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Kevin Faulconer’s path to the San Diego Mayor’s race
by Claire Trageser | KPBS
edited by Lorie Hearn | inewsource
In 1996, 29-year-old Kevin Faulconer left his home in San Francisco and traveled to San Diego during the Republican National Convention. But he wasn’t in town to hear Bob Dole’s speech.
“I came to San Diego to get a job,” Faulconer said. “I loved it here, this is where I wanted to live.”
He was a young man with big plans, said Karen Hutchens, who hired him to work at her San Diego public relations firm Nelson Communications Group soon after his networking trip.
“He really wanted to run for office some day, he loved San Diego and wanted to live here, and wanted to get married and raise a family,” she said. “He was definitely a man with a focus and aspirations.”
In the 17 years since, Faulconer’s path has led him from public relations to the City Council to becoming the Republican establishment’s choice in the race to replace Bob Filner as San Diego’s next mayor.
That path could be seen as prescribed—that Faulconer planned to run for office from a young age and took the calculated steps necessary to not ruffle feathers and move steadily ahead. One political insider equated him to an “empty suit” on the City Council because he rarely takes a stand. Another said Faulconer’s life is so ordinary that a profile of him would be like “investigating dry white toast.”
And while Faulconer is often described by the three-C adage, “calm, cool and collected”—with opponents also throwing in a few B’s, “boring and bland”—a thorough look at his background shows more. Former employers say he’s smart and focused, former employees say he’s driven and demanding. His wife says he has endless energy and a hidden sense of humor, and friends say he knows how to have fun.
Astronaut, Rock Star, City Councilman
Faulconer was raised in Oxnard by parents who were both Democrats. He spent many childhood evenings in the back of the city’s council chambers because his father Jim Faulconer was a deputy city manager and his mother was often in night school. Faulconer and his younger sister Melissa had to go to evening council meetings when a babysitter wasn’t free.
That did little to stoke Faulconer’s interest in politics.
“They were boring meetings with people talking,” Faulconer joked. Instead, he wanted to be an astronaut or in a rock band.
But Faulconer said his father’s job in politics and his mother’s community involvement (Kay Faulconer Boger was dean of Ventura College until 2010) did point him toward his future career.
“Both my sister and I were brought up in a home of community service, that was a big part of what we did growing up,” he said.
Faulconer said he decided to become a Republican soon after entering San Diego State University in 1985. That same year, Roger Hedgecock, the Republican mayor of San Diego, resigned over corruption charges. Faulconer said he remembers being aware of the scandal, but it didn’t impact his impression of San Diego.
Family: Wife Katherine, kids Jack and Lauren
College: San Diego State University, Kappa Sigma fraternity member and student body president
Chem Dry Carpet Cleaner
Public relations for Solem & Associates, Nelson Communications Group and Porter Novelli
Volunteered for San Diego’s Parks and Recreation Board and the Mission Bay Park Committee
Neighborhood: Point Loma
Church: Point Loma Community Presbyterian
Car: Jeep Hemi
Favorite Beer: Karl Strauss Red Trolley
Hobbies: Boating at the San Diego Yacht Club, riding bikes on Fiesta Island
“I decided, this is how I feel about the issues that make sense for me,” he said of becoming a Republican. “Particularly economic opportunity.”
Pressed further about what in the Republican Party appealed to him, he said it’s the same issues he promotes on the City Council now.
“I’ve spent my career on the City Council saying we have to save the dollars so we can reinvest those in our neighborhoods,” he said. “Also providing economic opportunity, job growth and development.”
Faulconer majored in political science at SDSU and ran for student government, first losing a race to be vice president, then winning the student body presidency as a fifth year senior.
One of Faulconer’s favorite professors was Marty Block, now a Democratic state senator, who was a longtime professor and dean at the university and taught Faulconer in a leadership class. Block declined to be interviewed about Faulconer.
Faulconer was also in the Kappa Sigma fraternity, which had been on probation for hazing right before he enrolled, but had no reported problems during his years there. While student body president, Faulconer worked to appease College Area residents upset over drunken parties in dorms.
Over summers during college, Faulconer worked as a carpet cleaner (“I could still clean a good carpet today!” he says), and after graduation won a Coro Foundation fellowship, a nonpartisan program to teach public affairs leadership skills to young people. He then landed a job with the San Francisco public relations firm Solem & Associates, where he remained until asking Hutchens for work in San Diego.
Soon after he moved to San Diego, another piece of Faulconer’s plan fell into place. While at a Convention Center and Visitors Bureau mixer in 1997, he met Katherine Stuart, soon to be his wife.
“Someone came up and introduced me to him and right then they decided to do the laser light show, so the laser lights went on and the smoke started coming up off the floor and you couldn’t have a conversation, so it was very brief,” she recalled. “And then I didn’t see him for the rest of that day.”
She paused, then said, “and then he got in touch with me after that.”
The two were married two years later and now live with their two kids, 10-year-old Lauren and 12-year-old Jack, in Point Loma.
Faulconer is much funnier than his public persona shows, Katherine said. Perhaps as evidence, when she is asked how the mayoral campaign has been for her, Faulconer stage-whispers “Fa-bu-lous!” from the back of the room while pumping his arms over his head.
“He doesn’t sit down for very long, he’s always doing something, moving around, where are we going to go, what are we going to do, he’s not a sit around and just relax kind of person,” Katherine said.
She owns Restaurant Events, a business that helps planners and conventions book restaurants for events. Her clients are mostly downtown restaurants whose business is bolstered by the Convention Center. Although Faulconer strongly supports the Convention Center expansion, which would benefit Katherine’s business, they said no conflicts of interest have ever come up.
Faulconer has twice asked the San Diego Ethics Commission for advice on whether his votes would create conflicts of interest with his wife’s business, and was told both times no conflict existed.
Downtown Interests and Developer Clients
When Faulconer first ran for City Council in 2002, his opponent Michael Zucchet attempted to paint him as a lobbyist and developer pocket dweller. Opponents played up the fact that Faulconer represented big businesses and developers during his work in public relations, first for Nelson Communications and then at Porter Novelli, suggesting Faulconer was already aligned with downtown interests from his work with them.
Faulconer says he did PR for three main clients: Sharp Healthcare, the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau and San Diego State University. He lobbied for expansions for all three: Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, the second Convention Center expansion and an expansion of the SDSU arena and sports facilities. He registered as a city lobbyist for a year in 2001 to represent Associated Students of SDSU, he said.
His campaign was not able to supply documentation to show these were his three main clients and did not have records providing details about other clients.
Former bosses said Faulconer was also involved with clients including Francis Parker School, SeaWorld and Sempra Energy.
Faulconer’s campaign said he does not remember working on Sempra and that his work with SeaWorld was not connected to the amusement park, but instead focused on the affiliated Hubbs Research Institute.
Faulconer’s City Council campaigns and now mayoral run have earned big donations from downtown developers and restaurant groups. This fall, political action committees for the Building Industry Association of San Diego County, San Diego Restaurant & Beverage and the Chamber of Commerce gave more than $170,000 to the political action committee supporting Faulconer’s campaign, and many of Faulconer’s $1,000 individual donations came from developers and restaurateurs.
Faulconer said there have never been conflicts between his previous PR work and role as elected official, but he is “always vigilant” about avoiding them.
Despite support from business groups and the Republican Party, Faulconer said he is beholden to no one.
“I’m proud of my independence,” he said. “I’m proud of standing up for what I believe is right. It’s not about partisanship. It’s about standing up and working with people to move issues forward.”
Stepping Into Politics
Faulconer lost the 2002 race to Zucchet, but soon had the chance to try again.
Shortly after the election, the FBI began investigating Zucchet for corruption. (Charges against him were eventually overturned for lack of evidence.) But Faulconer did not use the opportunity to throw cheap shots, Zucchet said.
“He became downright supportive,” Zucchet said. The two grew friendly, and when Zucchet decided to resign, one of his first calls was to Faulconer.
“I called him that morning to let him know that I was going to be resigning and I would do what I could to help him in his election,” Zucchet said. “Calling friends, political allies of mine to let them know how I thought, including labor unions and the public safety labor unions in San Diego, many of which did end up supporting Kevin in that special election.”
Faulconer beat Lorena Gonzalez, now a state assemblywoman, in the 2006 special election to replace Zucchet on the City Council.
His personality is perfect for being a city councilman, his former chief of staff Aimee Faucett said. She now works for the Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Faulconer for mayor.
“Kevin is always in a good mood,” she said. “He loves the work that he does. And he loves talking to people, loves getting out there and meeting with people and talking about the issues.”
Faucett said Faulconer is equally as invested in the neighborhoods he represents as downtown business owners—which sometimes made him a difficult boss.
“Kevin doesn’t take no for an answer when it comes to the neighborhoods,” she said. For example, demanding staff get additional trash pickups for the beach communities in his district.
“Staff would say, ‘no that costs money, that costs money,’ but every year that was one thing that he’d go after because that’s what the community has asked for,” she said. “That can be somewhat frustrating at times for staff, when you’re having to go up against the bureaucracy and you’re getting told no directly.”
Kristen Victor, the president of the neighborhood group beautifulPB, said Faulconer is actively involved in her community’s issues. He attends their meetings and participates in discussions as a community member.
“He has a clear vision on what is best for communities, and that is allowing communities to be community-driven and led by community groups and planning groups,” she said.
Faulconer earned the reputation for being calm and cool on the City Council. He’s cautious, Faucett said, and wants to take time to learn each issue, which can create the impression that he’s unwilling to take a stand.
Faulconer points to his leadership on several issues, including the Mission Bay Park Initiative, which reinvests money from hotel leases in Mission Bay Park back into city parks. He helped the initiative pass early in his City Council tenure, and still says it’s his proudest achievement.
“The city was stealing money that was supposed to stay here in the park for public improvements, environmental improvements,” he said. “After the first year or so, I said we’ve gotta change that. We’ve gotta make sure that this money is staying here.”
“Ultimately I ran for office based on large part on ensuring that we’re protecting Mission Bay for future generations,” he added.
Faulconer is eager to take on the mild-mannered description.
“I’m not the loudest guy in the room,” he says repeatedly. “I’m not the bomb thrower. I’m not. But I’d like to think I’m pretty effective.”
Beaches, Beer and Biking
Friends say Faulconer also knows how to have fun.
Jack Leer, a friend from the San Diego Yacht Club, said they spend many weekends out on their boats, at the yacht club pool, or “sharing our enjoyment of San Diego’s craft beer culture.”
Faulconer’s favorite beer is Karl Strauss’s Red Trolley, and Leer said they “drink a lot of Ballast Point and a lot of Karl Strauss” because both breweries’ founders are also yacht club members.
Zucchet said the fact that Faulconer enjoys a beer became something of a running joke during his fight to ban alcohol from San Diego beaches. Zucchet doesn’t drink, but he fought to keep alcohol on the beach.
“It was one of the jokes that people would say, is there’s Zucchet, who doesn’t drink, who is fighting for our right to drink, and Kevin who’s known to have a few drinks,” Zucchet said. “It takes a drinker to come in and ban booze when the teetotaler lets us drink. And some people were struck by that irony.”
Faulconer’s campaign said Faulconer doesn’t remember the joke.
In addition to boating, Faulconer also likes to bike.
In the evenings and on weekends he rides from Point Loma to do laps around Fiesta Island. He was training for a week-long bike ride to benefit the Challenged Athletes Foundation, but decided he couldn’t spare a week away from the campaign.
“I told them to save a spot for me next year,” he said.
A Man With A Plan
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Faulconer bustled around his Point Loma yard as he helped his kids set up fake spider webs, cardboard graves and dangling ghouls and ghosts for Halloween. Faulconer seemed all business as he managed the task at hand.
“Do you need nails Jack? What size do you need?” he asked his son, who was carefully stretching out white cotton webbing from the bushes to the grass. “Lauren, where do you want this to go?” he asked, holding up a giant stuffed spider as big as his arm.
With just under a month to go until the mayoral primary, Faulconer says that this is a “sprint, not a marathon.” He has the hustle necessary to make it through endless campaign events, fundraising happy hours and dial for dollars phone calls.
No one disputes that Faulconer is driven by the same strength of force that brought him to San Diego in 1996.
He came with a plan. He has the council seat, the wife and kids. Now, he’s pushing toward his next goal.