Two of San Diego’s top four mayoral candidates engage in lively discussion before a large crowd at the Balboa Theater
Two of the top four candidates for Mayor of San Diego accepted the invitation of A Better San Diego Coalition for a 90 minute debate last night at the Balboa Theater in Downtown San Diego. Democrat Bob Filner and Republican Nathan Fletcher took the stage in front of a packed audience. The crowd, though slightly partisan in Filner’s favor (Fletcher too had a good number of supporters in attendance), was very respectful and attentive, allowing both candidates an opportunity to clearly state their positions on various issues presented……..which of course does not mean that they necessarily did so.
The debate, sponsored by A Better San Diego Coalition, a conglomeration of various community groups—including unions—was moderated by Lorena Gonzalez, the leader of the San Diego and Imperial County Labor Council. Also notable was the absence of the other two top candidates: Republican Bonnie Dumanis, who refuses to participate in any debates until the primary ballot has been made official; and Republican Carl Demaio, who declined the invitation out of concern for the reception he would receive from the coalition groups that he is vehemently in opposition to.
The debate itself was mostly unremarkable, serving as merely an opening salvo in what is sure to be a long and contentious campaign. The two participating candidates staked out unsurprising positions. Throughout the evening, Fletcher, the State Assemblyman who is a relative newcomer to the political scene, was comfortable and confident at the podium, yet was woefully short on answers or solutions to the City’s issues. Filner, the political veteran and longtime US Congressman from San Diego was clearly more polished, yet he too provided few specifics.
There were some clear divisions between the two, however, particularly on the matter of the pension reform plan proposed by Carl Demaio that would effectively turn all future San Diego public employee pensions into 401k accounts subject to the mercies of the stock market.
Predictably, Fletcher supports the Demaio initiative, saying that the plan will save the city money by “returning city workers to Social Security and structuring a defined annuity on top of that to provide a secure retirement for city workers.”
Filner called the plan “unfair and immoral.” “It puts our city workers under the bus,” he said, pointing out that the plan would make city workers subject to the stock market. “Have you seen the stock market? It goes up and down……you probably won’t need a pension, you’ll have a heart attack!” Filner quipped.
City workers, he said, do not have Social Security, leaving them completely at the mercy of the stock market. He also insisted that it won’t save the city money. According to state and federal law, Filner points out, there must be transition costs to pay for the new program, and because there is no new money coming into it, the result would be an increase in the unfunded liability payment into the retirement system.
When asked whether the candidates would support a city policy to require companies to use local workers on local government sponsored projects, thereby putting more local residents to work, Fletcher said he would not support such a policy, preferring to allow businesses to make their own decisions regarding their hiring practices. Filner says he would be in favor of such a policy. “General Dynamics employed over 60,000 people here locally, and we have not replaced those jobs since they left. The largest employer in San Diego today employs only about 4,000 people.” Specifically, Filner said he would like to see the Port of San Diego become a major player, necessitating the expansion and improvement of the San Diego port facilities, using local labor to do it. “It would provide jobs for thousands,” he said.
Filner also highlighted what is traditionally a major difference between the parties: The belief that government can help create jobs in the private sector. In addition to a major port expansion, Filner said that as mayor he would seek to require all city buildings to be solar powered, and push for all public schools to be solar powered. In turn, he says, it would increase demand in the private sector and increase the affordability in the long term.
On local taxes, it was pointed out that San Diego has some of the lowest tax rates, particularly the business tax. Both candidates agreed that it would not be feasible to raise taxes in San Diego at this time, citing public skepticism toward government efficiencies. Fletcher expressed a willingness to examine the San Diego tax code in its entirety to search for better uses of local tax dollars. Filner, in the meantime, insisted that raising taxes in San Diego would be unnecessary if the city adopts his soon-to-be-released pension plan, which he claims would save the city hundreds of millions of dollars in the next decade. That money, he said, could then be put back into public services. Fletcher said he would oppose any plan that would result in “a backdoor tax increase” on San Diegans.
The issue that provided the starkest contrast of the evening between the candidates came in a question about plans for a new stadium for the Chargers (and other uses). Filner insisted that the Spanos family “will not extort funds from us,” referring to public funding for a stadium project. “When a billionaire asks for city money, we say ‘what about your money?’” said Filner.
“This is what you get in San Diego. You talk about a big idea and someone says ‘no’ and twists it to make it all about one family,” retorted Fletcher. Big ideas that will move our region forward, he said, require everyone to contribute.
“The issue has been framed as one that asks do you support building a box that you use eight times a year for football. And I think you need to move the conversation to where it’s starting to head to one where you ask do you support building a regional asset that can be used hundreds of times a year,” said Fletcher.
On the push to outsource city services, Filner opposes outsourcing, warning of a false equivalency. “The voters have said they want us to look at that, and we have a process in place, but we have to look at it very closely because the private proposals to not include health benefits or pension benefits.” They may save the city money, but it doesn’t improve the quality of life in San Diego. The proposals to make San Diego the “Wisconsin of the West,” Filner said, aim to vilify public workers. “We should be celebrating those who pick up our trash,” he said.
“I support managed competition because as we have seen over the last few months, there are ways we can find additional savings and deliver the same services. The city workers have won every (contract),” said Fletcher. “We can achieve savings and still deliver the same level of service.”
On the “Occupy Wall Street” (and San Diego) movement, both candidates acknowledged that people are frustrated and angry, and have every right to be. Filner, having participated in the civil rights movement as a Freedom Rider, pointed to that experience as an example that the people have the power to make change happen in American society, and the Occupy movement is a modern version of that.
There were no shocking revelations during the debate. Both candidates highlighted their differences, and both found common ground. The evening was also a demonstration that even parties with sharply divergent views can come together and discuss their differences in a civil and respectful manner, and without widening the gulf that separates the two political parties today that has led to the extreme polarization of our society. That, in fact, the two sides can find ways to work together.
Writer’s Note: Assemblyman Fletcher should be commended for his participation in this debate. Given today’s political environment, and given that the Labor Council was one of the event’s chief sponsors, it is encouraging to see Mr. Fletcher step up and participate where other candidates refused to do so due to their vehement opposition to unions.