There’s a large tax increase ballot measure facing San Diego voters on Election Day, and San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio doesn’t have anything to say about it.
That might come as a surprise to anyone who remembers the Republican mayoral candidate leading the 2010 charge against Proposition D, a sales tax increase to pay for public safety services.
This year, the tax increase is Proposition Z, which would fund a $2.8 billion bond issuance by increasing property taxes by $60 for every $100,000 in value.
In debates, press conferences and an interview, DeMaio says he's following the lead of his newfound supporter Mayor Jerry Sanders and staying out of this fight.
"As mayor, I want to make sure that I have the ability to work productively with the school board without alienating them," DeMaio said following an extended hesitation during a debate at Politifest. "And that’s why, as the mayor has done, I’m not going to be endorsing that initiative one way or another."
The city’s conservative establishment — a coalition that stood with DeMaio to fight Proposition D and pass in June the pension reform initiative Proposition B — has shown no such reticence.
The Lincoln Club of San Diego, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and The Republican Party of San Diego all unequivocally oppose the measure. On its official voter guide, the local GOP says of Proposition Z, “No More Debt, No More Taxes.”
DeMaio’s opponent, Democratic Rep. Bob Filner, supports Proposition Z, calling it the most important decision on the ballot besides the mayoral race.
All five board members of the San Diego Unified School District, with whom DeMaio wants to maintain a working relationship in order to help implement his recently released education plan, support Proposition Z. They also have all endorsed Filner for mayor.
For DeMaio, the lack of a position on the tax increase, if inconsistent with his stated belief that revenue isn’t needed to solve government budget shortfalls, is at least consistent with his general election campaign strategy of not weighing in on non-city matters.
As with Proposition Z, DeMaio has refused to endorse a candidate in the presidential election, saying his focus is on the city. Likewise, he hasn’t offered an opinion on any of the statewide ballot measures, including Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s move to raise taxes for education spending.
Republican political consultant John Dadian said it’s a smart strategy based on the electoral environment of a general election.
“[DeMaio’s] constituency bodes better for a primary,” he said. “It’s a tough race for [DeMaio] to break his glass ceiling of support.”
Since June’s primary, both DeMaio and Filner have looked to reinvent themselves as political centrists, despite political careers marked by partisanship. DeMaio’s effort got a boost from recent endorsements by Sanders and philanthropist and Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) founder Irwin Jacobs, and is reflected by his decision not to get involved with his party’s other priorities.
“I would say it’s a certainly smart position, and I don’t think it’s altogether inconsistent with previous positions,” Dadian said.
But DeMaio said it’s not out of the question that he could take a position on Proposition Z before Election Day.
He said he’s asking questions of the initiative’s supporters to inform his decision.
“I’m still waiting to see the numbers from the school district to justify the fact that they already had a bond issuance, and they’ve only spent 20 percent of those bonds from — I believe — 2010 or 2008,” he said. “I think the burden will be on them to provide greater information in the next 29 days.”
DeMaio is referring to Proposition S, a general obligation bond of $2.1 billion passed in 2008. The district to date has spent 18 percent of the available funds, or $379 million.
While DeMaio wants to hear Proposition Z supporters make a clearer case for the initiative, he said he’s unlikely to support the plan. He indicated that his decision is between opposing it, or taking no stance at all.
He also said (after a lengthy pause and a heavy sigh) it’s hard for him to ever imagine supporting a tax increase of any kind.
“It would be a very extraordinary situation,” he said. “I don’t believe that you need tax increases to address the issues that we’re facing at all levels of government.”
So why not just oppose Proposition Z?
“It’s the same issue I face when people say 'who are you going to vote for for president?'" he said. “My focus is on the city of San Diego, making sure I put San Diego first, and as mayor I’m not going to be going out telling others how to do their job.”
SDUSD board member Scott Barnett, after endorsing Filner, said DeMaio’s already supported a tax increase this year, referring to his vote in favor of a financing plan to expand the Convention Center with a hotel tax. City hoteliers, rather than residents, approved the tax increase with a private vote, a maneuver that’s awaiting legal validation from a state court.
“Mr. DeMaio supports a half-billion-dollar tax to build a Convention Center without voter approval and takes no position on Prop. Z, the school bond to fix our schools and ensure our kids have 21st century technology,” Barnett said.
Barnett dismissed the idea that DeMaio would maintain a better working relationship with his board by staying out of the Proposition Z debate.
“Politicians sometimes are very creative at ducking tough issues, and Mr. DeMaio certainly is as well,” he said.