Carl DeMaio is one of the “Next Generation” candidates we’ve been keeping an eye on. The former San Diego city councilman is a fiscally conservative and socially tolerant Republican. At a time when it’s still rare for any political candidate — much less a Republican candidate — to be openly gay, DeMaio featured his partner in a campaign ad. In a sign of just how fashionable it is this cycle to be a Centrist, the NRCC just promoted him to “Contender” status. He took a break from campaigning to talk with The Centrist Project about why he can’t help speaking from his gut. -CF
Q: The hot word in the 2014 cycle seems to be “centrist.” There are so many races—like your race against Democrat Rep. Scott Peters, the race to succeed Rep. Henry Waxman, the Maine gubernatorial race, and so many more — where several candidates are vying for the mantle of common-sense problem-solver.
You can talk centrist, but talk is cheap. I absolutely don’t agree that Scott Peters is a centrist. When he was on the San Diego City Council, he created problems, and what he’s stood for was pretty extreme. For example, our pension reforms – every group supported it. But Peters stood against 75 percent of the voters in his district. Who increases taxes and cuts vital services while voting for salary increases for himself and his own personal office staff? He put San Diego on the brink of bankruptcy because his policies were so extreme. So on the issues that are important, you judge a centrist by their actions. When he got to Congress, he has been fading into the woodwork, and voted 80 percent of the time with his caucus. So I would ask him — and others who claim to be a problem-solver — what did you actually do to be considered a centrist?
Q: Did you consider running as an Independent?
Not really. I’ve been happy to take on my party when necessary. I don’t feel constrained in the least. I was one of the first to call on [former San Diego Mayor] Dick Murphy, a Republican, to resign. He presided over a lot of the city’s financial problems. I took heat from the party over that. I said, “Look, if this guy is saying we don’t have a financial crisis but we’re clearly heading over the cliff, we need better leadership.”
A lot of people in politics like the system the way it is. Just go along to get along. That’s not how I am. You need people to step in and say, “Surely there’s a better way to do this.”
Q: At the national level there are incredible pressures to toe the party line. How can leaders navigate that pressure while attracting support from across the aisle?
My Fix Congress First initiative won’t make me popular with my colleagues, because it includes reforms like No Budget No Pay for real, and changing the gold-plated benefits of being a Member of Congress. I have Democratic voters coming up and saying, “I agree with this — I hope the Democrats in Congress support you on this.” That’s where we’ll have the best chance of bipartisan support.
Plus, from time to time when the Republican Party shoots itself in the rear end, which happens about once a week, I can say that doesn’t reflect the majority of Americans who are members of the Republican Party. These elected officials are pretty much out of step with the party. They play to the extremes. So I can say, “Cut the crap out.”
Q: Wow. You’re refreshingly blunt for a politician.
I don’t take that as an insult at all. The concept of speaking from your gut just happens — and is a breath of fresh air for the American people.
Q: What role do you see Centrists playing in Congress?
There’s a thoughtful approach that centrists can take, versus a meat cleaver approach. That’s where the centrists come in and say, “Here are some common-sense, thoughtful ways for us to move forward.” You don’t see either side doing it on their own.
I get upset with Republicans for saying we have to fix the national debt, but they didn’t offer up any ideas. And for health care, you can’t beat something with nothing – I don’t want to just see what you’re against—what are you for?
And just like Republicans, the Democratic Party has a pattern of playing the shiny object in politics: “We don’t have solutions for the real problems, so let’s focus attention on something that spikes donations and creates a wedge.” On social issues like immigration, for example, how can we paint the other side as nasty, uncaring, call them extremists. Most of the time it’s just talking points.
Q: How do you think we got into this national war of words that keeps us all so divided?
I blame a lot on the partisan political consultants — let them sit out one cycle and see what happens! I don’t have a general consultant on this race, because all too often they’re afraid to say the things that need to be said, and too afraid to reach across the aisle. I’ve got a very clear message I’m trying to convey to people from all walks of life, and I don’t need anyone to get in the way of that.
I’m playing it right from the gut.