Politics

In San Diego, a House race is made-for-TV drama

California Republican Congressional candidate Carl DeMaio leaves after speaking at his campaign headquarters ,Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014, in San Diego. The race for a San Diego congressional seat already was one of the closest and most expensive in the country. In recent weeks, it also has taken a number bizarre twists that have nothing to do with disagreements about health care reform or federal spending. The Republican challenger, former city councilman Carl DeMaio, has been at the center of multiheaded controversy about his campaign. It includes a late-night break-in at his headquarters, a stolen campaign playbook that ended up in the hands of his opponent and sexual harassment accusations made against the candidate by a fired staffer who, like DeMaio, is gay. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
California Republican Congressional candidate Carl DeMaio leaves after speaking at his campaign headquarters ,Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014, in San Diego. The race for a San Diego congressional seat already was one of the closest and most expensive in the country. In recent weeks, it also has taken a number bizarre twists that have nothing to do with disagreements about health care reform or federal spending. The Republican challenger, former city councilman Carl DeMaio, has been at the center of multiheaded controversy about his campaign. It includes a late-night break-in at his headquarters, a stolen campaign playbook that ended up in the hands of his opponent and sexual harassment accusations made against the candidate by a fired staffer who, like DeMaio, is gay. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Gregory Bull/AP

A late-night break-in, a stolen campaign playbook that ended up in the hands of the opponent and sexual harassment accusations made by a fired staffer against a candidate who happens to be gay.

It's sounds like a soap opera, but it's a real-life race for a House seat in California that's one of the tightest in the country, and perhaps, the most dramatic.

The competitors are first-term Democratic Rep. Scott Peters and Republican challenger Carl DeMaio. Outside groups have spent about $4.7 million in the race so far. At stake: a San Diego-area district divided about evenly between Republicans, Democrats and independents.

DeMaio, a former member of the San Diego City Council, has emerged as a national figure in part because he is a rarity: an openly gay, Republican congressional candidate. He's proven himself a strong communicator and fundraiser, but he also is a candidate who is often surrounded by controversy.

The commotion began early in the election season when DeMaio's campaign reported, just before California's June primary, that its headquarters had been ransacked. Computer screens had been smashed, phone cords cut and water poured onto laptops and printers, the campaign reported. Police told local media in late August that former staffers were being questioned about the break-in.

More recently, one of those staffers alleged that DeMaio groped and sexually harassed him. Like DeMaio, the accuser is gay.

The San Diego District Attorney's Office issued a statement Monday saying neither case had sufficient evidence to file charges.

Two weeks from Election Day, the question is whether the drama surrounding DeMaio will hurt his campaign. San Diego is still trying to recover from the political turmoil caused by the multiple allegations of sexual harassment that led to the resignation of former Democratic mayor Bob Filner.

Several voters interviewed at a coffee shop in San Diego's La Jolla area, the upscale coastal neighborhood where Peters lives, said the allegations won't influence their votes, barring new developments.

"No one is squeaky clean. As long as you do your job, it's none of my business," said Erich Garcia, a 27-year-old software salesman who recently switched from Democrat to independent.

Jack Clancy, a 73-year-old retired property manager, has been undecided but is leaning toward Peters because he feels a stronger personal connection. The Republican says the allegations surrounding DeMaio haven't influenced him and that the district attorney's decision not to seek criminal charges only reaffirmed his conviction that the drama surrounding the GOP candidate is irrelevant.

"It's too bad all this dirt is coming out," Clancy said as he watched a neighbor's dog and waited for his coffee.

DeMaio moved to San Diego about a decade ago from Washington, D.C., when San Diego was mired in a deep fiscal crisis. He quickly gained a following by criticizing pensions for city workers — but the approach drew the ire of municipal labor unions in the nation's eighth-largest city. As a one-term Republican city councilman, DeMaio lost by only five percentage points in the 2012 mayoral election in a city that voted overwhelmingly for Obama.

DeMaio still won a loyal following. But he also has alienated people, including some social conservatives, leaders of the gay community and his own employees. Jerry Sanders, a popular former Republican mayor who now leads the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, joked in 2012 that DeMaio would probably take credit for the weeds that the then-mayor pulled from his lawn, reflecting a common criticism that DeMaio tends to upstage others even if they deserve the credit.

Despite the recent flare-ups, DeMaio's supporters are sticking by him. The campaign arm for House Republicans unveiled a new television advertisement it was launching Tuesday portraying him as a reformer and Peters as a big government spender. At a press conference Tuesday, DeMaio sought to move beyond the allegations and focus attention on issues such as the economy and the nation's response to Ebola.

Peters' campaign has tried to stay above the fray.

DeMaio declined to shake Peters' hand at the beginning of an appearance together, confronting his opponent about whether a campaign strategy book taken during the burglary at his campaign headquarters had been delivered to the Peters camp.

"In early June, information was forwarded to our campaign, which we immediately turned over to police," Peters said in response.

There has been no indication that Peters' campaign was in any way connected to the break-in.