall — home to no Democrat since Maureen O’Connor in 1992, Filner’s first year in Congress — Democrats won virtually every competitive major race on the ballot Tuesday.

Along with Filner’s win, the local Democrats also scored victories in the first council district, the 52nd Congressional District, where Port Commissioner Scott Peters is expected to defeat Rep. Brian Bilbray, and in the third supervisorial district, where Solana Beach Deputy Mayor Dave Roberts leads former Bilbray adviser Steve Danon.

Dadian attributed the Democratic wave not only to the national trend, but also the voter mobilization efforts of the local Democratic Party and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Union.

“They basically had a great, great ground game,” he said.

But Filner lost control of the campaign narrative on multiple occasions, with DeMaio always quick to pounce on the opportunity.

By comparison, DeMaio toned down his rhetoric once he was facing a general electorate, touting his social liberalism and support of environmental programs while promoting his ability to bring together disparate groups to accomplish his reform initiatives, Proposition B and managed competition.

When the early vote tally came through on the night of June’s primary election, showing a high likelihood that DeMaio and Filner would be facing off in the general election, political professionals around Golden Hall began joking about the race voters were about to witness.

One finalist was a staunch small government conservative — who at that point hadn’t voted in favor of a $1 billion tax increase to fund a new Convention Center — who rode a wave of reform past two moderate conservatives who more closely resembled San Diego’s typical mayors.

The other candidate was one of the most progressive members of the House of Representatives. He’d built his reputation in Congress working for military veterans' benefits and the interests of the constituents of his heavily minority district.

Competing visions

Voters would have a clear choice between two competing visions of city government, the thinking went.

As a bonus, both had well-earned political reputations as firebrands, even within the far ends of the ideological spectrum from which they came.

But that wasn’t the race voters ended up watching.

Instead, Filner began appealing to general election voters the night of the primary. After seeing Proposition B win overwhelming voter approval, he adopted his current stance that he’d bow to the will of the voters.

He reused the tactic to moderate his position on two other general election issues, too.

On a City Council-approved renovation of Balboa Park he had opposed, Filner said it would be his job as mayor to enact approved council ordinances, the park renovation included. And on the financing plan for the Convention Center expansion, facing a legal challenge of its own, he said he’d likewise implement whatever the courts said was the law.

For Filner, it was a way of moving to the middle without denouncing the positions he’d held. He had called the Convention Center expansion a “giveaway to private, out-of-town hoteliers,” the pension reform initiative “a fraud” and said the Balboa Park renovation would “destroy the historical integrity of Balboa Park.” Now, he said he’d follow the wishes of the voters, City Council and state courts.

Previously, Filner had proposed a pension fix of his own: refinancing the city’s pension debt through pension obligation bonds (POBs). But after a bit of back and forth, Filner announced he no longer favored POBs because Proposition B made the issue irrelevant.

“The most important issue now is realizing the nearly $1 billion in savings that results from successfully implementing a five-year freeze on pensionable pay for city workers, and I am the only candidate who can deliver on it,” read a statement issued by his campaign.

DeMaio’s move to the middle was more heavily based on rhetoric and campaign focus.

After a political career that had been singularly focused on city finances, he began discussing his attachment to environmentally friendly policies, put forward an education plan and took a trip to Mexico to discuss cross-border issues with the Tijuana business community.

At a La Jolla Rotary-sponsored debate in August, DeMaio responded incredulously to a question about how the two candidates, representing the extremes of their parties, could build consensus as mayor.

“This is kind of funny, this question being posed to a gay, pro-choice environmentalist who takes on the downtown establishment time and time again,” he said. “Look, at the end of the day what I’m fighting for are the issues that unite, rather than divide.”

'Downtown insiders'

DeMaio also brought in the support of groups he had previously referred to as the “downtown insiders” who were partially responsible for running the city into financial ruin, back during the primary when they backed Fletcher.

Along with the endorsement of his on-again-off-again political foe Mayor Jerry Sanders, DeMaio also collected those of Qualcomm Inc. founder Irwin Jacobs, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, Downtown San Diego Partnership president and former Sanders chief of staff Kris Michelle, and the group of business leaders that publicly dropped their party registrations as a show of solidarity with Fletcher, Movement to the Middle.

But aside from the endorsements and the change in rhetoric, DeMaio shifted his general election persona in debates and public appearances away from the outspoken politician he had been in the past.

In its place was a candidate who rarely responded to Filner’s barbs and returned dutifully to his message that his career to date had been a series of examples of bipartisan leadership. The coalitions he built against Proposition D, a tax increase proposed by Sanders, and in favor of Proposition B were broad-based and pragmatic, he said, and the recognition of this reality was evident in the support he had drawn from moderates like Sanders, Jacobs and Dumanis.

On Election Night and again while delivering his concession speech on Wednesday morning, DeMaio offered a more humble and conciliatory persona than he had ever shown during his general election push for middle-of-the-road voters.

His Election Night speech, where he stopped just short of openly conceding, called for an end to “the failed politics of labels.” Whether gay, straight, union or non-union, the most important label was “San Diegan.”

This is contrasted with a candidate who in April, according to conservative website SDRostra.com, asked a group of supporters “Are you ready to make San Diego the Wisconsin of the West?” referring to the Midwest state’s attempt to roll back collective bargaining rights for public employee labor unions.

For Filner, the move to the middle on those three high-profile issues wasn’t always reinforced by his behavior and campaign focus.

Water gun fight

On two of the race’s major flashpoints — an out-of-control water gun fight in Balboa Park that Filner tried to pin on DeMaio’s partner, and a disagreement over a pre-debate coin toss that DeMaio claimed was evidence of Filner’s lack of mayoral temperament — Filner made unforced errors that fed into DeMaio’s claim that he alone had the even-keeled personality that tends to win San Diego mayoral races.

On those claims of Filner’s poor temperament, DeMaio while conceding the race said he was optimistic the longtime congressman would be a fine mayor.

“Campaigns feature rough-and-tumble politics,” he said. “When they’re over, people come together to put our city first.”

Filner insisted all along that the city’s demographics favored him, if only he could do enough not to lose the votes of supporters driven to the polls for Obama.

And with Obama carrying more than 20 percent of the city vote, and Filner just more than 3 percent, he managed to do just that.

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