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Debate begins two-month sprint to Election Day

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Councilman Carl DeMaio continued trying to rebrand himself as a moderate and Congressman Bob Filner emphasized his newfound pledge to implement Proposition B during a San Diego mayoral debate Tuesday, marking the start of the race’s push to November.

Sponsored by the La Jolla Rotary Club, the debate occurred the same day DeMaio announced his first TV advertising purchase of the general election and kicked off a week of five mayoral debates, including another Tuesday night. The week after Labor Day has historically signified the beginning of the general election.

Over the summer, DeMaio began cultivating a more moderate image, dulling his anti-union rhetoric and releasing policy preferences on previously ignored issues, like education and the environment. On a question that framed the two candidates as representing the extremes of their parties, DeMaio attempted to reinforce the idea.

“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.”

Filner took the opportunity to cast DeMaio as a candidate who launched his campaign by creating division and chaos by casting city employees as the cause of the city’s underfunded pension system and claiming he wanted to make San Diego “the Wisconsin of the West,” alluding to the governor’s battle over collective bargaining rights.

The candidates continued to grapple over implementation of Prop B., the voter-approved referendum to change most new city hires from pensions to 401(k)-like retirement plans.

Filner called the initiative a fraud throughout the primary campaign, but after its passage has shifted his tone. He now says he’ll implement the plan if it’s validated in state court.

During the primary, Filner favored a two-year pensionable pay freeze followed by three years of two percent increases. Now, he says he’s the candidate who can implement the five-year pensionable pay freeze — from which the initiative derives all of its nearly $1 billion in savings — because of his relationship with the city’s union leadership.

Negotiating the five year freeze up front, rather than in each of the next five years, would save the city more money on its annual pension payment because the system currently projects four percent wage growth beginning in three years.

“We will negotiate a five-year pensionable pay freeze in the city of San Diego regardless of whether Proposition B is validated by the courts,” Filner said.

But DeMaio maintains Filner’s previous hard-line stance against the initiative — and his qualification that he’d implement after it receives court approval — means he can’t be trusted to uphold voter will.

“Prop. B is not tied up in court,” he said. “Unions have filed a number of frivolous lawsuits, and they have not succeeded in getting any judge to say we cannot implement.”

A union complaint against the measure is currently before California’s Public Employment Relations Board, or PERB. In the meantime, the city’s affected unions have agreed to implement a temporary 401(k) plan for new hires the City Council will vote on when they return from recess. The permanent 401(k) plan can’t be implemented until the conclusion of PERB’s hearing.

How a new mayor will ensure Prop. B’s five-year hiring freeze has become a recurring issue in the campaign, and the two candidates Tuesday disagreed repeatedly over who could introduce it.

DeMaio has said he has a City Council coalition — Councilman Kevin Faulconer, Councilwoman Lorie Zapf and Councilmen-elect Mark Kersey and Scott Sherman — representing the four votes needed to keep the city’s default negotiating position as a five-year freeze.

Filner counters by pointing out imposing a labor contract in the event of a negotiating impasse requires five votes, not four. DeMaio for the first time Tuesday said four votes would be enough to secure the freeze, due to language in the current contract.

All of the claims rely on a series of hypothetical assumptions. The City Council race to represent the first district, which includes La Jolla, pits challenger Ray Ellis against incumbent Sherri Lightner. Ellis’ campaign has said he’ll be a reliable vote for Prop. B implementation. Lightner’s campaign also said she’d continue to support Prop. B. Either candidate could represent a fifth vote to impose a pay freeze.

But Faulconer will only be able to make good on his promise for the next two years, when he’ll finish his second council term and won’t be eligible to run again. Zapf will also face re-election that same year.* Even the Councilmen-elect who pledged their votes will need to win another term four years from now to cast a vote for the fifth year of the freeze.

Filner also alleged DeMaio’s priorities were with downtown special interests, rather than improving city neighborhoods and quality of life. DeMaio said his budget proposal, “Roadmap to Recovery,” laid out his budget priorities.

“You have a plan. You have rhetoric. But your votes have said otherwise,” Filner said. “You’re trying to distance yourself from four disastrous years on the City Council… the hypocrisy by which you approach this election is just overwhelming.”

While DeMaio has voted against the city’s budgets, including the most recent from Mayor Jerry Sanders that balanced the city’s structural deficit, he has explained his vote as a protest against the city continuing to underfund infrastructure projects, leading to an infrastructure deficit that he’s pledged to close.

“What I’ve said on the budget every year is that I will not vote for a budget that’s not truly balanced,” DeMaio said. “I will not vote for a budget that uses accounting gimmicks.”

Someone in the crowd interrupted one of Filner’s responses, leading to him asking the person if they’d like to come up to the podium. After the debate, Filner said he handled the heckler the way he handled misbehaving students when he was a teacher.

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