by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTO: L to R: Carl DeMaio, Bonnie Dumanis, Nathan Fletcher, Bob Filner
The four leading candidates for Mayor of San Diego in this year’s election addressed the Queer community at a forum at the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center in Hillcrest Wednesday, March 28, in what turned out to be the first candidates’ debate since Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher left the Republican Party and re-registered without a party identification. Ironically, though the debate’s sponsors included San Diego’s Queer-oriented major-party political clubs, the San Diego County Log Cabin Club and the San Diego Democrats for Equality, neither club endorsed either of the openly Queer candidates in the race, City Councilmember Carl DeMaio and County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
Instead, the Log Cabin Club endorsed Fletcher — though they may have to rescind the endorsement now that Fletcher is no longer a Republican — and the Democrats for Equality endorsed Congressmember Bob Filner, the only Democrat among the four major candidates. However, that didn’t stop Filner from noting in his opening statement that San Diego has come a long way since he entered electoral politics. “Thirty years ago, could you imagine this night at the Center, when two of the three Republican candidates — I’m sorry, all the Republican candidates — were Gay and were elected to office without it being an issue,” Filner said. “My friend Nathan gave an incredibly moving speech on the Assembly floor calling for repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Here we are with four candidates, either Gay or Gay-friendly. It’s a tribute to your political organization.”
“I really feel like I’m home,” said Dumanis, who gave the second opening statement. “Forty years ago, I came to San Diego and have grown up with the LGBT [Queer] community. I’m part of this community, and there are two really proud moments of my life: when I ran to become the first openly Gay district attorney in the U.S., which I did with your support and that of the Victory Fund [a nationwide organization devoted to identifying and helping elect openly Queer candidates to public office]; and the opportunity I had to marry my partner Denise and take her as my spouse. We proudly participated in this community and in a press conference against Proposition 8,” the anti-marriage ballot measure approved in November 2008 that closed the window of opportunity for marriages like hers.
Carl DeMaio, who spoke next, said, “This is a very important forum for me,” but as he has done throughout his political career he avoided discussion of Queer issues or his own sexuality and focused on his overall agenda for the city. “We are out there advancing change and building a consensus that our city government is broken and needs fixing,” he said. “I’m running on a comprehensive program of getting our city services back on track and rebuilding our neighborhoods. I have an obligation to represent this community well, and a lot of my supporters will cast their very first vote for an openly Gay candidate. We are advancing change by touching hearts and changing minds.”
Up last, Nathan Fletcher focused his opening speech on his decision to leave the Republican party and his attempt to establish himself as someone who can work with members of both major parties to solve problems. “I ran for State Assembly because I believe public office is public service,” he said. “I’ve focused on bringing people together, solving problems and getting things done. I will always be an independent voice for what is right. Our partisan system is broken.”
Moderated by Tom Fudge, host of the Morning Edition news program on KPBS-FM, the forum allowed for audience questions but only in writing. Rather than allow audience members to address the candidates directly, the debate sponsors had ushers collect the questions on index cards, and Fudge chose which questions to ask the candidates. The first question allowed the candidates to explain how they proposed to serve the Queer community and why Queer voters should elect them.
“You’ve got to know where we’ve been,” said Filner. “I’ve been a proud fighter for equality since I was a kid. When I was 13 I met Martin Luther King, Jr. and when I was 18 I was in jail. I’ve been working for African-American, veterans, Latinos, Gays, whatever. I don’t just pass and vote for laws. I don’t take any contributions from people who supported Proposition 8. I would have been out there working against it, just as we will do for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act” [ENDA, an attempt to add Queer people to the classes protected against job discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act].
“You can have a mayor who will be constructive for your community,” said Fletcher. “We really can begin to rebuild our city. We became described as Enron by the Sea. There’s a chance in this election to bring in a new mayor. I want to redefine San Diego as an innovative city and an education city, but it’s going to take not only a mayor with a plan but a mayor who can work with people and bring an independent voice to help us move forward.”
“I think I would not underestimate the power of sending a message to San Diego and the U.S. to have a Gay mayor,” said Dumanis. “I’ve seen the impact of [openly Lesbian Mayor] Annise Parker in Houston, and I’ve seen what we can do as a judge and a district attorney. I will be a proud spokesperson and will continue to serve you.”
Carl DeMaio answered similarly. “It will be the shattering of the glass ceiling that your orientation doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s how well you can do the job. The best way for me to represent the LGBT community is to be San Diego’s best mayor. And that’s what I’m committed to do. In fulfilling that role, I have to go into communities where they don’t agree with my orientation, who may not believe in full equality, and in a lot of those communities I may be the first person in a long time from the LGBT community that they’ve met. It allows us to set an impression, to touch hearts and, in doing so over time, to change minds.”
But given the close ties between the modern-day Republican party and the anti-Queer evangelical Christian Right — including the support of all the major Republican Presidential candidates for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ban legal recognition of same-sex marriages nationwide — it was almost inevitable that one of the questions that would come up was how DeMaio and Dumanis reconciled being Queer with being Republican.
“My mother asks me that every day,” Dumanis replied. “It was harder to come out to my parents as Republican than as Gay. Government should stay out of our lives and we should have individual responsibility. I have worked with all sides and all members of our community. You know what I stand for and where I’ll be. Being part of the solution is making those changes from within.”
“When I met my partner Johnathan, he asked me about politics, I said I was a Republican and then there was a long pause and I thought, ‘There went my chance for a second date,’” said DeMaio. “Just like Bonnie, I think we all have a role to play. I am a Republican, I’m proud to be a Republican, I’m proud to be a member of the LGBT community, and I don’t think you can make things happen unless you can make change in every community, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. I had to stand before the Republican Central Committee and ask for their endorsement. Twelve hours prior to that, a filthy e-mail was sent out [to each of the Central Committee members]. It was absolutely outrageous, and I did not know whether that would affect the outcome. I stood before them and said, ‘You know me. I’m running on a fiscal reform agenda, because our city’s future is on the line and I ask you to help me change its course.’ And they endorsed me by a two-thirds vote despite that nasty, shameful attack.”
Fletcher took the time he was supposed to use on the next question — about the DeMaio-sponsored initiative to end defined-benefit pensions for new city workers and shift them to 401(k) plans — to accuse DeMaio of pandering to anti-Queer prejudices on the Republican Central Committee to get their endorsement. “Your campaign viciously attacked me, in the open, for my support of equal rights regardless of sexual orientation,” Fletcher said. “You took a far-Right extremist score card and touted it as the reason that they should not support me, and should support you. Your campaign directoryou’re your surrogates attacked me for my support of SB 48 [a bill which requires public schools to teach the social contributions of Queer individuals to U.S. and California history]. You refused to answer whether you supported that effort or not.”
Given a chance to respond by moderator Fudge, DeMaio said, “I have never criticized any of my opponents for their positions on social issues, nor will I, because I do not believe it is the role of the mayor to advance a social-issue agenda. That has been very clear and consistent,” he added, as the audience booed. DeMaio was also confronted by a reporter from San Diego LGBT Weekly, who protested that neither he nor any members of the media would be allowed to question either DeMaio or any of the other candidates directly. Fudge threatened to have the reporter ejected if he continued to disrupt the event.
Pensions, Parks and Filner’s Gaffe
Two of the questions for the candidates centered around two of the most controversial issues in the race: the initiative DeMaio co-sponsored with current Mayor Jerry Sanders to eliminate defined-benefit pensions for new city workers and the proposal by Qualcomm founder and CEO Irwin Jacobs to finance the building of a pedestrian bridge and parking lot in Balboa Park — as long as the city approves his proposal without change. On the pension issue, DeMaio, Dumanis and Fletcher all supported the initiative and Filner opposed it.
“Did Bob Filner sign his name to the card?” DeMaio asked, noting that the question Fudge had raised was framed in a way clearly hostile to his initiative. “Pension reform has to be done in the city of San Diego. Our city’s financial future depends upon it. In 2000 our city’s pension payment was $48 million. This year it’s $231 million, and even under the rosy scenario of earning 7 ½ percent guaranteed interest a year on investments in the pension system, our pension payments will spike to $340 million in the next 10 years. Do you know where all that money is coming from? It’s coming from our community service organizations, road repairs, library hours, police and fire protection, higher water bills for people on fixed incomes. We must confront this issue.” He also claimed that his initiative would return city employees to the Social Security system.
“I went to Houston for the LGBT Leadership Conference and went to the municipal meeting, and the number one topic was pensions,” said Dumanis. “Everyone had the same message: we can’t afford the pension systems we have for public employees.” She said that she would be willing to “bring the employees back to the negotiating table and make it fair,” and she would also be willing to explore annuities as a third option.
“I’m the only one who opposes the Dumanis/Fletcher/DeMaio plan,” Filner said. “It throws the public employees under the bus. It does not put the public employees on Social Security, and it does not put money into the general fund. Any savings depend on their being no raises for city employees, and that can’t legally be mandated in an initiative.”
On the Jacobs plan for the park, DeMaio and Dumanis were noncommittal, Fletcher enthusiastically supported it as part of a broader vision for Balboa Park’s 100th anniversary in 2015, and Filner opposed it. Fletcher called the controversy over Jacobs’ plan — and especially the take-it-or-leave-it condition he attached to it — “like remodeling a house and just talking about the garage door. Let’s have a bigger, broader discussion on how we can make it the greatest park in the world. I want us to send a message to community groups and to philanthropists who are willing to part with some of their hard-earned money, to the environmentalist community, that says we can get together and address these problems. We need to send a message to all those groups that we are interested in rebuilding our city and moving us forward, not continuing the same old fights about the same old issues.”
“Two Republicans wouldn’t take a position, and the ‘independent’ got it wrong,” said Filner. “I’m against the bridge. We have to look at what we want Balboa Park to be for the next 100 years, but if you put that monstrosity in, it destroys the future. So let us do it right. I agree with you. Let’s get the pedestrians out of there” — an obvious mistake, since the debate over the Jacobs plan is whether it represents the best way to make the center of the park more pedestrian-friendly by getting automobiles out of it. Filner didn’t realize he’d made a gaffe until audience members questioned him on it and said he’d got it wrong. “Oh, shit,” he muttered under his breath, then only made matters worse by continuing to joke about his mistake during the rest of the debate.