While talk show radio host Larry Elder deploys his “Sage from South Central” media fame in California’s recall election, and millionaire businessman John Cox barnstormed the state with a grizzly bear and a massive ball of trash, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer broke out the vanilla ice cream.
On National Vanilla Ice Cream Day July 23, Faulconer tweeted a video of himself in his kitchen enjoying a bowl of the frozen treat, sprinkling in cherries, nuts and chocolate while relaying his plans for fighting unemployment, homelessness and wildfires.
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This former leader of America’s Finest City was trying to leverage his self-described plain vanilla image and folksy social media vignette to sell his campaign theme, that he is a candidate who is serious about governing and about pursing the governor’s seat.
Will such tactics work?
Six weeks before the election, several polls indicate some of the other 45 candidates vying for the governor’s seat have made bigger splashes than Faulconer.
Most recently, a SurveyUSA poll of 1,100 Californians showed Gov. Gavin Newsom in danger, with 51 percent of likely voters supporting his recall. Faulconer placed a fourth behind Elder, YouTube real estate investor Kevin Paffrath, and San Diego businessman John Cox.
Even Faulconer’s tongue-in-cheek tweet was mildly received; it was liked 81 times and retweeted 11 times as of Friday night.
Before he ran for governor, Faulconer did not have a reputation for being flashy. As mayor of San Diego he long was considered to be moderate or middle of the road.
Faulconer, 54, rose from the San Diego City Council to the mayor’s office following the departure of disgraced former Mayor Bob Filner in 2014. As a Republican leader of an overwhelmingly Democratic city, Faulconer often straddled political fault lines while passing measures on climate change and homelessness, police funding and road repair.
“I’m a problem solver who has common sense,” Faulconer said in an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune. “It is a very polarized time. But just as I took over as mayor during a very difficult time for our city, I was able to bring our city together, and that’s what we need for our state right now.”
Faulconer sometimes fell short. He tried but failed to retain the Chargers football team for instance. And, though he casts himself as fiscally cautious, his administration has been criticized for several bungled real estate deals that cost the city millions of dollars.
Among a field of 46 candidates, including media personalities and political neophytes, Faulconer is betting on a broad, bread-and-butter platform with his track record of moderation. His campaign website includes policy prescriptions for 15 issues — ranging from homelessness, water and wildfire to schools, taxes and public safety — instead of a few ideological themes or rallying cries.
“He’s running kind of a mayoral campaign at the state level,” said Carl Luna, a professor of political science in San Diego Mesa College.
In a recall driven by anger over pandemic lockdowns and fueled by partisan conflict, the middle road may be a risky path, some observers say. Can elaborate policy plans attract swing voters and disgruntled Democrats, along with Trump Republicans?
“Modern conservatism used to be low taxes and pro-business,” Luna said. Now, “it’s a much more visceral, emotional and angry conservatism. And no one has ever accused Kevin Faulconer of being overly emotional.”
Faulconer’s supporters argue that his low-drama approach would bring sober dialogue to a vitriolic political stage. His ability to win office on a practical platform in San Diego represents a test case for the state at large, they say.
“The demographics and partisan composition of San Diego are a microcosm of the state of California, when you look at the large number of Latino voters, the partisan breakdown,” said Jason Roe, Faulconer’s former mayoral campaign manager. “Kevin was very successful in winning in a heavily Democratic city and was very successful in getting crossover voters who don’t normally vote Republican.”
Politics as public relations
Faulconer’s ability to straddle the center is a product of his current and former career. As a former PR man turned politician, Faulconer had a knack for finding the sweet spot of popular opinion, according to his allies and detractors.
Longtime San Diego political consultant Tom Shepard said Faulconer gravitates toward political safe spaces, often seeking solutions that don’t stir controversy.
“He jumped on issues that he thought would resonate with the public,” Shepard said.
California Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, Faulconer’s one-time opponent for San Diego City Council, put it more bluntly: “He puts his finger to the wind and sees where it blows and goes there. We haven’t seen him show any real backbone.”
Faulconer said he stood firm on matters he cared about, such as homelessness and public safety, and relied on flexibility and bipartisanship to get things done.
“During my entire time as mayor, I worked with a Democratic city council,” he said. “I was known as someone who can treat people with dignity and respect — even if you disagree on the issues — but who can deliver results.”
Chris Cate, a San Diego councilmember and previous Faulconer staffer, said Faulconer believes in coalition building and understands the importance of relationships for getting things done.
Even some of Faulconer’s sparring partners agreed. Mike Zucchet, a San Diego labor chief and former Democratic councilmember who fought for his seat against Faulconer, said they were able to forge consensus on key labor issues during Faulconer’s term as mayor.
“He and I worked well together and focused on the things we could agree on and move forward together, instead of on the things we disagreed on,” said Zucchet, general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association.
“ I think he’s a pragmatic, results-oriented person who doesn’t let tricky relationships get in the way of trying to build some consensus and move forward.”
The climate in San Diego
Zucchet has a unique vantage point on Faulconer’s political career. The two competed for City Council in 2002, and Zucchet won the seat. Three years later, Zucchet resigned over corruption allegations for which he was later acquitted, and took the post with the union, placing him opposite Faulconer on issues such as compensation, pensions and city operations.
With Zucchet’s council seat open in 2005, Faulconer threw his hat in the special election to replace him and won the seat in a close runoff against Gonzalez in 2006. Faulconer was re-elected to a full term later that year and again in 2010.
Another opening presented itself when Filner resigned in 2013, after a tumultuous mayoral tenure that collapsed amid sexual harassment complaints by several women, including members of his staff. Faulconer won in a run-off against fellow City Councilmember David Alvarez and set about restoring order at City Hall.
“He came after a pretty disastrous former mayor and tried to lead us out of that morass with Bob Filner,” Cate said.
Alvarez, his opponent in that race, agrees Faulconer helped bring a sense of normalcy to San Diego, but he sees that as a collective effort, for which Faulconer is quick to claim credit.
The city’s current mayor, Todd Gloria, held the office on an interim basis before Faulconer was elected and did much of the work cleaning up after Filner, along with the councilmembers, Alvarez said.
“As far as stabilizing the city, that is not one person’s job,” Alvarez said.
San Diego was recovering from the Great Recession then, and in his first budget in 2014 Faulconer reversed many of the cuts from that era, restoring funding to libraries and recreation centers.
He also endorsed environmental protections that are often the province of Democrats. In November 2014 the city approved Pure Water, a sewage recycling program that is projected to supply one-third of the city’s water by 2035.
In 2015, the City Council approved a landmark climate plan that Faulconer had championed. One of the most ambitious climate plans in the country at that time, it established legally binding mandates for greenhouse gas reduction and set a target of 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. It was an atypical move for a Republican when many in the party were downplaying or dismissing the threat of climate change.
Cate said the climate plan was consistent with Faulconer’s common sense conservatism. Faulconer understood that this coastal city, with its idyllic climate and beaches, should guard those resources closely, Cate said.
“If you care about the economy, you should care about the environment, because San Diego is a place where people come here because of the environment: the beaches, the parks, the bay,” he said. “They’re huge economic drivers for our city and our region.”
Some environmentalists saw more opportunism than environmentalism in Faulconer’s support for the plan. Climate activist Masada Disenhouse credits Gloria for developing the plan as interim mayor and said Faulconer was serendipitously in position to pass it.
“While it was an aggressive and strong climate action plan, he was not responsible for developing it and building support; he was just there when it passed,” said Disenhouse,
In the following years, the city relied on faulty data that overstated its progress. In reality, San Diego and other cities in the region were falling short on their goals, according to reports by the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign.
“We’re staring down the barrel of devastating, irreversible climate effects,” Disenhouse said. “I think Californians are very concerned about climate change, heat waves, drought, wildfire, sea level rise. I think the best you can say about Kevin Faulconer is that he’s not a climate denier. But that is completely insufficient in addressing climate change.”
Faulconer said he is fully committed to climate action and worked to get diverse groups on board with strong accountability measures.
“I brought in environmental groups and business groups together,” he said. “I spent a lot of time getting a climate plan that had teeth and that we can take action on.”
Achievements or exaggerations?
One of Faulconer’s frequent campaign claims is that he reduced homelessness in San Diego. He often holds up his homelessness record against Newsom’s.
“Under Gavin Newsom, homelessness has soared every year,” Faulconer’s website states. “It is not ‘progressive’ to let people live and die on the street…. As mayor, Kevin Faulconer transformed San Diego into the only big city in California where outdoor homelessness went down by 12 percent instead of up.”
San Diego recorded a 6 percent two-year drop in the number of homeless people measured during a one-night, “point-in-time” count in 2020. However, experts take issue with the data’s limitations and note that homelessness is still rampant in San Diego.
Calling Faulconer “plastic man,” fellow recall candidate and former Rep. Doug Ose said during this week’s debate that San Diego county’s latest homeless count excluded people who were living in cars. Ose also claimed that police rousted people from city streets, chasing them to neighboring communities where they were less likely to be counted.
Faulconer pushed back, noting that while he was mayor he prohibited tent encampments and created a Neighborhood Policing Division to help homeless people get services.
During his tenure the city also established safe parking zones for people living in cars, in partnership with the nonprofit Jewish Family Services.
“I was proud in San Diego that we reduced homelessness by double digits, the only big city in California to do that, and, yes, with the same methodology that every other city was using,” Faulconer said.
Critics also blamed Faulconer for responding slowly to a hepatitis A outbreak in 2017 that ultimately killed 20 people and sickened 600, including many homeless people.
Faulconer said that outbreak galvanized his administration to update its homeless policies and create new shelter beds and services.
“I think the outbreak really forced everybody to take a look at what wasn’t working when it came to homelessness, and that the same processes that have been around for decades weren’t adequate,” he said. “The shelter system we set up, with the wraparound services, housing assistance, job training and a clean, safe environment, is now a model.”
Beyond their disagreements over Faulconer’s achievements, some of his critics point to some of his high-profile losses as signs he may not be up to the job of governor.
In 2016 voters rejected a ballot measure that Faulconer endorsed to build a combination Chargers stadium and convention center downtown. That rejection was a key factor in the team’s announcement in January 2017 that it would move to Los Angeles.
Detractors denounced Faulconer’s inability to seal that deal as a mark of incompetence for a big-city mayor.
“He had the benefit of strong mayor (form of government) but didn’t achieve any of his goals” on the convention center or Chargers stadium, Alvarez said.
Roe saw it differently. He said Faulconer held the line on public spending. Instead of appeasing Chargers management at any cost, he said, Faulconer resisted the team’s pressure to get the city to foot the bill.
“On core economic issues he has consistently been a champion of conservative values,” Roe said. “And him standing up to the Spanos family and them trying to fleece taxpayers is an example. Other cities were extorted by the NFL and its owners and bent over for the owners. But Kevin stood up to that.”
Of note, Roe said; the man most reviled for the team’s departure is Chargers owner Dean Spanos, not Faulconer.
Some critics said Faulconer was going through the motions publicly to keep the Chargers while behind the scenes he was working with developers of the SoccerCity proposal for the Mission Valley stadium site. That plan called for a professional soccer venue along with housing and commercial development. The project was unveiled with Faulconer’s support shortly after the Chargers announced they were moving to Los Angeles, but it was later defeated by voters.
More recently, Faulconer’s administration was criticized for several controversial city real estate deals, including the lease-purchase agreement of a former Sempra Energy building on Ash Street in downtown San Diego.
Under Faulconer’s direction, the city agreed to lease the former Sempra Energy headquarters at 101 Ash St. for more than $500,000 a month over 20 years, and it would own the building at the end of that term. However, the high-rise was contaminated by asbestos and required tens of millions of dollars in repairs.
More than three years and $30 million later, the city is still unable to use the space and is embroiled in litigation. Subsequent investigations and audits revealed the city failed to commission its own building inspections, and a key consultant advising the city was being paid by a company linked to the seller.
Faulconer said he has taken responsibility and is trying to recoup the city’s losses.
“When you’re mayor not every project is going to do well,” Faulconer said. “It’s what you do to fix them and the actions you take to turn it around. The goal was good — to bring employees into one building and save dollars. But the execution was flawed. The response was to call for independent review and stop payment.”
Campaigning, from City Hall to Sacramento
Although observers may disagree about Faulconer’s record as mayor, Roe said his experience governing places him far above his opponents.
“The big difference between him and the other candidates is that he actually has a record — as chief executive of a big city,” Roe said. “You have a combination of grifters, posers and wannabes who are running on the Republican side. And none of them have anything of substance to point to, or any accomplishments whatsoever.”
In an era of social media campaigns and celebrity candidates, that’s a nostalgic take on voter preferences, Luna said.
“The thought that your record of public service is a determining factor is such a sweet and old-fashioned idea,” Luna said.
“The last person who won a recall was an actor, and the person who won the presidency was a reality star. In many ways having a record of office works against you, because people can find things to hold against you and show what you did wrong.”
In this post-Trump era, with Republican candidates often pressed to swear fealty to the former president or risk his wrath, Faulconer is in a delicate position. He has walked that line before, attempting to attract Democrats and independents fed up with Newsom, without alienating the Trump base.
In 2016, Faulconer publicly denounced Trump’s invective, insisting “his divisive rhetoric is unacceptable and I just could never support him.” Four years later Faulconer said he voted for him, arguing Trump had the right economic plan for the country.
That shift to the right was on display again at Wednesday night’s GOP recall debate. Asked if his support for Trump had waned since the Capitol insurrection, Faulconer faulted the Jan. 6 rioters, not the former president.
“What happened on Jan. 6 was abhorrent to our country,” Faulconer said. “To have folks storm our Capitol, to attack our Capitol police officers, that was wrong in every way imaginable. We want to hold those folks held accountable and I think that’s incredibly important.”
But would he take Trump’s endorsement, the moderator asked again.
“I would proudly take the endorsement and support of any Republican, independent or Democrat who wants to get rid of Gavin Newsom and make California a better state,” Faulconer answered.
Also during the debate with three Republican competitors, Faulconer tackled hot-button conservative issues that weren’t previously talking points for him and that are tinged with racial controversy. He weighed in against critical race theory, “cancel culture,” and Medi-Cal coverage of undocumented immigrants.
Faulconer said he defied protesters who wanted to defund the police and instead increased police budgets. He said he was not “woke” and doesn’t believe the United States is a racist country.
“Now he’s actually got kind of a hard turn right that’s interesting,” Gonzalez said the next day. “The things that would once make him semi-attractive as a moderate Republican are being thrown out, because his fate is being a Trump Republican.”
Democrats shouldn’t take this election lightly, Roe said, pointing to polls showing the race to recall Newsom tightening despite California’s two-to-one ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans.
“The recall is at near parity, so that reveals that Democratic voters are not happy with their Democratic governor,” Roe said.
That’s the good news for Faulconer. The bad news is he’s polling behind three other candidates. With mail-in ballots shipping on Aug. 16 and the election a month later, Faulconer must make a compelling pitch.
Luna said the GOP debate this week was likely Faulconer’s last chance to be a “fiery and passionate moderate.”
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