The word Carlson uses to describe that image today: “Bizarre.”
In January, City Councilmember Carl DeMaio became the city’s first candidate to take out paper work for the 2012 election, with the formation of a mayoral campaign committee. A week later, Carlson became the second candidate to file paperwork, announcing his intention to succeed DeMaio in District 5, which—as of now—covers a stretch along Interstate 15 from Mira Mesa and Scripps Ranch to Rancho Bernardo and also includes San Pasqual.
The word Carlson uses to describe the campaign he’s picturing: “Scary.”
A naturalized citizen born in Ontario, Canada, Carlson has lived in the Mira Mesa area since 1970. He’s the type of character about whom reporters love to write—and they have, extensively. The Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune archives are full of stories of his illustrious career as an investigator, from busting killers to exposing abuse at a child-care center where 10-year-olds were forced to wear diapers so that fraudulent reimbursements could be collected and a toddler almost died after receiving a cold-water-and-alcohol enema. He’s also been in the limelight for his interesting ways of personally dealing with violent crime. In 1993, he had a solo gallery show of his crime-scene-inspired paintings and, in 2004, he published a book, I’m in the Tub, Gone, a collection of suicide notes.
For all the darkness and gore, he’s a charming and convivial grandfather who has what the U-T described as “the oddest résumé this side of Forrest Gump,” because it also includes building pet coffins, consulting on soap operas, designing theater stages and serving as a one-time body guard for Barbra Streisand.
Now 64, the Republican and retired detective serves as foreperson for the San Diego County Grand Jury, the independent panel of citizens tasked with investigating local government. So far, this year’s jury has issued only two reports—an analysis of disruptive behavior at the Tri-City Healthcare District and public safety on the Coaster commuter train. But grittier investigations are on the way.
One thing Carlson’s learning is that the stories put out by the media about government often have a lot more nuance when put under the microscope. Officials are often constrained or influenced by factors outside their control.
“They end up looking like bad guys, and they’re really not in a lot of the cases,” he says.
His job as foreperson is to coordinate the 18 other members and build consensus, a role in which his experience as a hostage negotiator has come in handy.
Working in this capacity inspired him to take his public service a step further with a run for office. He says he isn’t fully satisfied with how services are being provided in his district. It frustrates him to see politicians waving in parades when there are cracks in the road that need fixing.
“It’s like they get into political offices and it’s a grander scale, where they’re worried more about what’s going on with the Downtown area or some big project they want to work on when they need to get back to the grassroots of what the people in the community really want,” he says, complaining specifically about how Mira Mesa doesn’t benefit from the trolley system.
There are two factors that Carlson says will determine his ultimate decision to run. First, there’s the issue of redistricting and whether he’s actually in an open district when the maps are done. Second, and more importantly, he wonders if he can raise the money. He can’t start accepting contributions until June.
“I don’t know if I can live up to the financial portion of running for office,” Carlson says. “If you’ve got a lot of your own money to spend, that’s one thing, you can spend whatever you want. But if you’ve got to raise the money from individuals, that could be tough.”
In 2008, DeMaio won with 66 percent of the vote after he spent nearly $293,000 on his campaign. That was more than 10 times the total amount spent by his opponent, retired firefighter George George.
Even as DeMaio begins to campaign for a different race altogether—he must relinquish his council seat to run for mayor— the controversial politician’s legacy may be a constituency prejudiced against former public employees, including police officers, says Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, a law-enforcement union.
“I live in District 5, so I think [Carlson] is going to have a tough sell,” Marvel says. “I think you have a lot of people who unfortunately believe a lot of what Carl has put out there… regarding pensions and retiree healthcare that are complicated issues, and sound bytes don’t do them justice. I think in that aspect, right now, being a public employee is not a good thing.”
Carlson says he’s crossed paths with DeMaio several times and told him to his face to stop casting public employees as enemies; the blame for San Diego’s fiscal problems, he says, lies with former administrators and union leaders who are no longer on the scene.
“I said, ‘You need to stop villainizing the city employees,’” Carlson says. “They just go to work and fix our streets. What it’s done is demoralized them, and so I don’t think we’re getting as good a product out to the people because they don’t have the good feeling about working for the city.”
DeMaio has not acknowledged any of CityBeat’s inquiries since February.
“It clearly seems that Councilmember DeMaio feels the way he can fix the city’s problems is by getting into the Mayor’s office, so I think it’s doubtful he would change his plans before the filing deadline,” local political analyst John Dadian tells CityBeat. An open field would leave Carlson with two major hurdles, Dadian says. First is whether he can score police-union support, a far-from-guaranteed prospect. Second, as a former public employee, Carlson will have to defend his pension.
Carlson acknowledges that he has a pretty sweet retirement deal, far exceeding what he expected when he signed on in 1969. He also thinks he deserves it.
“I really have a feeling for city employees, because I think that in a lot of the cases, most of the cases, people work for it,” he says. “I spent a lot of Saturdays and Sundays and missed kids birthdays and holidays, out in the rain and at homicide scenes, and stayed at work for 30 hours straight without going home. So, I kind of feel like I earned my retirement.”
And he makes the best of it, too. Besides the grand jury, Carlson is a co-owner of Code 3 Props, which provides vehicles—such as police cars and ambulances—for films. His cars appeared in the F/X series Terriers and in the werner Herzog film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? starring Willem Dafoe (“It wasn’t a very good movie,” Carlson whispers). Carlson is also the president and a founding member of the San Diego Police Historical Association.
Historical Association Vice President Steve Willard doesn’t see Carlson as a particularly partisan candidate, but he says that although Carlson’s usually a jovial guy, he’s also not afraid to ruffle feathers, especially if it comes to labor issues and pensions. But Willard, who worked with Carlson as a crime scene investigator, says no one can fault his police credentials.
“His instincts are dead on,” Willard says.