SAN DIEGO — As befits a place that calls itself America's Finest City, over-the-rainbow rhetoric is a common feature of San Diego mayoral elections. Candidates routinely promise to make this a world-class city at the cutting edge of technology, wireless communication, green energy — you name it.
But this election cycle, a more down-to-earth issue is playing a major role: potholes.
All four major candidates — two Republicans, a Democrat and a Republican turned independent — have vowed to fix the potholes, fissures and cracks in the city's streets that have become as much a symbol of San Diego as Shamu at Sea World or the pandas at the zoo.
Carl Luna, history professor at San Diego Mesa College, attributes the street-level tone of this season's mayoral campaign to that famous dictum of the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill: All politics is local.
"Nothing is more local than that pothole in front of your house," Luna said.
As San Diego has struggled with a spiraling pension deficit, the national recession and cutbacks in state funding, street repair has suffered. For several years, the city's dismal credit rating made it impossible to sell the bonds necessary for large-scale street repair.
In late April, the county grand jury issued a scalding report that called for "broad-scale rethinking of repair and maintenance of this vital community asset." Similar reports were issued by grand juries in 2006 and 2007.
The grand juries' jeremiads are hardly news at City Hall. When the city established a pothole hotline a couple of years ago it was swamped with complaints, some couched in the harshest of language.
Finally, as the city's finances began a slow recovery two years ago, Mayor Jerry Sanders announced that 134 miles of the city's "most complained-about" streets would be resurfaced, at a cost of $47 million — more miles and money than in the previous eight years combined. And $30 million more is slated to be put into the repair project this summer.
But in a city with 2,774 miles of streets, the backlog is staggering.
Patching streets only perpetuates the problem — overall, the streets are worse now than before the mayor's push began, the jury said.
The candidate who has the most street credibility on the pothole issue is Councilman Carl DeMaio, a conservative Republican and budget hawk who also has led the fight to reduce city pensions and outsource city jobs.
His campaign slogan is "Pensions, Potholes and Prosperity."
"Can you imagine our roads getting even worse?" DeMaio asked in a near horror-stricken voice at a recent candidates' debate.
Even before the campaign began, DeMaio released a seven-point "Save Our Streets" plan to dedicate $335 million to $497 million during the next five years to fix the city's roads. He created a smartphone app for residents to report potholes, was photographed helping city road crews and promised to appoint an inspector general for potholes.
Polls show DeMaio in the lead, followed by Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, whose switch from Republican to independent provided a mid-campaign surge in the polls. Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis, a Republican, has lagged.
If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the two top vote-getters will face a November runoff.
Although DeMaio may have been the first to campaign as the pothole-fixer, his rivals have not conceded the terrain.
"We all know San Diego's roads are a disaster area, and getting them back in shape will be a top priority of mine as mayor," said Dumanis, who added that she will make sure the city does not resurface a street one week, then dig it up the next to install sewer lines.
Fletcher has promised an "infrastructure strike force" to oversee the seven city departments that do repair work. He has the endorsement of Rich Haas, the city's former chief deputy operating officer for public works, who swears that Fletcher is the only candidate who can fix the city streets.
Filner has used a different strategy to chip away at any advantage on the pothole issue, saying DeMaio's promise of hundreds of millions of dollars for street repair is illusory.
Filner also says he would sell pension bonds, rather than making pension payments from the general fund, and refinance other city debt to take advantage of low interest rates. The result would pump $500 million into the general fund over 10 years to fix potholes and bolster other neighborhood services, he said.
Bob Glaser, a San Diego political consultant unaligned with any of the candidates, said the public's anger over potholes has become a symbol for cutbacks in neighborhood services, including branch library hours, recreation programs and park maintenance. Voters, he said, may be tired of years of austerity.
"Voters understand global problems like the economy and pensions," Glaser said, "but they're in a mood to say: What does that mean to me, my block, the streets in my neighborhood, my potholes?"