California House candidate Carl DeMaio wants to be known as a GOP problem solver, not as one of two openly gay Republicans running for Congress this year.
The libertarian-leaning former San Diego City Councilman, who is challenging freshman Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) in a swing district, boasts of the work he did to help his city avoid bankruptcy.
“I don’t think the biggest unique thing about my candidacy is that I’m the gay guy. I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “I think the uniqueness in my candidacy is I get things done.”
That doesn’t mean the top GOP recruit is shy about criticizing his party on gay rights.
In an interview at the National Republican Congressional Committee’s offices, he expressed frustration with his party’s focus on gay marriage, abortion and other social issues, and argued it was costing the GOP votes.
“People want a new-generation Republican,” he said. “They are sick and tired of the Republican Party getting sidetracked on divisive social issues. They want to see a Republican Party that is able to articulate on a set of solutions on the issues that matter most to the American people.
“If you want to clean up the mess in Washington, you have to start first by cleaning up the mess in the Republican Party,” he said.
Gay rights remains a divisive issue in the Republican Party.
While most Democrats and a majority of Americans support gay marriage, according to polls, only a handful of Republican members of Congress have embraced the issue.
DeMaio’s candidacy as a Republican is an issue for some of his would-be colleagues.
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) has pushed the National Republican Congressional Committee not to use members’ dues to support gay candidates.
DeMaio ripped Forbes over the issue.
“Unlike Mr. Forbes, San Diegans aren’t focused on sexual orientation,” he said.
“They are focused on the issues that matter to them,” he said, pointing to the economy and national debt.
DeMaio and Peters are locked in a dogfight in a district where President Obama won 52 percent of the vote.
Republicans see DeMaio’s as a viable candidacy, and his victory would let Republicans tout themselves as more of a big tent party.
DeMaio has received backing from a number of national Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has fundraised for him.
But he criticized Boehner and the GOP conference for using taxpayer dollars to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which was struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this year.
“It was a complete waste of federal dollars, a complete waste of time, the fact that they used federal dollars to fund lawyers to drag that issue out,” he said. “And the Supreme Court was pretty clear that under the Constitution, people should be entitled to equal protection under the law.”
He highlighted his ability to work with Democrats on the City Council.
“We got big reforms done in San Diego, and I was on the end of a 2-6 minority, two Republicans and six Democrats, and I was able to reach across the party aisle and get the votes necessary through the legislative branch and then, ultimately, at the ballot box to get things done,” he said.
Immigration and the sequester are both important issues in San Diego, a city near the border with a huge military population.
He said he was still reviewing the bipartisan budget deal struck by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) but offered it some tepid praise, saying it makes “some progress.” He ripped sequestration, which hit the military-heavy district hard, as taking “a meat cleaver to budget reductions.”
He refused to say whether he would have voted for the House Republican budget, arguing it was a “somewhat confining” hypothetical because he would have been in office to propose his own ideas. But he praised the plan.
“The Ryan budget provides a starting point of a lot of good ideas … but a year from now, I want people talking about the DeMaio budget,” he said. “I’m going to be coming out here as a budget expert, and I want to be a big voice in the discussions on the federal budget and how we balance the budget in a way that’s consistent with our values, where we don’t sacrifice important programs that working families rely on.”
DeMaio said he hopes the House will pass major immigration reform before the next elections, though he argued that any offer of citizenship for illegal immigrants should be contingent on first securing the border, a major stumbling block in negotiations.
DeMaio said some illegal immigrants should be given a path to citizenship, singling out well-educated immigrants and those who came here as children. But he was hesitant to say whether the majority of low-skilled workers should be offered the same deal.
“It depends on how many and how fast,” he said. “The idea that we would simply grandfather everyone in is something I don’t think the American people support, but I think we can come up with programs targeted toward people with certain criteria.”
DeMaio said that the party also needed to come up with a positive vision rather than just attack Democrats.
“[The GOP] has been the party of no. We’ve got to become the party of ‘we don’t agree with this, but here’s our solution,’ ” he said. “That’s a positive way of solving problems, and that’s what the American people want to see, no matter what party they’re in.”