SAN DIEGO -- For four decades, California's second-largest city has had a habit of electing bland, mostly Republican centrists. Some have been effective. Pete Wilson went on to become a senator and governor. Some have been disasters. Dick Murphy was blasted by Time magazine in 2005 as one of America's worst mayors shortly before he resigned.
This tradition of blandness ends on Nov. 6. That's when San Diegans have to choose between Republican Councilman Carl DeMaio, a hard-charging, 38-year-old gay libertarian who is a champion of outsourcing government services, and longtime Democratic congressman Bob Filner, a 70-year-old paleoliberal whose relentlessly combative manner has produced nonstop headlines for three months.
Flashes of Filner's temper have made news before. An ugly incident in 2007 with a baggage handler at Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia led to the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee entering a no-contest plea to misdemeanor trespassing charges for which he was fined $100 and required to send an apology letter to the worker he menaced.
Coverage of that court case led to the mainstream media discovering a previous ugly incident in 2003 at an El Centro, Calif., federal immigration detention center in which Filner made physical contact with security guards and taunted them, saying, "Are you going to stop me, big man?" and "Are you going to shoot me, are you going to arrest me?" Guards were forced to call El Centro police. (Here's the Justice Department memo on the matter.)
Yet when he entered the mayor's race last year, Filner's image was fuzzy for most San Diegans, who hadn't seen much of him since his 1992 election to a safe seat in Congress. Some knew little about him beyond his role as an early 1960s Freedom Rider fighting segregation in the Deep South, which he has used as his primary personal selling point since entering politics.
Filner's image is much less fuzzy now. Since July, the Cornell graduate has:
• Said DeMaio's life partner was criminally liable for vandalism at a city park because the alternative newspaper owned by the partner had carried publicity for a park event that went awry -- continuing his campaign's habit of finding ways to remind voters that DeMaio is gay.
• Falsely claimed DeMaio had been subpoenaed to testify about his purported role in illegal labor negotiations.
• Made remarks about the death of DeMaio's mother from cancer that led DeMaio's sister to demand he apologize.
• Blown up at a debate moderator and initially refused to come onstage because he was angry with debate rules and had lost a coin toss on the speaker order for the first question and closing remarks.
• Blown up at an event at a Jewish temple hosted by Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney for San Diego, repeatedly calling DeMaio a "liar" despite admonishments by Duffy -- a liberal appointee of the Obama White House -- that he behave civilly.
Filner has kept the last incident in the news the past two weeks with demands that Duffy resign for making her displeasure with Filner's behavior known, asserting she has violated the Hatch Act.
All this is remarkably good news for DeMaio and for libertarians who have long wondered what a government run by a Reason-blessed true believer would be like. Democrats have a 78,000-voter registration edge in San Diego. DeMaio is loathed by city unions. The current Republican mayor, former police chief Jerry Sanders, endorsed him but only after repeatedly making plain that he considers DeMaio a credit-grabbing publicity hound -- a trait I pointed out back in 2008. And while DeMaio has improved as a retail politician, the Georgetown graduate and former management consultant doesn't have the natural empathy and warmth of many successful pols.
Most veteran San Diego political observers believe that if DeMaio were running against former Councilwoman Donna Frye, a Democrat who nearly won the 2004 mayoral race as a write-in candidate, he would have lost decisively. In his race against Filner, polls have been inconsistent, but the most recent survey shows a dead heat.
Yet DeMaio's not-so-secret weapon is his opponent. After seeing Filner in person for the first time at a news conference at which he berated a reporter repeatedly, a stunned liberal journalist I watched the event with asked me, "Is he always like that?" Luckily for DeMaio, Filner almost always is.
If Filner has this effect on enough people, in five weeks time, America's eighth-largest city will inaugurate as mayor a brash reformer bent on transforming the government status quo. Thanks to a June initiative primarily authored by DeMaio, San Diego is by far the largest U.S. city to have ended costly defined-benefit pensions for nearly all its new hires. As mayor, DeMaio would ramp up San Diego's already-aggressive attempts to bid out a wide array of government services. He also wants to end automatic "step" pay increases given to public employees just for years on the job and to finally bring to government the productivity revolution that has fueled U.S. private-sector growth for two decades.
The goal, DeMaio told me in April, is to set up a national model for downsized, efficient government. If elected, DeMaio appears likely to have a GOP majority on the City Council. If these more conventional Republicans back him up, San Diego could become Ground Zero for government experimentation -- of a sort that many will call radical but that libertarians will call long-overdue.